Arkansas football’s struggles last season are well chronicled. Mention of its nine losses, winless conference record and back-to-back 0-52 shellackings to the hands of South Carolina and Alabama are sure to darken the mood of even the most optimistic Hog supporters. But there’s at least one fan not falling into line here. “Some people look at a 3-9 record as a downer,” says head football coach Bret Bielema. “But I find it more exhilarating than anything you could ever find.”
Bielema points to the improvement Arkansas showed in its last four games, when it played opponents increasingly tighter and ended the year with a four-point loss to No. 14 LSU. Over that span his players executed better and cut back on the mental lapses which had plagued the young team earlier in the season. The Hogs finished as the SEC’s least penalized team vs. other Southeastern Conference foes. These early signs of a turnaround also give a master recruiter like Bielema a selling point. They help form a narrative appealing to the competitive nature of the top high schools players he most wants to sign. In essence, he wants them to buy into the prospect of building a legacy rather than preserving one. Hog coaches emphasize to recruits the part they could play in helping lead Arkansas to its first SEC title. Bielema says he tells recruits: “If you want to come and be apart of something at Arkansas that’s never been done before, and you want to build off the foundation of a 3-9 record, then I got something for you.
For Arkansas to win a championship, its defense – which last season ranked No. 76 nationally and No. 9 in the SEC – must improve. Up front, three of four starting defensive linemen have left but All-SEC Trey Flowers returns for his senior season. As for linebackers, Bielema adds:, “I do think we have a good group that we can piecemeal together. I think Brook Ellis showed us some good things. I think Martrell Spaight and Braylon Mitchell – those three guys will probably be your top three candidates” for starting positions.
Bielema predicts the secondary, which ranked as the SEC’s worst pass defense against conference foes, will “absolutely” improve from 2013 when it allowed SEC opponents to complete more than 70 percent of passes. He cites added size, strength and quickness as one reason, along with more aggressive tactics that include challenging wide receivers more often at the line of scrimmage. There’s also an infusion of ideas from new defensive backs coach Clay Jennings, who was hired in February from Texas Christian University.
On the field, Jennings is charged with shoring up the defense’s weakest area. Off the field, he’s expected to go on the offensive in the program’s most important out-of-state recruiting territory – Texas. It takes only a glimpse at the best teams in program history – including the 1964 national championship squad – to confirm this. For its most recent signing class, though, Arkansas coaches signed only two of the roughly 25 Texans they had recruited.
Bielema’s confident that percentage will rise. He sent five staff members to recruit Texas last winter and believes the fruit of those efforts will be seen in upcoming signing classes. And Jennings, a Waco, Tex. native with a decade’s worth of coaching experience in the state, should strengthen Arkansas’ pull there, Bielema adds. “Any ties he has, we’re going to lean on those.”
Jennings is one of three new Arkansas defensive coaches. At the top is defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a 38-year-old who last year coached linebackers for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joining him is new defensive line coach Rory Segrest, who coached the same position at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “Rory’s a little guy,” Bielema says, tongue in cheek. “He walks into the room and he’s about 6-foot-6 with a size 18 shoe. I hired him because I didn’t want to be the biggest guy on the staff anymore.”
Bielema is pleased with how his coaches have built off last season’s late momentum toward the April 26th Red-White Spring Game: “I’m excited about where our staff is right now. We’re really cranking into high gear.” He also knows the more his coaches trust each other, the faster their program will accelerate. To that end, he organizes mixers to help his new coaches get to know each other. For instance, Bielema reserved a suite for his coaches at a February 28th Hogs baseball game in Fayetteville. “My hope is that my [defensive] line coach ends up sitting next to my wide receivers coach and although they hadn’t known each other, maybe they get to know each other a little bit more. It makes things a little bit better.”
Bielema also organizes other off-season outings that include players, too. He points to examples that naturally revolve around competition: bowling, slow-pitch softball, three-point shooting contests.
Perhaps it’s appropriate these Razorbacks hone such skills together. Most onlookers, after all, consider them as long shots to win a lot of games any time soon. But that doesn’t faze Bielema. When he’s wooing recruits, selling them on his vision for a great turnaround, he need not ask them to strain their imaginations. They know the 2013 SEC championship game, after all, was played between Missouri and Auburn – two programs with a total of two SEC wins the year before.
The above article originally printed in the March/April issue of Arkansas Money and Politics
Next week, we’ll learn whether the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s proposal to ban the N word in the NFL passed. The rule, which would cost teams 15 yards per violation, will be taken under further review by NFL owners at their annual meeting in Florida starting Monday.
