Archive for February, 2013

Paul McIlhenny: The king of Tabasco

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Back when I covered Oaklawn Park on a regular basis three decades ago, sports columnist Randy Galloway (then with The Dallas Morning News) would come to Hot Springs for the final week of the race meet.

In his briefcase, Galloway carried a large bottle of Tabasco sauce.

“You can make anything taste good with Tabasco,” he would say.

At Dallas Cowboys home games, I would again notice him pulling that big Tabasco bottle out of his briefcase.

On Saturday, Tabasco lost its leader when Paul McIlhenny died from a heart attack at his home in New Orleans. He was 68.

McIlhenny, who had headed the family company since 1998, once was dubbed by The New York Times as “the scion of spice.”

He was the sixth member of the McIlhenny family to be the company’s president. He gave up the presidency to cousin Tony Simmons last year but still held the titles of chairman and chief executive officer.

Here’s how the Times began its story on McIlhenny’s death: “Paul C.P. McIlhenny took joy in escorting visitors to his company’s warehouse, where wooden whiskey barrels filled with the aging pepper mash that is the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce were stacked six-high to the ceiling.

“With a flourish, he would ask an employee to crack open a couple of barrels. After the stinging smell of the peppers was noted, he asked guests to dab the mash with a finger and gingerly lick it. Tears flowed, air was gasped for and, at the host’s invitation, spit flew to clear tongues.

“Mr. McIlhenny had no doubt played the culinary instigator countless times in his 45 years at the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco pepper sauce, perhaps Louisiana’s best-known product. But he still chuckled as he gave his guests small spoons that earned them entry into the Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.”

McIlhenny was an icon of the Southern food world, a man also dedicated to the region’s natural and cultural heritage. He was a major contributor to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. He also was a master business leader who saw the company’s sales soar with the introduction of new sauce flavors such as chipotle, Buffalo wing-style and sweet and spicy.

The Tabasco catalog included numerous items containing the company’s distinctive logo, and McIlhenny entered into licensing deals with everbody from the makers of Spam to the makers of A1 steak sauce.

He truly made Tabasco an international brand.

The family history is fascinating. Edmund McIlhenny was born in Maryland and moved to Louisiana in 1840. He first produced Tabasco sauce in 1868, putting it in discarded cologne bottles for family members and friends.

When Edumund McIlhenny died in 1890, oldest son John Avery McIlhenny took over the company and quickly expanded its operations. He resigned to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and was replaced by brother Edward Avery McIlhenny. Edward was a naturalist who had just returned from an adventure to the Arctic. He would run the company from 1898 until his death in 1949.

Walter McIlhenny became the next family member to run the company, serving as president from 1949 until his death in 1985.

All the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce once were grown on Avery Island (an ancient salt dome) in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana. Now, the peppers grown on the island are used to produce seeds that, in turn, are shipped to growers in Central America and South America.

Peppers are picked by hand. Each worker carries le petit baton rouge (the little red stick) to make sure that only peppers matching the color of the stick are harvested. The peppers are ground into mash, and the mash is shipped to Avery Island for aging.

Paul McIlhenny attended Woodberry Forest, an elite prep school in Virginia, and graduated with a degree in political science from the University of the South at Sewanee. He joined the family business in 1967 and was groomed by Walter, a cousin.

Paul did everything from loading cases of sauce onto railcars to processing the mash.

In 2010, Paul McIlhenny was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

As New Orleans tried in early 2006 to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, McIlhenny reigned as Rex, the King of Carnival.

The adjective often used to describe Paul was “ebullient.”

“He worked aggressively to expand the number of items to which the familiar Tabasco logo could be affixed,” John Pope wrote in The Times-Picayune at New Orleans. “They include T-shirts, aprons, neckties, teddy bears and computer screensavers, as well as seven varieties of hot sauce.

“In 2009, Queen Elizabeth II granted the company a royal warrant, which entitles it to advertise that it supplies the pepper sauce to the British royal family. In honor of the queen’s diamond Jubilee last year, the company turned out a Tabasco-sauce box for its British market emblazoned with drawings of dozens of diamonds. In the United States, the company provides hot sauce for Air Force One.”

Paul McIlhenny and his twin sister were born at Houston because their mother was staying there with relatives while the children’s father was in the armed services during World War II. McIlhenny spent his childhood in New Orleans and at Avery Island.

“Because of his interest in the wetlands around Avery Island, his passion for hunting and his mother’s membership on a committee concerned with coastal-zone management, Mr. McIlhenny became aware years ago of Louisiana’s increasingly fragile coastline,” Pope wrote. “Gov. Mike Foster appointed him to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration, Protection and Conservation, and he was a vice chairman and board member of the America’s Wetland Foundation, whose logo appears on every box of Tabasco sauce sold in the United States.

“Although Mr. McIlhenny was serious about coastal restoration and the preservation of Louisiana’s wetlands, he generally was a merry man — one friend described him as ‘Falstaffian’ — who strove to inject humor wherever possible. A few days before he reigned as Rex in 2006, Mr. McIlhenny quipped that if, during the ceremonial toast to the mayor at Gallier Hall, the subject of hot sauce came up, ‘I’ll say that’s one form of global warming I’m totally in favor of. We’re defending the world against bland food.”’

There were many people who believed the Carnival parades in New Orleans should be called off in 2006. McIlhenny, who loved Louisiana and all of its traditions, wouldn’t hear of it.

He said at the time: “If there was any time when we needed distraction, digression, diversion from the grind, it’s Mardi Gras. And if there was any time we ever needed it, it’s here. We need to let it all hang out and, in the sense of pre-Lenten revelry, make sure we relax and recreate.”

