Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An(other) Open Letter to Jeff Long

Mr. Long,

I wanted so badly for Bobby Petrino to stay.

He was my football coach. I do not care who he rode motorcycles with. I do not care who he slept with. I do not care who he played gin rummy with. Quite honestly, I don't care who he hired. He failed to follow University policy in reporting a conflict of interest when he sought to hire someone state law deems a "paramour", but even that on its face I don't consider automatic grounds for termination. Not for someone so indispensable. Someone whose presence seems so responsible for the current trajectory of not only Razorback football, but Razorback athletics in general.

I do care that you, after promising to Bobby Petrino and the world that you would conduct a thorough, expeditious review, found that, in your opinion, Coach Petrino saw himself as bigger than the program he ran. At the end of the day, that was ultimate reason he had to be fired. The only reason.

In your measured review, it must have surprised you that the coach whose edge, for four seasons, has been so fine, whose focus so singular, could fall prey to carelessness so precipitously. That he could suspend his meticulous nature to allow disastrous personal decisions to beget disastrous professional ones. That, in forging deeper and deeper down an ill-advised path with Jessica Dorrell, he continued to throw into double-coverage, weaving a web of lies and deceit so easily unraveled that it seems baffling a cover-up so feeble could come from someone who always seemed so prepared.

I can't imagine your horror at the realization that the man so precise in the control he wielded over his program had lost the battle for that control with his own ego. None of the facts of the Bobby Petrino saga of the past two weeks were able to convince me that he needed to be terminated. Then you took the podium last night, and grappled with your emotions as you explained to us all what you found. I was convinced at once. The hurt, anger, disappointment, and finally resolve, told me everything I needed to know. You had to do it.

It is my hope that you will exercise the patience you promised in your search for our next coach. You were able to hire Bobby Petrino in large part because he wanted a position in the Southeastern Conference, and we fit that criterion. I hope you keep in mind throughout the process that Coach Petrino's career plan is not unique. There are great coaches in this country who desire to coach in the Southeastern Conference, and we are at the moment the only empty seat at the table. We are in an unenviable position, but that does NOT mean it is a desperate one. I trust you do all that you can to turn our setback into an advantageous circumstance. I trust you.

Bobby Petrino's job at Arkansas was to win football games, and he was wildly successful at it. Your job at Arkansas is to protect the athletic department. I believe you performed brilliantly in that capacity last night, and I would like to express my gratitude. Thank you, Mr. Long. Stay loyal and true.

Woo Pig Sooie,


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hous-ton Nutt!

I was there on October 25, 2008. There, in the Lower West Side of Reynolds Razorback Stadium, on the sixth row, and very close to the visitors' tunnel. Close enough to have a very clear view of Houston Nutt holding his team's entrance onto Frank Broyles Field until the Razorbacks began their run "through the A". Until the fireworks ignited. Until the band played, and until the crowd cheered. That way, the inevitable boos were not only minimized, but they were drowned out.

I just shook my head in disgust. This man had been the coach of my team for ten years. A decade. Even as his team was enjoying success, and mine struggling, how excited I was to be rid of this coward.

Toward the end of the night, after Ole Miss had salted away a close game that was decided by two points and (surprise!) a questionable call against the Hogs, the visiting faction of Rebel fans broke out in chant. They like to do that, you know. Up from their respectable crowd arose a "Houston Nutt" chant. Hous-ton NUTT...Hous-ton NUTT." Nobody knew it at the time, but it would become a rallying cry for BOTH sides over the next years. I looked up what I wrote about that chant after the recap of the game. I have to say, it still made me giggle.

Skipping over the game for a second, the "Houston Nutt" chant started by the Rebel fans was so much unintentional comedy that it was almost overwhelming. I know there was a "Bobby, Bobby" response, and I'm sure it was cathartic, but I really feel like my instinctual response would have been more apropos; three or four seconds of stunned silence as the realization that, no, it's not a joke, and yes, they really do feel lucky to have him, sets in, followed by a very nice belly laugh, right in the middle of a pretty dire situation. Like 70,000 Santas telling Ralphie "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." Pregnant pause, belly laugh. Would have been beautiful. Oh well.

