This afternoon Fort Smith native Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers will play the Missouri Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. If Malzahn pulls out a win that looks much less improbable than the one seared across the nation’s memory last Saturday, he will become the fifth Arkansan to have won an SEC title and at least the ninth to have won a major conference title as head coach. [UPDATE: Auburn won 59-42] Below is a list of native Arkansans (i.e. spent a majority of childhood in the state) who have already pulled this off. Not surprisingly, some are part of college football’s pantheon of coaches:
1. Bear Bryant
School: Kentucky/Texas A&M/Alabama
Conference Titles Won: 15
(14 in SEC: 1950, 1961, 1964–1966, 1971–1975, 1977–1979, 1981; 1 in SWC: 1956)
National Titles Won: 6
(1961, 1964–1965, 1973, 1978–1979)
2. Barry Switzer
Conference Titles Won: 12
(All in Big Eight: (1973–1980, 1984–1987)
National Titles Won: 3
3. Ken Hatfield
Conference Titles Won: 4
(3 SWC: 1988–1989, 1994; 1 ACC: 1991)
4. Fred Akers
Conference Titles Won: 2
(SWC: 1977, 1983)
5. Tommy Tuberville
Conference Titles Won: 1
6. Charlie Strong
Conference Titles Won: 1
(Big East: 2012)
7. Charlie McClendon
Conference Titles Won: 1
8. Clarence Spears
Conference Titles Won: 1
(Big Ten: 1927)
*I admit it: I simply don’t know how long Spears lived in Arkansas before his family moved to Illinois, where he graduated high school. But I sure like to think he stuck around for longer than a Douglas MacArthur-minute.
N.B. For this list, I only focused on coaches who had spent the majority of their childhood in Arkansas. That’s why you don’t like Frank Broyles or Butch Davis, guys who came to Arkansas after high school. Malzahn, for instance, was born in Texas but grew up in Fort Smith. If I missed someone, please let me know.
Also, I’m defining “major conference” as a current automatic qualifying conferences as well as the now-defunct Big East, Big Eight and Southwest conferences. Akers won a WAC title with Wyoming, but I didn’t include that in the list above because the notion of Wyoming being a major conference school is just plain wack.
Arkansas fans are right to believe some of their traditions are truly unique. There are, after all, tens of college programs named after Wildcats or Tigers or some permutation of Bear, but there is only one named for the Razorback. And no group of fans, no matter how much they chomp, stomp or damn eagles, has thrown out anything that remotely resembles the Ozarkian eeriness that is the Hog Call. Suiiii generis, indeed.
But in all the recent commotion over Arkansas’ continuing pullout of War Memorial Stadium, I’ve noted a troublesome sentiment that what Arkansas has had all these years in its dual home arrangement has been so wonderfully precious and unique that losing it would present a blow the program may never fully recover from. Not so: plenty other programs split their home games between two stadia for decades. Plenty other fans made memories that lasted a lifetime in the stadium closer to their home. Yes, the other programs stopped doing this. But no, they did not fall apart.
To the contrary, many have thrived since quitting the practice.
These other programs – Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Virginia Tech et al – began dual home arrangements for the same, exact reason Arkansas started doing it in Little Rock in 1932: exposure, revenue and what today is called “brand building.” Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.*
Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium. This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in a recent New York Times article: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.’”
Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, you are right: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program that is still hanging on to this practice.
But is that something to be proud of?
It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But hanging on to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed through much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.
I recently had the pleasure of writing a biographical feature on David Bazzel, one of the most well known personalities in Arkansas sport media and certainly its most versatile. “The Baz” has dabbled in everything from sports medicine and fitness column writing to sports anchoring and morning talk show hosting. In recent years, though, his focus has increasingly shifted to creating traditions – whether in the form of new chants, new trophies or Razorback game-day ceremonies. The former Razorback linebacker’s most significant creation, on a national scale, is the Broyles Award which for the last 17 years has been honoring the legacy of Razorback don Frank Broyles. Bazzel proposed the award in 1996, but he didn’t immediately find receptive ground:
At first, Broyles was hesitant. He brought in longtime assistant Wilson Matthews to blitz Bazzel. “They were both going to make me prove I was confident in what I was doing,” Bazzel recalled. “They wanted to hear, ‘How are you going to execute this? What are the steps? How are you going to get your finances?’”