McIlhenny’s hunting club in Vermilion Parish was famous among those who hunt waterfowl in the South.

“Paul continued the tradition of running the Tabasco organization, which has put New Iberia, south Louisiana and Louisiana food on the map worldwide,” said Lafayette attorney Ed Abell, a family friend. “It’s a great tradition for the state and our Acadiana area.”

Tabasco sauce now can be purchased in 165 countries.

On the day of the Super Bowl earlier this month, the Times ran a feature story on the ties between Tabasco sauce and the sports world.

Ken Benson wrote: “Walter Stauffer McIlhenny, the fourth chief executive of the McIlhenny Co., was a farsighted risk taker. The son of one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he was an expert marksman who was wounded at Guadalcanal in 1942. He did not have the bullet in his leg removed until the next year so he could keep fighting.

“After the war, he helped turn Tabasco into a global brand. A prominent businessman in New Orleans, he bought a slice of the Saints before their first season in the NFL in 1967. That savvy investment included 50-yard-line seats to Saints home games and the Super Bowl when it was played in New Orleans. But when Uncle Walter, as he was known to his extended family, died a bachelor in 1985, none of his cousins took his stake in the Saints. So the stake was sold and with it access to those seats.”

Paul McIlhenny told the newspaper: “They were wonderful. You could pound on the metal deck at Tulane Stadium and make a lot of noise. Shame on us for not keeping them.”

The company and the family, however, kept their ties to sports. Hugh McIlhenny was a running back for the 49ers in the 1950s. Paul McIlhenny considered buying the naming rights to the Superdome before it was determined it was just too expensive. Tabasco sauce is a staple at football parties nationwide.

“The Tabasco factory has been working overtime to keep up with the seasonal jump in demand,” Benson wrote. “For three-quarters of the year, production lines operate in two 10-hour shifts four to five days a week, producing 750,000 bottles daily. In November, as the holidays and the NFL playoffs approach, the company adds an extra day of production.”

“The Super Bowl is the single biggest month for hot sauce,” Paul told the newspaper. “It’s huge.”

Do you remember the television ad the company ran during the Super Bowl back in 1998? A man was pouring large amounts of Tabasco sauce on his pizza while sitting outside. A mosquito landed on his leg and began sucking blood. When the mosquito flew off, it exploded.

“It was the only time we spent that much on a single ad, but we got a lot of mileage out of that one,” Paul said.

John Madden, it seems, is like my friend Randy Galloway.

“I’ve had thousands of meals with him, and there’s not a food out there that he doesn’t use Tabasco on,” Madden agent Sandy Montag told the Times. “He puts it on food from the time he wakes up. For him, it’s like toothpaste.”

Paul once presented Madden with a personalized bottle of Tabasco. For this year’s Super Bowl, the company released a commemorative bottle with Mardi Gras colors and a football on the label.

Tabasco sauce and the McIlhenny Co. will continue to move forward, but all who have an interest in Southern food, the region’s natural attributes and its culture will miss Paul McIlhenny.

He was indeed ebullient and Falstaffian, a man seemingly made to promote hot sauce and the Louisiana way of life.


Sonja Tate: Hall of Famer

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Raised in rural Crittenden County near the community of Edmondson, Sonja Tate learned to compete athletically at an early age.

“I had eight brothers and two sisters,” she says. “Everyone was very active. I played outside a lot when I was young with my brothers and my cousins. I always wanted to be a part of their basketball games. They made it clear to me that they didn’t want a girl out there with them. I wouldn’t back down, though. I wanted to play with them, and I knew I had to get stronger and tougher in order to do that. I had to develop my skills.”

Tate developed those skills to the point that she became perhaps the best basketball player to ever wear an Arkansas State University uniform.

Tate, who played at ASU from 1989-93, remains the career scoring leader at the school with 2,312 points. She returned to Jonesboro prior to the current season to serve as an assistant coach on the ASU women’s basketball staff.

In addition to being the school’s career scoring leader, Tate holds the single-season scoring record with 820 points during the 1992-93 season. She has the top five single-game scoring performances at ASU. She also remains the only ASU women’s player to have scored 40 or more points in a game, a feat she accomplished five times.

Now, she’s an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Tate played junior high basketball at West Memphis and then really began to blossom once she reached high school.

“I wasn’t a starter at the first of my 10th-grade year, but I was starting by later in the season,” she says. “I had a brother who broke a leg playing football and a sister who broke a leg in the long jump in track. I was determined to prove myself quickly since I had seen how other people had their playing careers shortened by injuries.

“There were great high school teams in the state at that time. We had our ups and downs, but I was able to play against some of the most talented players in Arkansas. That made me better.

“I’ll admit that I was not the best student coming out of high school. Basketball was my main subject back then. I was struggling to improve my ACT score. I talked to Coach Joe Foley about playing at Arkansas Tech and was also being recruited by the University of Missouri at Kansas City. I thought I was going to sign with Tech, but I ended up at ASU. I didn’t sign until the summer after I graduated.”

Basketball fans across northeast Arkansas were glad she made that decision. Tate earned a starting position during her freshman season. Following that season, she was named the Co-Newcomer of the Year in the American South Conference. She earned All-American South Conference honors as a sophomore and All-Sun Belt Conference honors as a junior and senior.

Prior to her senior season, Tate was named a preseason first-team All-American by Dick Vitale’s Basketball Magazine. Following her senior season, she was named to the Kodak All-America team and was honored as the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.