The following year, 2009, brought a trip to Oxford, and with it renewed expectations of an Ole Miss beatdown at the hands of the Hogs. Ryan Mallett had breathed life into our offense, and Razorback fans dreamed of him tossing it around at will inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, bringing home a victory and prompting a sarcastic iteration of the "Houston Nutt" chant to be volleyed toward the Rebel sidelines. This was to be the year, but again, it was not. The Razorbacks played uninspired football, no doubt due in part to a hangover from the previous week's heartbreaking loss to Florida in Gainesville, a game that featured (surprise!) officiating so poor that it resulted in the suspension of the crew the next week. Razorbacks who made the trip were forced again to endure the chant, tasting the sting of a barb they so badly wanted to utilize themselves.

Last year, 2010, brought us Nutt Bowl III, and I was in attendance. For most of it, at least. For the first time, Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks had the upper hand in terms of talent to go along with their always-present upper hand in coaching. The Hogs struggled some early, however, no doubt due in part to a hangover from the previous week's heartbreaking loss to Auburn, yet another game which featured (surprise!) very questionable officiating. The Hogs did manage to take control, however, and looked ready to blow it open when the skies opened up, and lightning forced two stoppages in play, the second of which wiped out most of the crowd. I was standing across Razorback Road when the few remaining in the stands tested it out. I'm sure it felt good, but that was far from the scenario that Razorback fans had hoped for for so long. Houston Nutt had, yet again, somehow escaped the scorn that he was due.

Three years later, we are this week preparing for the fourth meeting of Arkansas and Ole Miss since Houston Nutt crossed the Mississippi River to become an Ole Miss Rebel, and things have officially come full circle. Rebel fans, fed up with nine consecutive conference losses and the virtual guarantee of a second consecutive year without a bowl game, have ratcheted up the pressure on Nutt to levels he didn't see at Arkansas until his seventh or eighth year. Ole Miss Alumni who once mocked their Arkansas counterparts for engaging in all sorts of headline-making activities designed to rid themselves of Nutt are now taking out newspaper ads and organizing clubs and wondering just how much flying a banner really costs. Things are bad in Oxford. Razorback fans, on the other hand, are eyeing the prize of a return trip to the Sugar Bowl and back-to-back double-digit-win seasons for the first time since they have been in the Southeastern Conference. Construction will soon begin in earnest toward building a new Football Operations Center, and plans were announced just this week to enclose Reynolds Razorback Stadium sometime in the future. Their team is talented, confident, and prepared every single week. The excitement surrounding the football program is palpable.

Things have turned around so much, so fast, that I have heard very little with regard to Houston Nutt this week. Fans are focused on Ole Miss because they represent the next SEC obstacle on the Razorback schedule. Stadium expansion and conference expansion have dominated the news this week, and there are very few pot-stirrers left to call in to the talk shows and pine for Nutt's leadership. I never thought it would happen, but things in Arkansas are pretty tame this week. I know that several thousands are planning on making the road trip, but I haven't heard one person mention that they are planning on doing The Chant. Of course, if the opportunity arises, I'm sure it will be hard to pass up. Neither the teams nor the weather look likely to save Nutt a fourth time.

Personally, I'm more interested to see if, as in 2008, he times his team's entrance onto the field in order to minimize the boos from the home crowd.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Paging Dr. Lou

Alright, 2011 SEC Season.  Into the locker room.  Or better yet, just stay on the field, behind the goal post, where coaches direct their team at halftime when they are so disgusted with them that they cannot wait to get behind walls to unleash their fury.  We're at the midpoint of the season, and just like Frank Costanza during Festivus, it's time I let you know just how much you've let me down this year.  So take a knee, take your hat off, and take what's coming to you.  Just remember, it hurts me more than it hurts you.

While we're on the subject of pain, why don't we let the first request be for you to STOP HURTING ALL MY FAVORITE PLAYERS.  I know you have a reputation to keep, what with the SEC being the biggest, baddest bully on the block, but you have to at least allow some of its stars to keep shining.  You took out Knile Davis before the season started.  He might have been the best running back in the conference.  After that, you took out his backup, Dennis Johnson.  When you gave Johnson back, you apparently took out HIS backup, Ronnie Wingo.  Then you took out four starters for Arkansas during their toughest three-week stretch of the season.  You tried your hardest to take out Tyler Wilson, the best quarterback in the conference, but he apparently is either too dumb or too numb to realize your intentions.  He just keeps playing and setting records.