That last part proved to be tricky. Bazzel didn’t yet have sponsors, and it was difficult to find donors because Broyles had asked that he not take money that would have otherwise been donated to the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of Arkansas athletics.
Bazzel once asked for support from a local company president: “He said, ‘Well I can either give you a check for $75,000 or I’m going to give Coach Broyles a check for $75,000. What do you think ?’”
In 1996, Bazzel borrowed about $100,000 from Capital Bank to launch the award. To make everything in the event first class – from the banquet to accommodations for the five major-college assistant coach nominees and their families – the expense was worth it, he said.
“It’s the names on these things. You can’t just walk out there with a big trophy and then not run [the show] well.”
Not all of Baz’s ideas have taken off. Some have sputtered after lift off, yawed a bit, then buried their noses into the ground. To wit:
[In 1996] he wanted to augment the “Hog Call” with a new chant used when the Razorbacks defense really needed to make a stop.
The “Root Hog” was meant to evoke the sound of a pig digging into the ground with its nose. “It almost sounds like a guttural ‘boo’ but it’s a root-root,” Bazzel recalls.
During halftime of a home Razorbacks basketball game, Bazzel made an “awkward” debut with the chant, according to one online message. “He’s wearing a leather jacket as he explains how you do the cheer,” writes H-O-double G on Hogville.net. “Then right before he starts the cheer, he stops and takes off his jacket, to which he had on a cut-off sleeve muscle shirt … and then he says, ‘Now I know not everyone here has guns like ol Bazzel.’”
Reminded of this event, Bazzel laughs. “Who knows, I might have said something like that. Anything to get their attention at halftime.”
“That was strictly for impact purposes.”
Check out the entire feature in today’s High Profile section in the Democrat-Gazette. Or click here [paywall].
One entertaining story I wasn’t able to include in the piece was Bazzel’s ill-fated stab at live theater in the fall of 1998. “What!?!” you may very well be asking right now. This is just about the same reaction Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummet had then:
In the category of things you couldn’t make up because no one would believe them, we now have “Football, Biceps, Biscuits and Gravy: Confessions of a Razorback,” the one-man stage show of this same finely sculpted Florida refugee who made all those tackles… Twelve bucks will get you in for this 70-minute show.
I called David and asked what in tarnation this was all about: self-promotion born in ego of gargantuan and breath-taking proportion or a brave and adventurous spirit? “I hope it’s the latter,” he said. “You know, this time last year I was wrestling around in the woods outside Greenbrier with a wild Russian boar. By comparison this seems tame.”
Advance ticket sales for the play, slated for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, were so bad Bazzel cancelled it before the first show. Bazzel knew he was in trouble when Houston Nutt’s Arkansas coaching debut at home didn’t even sell out that weekend. “You win some, you lose some,” Bazzel told the paper, adding he has “no problem eating a little humble pie.”
I am of the mind that the screenplay for “Football, Biceps, Biscuits and Gravy: Confessions of a Razorback” may be the single most interesting/hilarious unpublished piece of work in late 20th century Arkansas sports history. I don’t care what the play is actually about – with a title like that it can’t be boring. So, where might this literary grail filled with porcine gravy reside nowadays? Bazzel’s not sure – the file may possibly still be on this computer, and a paper version may still be floating around his condo near Chenal Promenade in Little Rock.
I hope once he slows down creating all these national awards he can spare a few hours looking for it.