The name “Fritz Pollard” has been leveraged by a non-profit organization to push for a change that Fritz Pollard himself might have not supported.But there’s some evidence Pollard, who in the 1920s became the first black NFL quarterback and coach (as well as the first black to play in the Rose Bowl), was O.K. with the word when it was used in non-hateful ways or in artistic endeavors. This runs counter to the beliefs of current leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who believe the word should be banned regardless where and how it’s used in the NFL work place. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,” chairman John Wooten told CBS Sports. “Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”
Harry Carson, another Fritz Pollard Alliance leader, told SI.com that those who use the n-word as a sign of solidarity have “have no sense of history.” He added: “I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment.”
Carson isn’t altogether accurate here. That’s why a closer look at the world in which Fritz Pollard lived is merited.
Nearly a century ago, a black Yale student used the N word in way that evokes how it’s used among many blacks today. The student, William Ashby, attended a Brown game at Yale to watch the much hyped Fritz Pollard play for the visiting Brown team. As the game got underway, Pollard – as usual – was pelted with racist taunts by the home side’s white fans. N words rained down on him. Opponents tried to maim him. But also, like usual, Pollard started dominating – and then a curious thing happened during one of his punt returns, according to Pollard’s biography. While Pollard ran, Yale students yelled “Catch that nigger. Kill that nigger” while Ashby – who was sitting with other African-Americans on the Brown side – jumped up and yelled “Run, nigger, run. Go, Fritz, go.”
This appears to be evidence – which I will bear out – that the word was not always used in a derogatory way at the beginning of the 20th century. It appears blacks sometimes used the word in a positive way among themselves, as happens now. I don’t have direct evidence of Pollard using the N word himself but have found a few facts that make it less likely he was troubled by blacks who used it. In 1933, he played a significant role in a movie as controversial in large segments of black culture then as Wooten’s proposal is now. The movie was “Emperor Jones,” a story about an ambitious Pullman porter based on a Eugene O’Neill play. It starred former NFL player Paul Robeson, a college friend of Pollard’s whom he served as a personal assistant and trainer. Pollard played a bit part on screen as a pianist.
The movie was controversial among many whites because it starred a black man. But it was divisive among many writers in black newspaper circles because it made extensive use of the N word, quoting verbatim from the O’Neill play. Black columnists encouraged readers to boycott the movie. If Pollard despised the casual use of the N word in entertainment, as Wooten does, I don’t think Pollard would have been involved with the project.
Young, exciting strikers will be a big reason why soccer is on the verge of joining football, basketball and baseball as the top spectator team sports in the U.S. The USA has never produced a world-class striker (sorry, Landon Donovan); Julian Green could become the first.
Originally posted on For The Win:
The United States men’s national team’s German manager has convinced a young German-American striker that his future should be in the red, white and blue…and American soccer fans are celebrating.
In what can only be considered a coup for United States soccer, 18-year-old Bayern Munich forward Julian Green has decided to play his international soccer for the U.S. team. Green’s father, a former member of the military, is American and currently resides in Tampa, Florida. Green’s mother is German, and he holds dual-citizenship.
The news was broken first by ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, then confirmed by USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer.
“We are absolutely thrilled that Julian Green has chosen to be a part of the U.S. National Team Programs!"—
Jürgen Klinsmann (@J_Klinsmann) March 18, 2014
Julian Green has chosen to represent the #USMNT!…
View original 273 more words
Perhaps fitting the Nike pullover Malik Monk is rocking in this picture is definitively old school. He is, after all, constantly pursuing mastery of the game’s timeless fundamentals – whether that’s making the correct dribble or pass in a half-court set, or taking the right angle on post defense.
But the 16-year-old Monk wouldn’t be one of the nation’s hottest recruits if his game didn’t also incorporate jaw-droppingly futuristic
athleticism. That fusion, along with his story of escaping poverty for a better life in the Mecca of Walmart, provided the impetus for this CBS Sports feature .
Major kudos go to my Max Preps editor Mitch Stephens, who was willing to invest a lot of time and money in a multimedia feature that includes the work of talented Arkansan photographers and videographers.
I was really glad to work with freelance photographer John David Pittman on this. Along with videographer Matt Johnson, we went up to Conway last week to report on Bentonville’s quarterfinal game against Cabot. Considering Pittman and I live just a few houses apart in North Little Rock, it’s a shame this was our first assignment together. Hopefully, we’ll collaborate on other assignments even after I move to Benton County this summer.