In addition to being the leading scorer in Arkansas State history, Tate:

— Owns the top five single-game scoring performances, including a 50-point outing against Louisiana-Lafayette during the 1992-93 season

— Connected on 95 three-pointers during the 1992-93 season, an ASU record that still stands

— Holds the single-season rebounding record with 327

— Is third on the all time rebounding list with 1,006

— Is the school’s career steals leader with 402

— Owns ASU’s top two single-season steal records with 125 during the 1992-93 season and 114 during the 1991-92 season

— Is the only player in ASU history to have a quadruple double after finishing with 29 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals in an 86-59 victory at Mississippi Valley State University on Jan. 27, 1993

— Won most valuable player honors in the 1993 Women’s National Invitation Tournament at Amarillo, Texas, after leading ASU to a 67-54 victory over SMU in the finals

Tate’s first contact with Arkansas State as a high school student had been with the track program rather than the basketball program.

She says modestly: “I did pretty much everything in track.”

Indeed, she was a track All-American and remains in the top 10 in ASU history in six events. She set the school record in the heptathlon in 1994 with 5,247 points.

After finishing her college basketball career in the spring of 1993, Tate went to Europe to play basketball and didn’t like it. She returned to Jonesboro to finish her course work toward a bachelor’s degree while competing in track, in which she still had eligibility remaining.

In 1996, the NBA Board of Governors approved the creation of the WNBA. The new league was announced at a news conference on April 24, 1996. At about the same time, another women’s professional league known as the American Basketball League was formed. The surge in interest in women’s basketball had followed the gold medal performance of the U.S. women’s team at the 1996 Olympics.

The ABL lasted just more than two seasons. On Dec. 22, 1998, the ABL declared bankruptcy and suspended its operations. At the start, however, the ABL had been considered a better league and generally paid better salaries than the WNBA.

“I went to try out for the ABL at Atlanta,” Tate says. “The tryouts were held on the Emory campus, and it was a huge event. I was broke at the time, and I had to collect donations to even afford the trip to Atlanta.”

The visit paid off. About a week later, Tate learned that she had been selected to play for the Columbus Quest in Columbus, Ohio.

“We only had six players at the start, so you got a great deal of playing time,” Tate says. “It was a good league for the players, and I was with it until it folded.”

The Quest won the ABL’s Eastern Conference during both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Columbus went on to beat Richmond for the title the first year and defeated Long Beach for the title the second season. Columbus was leading the conference again with an 11-3 record in late 1998 when the league folded.

“After the ABL ended, there was a disbursement draft for the WNBA that followed a camp I attended in Chicago,” Tate says.

Tate was a three-year starter for the Minnesota Lynx. She led the team in minutes played, assists and steals. She also was among the top three rebounders on the team. After leaving the Lynx, Tate went to Europe and played professionally in France, Russia and Spain. She retired at the end of the 2004 season and returned to Jonesboro.

Tate earned her master’s of education degree from ASU in 2005. She was inducted into the ASU Hall of Honor in 2004.

After obtaining her master’s degree, Tate decided she wanted to coach. A friend talked her into moving to North Carolina, where she coached on the high school level at two schools. Most recently, she was the girls’ coach at William A. Hough High School in Charlotte, leading the team to a two-year record of 37-19 and two trips to the state playoffs.

At the end of the 2012 season, Tate began applying for college jobs.

“I was on the NCAA website every day looking at the job listings,” she says. “One day, I hadn’t gone to the website yet. A friend walked into my classroom with a sticky note that said there was a job opening at Arkansas State. Everything circles back around. It was a blessing to play basketball and see the world, but it’s good to be back in Arkansas.”

ASU head coach Brian Boyer said at the time of Tate’s hiring: “One could argue that she has accomplished more here at Arkansas State than not only any other women’s basketball player but more than any athlete period. What she has accomplished as a player speaks for itself, but I’m now convinced that she’s ready to make a name for herself as a coach.

“Sonja was not successful as a player because she was just better than everyone. She was successful because she was driven to be better than everyone. This attitude will be great for both our current athletes and our future athletes to be around. … As a bonus, our program has sent a message loud and clear to all other programs within our athletic department that we are not to be taken lightly when it comes to noon pickup games. I’m convinced that the women’s basketball staff will now be considered the favorites.”

Tate lives back in Crittenden County with her aging parents and commutes to Jonesboro each day.

“It’s a blessing to be able to spend time with my parents and be back at ASU at the same time,” she says. “That’s priceless.”

Marcus Brown: Hall of Famer

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

This is the seventh in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

West Memphis has been a hotbed for basketball in Arkansas for many years. Consider that:

— The West Memphis High School boys’ basketball teams have won six state championships — 1980, 1981, 1991, 1997, 2004 and 2005

— The West Memphis High School girls’ basketball teams have won two state championships — 1992 and 2003

— The West Memphis boys also have appeared in the state championship game in two of the previous three years — 2011 and 2010

— The West Memphis girls also have appeared in the finals four other times in the previous decade — 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2009

— The West Memphis boys won overall championships in 1980, 1981 and 1991. The overall tournament was discontinued following the 1992 season

Of all the great basketball players to have come out of West Memphis, Marcus Brown always will rank as one of the best.

And of all the Americans to have competed in the Euroleague, none have accomplished what Brown did. He retired in 2011 at age 37 as the Euroleague’s all-time leading scorer. During his 11 seasons, he rewrote the league’s record books. Brown left the league with 2,715 points, having averaged 15.3 points per game. That’s the second-best average among the top 15 all-time scorers.

At the time of his retirement, Brown also:

— Was the league’s career leader in free throws made with 688

— Ranked sixth in three-point shots made with 323

— Ranked ninth in assists with 457

— Ranked 10th in steals with 184

Brown reached the Euroleague Final Four on three occasions. He also had nine national championships in France, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Israel and Lithuania. Now, he has found his way into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“Brown enjoys rock star status in several European countries,” writes Billy Woods of the West Memphis School District. “But in West Memphis, the 6-foot-2 Brown can walk the streets in peace and only be recognized by a few for his accomplishments at the old Devil Dome, where he led West Memphis High School to a 1991 state and overall championship.”

