Archive for August, 2012

College football: Week 1

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

The NCAA college football season begins tonight.

How neat is it that it begins right here in Arkansas?

Not only does it begin in Arkansas, it begins in my hometown of Arkadelphia.

And there’s not just one game. There are two.

Ouachita Baptist University kicks off at 6 p.m. on one side of U.S. Highway 67.

Henderson State University kicks off at 7 p.m. on the other side of the highway.

There was a time when some NCAA Division II teams would start their seasons on a Saturday in late August, a week before the Division I teams. But the NCAA ruled this year that no one could play prior to Thursday, Aug. 30.

Then Hurricane Isaac came along.

With heavy rains and wind expected to move into south Arkansas by Thursday night, the Great American Conference asked the NCAA for a waiver that would allow Ouachita and Henderson to play their season openers a day early.

The waiver was granted.

Thus the country’s first NCAA game of the season will kick off at 6 p.m. today at Ouachita’s A.U. Williams Field. I will be there, beginning my 30th season of doing Ouachita’s radio play-by-play.

Time flies when you’re having fun.

It’s the start of an interesting Labor Day weekend for Arkansas teams.

In Fayetteville on Saturday night, the John L. Smith era begins at the University of Arkansas. Granted it’s likely to be an era that lasts less than a year, but the talent level left behind by Bobby Petrino has Razorback fans thinking BCS.

How ironic is it that Jack Crowe must bring a team to Fayetteville exactly two decades after that fateful Labor Day weekend in 1992 when Frank Broyles fired him as the Razorback head coach following the first game of the season?

For my father, Labor Day weekend always meant dove hunting. We had finished a great hunt in a field across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia that first Saturday of September in 1992 when Arkansas took on The Citadel. We got in the truck, I turned on the radio and I could tell immediately by Paul Eells’ voice that things weren’t going well in the fourth quarter.

I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time, and Gov. Bill Clinton was about to be elected president. I went to Hot Springs the following day to cover Clinton’s triumphant return to the town where he grew up (despite that Democratic National Convention film that made folks think he spent all of his formative years in Hope).

I remember calling the newsroom that Sunday afternoon to ask how much space I had for my story.

“Keep it tight,” I was told.

“Why?” I asked. “This is a big story. What else possibly could be going on the Sunday before Labor Day?”

I was told: “Frank Broyles just fired Jack Crowe.”

I understood.

If there’s anything bigger than an Arkansas governor about to become president, it’s a change in Razorback football coaches.

I kept my Clinton story short.

Don’t expect Crowe to exact any revenge this weekend. The Hogs have far too many weapons for that to happen, even if it’s a sloppy performance.

Meanwhile, the Gus Malzahn era begins at Arkansas State as the Red Wolves travel to Oregon. ASU won’t win, but it’s an excellent opportunity for the program to receive nationwide attention. That’s because it’s the final ESPN game of the day. A lot of people will still have their televisions tuned to ESPN to get scores from other games across the country, and they’ll hear about what Malzahn is trying to build in Jonesboro.

“Priceless” as they say on the credit card ads.

Speaking earlier of Crowe, you’ll remember that he took Jacksonville State into Oxford, Miss., on opening weekend two years ago and shocked Houston Nutt’s Ole Miss Rebels.

The UCA Bears will try to do the same thing in Oxford this Saturday as the Hugh Freeze era opens at Ole Miss. I think the Bears will hang around for at least three quarters.

Out at busy War Memorial Stadium — which already will have hosted high school games on Monday, Tuesday and Friday of this week — the Delta Classic will be played Saturday as Monte Coleman’s Golden Lions from UAPB take on Langston.

