Archive for August, 2014

College football: Week 1

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Here we go.

Labor Day weekend approaches, and that always meant three things when I was growing up in southwest Arkansas: My birthday was coming up (it falls on the day after Labor Day this year), dove season was about to start (Saturday, Sept. 6, this year) and college football season was beginning.

I love this time of year.

Once more I’ll make predictions for all of the NCAA Division I and Division II schools in the state.

The Division II schools don’t get started until next week, but the four Division I programs kick off their seasons Saturday.

Arkansas travels to Auburn to play an afternoon game on the plains of Alabama. After launching the new SEC Network’s extensive schedule of games on Thursday night with Texas A&M at South Carolina, the No. 1 crew of Brent Musburger and Jesse Palmer will be in Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday’s game.

Meanwhile, Arkansas State unveils its new video board in Jonesboro with a game against traditional FCS power Montana State.

UCA begins the Steve Campbell era with a trip to west Texas to take on Texas Tech.

And UAPB travels to the hills of central Texas to take on Texas State, coached by Dennis Franchione.

I’ll try to attend all or parts of 17 to 18 college football games this year. I say “parts of” since there are several Saturdays when I’ll broadcast a Ouachita game in Arkadelphia and then rush across the street to catch the second half of a Henderson game. Those are golden Saturdays: Tigers, Reddies and steak night at Fat Boys in Caddo Valley all on the same day. I make it a point each season of seeing as many of the Arkansas schools as possible. This Saturday will take me to Jonesboro, where excitement is high following the announcement this week of Johnny Allison’s $5 million gift. The money will go toward a new press box and private suites. Even with the fifth head coach in as many years, the perception still is that this is a program on the way up.

For the first time since 1980, Arkansas opens a season with a conference game. That brings back a lot of memories.

ABC moved up the Arkansas-Texas game in Austin to the evening of Labor Day that year. Wally Hall and I decided to make a Texas road trip in my Olds Cutlass. Wally was not yet the sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat, but he was the lead sports columnist. I was the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. We covered a Dallas Cowboys preseason game in Irving on Saturday night. We headed to Austin on Sunday, in plenty of time for Mexican food at Matt’s El Rancho. We covered the Arkansas-Texas game on Monday.

I was even cursed by Jones Ramsey, the legendary Texas sports information director. Ramsey was the man who once uttered the famous quote: “The only thing worse than track is field.” And this one: “There are only two sports in Texas. Football and spring football.”

Long after the game had concluded, I noticed a typed sheet of seating assignments taped to the wall of the press box. I wanted to write a column about how writers had come from across the country to cover the game. I figured no one would have use for that sheet. I could take it back home to Arkansas for reference. Ramsey saw me and let me know — in no uncertain terms — that he saved the seating charts from past games.

Lesson learned.

It’s hard to believe it has been 34 years. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Enough ancient history. On to the picks for Week 1 of the 2014 season:

Auburn 29, Arkansas 17 — Thank goodness they’re actually playing a game. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love college football, but my interests are just too broad to listen to radio talk shows in April, May, June and July with people calling up day after day to ask: “How do you think the Hogs are going to do?” I don’t know how the hosts do it. Now we have an actual game to play, a conference game at that. Will the Gus Malzahn magic continue in 2014? It’s hard to believe that anyone could repeat that kind of season. Once August hit and I decided it was time to get fired up for football, I went to the computer and listened to Auburn play-by-play man Rod Bramblett’s call of the late scoring play against Georgia and the final play of the Iron Bowl. If those calls don’t excite you, you just don’t love college football (or you’re a Georgia or Alabama fan). Yes, I think Arkansas will be better. It’s hard to be worse than 0-8 in the SEC, isn’t it? And, yes, I think Brandon Allen will be improved at quarterback. Let’s rally ’round the old burning truck and say that Arkansas hangs around for at least three quarters Saturday afternoon before being worn down by a team with superior talent and depth.

Arkansas State 39, Montana State 24 — ASU opened the season last year with a 62-11 victory over UAPB in Jonesboro. This won’t be the same type of game. At No. 19 nationally, Montana State is one of four Big Sky Conference schools in the preseason FCS coaches’ poll. Montana State has been nationally ranked for 61 consecutive weeks. Coach Rob Ash is a legend in Montana. He is 233-126-5 in 34 seasons overall as a head coach and 57-27 at Montana State. Due to a massive buyout provision in his contract, it certainly seems as if Blake Anderson will be the head coach at ASU for more than one season. The school is making all the right moves to keep him around. The 39,000-square-foot addition to the stadium will cost more than $15 million and include not only a new press box but also 18 private suites and 300 club seats. As noted, a new video board debuts Saturday. An indoor practice facility is being built. And ASU officials still say that a $28 million football operations center is in the works. ASU fans also were excited when athletic director Terry Mohajir announced this week that Missouri will be coming to Jonesboro next year rather than playing the game at a neutral side — Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Texas Tech 42, UCA 21 — The Bears’ new coach has won national titles at the junior college and the NCAA Division II levels. Now we’ll see what he can do at the FCS level. Clint Conque has moved on to the Piney Woods of east Texas as the head coach at conference foe Stephen F. Austin, and Steve Campbell has moved north from south Mississippi to Conway. The Bears were picked fourth in the preseason Southland Conference polls. The Red Raiders enter their second season under head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Texas Tech jumped out to a 7-0 start in 2013 and moved to No. 9 in the USA Today coaches’ poll on Oct. 27. They faded down the stretch, though, and finished with an 8-5 record. They were 4-5 in Big 12 play but ended the season on a high note with a 37-23 win over No. 16 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. The Red Raiders enter the 2014 season unranked for a sixth consecutive year.