You're not limiting yourself to Arkansas, either.  You decimated Georgia's running back corps in the preseason, and since kickoff you've whacked both Tennessee's best receiver and their starting quarterback, who might be the second best passer in the league behind Wilson.  In a cruel twist of irony, you refuse to injure Barrett Trotter, yet you take out his top two wide receivers... presumably in nothing more than a capricious act of evil brilliance, because he certainly needs no extra help in failing miserably as an SEC quarterback.  Oh yeah, you also ended the season of Florida's one viable quarterback option, John Brantley, and while you were at it, took out his cherubic understudy as well.  I think that kid might have been fourteen, and you trotted him out there against Alabama, bless his heart.  You should be ashamed of yourself.

Second, I'm going to need a little more ineptitude in the officiating department before this SEC season can really be deemed as legitimate.  Over the past few years fans of the SEC have gotten used to officials making themselves part of the equation that determines the winner of any given game, instead of removing themselves from that equation.  Excessive celebration penalties, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, fumbles that were and touchdowns that weren't, we've gotten used to hating on the officials.  There is little doubt in my mind that the officials still suck, but you're going to need to give us more of an opportunity to affirm that for this season.  So far, all we've had is a clock-controversy over one second in the Auburn-South Carolina contest that was really much ado about nothing.  The officials got it right, and even if they hadn't, it's not like South Carolina would have been able to do anything with their one remaining tick.  Still, the Ole Ball Coach at least deserved a chance to see if he could coax brilliance out of his drunk quarterback and chunky wide receiver one more (or in the case of Garcia, just one) time.

Third, people are going to stop watching SEC football if LSU and Alabama turn the featured television slot into a blowout each week.  There hasn't been a CBS game worth watching this season, but the best one of the bunch as far as entertainment value was the first one aired, between Florida and Tennessee, which ironically enough featured the worst matchup in terms of talent and rankings.  Alabama and LSU are going to demolish every team they play, and even if it doesn't appear that way on the scoreboard, it will seem that way to those tuning in, because a 10-point lead for either team is insurmountable.  I was in the stands at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and I am a diehard Razorback fan who refuses to give up, but I knew well before the fourth quarter of the game between Arkansas and Alabama that my Hogs didn't stand a chance.  The Tide are that good. LSU isn't on that level, in my opinion, but they are certainly good enough to take every team in the SEC, save two, to the cleaners.  It's why the SEC, even at midseason, and even with two of the top three teams in the country, is being branded yet again as being "down".  Whatever that means.  So how about some exciting matchups?  If not great football, could you at least throw some intrigue our way?  Require Les to eat some other strange non-food?  Steal another game from Derek Dooley just to see if he breaks down and cries on the 50 yard-line?  Or steal the first game from Will Muschamp to see if his head does, in fact, explode like an overfilled balloon, right there on the sideline?  Just give me something... anything.  Remember, these few Saturdays are what we live for.

The second half is almost upon us, so I'm going to close the way that all great coaches close and send you out on a positive note, with fire in your belly and a gleam in your eye.  We laid an egg that first half, guys, but the SEC season is built for second-half comebacks.  We have rivalry game upon rivalry game, stacked up so high that some bitter feuds might get relegated all the way to the SEC Network slot.  Every week, a game will be played that is highly important for no other reason than the teams playing hating each other so much.  We have a Cocktail Party and an Egg Bowl and an Iron Bowl and a Battle for the Boot and so many more.  We have a conference championship game that will likely send a team to claim a BCS Championship for the sixth straight year.  We have Trent Richardson chasing a Heisman trophy and Tyrann Mathieu, the Honey Badger himself, making his own case for being the best player in America.  And we have an ace up our sleeve.  We have a game on November 5th that can reinforce with undeniable resonance that the best football in America is played here, in our region and on our fields.  Sidebars with Stephen Garcia and Jordan Jefferson may pass the time, and debates over conference expansion  and the job security of Mark Richt and Houston Nutt may hold our interest temporarily, but for true college football fans, what it all boils down to is getting to watch GREAT football... and that's what the matchup between LSU and Alabama will deliver.  That's what the SEC does, and that's what will make this second half so great.