Let’s get to the picks for Week One:

Ouachita 35, Northwestern Oklahoma 26 — The Tigers won the inaugural Great American Conference championship last year. Ouachita is the only college football program in the state, in fact, with four consecutive winning seasons. Arkansas can’t say that. ASU can’t say that. UCA can’t say that. Ouachita can. The Tigers return the GAC Offensive Player of the Year at quarterback (Casey Cooper), their most talented receiver (Brett Reece) and their best running back (Chris Rycraw). They should score a lot of points. But the secondary was suspect from start to finish last year and must go up against a Northwestern Oklahoma quarterback who passed for more than 2,000 yards in 2011. Ouachita was 7-3 last season. Northwestern was 4-6.

Henderson 42, Southern Nazarene 30 — The Reddies are the preseason favorites in the GAC as determined by a vote of league coaches. Southern Nazarene, which went 9-3 last year, is an NAIA team that’s hoping to move up to NCAA Division II and became a GAC member. Southern Nazarene lost a quarterback who threw for 2,988 yards last year and doesn’t have enough firepower returning to upset the Reddies.

Arkansas 50, Jacksonville State 28 — Warm up against Jacksonville State in Fayetteville this Saturday. Continue to improve against Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock next Saturday. Don’t get anyone hurt. Get ready for Alabama on Sept. 15. That’s the recipe for Arkansas. By the way, Louisiana-Monroe returned a large portion of its allotment for the Little Rock game and tickets are available for the Sept. 8 contest at War Memorial Stadium. It’s a good chance to take some kids to see the Hogs without having to make a foundation donation.

Oregon 49, Arkansas State 29 — If Malzahn indeed stays around and resists the temptation of being a head coach in a BCS conference, he will build ASU to a level it has never seen before. Just give him time. Red Wolf quarterback Ryan Aplin will have some success against Oregon early, but it will be a long night for the ASU defense. This game will end at about 1 a.m. Arkansas time, so don’t plan on getting up early Sunday if you’re going to watch it all.

Ole Miss 31, UCA 21 — Let’s tell it like it is. Houston Nutt didn’t leave much talent behind. Ole Miss is 1-15 in Southeastern Conference games the past two years, including a 14-game conference losing streak dating back to a 42-35 win against Kentucky on Oct. 2, 2010. Freeze was 10-2 last year at Arkansas State, but he will find the going rough in Oxford. UCA returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense from a team that went 9-4 overall and 6-1 in the Southland Conference last year. The Bears made their first FCS playoff appearance, winning at Tennessee Tech and then losing at Montana. As noted, they’ll hang around for at least three quarters in Oxford, making the refugees from The Grove nervous in the process.

UAPB 31, Langston 27 — The Delta Classic at War Memorial Stadium always draws a good crowd, and fans are anxious to see if Monte Coleman’s fifth UAPB team can improve on last season’s 6-5 record. The Golden Lions are an NCAA FCS team. Langston is an NAIA team. But Langston has upset the Lions before. On paper, this appears to be Coleman’s most talented team at UAPB, where his overall record is 19-25.

UAM 59, College of Faith 9 — What on earth is College of Faith? Best I can tell, it’s a tiny Bible school with addresses in both West Memphis and Memphis operated by something called Total Change of Heart Ministries. They might have a change of heart about playing college football after this. Let’s face it. This is like playing an intramural team for the Boll Weevils. The only goal is not to get anyone hurt on Saturday night in Monticello.

Arkansas Tech 37, Bacone College 18 — While NCAA football starts tonight, some NAIA schools played last week. Bacone College beat the Tabor College Blue Jays out of Kansas, 25-20, last Saturday night in Muskogee. You’re excused if you missed that score. Playing an NAIA school will be a nice way for Tech to ease into the 2012 season after going 2-8 a year ago. The Wonder Boys were in the NCAA Division II playoffs just three years ago. Coming off the worst season since 1993, Tech has a new quarterback and a new defensive coordinator. A Sept. 15 showdown with Henderson looms large.

Redneck Riviera redux

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

In his book “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera,” Harvey H. Jackson III writes with obvious feeling about how “people from the lower South created a coastal playground, a place where they and their families could get away from constraints and restraints of home and job and school and responsibility but without going too far — physically or culturally — from where they were.