As a high school player, Brown was overshadowed in the statewide media by the exploits of Corliss Williamson of Russellville. Brown wasn’t offered a scholarship by the University of Arkansas. He wanted to play at the University of Memphis. He had attended Tiger head coach Larry Finch’s summer camp on multiple occasions, but an offer was slow in coming from Memphis. Brown signed with Murray State University in Kentucky.

Scott Edgar had recruited Brown when Edgar was an assistant on Nolan Richardson’s staff at Arkansas. When Edgar took the head coaching job at Murray State, Brown followed.

Brown would later say of Edgar: “He didn’t talk about how good I was, nothing about NBA prospects. He told me he would help me continue to become a better man and give me a chance at a free education.”

Brown was an All-Ohio Valley Conference performer three times and was twice the OVC Player of the Year. He’s one of only nine former Murray State players to earn All-OVC honors three times. He holds multiple school records, including the most points scored in a game with 45 against Washington University of Missouri in 1995. Brown is third on the all-time points list at the school with 2,236 and holds the Murray State single-season scoring average record with 26.4 points per game during the 1995-96 season.

Brown ranks as the all-time steals leader at Murray State with 232, including a single-season record of 76 in 1994-95. He’s second in school history in single-season free throw percentage at .896 and third in all-time free throw percentage at .849. He’s also second in career made free throws with 585.

Brown often saved his best performances for games against major powers. He scored 33 points against Purdue and 32 points against Louisville in regular season games. He scored 26 points against North Carolina in the 1995 NCAA Tournament.

In February 2010, Brown’s No. 5 was retired at halftime of a Murray State game. His number was the ninth retired at the school.

In a story last year for Memphis magazine, Ed Arnold wrote about what happened following Brown’s senior season at Murray State: “The 1996 college basketball draft class was shaping up to be one of the most promising in NBA history. The names called out in Madison Square Garden on this night included more than a few future Hall of Famers. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Derek Fisher all crossed the podium, put on caps and shook hands with the commissioner that night.

“So too did a prospect named Marcus Brown from Murray State University in Kentucky. Chosen in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers, the 6-2 guard was coming off a stunning senior season in which he averaged 26 points a game, when he had been named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year for a second straight time. When his name was called from the podium, former Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown, then an on-air draft host for ESPN, opined that ‘shooting makes up for a multitude of sins, and this guy can score.'”

Brown headed to Portland’s training camp in the summer of 1996. Arnold wrote: “There were no assurances for a 6-2 shooting guard in the NBA. Because of his size, scouts worried that he wasn’t big enough to play his traditional shooting guard position and that he was too inexperienced handling the ball to play point guard. … Brown played in only 21 games during his rookie season with Portland. He shot a consistent 40 percent from the three-point line and averaged four points in about eight minutes a game, but it wasn’t enough. He was released and signed as a free agent a few months later with the then Vancouver Grizzlies.”

Brown would later say: “I just don’t think they knew what to do with me. I think they really didn’t know how to use me.”

At the start of his second NBA season, Brown said he was “called into the office and told point blank that I wouldn’t play a single game. To this day, I just want to know why. At the preseason combine in Phoenix, everybody plays three games. I was the only guy there who didn’t play three games. I was the only guy in the league getting paid during the lockout of 1999. They cut me before the lockout, and they still owed me money.”

Having been waived during the 1998 season, Brown signed a contract with the French club Pau-Orthez and averaged 20 points per game his first season. He was named the most valuable player in the French League. He tore his ACL during the final game of the French playoffs in 1998. Brown had knee surgery in the United States and then took the 1998-99 season off.

Brown signed with the Detroit Pistons for the 1999-2000 season. He had a good preseason, but the Pistons cut him after six games.

Arnold wrote: “It was a discouraging time. At 26, Brown had been cut by three NBA teams and had undergone major knee surgery, but his family in West Memphis and the desire to make them proud continued to motivate him.”

Brown told Memphis magazine: “I got strength from my grandfather’s honesty. He took me aside and said, ‘Never bring shame on the family.’ All I wanted to do was make my grandparents proud of me, and my mom and dad proud of me. Whatever I did, I was going to put forth my best effort and go from there.”

Brown’s mother was a fixture at basketball games in West Memphis for years. Brown’s own love for the city was evident when he chose to return there following his retirement as a player and help the high school basketball program.

In Europe, Brown eventually would play in nine countries. Asked by Arnold to pick his favorite country, he said: “I say all of them because I was able to see people smile, people have joy, people fulfilled with some kind of a gratification at our victories. My experience was great. Over there you have fans who are so genuine and so true. Their excitement is so pure.”

In a 2011 story for, Evin Demirel wrote: “No matter the European nation in which the next American NBA player plans to make a splash, chances are Marcus Brown has already been there, done that. Success eluded the former Murray State Racer during brief stints with the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons. He’s more than made up for it overseas.

“Consider before Allen Iverson and Deron Williams signed contracts with an Istanbul club, Brown played in that city and won two league MVPs and Turkish national titles. NBA journeyman Hilton Armstrong signed with a team in France, where Brown, a shooting guard, had also won two league MVPs and domestic league championships. Later, Brown played for CSKA Moscow and again won two league MVPs and national titles in his two seasons.”

Brown told ESPN: “Coming from West Memphis, I would have never imagined I would go to the Holy Land. I would never imagine I’d be up close to the Eiffel Tower or visit the Colosseum in Rome or the Acropolis of Greece. My time in Europe, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world. My experiences helped make me a better man.”

Brown said he likes “the normal life and being simple. I just go about my business.”