Arkansas’ starting quarterback on its 1964 national title team nearly skipped out on that entire season. In 1963, Fred Marshall was a fourth-year junior who had bided his time and was ready to take the reins as Hogs’ full-time quarterback. When he didn’t, he visited head coach Frank Broyles in his office with two games left in the season and told him he’d had enough. “I told him I wasn’t coming back the following year because I thought he’d done me wrong. I was saying, in essence, ‘Coach, you messed up and I’m pissed about it.’”
Broyles didn’t act defensive, Marshall recalled. Broyles heard Marshall out. And he tried to explain to him his reasoning.
The winter before, quarterback Billy Gray had starred in the Sugar Bowl and Arkansas coaches assumed he would be the starting quarterback the following fall. That season great things were expected of the Hogs, which had finished in the AP Top 10 for four consecutive years and entered the fall as conference favorites. Problem was, Gray didn’t want to play quarterback. He wanted to stick to cornerback on defense (this was the era of two-way players). So Marshall goes in, but it didn’t help his cause that in the 1963 conference opener he threw three passes that should have been intercepted.
So the baton was passed around. “I start the season as the starter and next thing I know, I’m not starting any longer,” Marshall said in August, 2o13 interview. “Billy Gray’s starting and Billy Gray takes his turn and lo and behold he joins me over on the bench. And now we got Jon Brittenum starting.” It went on like this through the first eight games of the season as Arkansas fell to a 4-4 record. Gray and Brittenum weren’t as explosive in terms of passing as anticipated. Marshall, more of a running, ball-control type of quarterback, recalled being told by Broyles that “we can’t take the ball and just grind it down the field. We’ve got to have somebody who can make the big plays.” That wasn’t happening as much as expected, though, and Marshall heard about it: “I had people all over the state telling me they didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing. To a lot of people it was clear that I should have been playing.”
With Gray and Brittenum both returning the next year, and Marshall stuck as the third stringer, he decided he’d had enough. “I wasn’t gonna ride the bench for another year,” Marshall said. He was only three or six hours away from graduating at that point and moving on with his life. He had a wife and eight-month-old son to support. “I was going to get into the workforce and do my thing. [Pro] football was not part of my future.”
He vented to Broyles after a 7-0 road loss to Rice, but added that he didn’t intend to stop playing hard for the team for the remainder of the season. During the next game, at SMU, Broyles put in Marshall early but the team still lost 14-7. That didn’t dissuade Broyles. He approached Marshall in the locker room. “If you come back next year, you’ll be my starting quarterback,” Marshall recalled being told. Broyles admitted he’d made a mistake and was going to start him the next game against Texas Tech. ”I look back and wish we’d stuck with Fred in ’63,” Broyles recalled in his autobiography “Hog Wild.” “Instead of 5-5, we might have won eight or nine games.”
Marshall started the season finale at home against Texas Tech [ in the only SWC game played the day after Kennedy was assassinated] and helped the Hogs get out to a 20-0 start. Gray jumped in for Marshall in the second period after a running play in which he hit a defender head on. “As we call it in football language, he got his ‘bell rung,’” Arkansas Gazette writer Orville Henry wrote after the game. “I got a little dazed and nauseated, but I was all right by the middle of the second half,” Marshall told the Gazette.
The Hogs held on for a 27-20 win – the first of what would be 22 straight wins. Marshall would go on to be the starting quarterback the following season in which the Hogs went undefeated and clinched the national title with a 10-7 win over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. Marshall engineered the crucial game-winning drive in the fourth quarter and got co-MVP honors along with linebacker Ronnie Caveness. The entire season, under the steady leadership of Marshall and an elite defense, Arkansas gave up only six turnovers.
Would Arkansas have won its lone national title had Marshall quit the previous winter? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s a credit to Broyles’ ability to listen and admit mistakes that Arkansas fans never had to find out.