“It is the story of how those who were already there, and those who came later, turned ‘fishing villages’ and ‘bathing beaches’ into tourist destinations for millions, places where parties were pitched, dreams were dreamed and fortunes were made and lost. And it is the story of how people keep coming, searching for something new, something old, something upscale and something sleazy.”

If you click on the Redneck Riviera category over on the right side of this blog, you’ll find several previous posts on the subject. More than two years ago, an excerpt from what was to become Jackson’s book ran in the quarterly “Southern Cultures,” and I wrote about it.

Later that year, I wrote a post about how I felt guilty for having been among the masses who canceled their reservations in the wake of the BP disaster. We had been scheduled to go to Orange Beach in Alabama that summer. Instead, we went to Eureka Springs.

Last summer, I wrote about our Redneck Riviera excursion to Seagrove Beach in Florida.

Seagrove Beach is where Jackson wrote the introduction to his book last summer. He has a 1950s-built family vacation cottage there named Poutin’ House South.

Jackson, a well-known historian, teaches at Jacksonville State University in the hills of north Alabama. Yes, that’s the school the Arkansas Razorbacks will play to start the football season in a couple of weeks, the place where Jack Crowe landed after being fired by Frank Broyles as the head Hog following that infamous loss to the Citadel on the Saturday before Labor Day in 1992.

Jacksonville is also in the part of Alabama that produced one of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg.

Bragg also has been known to write lovingly about the Redneck Riviera.

Bragg, who has a home at Fairhope, Ala., on the east side of Mobile Bay, wrote a piece about that area three years ago for Smithsonian magazine.

“I grew up in the Alabama foothills, landlocked by red dirt,” he wrote. “My ancestors cussed their lives away in that soil, following a one-crop mule. My mother dragged a cotton sack across it, and my kin slaved in mills made of bricks dug and fired from the same clay. My people fought across it with roofing knives and tire irons, and cut roads through it, chain gang shackles around their feet. My grandfather made liquor 30 years in its caves and hollows to feed his babies, and lawmen swore he could fly, since he never left a clear trail in that dirt. It has always reminded me of struggle, somehow, and I will sleep in it, with the rest of my kind. But between now and then, I would like to walk in some sand.

“I went to the Alabama coast, to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, to find a more forgiving soil, a shiftless kind that tides and waves just push around.”

Like Bragg, I grew up far from the coast, in the pine woods of southwest Arkansas. My sister and I would beg our father to take us to the Gulf Coast, and he would oblige by heading south, but only as far as Biloxi.

We never knew the whiter sand and bluer water was a bit to the east in Alabama and Mississippi. For a second consecutive summer, we shared a house with my sister and her husband at Seagrove Beach, reliving those warm Biloxi memories.

To this day, I like to spend a night or two in Biloxi on the way to Florida. We’ve been stopping with our boys — now 19 and 15 — since they were babies. Again this year, we made sure our first meal on the coast was at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House and made it a point to speak to Bobby Mahoney on the way out the door. It’s a family tradition.

We were thrilled to learn that just weeks before another family favorite, McElroy’s, had finally reopened at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor, almost seven years after having been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina (known in those parts simply as The Storm). We ate there the second night in Biloxi.

In between, we had lunch at the White Cap, another old favorite that came back bigger and better after Katrina.

We stayed on the Gulf Coast side of U.S. Highway 90 at South Beach, which was built as a condominium project but is now a suites hotel. Our accommodations couldn’t have been better — a corner suite on the top floor with floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed us to look out on the Gulf and down the beach.

In his book, Jackson (a south Alabama native) concentrates on the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle, though there’s no doubt that the Mississippi coast is part of the Redneck Riviera (how can it not be if none other than Jimmy Buffett just opened a casino there?).

Jackson writes that the desire “to make money off tourists forced Gulf Coast folks to reconsider their attitude toward local government and the authority, bureaucracy and taxes that came with it. Ultimately they would give up their freedom from civic oversight in exchange for better roads, better tasting water, a dependable sewage system, fire protection and law enforcement.