He might like a simple life, but Marcus Brown is the among the most extraordinary basketball players to come from Arkansas. Now, he’s giving back.

West Memphis High School principal John Collins told Memphis magazine: “You walk into his interaction with any of the kids he’s dealing with, and it’s instant respect. He’s got their attention, he’s keeping them captive, he’s teaching them the proper skills they need to play the game and doing it the right way. With the rapport he builds and communication skills that he has, I’m certain Marcus will make a great coach.”

Wyn Norwood: Hall of Famer

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

It wasn’t Wyn Norwood’s goal to be a great golfer. He just couldn’t say no to his friends at Russellville High School.

“I had first played golf with an uncle in Marianna who tried to teach me the game,” Norwood says. “But I didn’t play much, and I wasn’t very good. There were three guys in high school who wanted to play in the district tournament, but you had to field four players in order to enter.

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They talked me into playing with them. Luckily, they only took the top three scores from each team back in those days. The district tournament was at the Conway Country Club, and I shot about 120. We made the state tournament at the War Memorial golf course in Little Rock, and I had to play again. I think I shot about 120 again, but they suckered me into playing the next year.”

From that humble beginning, Norwood would go on to become a legend in the world of Arkansas amateur golf.

Norwood was a two-time Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference golf champion while playing at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. He went on to win two state amateur titles and participate in 14 national amateur championships.

Norwood worked at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock from 1992 until his retirement at the end of the 2012 school year. UALR had dropped its men’s golf program in the 1980s and had never had a women’s program prior to the 1992-93 season. Norwood revived the men’s program and started the women’s program. He spent his first 13 years at UALR as the head coach of both teams. He was named the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year for both men’s and women’s golf in 1994. Those were the first of five such awards he would earn.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Norwood will be a part of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2013. He’s being inducted in the golf category, but Norwood was a star athlete in multiple sports while growing up in Russellville.

“Whatever sport was in season, that’s what I played,” he says.

He graduated from high school in 1963 and stayed in Russellville to attend Arkansas Tech University on a football scholarship. He was a wide receiver and defensive back. Norwood was an outstanding football player, though he’s known for his self-deprecating style.

Norwood says: “Coach Don Dempsey used to say, ‘Norwood is the most deceptive athlete I’ve ever seen. He’s much slower than he looks.'”

Norwood had a revelation following his freshman football season at Tech.

“We were lifting weights, wrestling and boxing as part of the football offseason program,” he says. “I looked around, and it was just a bunch of linemen and me. I asked where all the other receivers, defensive backs and running backs were. I was told that they were playing baseball or on the track team in order to get out of football offseason.”

Norwood decided to join the Wonder Boy golf team during the spring of his sophomore year.

The golf coach at Tech was none other than the legendary John Tucker, the “original Wonder Boy” who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1962. Tucker was born in Russellville in 1901 and played all sports at Tech. He later played football at the University of Alabama. As the head football coach at Arkansas Tech, Tucker compiled an amazing record of 74-17-11 from 1933-47.

“My main sport was football, but I was determined to get better at golf,” Norwood says. “When I first started, I was back practicing when everybody else was playing. That’s because I was so far behind.”

It didn’t take the gifted athlete long to catch up. In fact, he was the AIC golf champion as both a sophomore and a junior. For Norwood, Tucker was more than just a coach.

“He was an uncle by marriage,” Norwood says of Tucker, who died in 1983 at age 81. “His first wife, who died young, was my dad’s sister. Coach Tucker had no children, so he had always kept an eye on me when I was growing up in Russellville.”

Norwood’s father had died when Norwood was just seven, and his mother had multiple sclerosis.

“There were a lot of people in that town who took care of me,” Norwood says.

Norwood didn’t play golf his senior year. Instead, he joined the Navy once football season ended.

“I had a roommate who was obsessed with being a Navy pilot, and he talked me into going to see a recruiter with him,” Norwood says. “I basically went to keep him company. I was accepted into flight school, though, and decided it was a pretty good deal. I spent the summers after my sophomore and junior seasons at an officers’ school in Pensacola, so I went into the Navy as an officer.”

Norwood was a pilot for A-4 fighter aircraft and spent more than five years in the Navy. He was stationed in a succession of warm-weather locations — Pensacola; Meridian, Miss.; Kingsville, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; and San Diego — and found himself playing a great deal of golf on his days off. He honed his game and was named to the All-Navy and All-Service teams.

After leaving the Navy, Norwood was hired by Raymond Bright (a 2012 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame) as an assistant football coach at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Before the next football season could start, Bright resigned. His replacement as head football coach was Ken Stephens, who decided to leave Norwood on the staff.

Norwood coached for three football seasons at UCA — 1972-74. During his first spring at the school, Cliff Horton (a 2011 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame) was the golf coach. Norwood served as the UCA golf coach the next two years.

Norwood left UCA to go into the insurance business, a profession he stayed in until being hired at UALR. His career as an amateur golfer took off during those years. He won the state amateur championship twice and was the Arkansas captain for 13 Mid-South Cup matches.

Norwood has been president of the Arkansas State Golf Association, the Mid-South Golf Association and the Southern Golf Association. He was the captain of the 1995 team in the Simon Bolivar Cup in South America and was the coach of the U.S. men’s golf team at the 2011 World University Games in China.

At UALR, Norwood coached 19 men and 23 women who earned All-Sun Belt Conference honors, including Sun Belt individual champions Daniel Fox in 1999, Maria Jose Hurtado in 2000 and Patrick Sullivan in 2005. He guided UALR teams to four conference championships. Norwood was inducted into the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame in 2001.

Kim Backus, the Arkansas representative for Nike Golf, first met Norwood at a golf tournament in 1975.