Have a good weekend, everyone.
And make sure to check out what’s shaping up to be an epic Parkview-Joneboro title game in Hot Springs tomorrow night.
Arkansas freshman big man Bobby Portis earned a pair of SEC postseason honors on Tuesday, as the Little Rock native was named to the All-SEC second team and the SEC All-Freshman team..
According to the UA sports information department, the Hogs have landed 15 players on the SEC All-Freshman team while Portis is just the sixth freshman in program history to earn All-SEC honors. During his standout rookie campaign, Portis also collected three SEC Player of the Week accolades, which equaled the record previously set by current Houston Rocket Patrick Beverley in 2007.
One of Portis’ weekly honors came on the heels of breaking the Arkansas freshman scoring record with 35 points against Alabama on Feb. 5 at Bud Walton Arena, dethroning current Director of Student-Athlete Development Scotty Thurman. The 35-point night was the most by a Razorback since 2002, and the third-most points scored by an SEC player this season. Portis accounted for 29 of the team’s first 35 points, while also adding nine rebounds and a season-best six blocks.
Portis enters the SEC Tournament averaging 12.4 points and 6.6 rebounds, ranking second and first on the team, respectively. The 6-foot-10 forward has reached double figures in 20 games with a team-best three doubles and is the only Razorback to start all 31 games. Portis ranks 10th in the SEC in rebounding and tied for fifth in blocks (1.6), while also showcasing his all-round skill with 46 assists and 35 steals.
The first Arkansas signee since 2004, and the 13th overall, to play in the McDonald’s All-American game, Portis has lived up to the hype and has a chance to become the first freshman in program history to lead the team in scoring and rebounding in the same season. Portis also needs just 12 rebounds to break the freshman record of 211 set by Marshawn Powell in 2010.
Fifth-seeded Arkansas (21-10) will begin play at the SEC Tournament on Thursday, taking on the winner of Auburn/South Carolina in a 2:30 p.m. CT game on SEC TV. The Razorbacks earned a first round bye and head to Atlanta with wins in eight of their last 10 games.
So when and where will Portis end up going in the NBA Draft?
NBA Draft Express has him at #19 in the 2015 Draft, one behind Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson. Curiously, NBA Draftnet doesn’t have him listed at all. But at least one member of the drafterati – Dean Demakis – in February made a strong case for Portis one day being worth high first round consideration. Especially when compared to SEC Freshman of the Year Julius Randle, an apparently surefire Top 10 pick this year.
They are both skilled 5 star freshman PF’s who play in the SEC. Their tools are not far apart, as Portis has more length (7’1.5″ vs 6’11″ wingspan), Randle has more strength, and their athleticism and mobility appear to be similar (although perhaps Randle’s spryness would stand out if he trimmed down). Their offensive ratings adjusted for SOS and usage is close with Randle having a slim 1.8 point advantage. In a world that interprets draft related information with reasonable efficiency, a Portis vs. Randle debate would be raging right now….
Portis has superior defensive awareness and his length enables him to make more plays. I believe he clearly projects to be better on this end in spite of inferior rebounding. Offensively, Randle is a superior offensive rebounder and gets to the line far more, but Portis has a considerably lower turnover rate.
It’s March, which means basketball fever is spreading through Arkansas. Interest in the high school state tournament is extra high this year as the state enjoys a high school basketball golden age thanks to headliners like junior KeVaughn Allen and sophomore Malik Monk. Both highly recruited shooting guards are accomplished beyond their years. Last year, Allen helped lead North Little Rock to a state title as a sophomore and picked up Finals MVP along the way. Monk, ranked by some outlets as the best shooting guard in the nation in his class, may one-up him. Despite two late season losses, Monk has helped turn Bentonville into a powerhouse for the first time in a long time while racking up obscene box scores. (Who else hits 11 of 12 three-pointers, as Monk did in one January game?)
Allen and Monk, who both stand around 6-3, aren’t the first sophomore wing players to dominate the local high school scene. In the early 1970s, another great high school golden age was tipping off and Little Rock native Dexter Reed was in the thick of it. The 6-2 guard went on one of the most devastating tourney tears of any era to lead Little Rock Parkview to its first state title.