“Many would not like what they got in return, but the deal was made nonetheless. Woven into this are accounts of the pioneers who found ways to cater to the desires and urges of visitors and investors and in the process reshaped the land and the landscape. They turned tourist courts into condominiums and bulldozed palmetto and scrub to make way for houses and communities that some would herald as the future of urban design and others would criticize for their clawing conformity.”

Indeed, there are few places in the South more upscale than the beaches of south Walton County in Florida. We always make it a point to escape what we call “the beautiful people” for what we refer to as our “redneck day” in Panama City Beach — ice cream and miniature golf, capped off by an early dinner (it has to be early to beat the crowds) at Capt. Anderson’s, a place that claims to sell more seafood than any other restaurant in Florida. I order the grilled pompano, and it has never been better than it was this year.

The massive advertising campaigns paid for by BP the past two years seem to be working. I knew that instinctively as I waited more than an hour in traffic just to get through the tunnel at Mobile.

This was a banner summer.

“Area business leaders see strengthening economy” read the headline on the front page of the Sun Herald at Biloxi.

A headline eight days later in the Press-Register at Mobile read: “Beach rentals may set records.”

“The beach is back,” the story said. “July rental bookings are hotter than the record-setting July 2007 numbers, according to leasing agents.”

Here’s a sample of what folks on the Alabama coast told the newspaper:

Emily Gonzalez of Kaiser Realty in Gulf Shores: “We haven’t seen these numbers in five years. Our biggest issue now is availability. We have a lot of weekly rentals, but people want weekend rentals and we are basically sold out.”

Bill Bender of Bender Realty in Gulf Shores: “It’s the best summer we’ve ever had. We’re booked solid for the rest of July. We’ve already doubled our projected growth revenue for August.”

Former Gulf Shores Mayor David Bodenhamer: “Traffic is a good problem to have. I’d rather worry about the traffic than the oil spill.”

The newspaper reported that “the traffic congestion on the beach roads to and from the Gulf, the two-hour waits at local restaurants and the occasional rain have not dampened spirits of the crowds.”

Even the spring was good. Over to the east in Walton County, tax revenues this March were up 33 percent from March 2011, up 58 percent from March 2010 and were 31 percent higher than the previous record set in 2008. The economic impact of tourism in Walton County was an estimated $1 billion in fiscal 2011. Bed-tax revenues have experienced double-digit increases every month for more than a year.

School started this week here in Arkansas, and the annual migration south to the Redneck Riviera has ended for all but those couples without school-age children or grandchildren.

We already dream of next summer’s visit.

In the meantime, Jackson’s book, which was published earlier this year by the University of Georgia Press, is well worth the time you’ll spend reading it if you’re fascinated by the region.

“At the end of this story, mice and men, turtles and tourists, rednecks and real estate tycoons have found themselves facing the same situation,” he writes. “When the BP/Deepwater Horizon well blew and oil spewed into the Gulf, everything that walked, crawled, swam or soared became threatened. Optimism, already dampened by recession, disappeared.

“As the extent of the disaster became known, a few people along the Redneck Riviera began to wonder if the compromises made to find the petroleum that fueled the cars and planes that brought people to the motels and condos were worth the danger offshore drilling posed to their way of life. However, most, in true coastal fashion, avoided alternatives that might involve sacrifice and restraint. Instead they began to press the governments they so often held in contempt — local, state and federal — to make a company once praised as a fine example of free-market capitalism clean up the mess and reimburse coastal interests for what they lost.

“Though it was a time for serious soul-searching, the fact that so little of that was done may be one of the clearest indications of how attitudes that shaped the coast at the beginning of this story still shape it.”

Thinking big in Little Rock

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

At the end of May, Max Brantley wrote a column for the Arkansas Times with the headline “Little Rock needs to think big.”

Max and I have known each other for too many years to count. For about five years in the early 1990s, we were among the “regulars” who showed up every Friday to appear on the “Arkansas Week” program on AETN.