“Wyn and I met through golf, but his love of all sports has kept our friendship strong,” Backus says. “We’ve attended everything from grade school to middle school to high school games together. He’s a guy who appreciates and supports all of the sports teams in this state.”

Jay Fox, the executive director of the Arkansas State Golf Association, says he can think of few people in the country who have made as big a contribution to amateur golf as Norwood.

“He has been involved with the board at ASGA since 1975,” Fox says. “He has been involved with the Southern Golf Association since 1980. He has traveled all over the world on behalf of amateur golf. As a golfer, he was without a doubt the best chipper I ever saw back when he was in his prime. You could put him in the bottom of a trash can, and he would find a way to get up and down. The Arkansas golfers who were my idols growing up were Stan Lee and Wyn Norwood.

“Just think of the thousands of people he has influenced through the years. Heck, I would not have been in this job for the past 22 years if it weren’t for Wyn Norwood. I was working in his insurance agency. He encouraged me to be active in the ASGA, and he later encouraged me when I applied for his job. All of us involved in golf in this state are better because of the things Wyn has done.”

For his part, Norwood says: “Winning tournaments as a golfer was fun, but the real joy was seeing the young men and women I coached grow up and succeed in life. I have friends all over this country because of sports. I’m blessed.”

Don Nixon: Hall of Famer

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Don Nixon didn’t set out to be one of the state’s best basketball coaches.

In fact, he didn’t plan to be a coach at all.

“I was an accidental coach,” Nixon says. “I was teaching high school science and history at Joe T. Robinson, and the coach left during my first year there. They asked me to step in and take his place. I figured it would be for just a few months. At the end of the summer, they still had not hired a new coach and asked me to do it again. Even then, I thought I would put in a year or two and then move on to something else. Obviously, I never moved on.”

Nixon, who had graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway in 1951, went on to a stellar coaching career. He coached four basketball teams — junior high boys, junior high girls, senior high boys and senior high girls — at what’s now Pulaski Robinson from 1952-54 before moving to his high school alma mater at Mabelvale from 1954-59.

After coaching at the junior high level in the Little Rock School District from 1959-67, Nixon coached the boys’ team at Little Rock Central High School for five seasons and the men’s team at UCA from 1972-79. Nixon’s Central Tigers won Class AAAA state championships in 1970 and 1972 along with winning the state’s first overall championship in 1972.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Nixon will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Nixon was raised in rural Pulaski County, where his father sold spring water and later was in the grocery business. Nixon’s father built Lake Nixon, a 35-acre reservoir that’s now owned by Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church and operated as a day camp and retreat.

“A lot of our grocery customers out there were moonshiners,” Nixon says. “They bought plenty of sugar.”

Nixon attended Lawson Elementary School on Lawson Road through the eighth grade. That’s where he learned the sport of basketball on an outdoor court while also excelling at fast-pitch softball, which was a popular sport in those days. He went from there to Mabelvale High School, where he continued to play basketball and softball.

“We only had one softball loss in four years at Mabelvale,” Nixon says. “I played in the outfield mostly. We had two really good pitchers, which was the key in fast-pitch softball. We also had quality basketball teams.”

Nixon joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. He was stationed in San Diego and later in the South Pacific.

“World War II ended, and they let me go after 14 months,” Nixon says. “I decided to attend Little Rock Junior College (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) on the GI Bill. My goal wasn’t to coach. My goal was to go into business and make some money.”

After two years at LRJC, Nixon went to ASTC in Conway to earn his bachelor’s degree.

“Jobs were hard to get, so I jumped at a teaching position,” Nixon says. “My first contract was for $2,131. That was for the entire school year.”

After taking on the basketball coaching position, Nixon read everything he could get his hands on about famed Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) basketball coach Henry “Hank” Iba.

“He was a tough-nosed coach, and that’s what I wanted to be,” Nixon says. “He also stressed defense. I’ve always believed that defense is the key to the game. That’s probably because I was a much better defensive player than I was a shooter in high school.”

Nixon also was the boys’ and girls’ softball coach at Robinson, which didn’t have football in those days. In 1953, both his senior high boys’ and senior high girls’ basketball teams won county tournaments and conference championships.

“I had a really talented team coming back at Joe T. Robinson when Mabelvale called,” Nixon says. “I thought I would turn things around quickly over there, but it took a little longer than I thought. I then had what was going to be my best team at Mabelvale coming back in 1959. I had worked with a guy named Eugene Keaton, who had moved on to the Little Rock School District. He came out to Lake Nixon, where I worked in the summer, and said he needed to see me. I remember exactly what he said: ‘They sent me out here to hire you.’ He already knew what I was making and quoted me a figure that was quite a bit larger. So I left Mabelvale and went to West Side Junior High in Little Rock in 1959.”

Nixon later would move to Southwest Junior High. There were state championship tournaments for junior high basketball in those days. His 1964-65 West Side team was the state runner-up. His 1966-67 Southwest squad won the state championship.

That’s when Nixon was offered the job of head boys’ basketball coach at the district’s largest school, Little Rock Central. He replaced Jim Cathcart, who moved to Hot Springs High School as athletic director. Nixon’s first team in 1967-68 captured a share of the conference championship. His second team was the state runner-up, losing to North Little Rock in the finals. His third team won the state championship in the spring of 1970, beating Fort Smith Northside.

Jim Bailey wrote in the Arkansas Gazette: “Little Rock Central’s Tigers built a mountain of momentum in the second half late Saturday night in Barton Coliseum, and from its pinnacle, they read a most unlikely final score: Central 75, Fort Smith Northside 48. Going for his fifth state tournament championship, which would have been a record, Northside veteran Gayle Kaundart absorbed perhaps the worst beating of his illustrious career.”