Texas State 40, UAPB 19 — The Golden Lions won’t take the beating they suffered in the opener at Jonesboro last year, but it probably won’t be pretty. Texas State begins its second season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference and is playing an FBS schedule for a third year. Texas State beat Houston in the season opener in 2012 and defeated Southern Mississippi in the season opener last year. Franchione is in the fourth season of his second term as the Bobcats’ head coach. He’s 29-29 at Texas State and 203-121-2 as a head coach, a career that has included stops at Alabama and Texas A&M. His new defensive coordinator is Forrest City native John Thompson, who was not retained by Anderson at Arkansas State despite the fact that Thompson is 2-0 in bowl games as the Red Wolves’ interim head coach.

To St. Francis and back

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

I’ve traveled a lot of Arkansas roads through the decades, but a recent trip into northeast Arkansas took me onto roads I’ve never traversed.

The day trip (albeit a long day) was the idea of Mark Christ, perhaps the foremost expert on the Civil War in Arkansas, and Paul Austin, who heads the Arkansas Humanities Council. Two other men with deep knowledge of our state — Center Ridge native and UCA professor Ken Barnes and community development expert Freeman McKindra — joined a trip that would take us to the most northeast spot on an Arkansas map, the Clay County community of St. Francis.

During the day, we drove the back roads of Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties with Paul, an Imboden native, at the wheel. Lunch was on the front porch of a Mennonite store at Dalton, just south of the Missouri border in Randolph County. Supper (a reward for the hundreds of miles covered) was in Bald Knob at Who Dat’s, a longtime favorite. We saw the big raven at Ravenden, walked down to the spring at Ravenden Springs and even passed the road to Success (Success being a community in Clay County).

The first stop of the day was at Jacksonport in Jackson County on the White River. By late afternoon, we were walking through the thick Crowley’s Ridge hardwoods to Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River. A town developed here in the 1820s with the name derived from a white clay bluff that’s still visible. Abraham Seitz operated a ferry crossing and general store from the 1830s until the Civil War. In May 1863, this was the site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff as Union Gen. William Vandever failed in his efforts to prevent troops commanded by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke from crossing the St. Francis River.

Marmaduke, after suffering heavy casualties, had abandoned a second expedition into the Missouri Bootheel and was trying to get back to Arkansas.

Marmaduke, accompanied by 5,000 men, headed for the Bootheel in the spring of 1863. He was defeated at Cape Girardeau and began withdrawing toward Arkansas with the crossing of the St. Francis River planned for Chalk Bluff. Fighting began there on May 1 and lasted until the next day. Marmaduke’s rear guard was able to hold off the Union forces long enough for his engineers to complete a bridge across the river.

Minor skirmishes would occur at Chalk Bluff on and off for the remainder of the war.

I noted that we began our day on the banks of the White River and found ourselves by late afternoon on the banks of the St. Francis River. So while this day was supposed to be about the Civil War, it was really about rivers — the rivers that have so shaped the eastern half of our state through the decades.

The St. Francis River originates in Missouri. It’s a mountain stream until it slows down near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before continuing its path in east Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, parts of northeast Arkansas dropped by six to eight feet, leading to a huge swampy area that slowed development for decades. That area is now known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands, and much of it is managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as a wildlife management area.

“The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts,” Jodi Morris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until well into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. This greatly affected the natural course of the river and included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water.”

The law establishing the St. Francis Levee District was Act 19 of the Arkansas General Assembly of 1893. It was the first improvement district in Arkansas. It addressed flood control in Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties. Gov. W.N. Fishback made the first appointments to the levee board with three representatives from each county.

Previous efforts at flood control through the federal Swamp Land Grant of 1850 and state organizations had been ineffective. The levee district initially was funded by an appropriation from the Mississippi River Commission and a tax levy on the increased land values that were anticipated.

The St. Francis Levee District ended up draining a large portion of east Arkansas with hardwood forests replaced by row crops.

Take the Little River of northeast Arkansas (not to be confused with the Little River of southwest Arkansas) as an example of what the levee district did. The Little River starts west of Cape Girardeau and flows into northeast Arkansas, where it enters what’s now the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area near Manila in Mississippi County. It joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree. Before the New Madrid earthquakes, the Little River was a clear, swift stream. It’s now described by the state encyclopedia as “not much more than a series of stagnant mud holes due to channeling and ditching.”