In 1971, Parkview had only existed for three years. All the dynastic names affiliated with the school now — Ripley, Flanigan, Fisher — were still far off in the future. These ‘71 Patriots finished their regular season with a 15-12 record, but caught fire in the state tournament at Barton Coliseum, knocking off Jacksonville, McClellan, Jonesboro and finally, Helena. Through those four games, Reed averaged 27 points including 43 to secure the Class AAA title, then the state’s second largest. Ron Brewer, who regularly played pickup ball with Reed in the 1970s, said his friend was among the best scorers in state history: “He was like a choreographer out there, just dancing and weaving and getting the defense all discombobulated. And when it’s all said and done, he just destroyed you. He destroyed you by himself.”
Reed was a different kind of player from Monk and Allen but effective in his own way. The new schoolers are both extremely explosive athletes with deep three-point range. Reed didn’t play above the rim, and he didn’t see much reason to shoot 21-footers in his three point shot-less era. “I wasn’t the best of shooters,” he says. “I was more of a scorer. I could get by people, you know — I tried to be like Earl the Pearl.”
Reed won another title as a junior and by his senior year was a second-team Parade All-American who had hundreds of scholarship offers. The University of Arkansas was an early favorite. Reed had grown up a Razorback fan, and many in his inner circle wanted to see him play for coach Lanny Van Eman. Among those was local coach Houston Nutt, Sr., who had taught him the game’s fundamentals. “He had a lot of influence on me,” says Reed, who as a boy had sold popcorn at War Memorial Stadium with Houston Nutt, Jr.
Memphis State University, fresh off a national championship appearance, also entered the recruiting picture. Reed’s parents liked the fact that its campus was more than an hour closer to their home than Fayetteville. Other factors tipped the scales Memphis’ way. For starters, the Tigers played in an arena that didn’t make Reed uncomfortable. One area of the Hogs’ Barnhill Fieldhouse where the football team worked out was covered in sawdust. “I had sinus problems, and I’d be coughing there during summer basketball camps,” he says. Moreover, Reed’s older brother already attended the UA but had had trouble socially acclimating. Reed’s brother told him to strongly consider a larger city as Fayetteville was then a small town and there “wasn’t but a handful of black kids.”
Dexter Reed chose Memphis State and as a freshman immediately made a splash, racking up more than 500 points and leading the Tigers to a 19-11 finish. A serious injury to his knee ligaments the following season diminished his quickness, but he bounced back to average 18.8 points a game as a senior and landed on two All-America teams.
One highlight his last year was a return to Little Rock to play a surging Hogs program under new coach Eddie Sutton. As Sutton’s first great Hogs team, that 1976–77 bunch only lost one regular season game. On Dec. 30, 1976, a then record crowd jammed into Barton Coliseum to watch Reed, the greatest scorer Little Rock had ever produced, square off against Hog stars like Brewer, a junior, and sophomores Sidney Moncrief and Marvin Delph. They were all friends and ribbed each other in advance of Reed’s only college game in his hometown. Brewer recalls, “Me, Sidney and Marvin kept saying ‘You can come back all you want, but you ain’t gonna win this one.’ And he single handily kept them in the ballgame.”
Arkansas led for most of it, with Reed guarding Moncrief and then Brewer. But Reed and the bigger Tigers finished strong, with Reed hitting free throws down the stretch to clinch a 69-62 win. “I didn’t really think it was that big to my teammates, but after it was over, they all came over jumping on me,” Reed says. As he left the arena, he recalled seeing some of the same people in the crowd who had watched him burst onto the stage seven years earlier as a Parkview sophomore. “It was like a time warp,” he says.
Fast forward to the present, and Reed still lives in Memphis, where he runs sign and flower shops and hosts a sports radio show every Saturday morning. His parents have passed, so he doesn’t make it back to Little Rock much anymore. But he still follows the Razorbacks, and he’s heard from friends and Memphis coaches about some of the state’s great high school guards like KeVaughn Allen. Reed is glad to know the tradition he helped nourish is in good hands. He concludes, “My heart has always been with Arkansas.”
An earlier version of this story was originally published in this month’s issue of Celebrate Arkansas.
It took a while, but Anton Beard’s heart is finally where his home is. No longer committed to a college north of the state line, or attending high school south of the river, the Razorback signee is looking forward to a career among the most highly anticipated in recent Arkansas basketball history. Arkansas’ recent surge clearly shows coach Mike Anderson has the program trending upward but if the the Razorbacks are to climb closer to the summit, it’s likely they will need a potent combo guard like Beard to get there.