Nixon said of Kaundart (who had won state titles at Northside in 1958, 1959, 1965 and 1968): “The old fox is hard to beat. We knew the only way was to keep the pressure on.”

Nixon’s fourth team at the school was the runner-up to North Little Rock. His fifth team in 1972 won the Class AAAA state championship and the first overall title. Overall tournaments pitting the winners of each classification against each other were held from 1972-92.

“I had a lot of great players at Central,” Nixon says. “You don’t make it to four consecutive state championship games without those kind of players. I had coached many of those boys in junior high, so I knew what I was dealing with.”

UCA Coach Cliff Horton and a member of the school’s board of trustees visited Nixon soon after the Tigers had captured the 1972 overall championship. They convinced Nixon to move to Conway and serve as Horton’s assistant. Nixon was being groomed.

After one year, Horton stepped down as head basketball coach to become the school’s full-time athletic director. Nixon moved up to head coach, taking the Bears to NAIA District 17 championships in 1974 and 1975 and spots in the NAIA national tournament at Kansas City.

Nixon retired at the end of the 1978-79 basketball season and was replaced by Don Dyer, now the winningest basketball coach in both UCA and Henderson State University history. Dyer was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.

“Don was on the floor all of the time,” Dyer says of Nixon. “Whatever he said, that’s how it went — both for his players and the officials. He always had their attention. He was on the job constantly.”

Cliff Garrison, who spent 31 seasons as the head basketball coach at Hendrix College in Conway and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, says the most fitting adjective to describe Nixon is “intense.”

“I always admired how he handled his kids,” Garrison says. “His teams executed on defense as well as any team you would ever see. And they were always disciplined. You have to adjust when you move from the high school level to the college level as a coach, and Don had the ability to adjust. He was just a tremendous competitor.”

Garrison especially remembers an incident when UCA was playing Hendrix in that once-heated Conway basketball rivalry.

“After the game, I went into the dressing room UCA had used, and the trash can was just mangled,” Garrison says. “I later found out that Don had kicked that trash can at halftime and gotten his foot stuck. I think the old Navy man came out in him.”

Dyer, meanwhile, remembers a game when his son Don Paul was young. The younger Dyer had eased up to the door of the dressing room to hear Nixon’s halftime talk.

“Don Paul said to me, ‘Dad, you should have heard the things he was saying,'” Dyer says, laughing.

“I was fortunate enough to have smart players,” Nixon says. “They went on to become doctors, dentists and lawyers. A number of them went into coaching. I often think back to when I started as a coach with our teams sometimes playing on outdoor courts.”

It was quite a career for the man who considers himself an “accidental coach.”

Frank O’Mara: Hall of Famer

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

Growing up in the Irish city of Limerick, Frank O’Mara enjoyed sports. Gaelic football, hurling, cricket, soccer, basketball, golf, tennis and thoroughbred racing all were popular in the city of 57,000 people, which is on the River Shannon in the western part of the country.

It was rugby that most interested O’Mara when he was young.

Limerick often is referred to as the home of Irish rugby. The All-Ireland League has been dominated by teams from there in recent decades, and the secondary schools are rugby powers.

“Rugby and soccer are sports that benefit people who are really fit, so you usually are able to run if you play those sports,” says O’Mara, now the chief executive officer of Allied Wireless Communications, a Little Rock-based telecommunications company. “At about age 11, I entered a 400-meter race and finished third nationally. By age 16, I had determined that I was never going to be big enough to play rugby in college.”

O’Mara concentrated instead on running. In the process, he became one of the greatest track athletes in the storied history of the University of Arkansas track program. On the evening of Friday, March 8, O’Mara will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Competing for legendary Coach John McDonnell at Arkansas, O’Mara was an All-American and Southwest Conference champion his sophomore, junior and senior years before becoming McDonnell’s first outdoor NCAA champion runner in 1983 when he won the 1,500-meter run at Houston.

O’Mara later spent three years as a coach for the Razorbacks and was a member of the coaching staff in 1985 when the school won its first NCAA triple crown. He also continued to compete in track events around the world. O’Mara was the world indoor champion twice in the 3,000-meter run and competed for the Irish national team in three Olympic Games — 1984 at Los Angeles, 1988 at Seoul and 1992 at Barcelona.

At age 11, O’Mara went to a boarding school, St. Munchin’s College, an institution in the nearby town of Corbally that was founded in 1796. During O’Mara’s first year at the school, there was a senior named Niall O’Shaughnessy who was a track star. O’Mara kept up with O’Shaughnessy’s career as O’Shaughnessy headed to Arkansas and became the star athlete for the school’s track and cross country programs.

O’Shaughnessy became McDonnell’s first Southwest Conference individual champion by winning the 1974 indoor 880. In fact, he was the first Arkansas track athlete to win any event at a conference meet since 1967. When O’Shaughnessy placed sixth at the 1974 NCAA indoor championships in Detroit as a true freshman, he became the first Arkansas track athlete in two decades to earn All-American honors.

McDonnell, who had been born in 1938 in County Mayo in Ireland, became a U.S. citizen in 1969. He coached at New Providence High School in New Jersey in 1969-70 and at Lafayette High School in Louisiana in 1971 before being hired at Arkansas.

McDonnell, whose 42 national titles at Arkansas are more than any coach in any sport in the history of collegiate athletics, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1987.

McDonnell was hired as Arkansas’ cross country and assistant track coach in 1972. He took over as head track coach in 1978 when Ed Renfrow left coaching. The early foundation of McDonnell’s teams was built with Irish distance runners such as O’Shaughnessy and Tom Aspel.

O’Shaughnessy’s parents had been reluctant to allow their son to go to college in the United States, but McDonnell convinced them that he would take care of young Niall.