I just got off the phone with Ken Hatfield, the most winning Razorback football coach by percentage, for a High Profile feature I’m writing on David Bazzel for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I couldn’t help but also ask Hatfield some side questions about college football’s biggest game last week and the current state of the Hogs. Specifically, I was curious as to what he thought of grind-it-out Stanford’s recent domination over Oregon and how that could play into the Razorbacks’ future.
“To be a champion, you’ve got to do one of two things to be successful,” Hatfield said. “You got to do things better than anyone else or you got to do things different than anyone else … like in the days that Texas ran the wishbone. The teams trying to stop it had a hard time trying to stop it on their own practice field, so one year every team in the Southwest conference ran their own version of the wishbone. They had to do it so they could figure out how to stop [the wishbone] and then they still couldn’t stop it because Texas had better players and executed it better.”
So, the other SWC teams went another direction. “That’s when you had Hayden Fry and some other people come in with a single wide receiver and do different other things.” Stanford has been able to capitalize on its enduring reputation for ball-control offenses, Hatfield said. “They have been able to recruit people that style of offense from around the nation because Stanford has such a national draw, and a lot of the things that they were doing, nobody else was recruiting those players for.”
Bill Parcells once told Hatfield the winning formula was similar in the NFL: “You’ve got to take the ball over when there’s four minutes left in the game. You’ve got to run the clock out when the other team knows you’re going to run every play … that other team is paying $30 million for that quarterback for that two-minute offense and the only way you’re going to defeat him is by keeping him on the bench. So to win you’ve got to be able to run the football when the other team is ganging up on the line of scrimmage and knows you’re going to do it. If it works for the NFL, it ought to work good college teams too.”
OK, bear with me: I’m now putting on my referring-to-myself-in-third-person socks:
Demirel: Do you think to a certain extent Stanford’s success against a powerful hurry up offense provides a blueprint for Arkansas success going forward in the SEC?
Hatfield: “The only difference you have is that you got a couple teams in the SEC that are already doing the Stanford thing … then you get back to trying to do something better than them.” For Bielema and his staff, the biggest priority is signing the right players – especially on the lines, he added.
Demirel: Do you think that Arkansas will be able to do better at recruiting when LSU, Alabama and now Texas A&M are closer to the hot spots where so many of these recruits live?
Hatfield: “Certainly, it’s a real big challenge … I would think one of the great assets we have right now is to really to go back in and recruit Texas extremely hard, the way we did. Because, for about 18 years there, nobody in Texas cared about the SEC because it wasn’t in the paper, they never covered it. But now, with A&M coming into the league and the great success they’ve had in two years, every paper in Texas everyday mentions the SEC. Every newspaper. So I think you get a chance of knowing the SEC is important in Texas and and we’re so close to it, where you could get a lot of players where their families could come and see it.”
Demirel: But A&M’s success makes that tougher, as does Baylor’s recent success as well.
Hatfield: “Oh, there’s no doubt about it … while Baylor’s good there, there’s no doubt about it, there’s still some mystique about playing in the SEC. And if you’re a Texas player who’s going to play in the SEC against the great competition you’re going to have, you’ve either got to go to A&M or go to Arkansas. LSU’s going to get all their players from Louisiana – a few from Alabama, a few from Texas – but they’re gonna get them from there. But for a great Texas player who wants to play in the SEC and still wants to be close to home, you’ve got A&M and Arkansas.”
Demirel: It’ll be interesting to see if Arkansas ramps it up there. Also, although Arkansas has tried to develop recruiting in Florida before, it seems like Bielema and some of his assistants are hitting it extremely hard. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make Florida more of a recruiting base than ever have before.
Hatfield: “… You’ve always got to figure out in recruiting what’s your advantage. The one thing I believed we had for a long time which was great in Arkansas was the ability to bring kids in here in redshirt them – let them grow up, and enjoy the beauty of the state and the beauty of the fans, maybe get to be a year or two older than other people too. Almost all of the players we had were redshirted.”