Not that he has a prima donna mindset: “I’m not looking to score much, or do something out of the ordinary,” says Beard, a North Little Rock High senior. “I’m just coming in to lead the team and win games – just do what coach asks me to do.” It’s a formula he’s followed to a tee since winning an AAU national championship as a sixth grader, along with four AAU state titles and two state championships with his former school, Little Rock Parkview High. Beard looks to keep the ball rolling in the next two weeks during the state high school tournament. The Charging Wildcats are the defending state champions in the 7A classification (i.e. the state’s biggest schools) and Beard plays a large role in their hopes for repeating.
For his part, though, Beard says he most relishes the chance of throwing his sturdy 5-11 frame into the path of any challenger to the throne. “I like guarding the best player on every team because I feel like I can just shut them down any time.” In these playoffs that may include Bentonville’s Malik Monk or Springdale’s Dorantez “D.J.” Evans. “I take pride in guarding players like that.”
North Little Rock guard KeVaughn Allen adds that Beard has helped him improve in his junior season by pushing him in 5 a.m. workouts at the North Little Rock Athletic Club along with guard Adrian Moore and center Sam Dunkam. “If I’m not being aggressive in a game, he’ll tell me to pick it up,” says Allen, who played with Beard in middle school. Beard constantly tries to urge his friend, the state’s top ℅ 2015 recruit, to join him in Fayetteville. “Everyday, he tells me like ‘Be a Razorback, be a Hog,’” says Allen. He adds he considering the UA and is scheduling a date for an official visit.
Beard’s NLR coach Johnny Rice says that toughness is a major reason Mike Anderson wanted him in Fayetteville. Pat Bradley, a former All-SEC guard and co-host of 103.7 FM’s The Zone, adds that Beard does “whatever it is that’s got to be done – bite, scratch, kick, claw … that’s the kind of guys that coach Anderson’s gonna attract.”
Beard’s tenacity traces back to Detroit where his father, Floyd Beard, grew up and played ball at Mackenzie High School with Doug Smith, a future college star and first-round NBA pick. Floyd Beard saw other local success stories like those of Derrick Coleman and Steve Smith but he also saw prospects – like himself – who didn’t pan out. “I was a good athlete; I just didn’t have the discipline,” he says. Floyd Beard, who has lived in North Little Rock for 25 years, wasn’t going to let his own son make the same mistakes. He told him: “I know what it takes to mess up, so I’ll show you what it takes to not mess up.”
The serious work started in fourth grade. Daily pushups, jumping rope, workout requirements of 50 made jumpers and 50 made three-pointers followed. Anton “had asthma real bad and I had to build up his lungs,” Floyd Beard recalls. “What we did was for every day for about two years, I made him run the treadmill for about 15 minutes.” The tactic worked, but came with costs. “As a fourth grader, that’s hard. You’re friends are going to a birthday party – but, hey man – you got workouts.”
The regimen eventually gave Anton Beard a leg up on the competition. He dominated at Lakewood Middle School and by the time high school began he and his parents were already thinking about college and beyond. Although both parents live in North Little Rock, it was agreed Beard should attend Parkview. The magnet school’s strong basketball program was a draw, sure, but so was its academic prestige. Katina Brown, Anton’s mother, also urged Beard to take advantage of the school’s renowned drama department to develop his public speaking and hone the interview skills he would one day need.
Beard and his parents understand the game. They know Beard’s public profile will exponentially expand once he starts playing for the Razorbacks and that leveraging that profile in a smart way can set up him up for more success after college. Floyd Beard runs a youth basketball program called The Family through the Amateur Athletic Union. He’s enlisted Anton to help coach the teams, which include nearly 35 kids from grades one through six, most Saturday mornings at Glenview Community Center. Anton says he loves learning how to look at the game as a coach, but the new responsibilities don’t stop there. His father has also named him as the president of the non-profit organization.
As of now, this is more honorary title than actual executive job, but Floyd Beard hopes that as Anton’s reputation grows so will The Family’s. Anton “gives us – I hate to say it – that star power,” Floyd says. The hope is Anton’s affiliation with the organization – through his coaching, mentoring and future public speaking engagements – would help The Family one day join the Arkansas Wings and Arkansas Hawks as the state’s most prominent AAU programs.
Click here to see the entire story, originally published in Sync magazine. The above excerpt is an expanded version of what published in Sync.
If you want to see what is likely Beard’s most spectacular play of the year, check out the highlight vs. Searcy at the :54 marker here.