In a new book titled simply “John McDonnell” from the University of Arkansas Press, O’Shaughnessy tells author Andrew Maloney: “You have to put that in the perspective of 1973. Travel and communication weren’t as easy, and they really wanted me to wait another year. John actually came to my house. My father was a veterinary surgeon and had dealt with farmers all his life. With John being an old farm boy, I think my parents saw the character John had, and he actually changed their mind. … They just saw he was a person of character, and his word was valid and they would trust him to take care of me.”

“I probably would not have known about Arkansas if it weren’t for the fact that Niall had gone to my school in Ireland,” O’Mara says. “He had the second fastest time in the world for the mile in 1977, and that got a lot of attention at home.”

When O’Mara was 15, his father died. O’Mara had decided after his junior year of high school that he wanted to run for McDonnell at Arkansas, but O’Mara’s mother insisted on meeting the coach. McDonnell made the same positive impression on her that he had made on O’Shaughnessy’s parents several years before.

“She thought she was putting her son in safe hands,” O’Mara said of his mother, who recently died in Ireland.

O’Mara had won the Irish junior national championship with a personal-best time of 3:53 for 1,500 meters. Maloney writes in his book: “Whether he was at the ranch or on the track, John would always understand the importance of having a bell cow. The bell cow led the others and set the standard for others to follow. For years, Niall O’Shaughnessy had been the bell cow of the Razorback track and cross country program. While Niall remained in Fayetteville training professionally under John as he pursued his master’s degree, he could no longer play that role for the collegiate team.

“In the spring of 1978, John recruited two young men from opposite sides of the world with the expectation they each could potentially become the new bell cows of the Arkansas track and field and cross country program: Frank O’Mara from Limerick, Ireland, and Randy Stephens from Birmingham, Ala. While the bells would ring louder for Stephens than O’Mara for a few years, eventually each of them took the standard of excellence O’Shaughnessy had set and raised it to an entirely new level.

“Given the initial difficulties he had faced in attracting American talent to Arkansas, McDonnell certainly never shied away from providing opportunities for aspiring Irishmen as a means not only of helping his program but also jump-starting the careers of young men.”

McDonnell said: “Most of the athletes who did well on the junior level came to the United States. The weather was against them in Ireland, and they didn’t support them financially enough. The kid was getting a free education, and it bridged the gap between junior and international levels so by the time they finish college they are ready to run in an international field.”

O’Mara also had been recruited by Providence, St. John’s and Manhattan College.

“Those are all cold places,” he says. “Arkansas sounded warm to me. I signed with Arkansas without ever having seen the campus. I had never even been to the United States. I can tell you that I immediately liked the place. And I loved the people.”

O’Mara was not as homesick as one might expect since he had been at a boarding school for six years.

“Everything was highly regimented at St. Munchin’s,” he says. “So I had that part of it figured out. At Arkansas, we would travel in vans to places like Houston and Des Moines. With all of that time on the road, you had to be extremely disciplined to get your studies done, especially if you were an engineering major as I was.”

McDonnell had recruited two other athletes from Ireland the same year he recruited O’Mara, but the coach decided to room O’Mara with Stephens, his prize recruit from Alabama.

“He was the first non-American I had ever met,” Stephens told Maloney. “He had come over with a little suitcase, whereas I brought a U-Haul with everything: televisions, stereo and golf clubs, which for some strange reason I thought I would have time to play but never did my whole time.”

Being from Alabama, Stephens was most impressed by the fact that one of the albums O’Mara brought with him was by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

O’Mara remembers well the day he won the 1,500-meter run at the 1983 NCAA outdoor championships at Houston.

 “I had run poorly at the NCAA indoor championships at Syracuse that year, and I was determined not to let my coach down at the outdoor meet,” he says. “I was boxed in on the last lap but used sharp elbows and got free. I just had to win for him. Coach McDonnell had a way of making you want to make him proud. You saw that he had invested everything in that team. He was all in for us, and it motivated those on the team to be all in for him.”

Maloney describes it this way: “After O’Mara’s impressive 1,500-meter (3:42.81) and 5,000-meter (14:12.38) victories at the Southwest Conference meet led Arkansas to its second consecutive outdoor championship and triple crown, there would be no emotional letdown this time for any of the Razorbacks. Frank entered the 1,500-meter final at the outdoor championships in Houston both physically and mentally prepared to win.

“It was a loaded field — including the likes of Marcus O’Sullivan of Villanova, as well as Joaquim Cruz of Oregon and Early Jones of Eastern Michigan. The latter two would win medals at the Los Angeles Olympics the following year. Jones entered the race as the favorite. … Boxed in heading into the last lap, O’Mara had no doubts in his mind about what he needed to do.”

While assisting McDonnell with the program and running internationally, O’Mara earned his master’s degree from the university in 1986 and a law degree in 1993. He ran until 1995, winning world indoor championships in the 3,000-meter run in 1987 and 1991.

“I continued to train with the Razorback team that entire time,” O’Mara says.

O’Mara moved to Little Rock in 1996 to work as part of the legal team for Alltel, later becoming the telecommunications giant’s vice president of product management, head of human resources, head of customer service and finally chief marketing officer. He had been offered a job with Nike in Oregon in 1996 but wanted to stay in Arkansas. Alltel sold to Verizon, and O’Mara moved to Allied, which recently announced that it’s being bought by AT&T.

O’Mara and his wife Patty have three sons. O’Mara keeps his hand in the sport by serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the cross country and track teams at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys.

He also worked as a commentator on Irish television at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

“I have visited 56 countries through running,” he says. “I loved it. I missed it for a time when I first quit competing, but I don’t any longer. It was time to grow up.”