Most people would consider us to be on opposite sides of the political fence, and often we are. We do have several things in common.

Neither of us grew up in Little Rock.

Both of us have lived here for years.

We both love the city and want to see it be all it can be.

When it comes to the need for Little Rock to think big, Max is right. What he wrote in late May dovetails nicely with the column I’ve written for Wednesday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

My column topic is this summer’s demolition of Ray Winder Field. Thousands of people each day have passed the site on Interstate 630 and watched what I consider the greatest tragedy from a development standpoint in recent Little Rock history — the selling of valuable green space in the center of the city so UAMS can build yet another parking lot.

I had a discussion with a prominent Little Rock real estate developer recently. I tend to be an optimist by nature and noted how pleased I was with some of the developments planned for downtown Little Rock.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But we still have far too many surface parking lots and unimaginative storefronts.”

This is indeed the land of the surface parking lot. Because it’s in one of the state’s most visible locations, the Ray Winder demolition site is a powerful symbol. In a sense, the symbolism erases much of the good done along the riverfront and in other areas of town.

You know what they say: Perception is reality.

Here’s what the new UAMS parking lot screams out about Little Rock: “We’re stuck in the old urban renewal mode of the 1960s and 1970s at a time when other cities are going the opposite direction. We love the smell of bulldozer smoke in the morning.”

The story will be told far into the future. It’s a sad story about how Arkansas’ largest city took one of the most cherished ballparks in the country and sold it for a pittance so it could be paved over for surface parking.

It’s too late for Ray Winder, but out of this historic preservation catastrophe perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned. The lesson is that residents of the city must speak up in the future when things like this are being debated.

“Remember Ray Winder” can become the battle cry in a town that far too often in the past has torn down rather than renovated its historic treasures.

When we drive along Interstate 630 and look at that parking lot, this is what we can think for years to come: “We’re better than this. We must do better as a city. We owe it to our children, our grandchildren and all who live here.”

If that happens — if this travesty leads to additional public involvement in the decades ahead — Ray Winder will have taught us an important lesson.

Max wrote his column after a long walk around War Memorial Park.

“Across the freeway, I marveled at the children’s branch library under construction and the fact that the Central Arkansas Library System had saved a Craftsman-style house, as well as a stone storage building. The library builds monuments.

“On the north side of the freeway, I had a nice walk around the park perimeter. Careful on Monroe Street. It lacks sidewalks. More walking paths are also needed in the northwest sector of the park. The perimeter of the Little Rock Zoo could use some improvement, particularly the raggedy picnic area.”

The economic development game has changed dramatically in recent decades. So much of economic development these days is about attracting talented, creative people who have their choice of cities.

It’s about far more than building industrial, business and, yes, technology parks.

It’s about creating a place where people want to live. It’s about walking trails, biking trails, parks, baseball fields, restaurants and concert venues.

That’s all part of economic development.

Plugging that hole in the River Trail is probably the most significant economic development step this city could take right now.

In the newspaper column I wrote this week, I referenced a column that was produced last month by Frank Bruni for The New York Times. It focused on New York City’s parks improvements and how those mirror a trend in dozens of American cities.

“Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York,” Bruni wrote. “This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.

“The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.”

Bruni noted that what’s going on in New York is “emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland.”

Van Valkenburgh, a noted landscape architect whose firm designed Brooklyn Bridge Park, said: “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”

Bruni pointed to other examples across the country, some of them in this region:

 — The Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City

— Discovery Green in downtown Houston

— Trinity River developments in Dallas

Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the City Parks Alliance, said the country is in an era of “re-urbanization” and that the increased population density brings with it the need for more green space.

“Amazingly, we’re getting it because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated,” Bruni wrote. “New York is the bright flower of all that.”

Sadly, the most high-profile public project in Arkansas this summer has been the demolition of one of the state’s historic treasures so it can be replaced by surface parking.

Each time you drive down Interstate 630, tell yourself that we can do better and vow to speak out in the future.

Remember Ray Winder.