After leaving the Big Lake area, the Little River is part of a floodway that’s about a mile wide and enclosed by levees. The floodway includes Ditch No. 1, Ditch No. 9, Left Hand Chute of the Little River, Right Hand Chute of the Little River and the Little River itself.

“These waterways run together, separate and join again,” Norman Vickers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The dominant channel is the Right Hand Chute of the Little River. Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management area, the floodway enters the St. Francis River.”

The L’Anguille River, another tributary of the St. Francis River, begins west of Harrisburg and flows down the west side of Crowley’s Ridge before crossing the ridge near Marianna and flowing into the St. Francis. The L’Anguille River and the Cache River to its west were major obstacles to the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The east Arkansas gap in the line existed until 1871.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows south until emptying into the White River near Clarendon. Flood-control efforts during the 1920s and 1930s split the river into two ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was designed to dredge 140 miles of the river upstream from Clarendon while also dredging 77 miles of the Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project weren’t approved until 1969.

Congressman Bill Alexander, a Mississippi County native who owed allegiance to the big planters, was a strong supporter of the dredging but was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others entities across the state. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, but a federal appeals court sent the case back to Henley, saying the Corps had not properly prepared its environmental impact statement. That statement wasn’t approved until 1977. By then, support in Congress had waned. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established from Grubbs to Clarendon in 1986 to protect the stream.

The St. Francis, Little, Cache and L’Anguille rivers are lowland streams. A bit to the west — but still in northeast Arkansas — are the many streams of the Ozark foothills. The flat Delta quickly gives way to the rolling foothills after you cross the Black River at Black Rock. Most of these streams are fed by springs in Missouri before flowing south into Arkansas.

There’s the Eleven Point River, which flows into the Spring River.

To the west, Myatt Creek and the South Fork also empty into the Spring.

The Spring River, which flows through Arkansas for almost 75 miles, then empties into the Black River near Black Rock.

The Little Black River comes out of Missouri and flows into the Current River just northwest of Datto.

The Current River then merges with the Black River near Pocahontas.

The Fourche River (not to be confused with the Fourche La Fave River in west-central Arkansas) comes out of Missouri and flows through Randolph County for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River.

The Strawberry River flows for 90 miles to the southeast before emptying into the Black River in Independence County.

The eastern half of the state truly is a land of rivers, both swift and slow.

Three rivers come together in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. The Black crosses the Arkansas border northeast of Corning and then passes the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Pocahontas, Davidsonville Historic State Park, Black Rock and Powhatan.

From there, the river flows through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area before turning toward the southeast and entering the White River at Jacksonport. The sharp bends in the Black River have colorful names such as Deadman, Hole in the Wall, Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule. The first steamboat to go up the Black River to Pocahontas was the Laurel in 1829.

Jacksonport, Powhatan, Davidsonville and Pocahontas all prospered as steamboat ports. More than 40 steamboats were traveling the Black River in 1900. The first train had reached Pocahontas in 1896, however, and river traffic declined.

Jacksonport, where we started our day, thrived until the railroad bypassed the town in 1872, leading to the rise of Newport. For decades prior to that, boats bound for Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis had offloaded goods at Jacksonport. Confident that river traffic would reign supreme, Jacksonport officials voted against giving the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern Railroad the land grant and $25,000 that railroad officials had requested to pass through the city. It was a big mistake. Newport grew after completion of the railroad and was incorporated in 1875.

“Businesses and residents began drifting away from Jacksonport for the upstart Newport,” Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Newport marginally edged out Jacksonport in population by 1880, but the growth momentum was thereafter permanently in Newport’s favor. In 1882, construction of a narrow-gauge railway began in an effort to stem the loss of business. The railway ran from Jacksonport to Brinkley via Newport and was utilized by lumber businesses for a few decades. In February 1882, a devastating flood and fire that consumed most of the town — both within the span of a week — further accelerated the depopulation of Jacksonport. Hotly contested elections to move the county government to Newport first arose when Jacksonport was surpassed in population in the 1880s. Jacksonport rallied and won the first two elections, managing to postpone removal of the county seat until 1891, when Newport won a third election.

“By 1900, the population of Jacksonport had dwindled to 265, and the schools at Jacksonport were consolidated with Newport in 1944. Apart from a levee built in 1909, there were few infrastructure improvements at Jacksonport until the old courthouse was saved from demolition in 1962 by the Jackson County Historical Society, which purchased the derelict building and adjacent lands. The old courthouse was renovated to its former grandeur and became part of Jacksonport State Park in 1965.”

It was quiet at Jacksonport near the banks of the White River on a Thursday morning, just as it would be quiet more than eight hours later at Chalk Bluff on the banks of the St. Francis River in the northeast corner of the state. In both places, though, you could almost feel the rich history. Like so much of Arkansas, these places were shaped by rivers.