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An ode to small college football

I will sit down in front of my television on Thursday night and watch Southern Arkansas University play Harding University in football at Magnolia.

The game is being telecast nationally by the CBS Sports Network.

What a wonderful boost this is for small college football in Arkansas.

For a 31st season, I’m doing football play-by-play on radio for Ouachita Baptist University. I haven’t missed a game, home or away, since 1998. The reason I missed a couple of games that year was because I was the campaign manager for then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and just didn’t feel as if I could be out of state during the stretch run of that campaign.

Ouachita’s late start this year — the opener wasn’t until Sept. 14 — allowed me to see all of the state’s NCAA Division I teams and its lone NCAA Division III team in person during the first 10 days of the season.

On Aug. 29, I watched the University of Central Arkansas beat Incarnate Word in Conway.

Two days later, I drove to Jonesboro to see Arkansas State University defeat the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

On Sept. 7, I watched Hendrix College beat Westminster College during the afternoon at Conway and saw the University of Arkansas down Samford University at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock that evening.

It was all great fun. I love college football, you see.

But I’m glad that my Saturdays for the next few weeks will be devoted to the Division II teams that play in the Great American Conference.

It’s who I am.

It’s what I was raised on.

If you’re tired of traffic, inflated ticket prices and high concession costs — or if your favorite Division I team is simply playing out of state — you ought to try catching a game in Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Monticello, Searcy or Russellville.

You might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of play.

Growing up in Arkadelphia, within walking distance of the Ouachita and Henderson stadiums, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference was what I knew when it came to college sports. I look back fondly all these years later on the games I attended as a child.

I still remember the afternoons at A.U. Williams Field when Ouachita upset previously undefeated Arkansas Tech teams in 1968 and 1970.

I remember most of the Battles of the Ravine between Ouachita and Henderson that I’ve attended through the decades.

I especially remember the road trips with my father to see Ouachita play its AIC foes.

I remember the places where we would eat (before the game if it were an evening kickoff and after the game if it were an afternoon kickoff). What’s college football without food?

Trips to Magnolia to play the Muleriders of Southern State (later Southern Arkansas University) always meant a meal at the Chatterbox downtown. The owner, Mr. Duke, knew my dad and would greet him by name. You could buy copies of the Magnolia Banner-News, the Shreveport Times, the Arkansas Gazette and the Texarkana Gazette right by the register. I loved football, food and newspapers. How much better could it get than this?

Trips to Monticello to play the Boll Weevils of Arkansas A&M (later the University of Arkansas at Monticello) meant a foot-long hot dog at Ray’s or a stop at a catfish restaurant whose name I forgot long ago.

Trips to Conway to play the Bears of ASTC (later SCA and later still UCA) meant a meal at Tommy’s. The owners — Tommy Paladino and Johnny DeSalvo — were quail hunting buddies of my dad. Dad wouldn’t think of eating anywhere else in Conway. It was at Tommy’s where I had my first whole trout and had to be told by my father not to eat the head.

Trips to Searcy to play the Bisons of Harding (it seemed as if those games were always in the afternoon) meant a stop at Anderson’s in Beebe for the Saturday night seafood buffet prior to the drive home to Arkadelphia.

Trips to Russellville to play the Wonder Boys of Arkansas Tech meant fried chicken at the Old South, though we did stray across the street for a few years when there was an AQ Chicken House at Russellville. If Ouachita and Tech were playing an afternoon game in late October or early November, my mom would insist we take Arkansas Highway 7 north from Arkadelphia to Russellville in order to “look at the leaves.” Those trips usually included a stop for breakfast at Sam Ann’s in the heart of the Ouachita National Forest near Hollis.

There were seven football-playing schools in the AIC in those days (I came of age after Hendrix and Ozarks dropped the sport). Six of them — all except for UCA, whose enrollment is now at the point that the Bears are where they belong in the Southland Conference of Division I — are together again in the GAC. Throw in five Oklahoma schools with similar athletic budgets and it’s a good fit; as close to the old AIC as we’re likely to get.

The demise of the AIC came in the 1990s when many of the NAIA schools across the country that played football began moving to NCAA Division II. The athletic directors of the AIC schools couldn’t agree on whether all the schools should move or not. UCA and Henderson forced the issue when they jumped to the Gulf South Conference of NCAA Division II for the 1993-94 school year. That left the AIC with just five institutions that played football — UAM, Southern Arkansas, Arkansas Tech, Harding and Ouachita. They played what some called an “AIC Lite” football schedule in 1993 and 1994.

UAM, Southern Arkansas and Arkansas Tech were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 1995-96 school year. The Gulf South wouldn’t admit Ouachita and Harding, the only two private colleges playing football in Arkansas at the time.

Ouachita and Harding wound up in the Lone Star Conference, which already had members in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Harding and Ouachita finally were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 2000-01 school year. UCA left the Gulf South for Division I in 2006.

The GAC was born in the fall of 2011, and the first two football champions have been from Arkadelphia — Ouachita in 2011 and Henderson last year.

The fall of 2012 was a banner one for Division II football programs in the state. Consider these facts:

— Henderson finished the regular season 10-0, the first undefeated, untied regular season in school history. Sophomore quarterback Kevin Rodgers was one of eight finalists for the 2012 Harlon Hill Trophy, which is the Division II version of the Heisman Trophy. During the 2012 season, Rodgers earned GAC Player of the Week honors six times. He threw for more than 300 yards in seven games. He’s on pace to do even better this year.

— Harding finished the regular season 9-1, losing only to Henderson.

— Southern Arkansas finished the regular season 8-2, losing only to Henderson and Harding.

— With its 6-4 record, Ouachita posted its fifth consecutive winning season. Ouachita has the only college football program in the state — at any level — with five consecutive winning seasons.

— Of the four Division II teams with winning records in the state, there was only one loss to a team from outside Arkansas during the regular season.

It’s no wonder that the top four teams in the GAC preseason poll — Henderson, Southern Arkansas, Harding and Ouachita — were all from Arkansas.

Only two of the 11 GAC teams remained undefeated through September of this year — Ouachita and Henderson.

The two new GAC members — Southern Nazarene and Northwestern Oklahoma — finished the month 0-4.

Everyone else beat up on each other.

On Friday afternoon, I’ll embark on my third road trip to Oklahoma in four weeks. My plan is to eat supper at the famous Van’s Pig Stand in Shawnee and spend the night in Oklahoma City before heading west to Weatherford for an afternoon game on Saturday.

On the first two Saturday mornings of the season, I hit the road early for night games in Oklahoma. The first trip was to Bethany to play Southern Nazarene. Lunch was at Ed’s Truck Stop in Sallisaw, where I had the chicken fried steak.

The following Saturday, I hit the road early again to broadcast Ouachita’s game against East Central Oklahoma in Ada. Ouachita had won the previous week. So why change the routine? Once more, we stopped at Ed’s in Sallisaw. Once more, I had the chicken fried steak. We’re establishing some new traditions in this conference.

Whether you’re talking about small college football or chicken fried steak, it’s hard to get too much of a good thing.

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