“I mean, you had Steve Atwater and number one [round] draft pick, you had Wayne Martin, a [round] one draft pick, you had Quinn Grovey, one of the greatest quarterbacks we ever had. All of them were redshirted. None of them played as [true] freshmen and they were all great talents. Those extra years here really made a difference both in helping them get a degree and also in their physical development. So I wouldn’t give up on that formula either. Do something different Arkansas, maybe that other people aren’t doing. You just got to do whatever you believe in and I think that Beliema will do whatever he believes in.”
Life doesn’t slow down for anybody and this autumn, much to my concern, it has actually seemed to speed up. For months, my wife essentially worked another full-time job studying for her medical board exams. At the same time, she and I have been discussing job offers she received to start her career as a pediatrician. AND we have a very active 14-month-old daughter.
Still, I sometimes think about an article I wrote in August about former Razorback football star Mark Pierce, who has been serving a 15-year prison sentence for a 2008 drunk-driving accident that killed another man. In the article, I had to rely on news accounts to string together Mark’s story (no phone interviews were allowed.) I wasn’t able to make the trip in person to his east Texas max security prison, and I wasn’t about to break out some pen and parchment.
So I filed the story with Sporting Life Arkansas, some people read it and thankfully liked it, but still I knew nothing more about Mark’s fate than what I had found through Google. Until late September, when this email – from Mark’s mother – arrived:
Thank you for article you wrote about Mark. As a mother it was extremely difficult to see his life once again all over the net but the article was honest and sincere. I wanted to let you know, Mark is doing very well at the Beto Unit. The accident changed Marks life. He never thought anything like that could ever happen to him.
Mark had turned his life around. He had a great job that he loved with International Paper in Vicksburg, Mississippi, bought a home, fell in love and got married May 23, 2007. On May 9, 2008 he had a baby boy. He came home for Christmas where he went golfing with his brother and uncle. He had too much to drink and left the golf course and had a tragic accident.
Mark refused to have a trial. He said he was guilty, pled guilty and expected to take his punishment. He’s been in the Beto Unit for the past 3 years and done very well. December 2012 he received a Paralegal Certification from the U.S. Career Institute with a grade of 98%. February 2013 he received his certification in Electronics Technology from Trinity Valley Community College with a 4.0. In December 2013 he will graduate with his Associates in Business- Management from Trinity Valley Community College and has maintained a 4.0 and is on the President’s Honor List.
He will be transferring to the Hughes Unit outside of Waco, TX at the end of the year to continue his education working on his Bachelor of Science in Business Management. I pray that he will use what has happened to him to help others from making the same mistakes he’s made. His first choice for his future was to pursue an education in Psychology and become a Youth Counselor. Unfortunately, that degree program is only offered in Houston, Texas and I didn’t want him to be that far away.
Mark’s mother, Debra, goes on to tell me how to contact Mark – his snail mail address and a new cyber method, but I haven’t written him yet. If I did, I would ask him if he even likes football anymore, who his mentors are and if he plans to have anything to do with the Razorback program when he gets out. It’s obvious that he’s been able to succeed in a very regimented culture, but how does he plan to keep that kind of structure when one day he walks free again? Perhaps assimilating into society after spending years in prison is as big of a shock and challenge as entering prison in the first place.
I won’t ask Mark these questions now. I have to prepare for a 5-day trip to Houston and next week have a few pressing deadlines to meet and, then, the holidays… But, one day, when life again speeds up for him, and speeds down for me, perhaps I’ll finally be able to interview him.
Until then, best of luck, Mark Pierce. Know there are many Arkansans rooting for you.
Last night, Auburn beat Arkansas to send the Hogs to their sixth straight loss, the second longest losing streak in program history. The Hogs still haven’t gotten it together to turn the proverbial corner, but fans are promised that one day soon they will. Just have faith, they are told.
My 14-month-old daughter Eden is also working on putting it together.