It was on a Tuesday — June 8, 2004, to be exact — that I met David Bazzel for lunch at Ciao in downtown Little Rock.
Yes, I keep my old calendars.
I was working in the governor’s office at the time. David, as is still the case, had his fingers in multiple pies.
Neither of us needed anything else to do, but there was something we agreed on that day — Little Rock was hungry for a football club that would meet weekly during the fall.
In fact, Little Rock was one of the largest Southern cities without a high-profile football club that would bring in outside speakers, earn media attention and allow folks to celebrate a sport that borders on religion in this part of the country.
I don’t know that you can say the Little Rock Touchdown Club was born over pasta that June day, but it’s as good a starting point as any.
Fortunately, David took the ball and ran with it.
On Aug. 25 of that year, a small group of Little Rock football enthusiasts met in the private room that’s just off the main dining room of the Little Rock Hilton to formally start the club.
On the ballroom level of the Hilton, the first official meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club was held on Monday, Sept. 13, 2004.
We met each week through the first Monday in December. Each week, the crowds grew. We held the club’s first awards banquet on the evening of Dec. 16, 2004.
Seven years later, the club is among the most successful organizations of its type in the country. It outgrew the Hilton ballroom that first year and has called the Embassy Suites home since 2005.
Earlier this afternoon in the lobby of the Metropolitan Building in downtown Little Rock, David announced the 2011 lineup. It might be the best yet.
The club again will meet for lunch on Mondays at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. The lunch buffet will open at 11 a.m. each week, and the program will begin at 11:50 a.m.
Bobby Petrino will kick things off Aug. 29. Two years ago when the Arkansas head football coach spoke, almost 700 people were in attendance. With the excitement levels as high as I’ve ever seen them in Arkansas, it should be another full house this year.
Here’s the rest of the schedule:
Sept. 6 — Gene Stallings, who won a national title as head coach at Alabama in 1992 and now lives in Paris, Texas. This is the one meeting that won’t be on a Monday since that Monday is Labor Day. It will be on Tuesday.
Sept. 12 — Bobby Bowden, the legendary former head coach at Florida State. This is the one meeting that won’t be at Embassy Suites. It will be at the Peabody Little Rock.
Sept. 19 — Lloyd Carr, the former Michigan coach who led the Wolverines to the national championship in 1997.
Sept. 26 — Barry Lunney Jr. and Tony Cherico, the former Razorback stars who are now on the coaching staff at Bentonville High School.
Oct. 3 — Pat Dye, the former Auburn head coach. This will be Dye’s third appearance in Little Rock. He might just be my favorite speaker in Touchdown Club history.
Oct. 10 — Hugh Freeze, the new Arkansas State head coach who first spoke to the club last year (as Red Wolf offensive coordinator) on the day Steve Roberts was dismissed.
Oct. 17 — Jeff Long, the Arkansas athletic director who has done an excellent job during his tenure of reaching out to the Central Arkansas business community.
Oct. 24 — Larry Lacewell, the former Arkansas State head coach who is one of the funniest men I know.
Oct. 31 — Clint Conque, the UCA head coach who is now the winningest head football coach in school history.
Nov. 7 — Johnny Majors, the former Pittsburgh and Tennessee head coach who will be addressing the club for the second time.
Nov. 14 — Mark Mangino, the former Kansas head coach who received nine national coach of the year awards following the 2007 season.
Nov. 21 — Mark Schlabach, a national college football columnist for ESPN.com who has covered college football for two decades.
Nov. 28 — Brothers Jay and Chris Bequette, both former Razorbacks.
Football clubs have a long tradition in this country, especially in the South.
The Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C., for example, was formed back in 1935 by Arthur “Dutch” Bergman, who had played football with George Gipp at Notre Dame (and would go on to coach the Washington Redskins in 1943). He would later manage RFK Stadium in Washington, where I watched many great NFL games during the years I lived on Capitol Hill.
The Touchdown Club of Washington held its first awards dinner at the venerable Willard Hotel in 1937 and began calling its awards the Timmie Awards in 1946.
In September 1938, a group of football fans in Georgia formed the Touchdown Club of Atlanta. That club is still going strong after all these decades.
Even though it was formed in 1939, a year after the Atlanta club, I consider the Monday Morning Quarterback Club of Birmingham to be the granddaddy of Southern football clubs because of the enormous amount of charitable work it has done through the years.
The club was started by Birmingham News sports editor Zipp Newman. At the time, polio was rampant, affecting thousands of children nationwide. Club members promoted an annual high school football game to raise money to care for children with polio. More than $3 million was raised through the years for the Crippled Children’s Clinic and Hospital.
In late 1969, that facility became part of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s medical center. The Crippled Children’s Foundation was formed. In November 2008, the club pledged $8 million for the construction of a new children’s hospital.
Birmingham — where college football is discussed 365 days a year — even has a second club, the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club. That club presents the Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award.
Down in Montgomery, meanwhile, 30 businessmen got together in September 1940 at what was then the Jeff Davis Hotel to form the Montgomery Quarterback Club. Bear Bryant of Alabama and Shug Jordan of Auburn would make regular appearances through the years. The club now holds dinner meetings on Tuesday nights during the season.
In 1941, businessmen in Selma formed the Selma Quarterback Club. Despite the loss of population and economic vitality in Selma through the years, the club plugs on.
In neighboring Florida, the Tallahassee Quarterback Club has been around since 1949. It holds dinner meetings and presents the annual Biletnikoff Award to the nation’s oustanding college wide receiver.
Up in St. Louis, the Greater St. Louis Quarterback Club was formed in 1960.
The Touchdown Club of Houston has been around since 1966.
Two hours to our east, the Touchdown Club of Memphis was established in 1975. The club generally meets for dinner on a Monday or a Tuesday at the Chickasaw Country Club.
As you can see, Little Rock was ripe for such a club in 2004.
Metropolitan National Bank will again be the title sponsor (its seventh year) with additional support from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s ARpreps.com and the Crain Automotive Team.
Club membership is $50 per year. Weekly lunch prices are $15 for returning members and $25 for guests. For a $250 annual fee, you will have a reserved seat up front each week and be able to have your photo taken with the speaker.
For a business membership of $1,650, four people will receive admission, lunches, priority seats and photos each week. For a business membership of $2,000, those benefits will go to six people per week.
The club had more than 500 members last season. That gathering in August 2004 in the private room at the Hilton had 17 people in attendance.
Of course, the June luncheon that year had two people in attendance.
Not bad. Not bad at all. It has been quite a ride, and there’s no sign that things are about to slow down.