So let's get to it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Case for the Longhorns (spit)

It's 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 22, 2011.  Do you know where your conference commissioner is?

Two years of rumors, denials, threats, and lawyering, and it looks like the dominoes are finally starting to fall in the latest, and possibly final round of conference realignment.  Pittsburgh and Syracuse are leaving the Big East for the ACC, Texas A&M appears poised to move over to the SEC, and members of the Big 12 and Big East are shuffling around each other in an uneasy dance of contempt and attraction.  It's getting late at the bar, and nobody wants to take home a four when they could have had a six.  Most of all, nobody wants to go home solo.

Well, except for one bitch.

The volatility of the situation makes it very fun to follow, while the intricacies of it (the understanding of which is key to really have a handle on things) make it not very much fun at all.  I certainly do not fully grasp everything that's going on, but I have a feeling that puts me right along with most everyone else, so I won't be shy about throwing my own conspiracy theory out there as well.  It goes along with a philosophy that has served me well for nearly all of my time on this earth.

When in doubt, blame Texas.

It is pretty much universally agreed that the impetus behind conference realignment is television money, same as it was during the early '90s.  And same as it was before, the thinking is that adding markets adds viewers, which adds revenue.  Everyone accepts that and moves on because it makes sense, but there is one very important difference between the realignment of the early '90s and the present round:  availability of coverage.

When Arkansas and South Carolina defected to the SEC in 1992 as the first dominoes in an era of realignment that lasted more than a decade, televised football was limited primarily to broadcast networks, syndicated coverage, and ESPN.  ESPN2 didn't debut until a year later, and it was still focusing on alternative sports when the Big XII was formed in 1996.  ESPN GamePlan was more than a decade away.   In this climate, adding television markets really did equate with adding viewers.  College football is a big draw, but back then it was a limited draw.  Get your game televised in a market, and there's a good chance people would watch it.

Nearly two decades later, the proliferation of cable networks has enabled college football to explode as a televised sporting event.  ESPN alone operates five cable channels with the capability of televising college football, in addition to the Fox Sports family of regional channels, Versus, and an endless supply of syndicates.  The Big Ten even has its own cable network, which I am able to tune into through my very middle-of-the-road AT&T U-Verse television package.

I have The Big Ten Network.  In Arkansas.  How much do you think I tune in?

That's what makes this round of realignment different.  Delivering markets won't automatically deliver viewers and ratings as it would twenty years ago.  People have a myriad of viewing options, even within the genre of sports.  Even within the sub-genre of college football.  57 channels and there's nothing on?  That's a joke.  Now there are 57 sports channels, and if you're a college football fanatic like myself, there is ALWAYS something on.

It's not as simple as adding a state to your conference footprint and considering that market delivered.  If the SEC were to add North Carolina, for instance, it wouldn't deliver the state of North Carolina.  It wouldn't add any television sets to its coverage map, because the SEC Network is already carried in The Tarheel State.  What the addition of North Carolina would add is the North Carolina fan base, and that's likely it.  It's not likely Duke fans or Wake Forest fans or NC State fans would take any more of an interest in SEC Football than they did previously, just because UNC jumped ship.  Ditto for Virginia Tech and the state of Virginia, as well as the DC market.  Adding states to the coverage map is good, but I don't think that will add viewers as automatically as many seem to believe it will.

Clearly, Slive and company have to be very selective with their distribution of golden tickets.  If we are indeed headed for four sixteen-team superconferences and the playoff that will inevitably ensue, the college football landscape would likely stabilize for an extended period afterward, and the SEC would presumably be buckled in for the ride.  Slive is as shrewd as they come, and is undoubtedly burning the candle at both ends to ensure that the SEC is in the best possible situation when the dust settles.  His sole mission is to position the Southeastern Conference where it remains the strongest, richest, and most visible conference in the country.  With 12, 14, or ultimately 16 teams.

Doesn't that include Texas as a member?  Ideally?  Yes, adding Texas A&M delivers the Texas television markets, but not in the way adding Texas would.  Based on my theory that fan bases drive ratings instead of just available markets, adding Texas would be a get far surpassing any other school out there.  A&M is nice, and makes sense, but they aren't Texas.  Nobody has the numbers, the cash, or the stroke that the Longhorns have.  Nobody has the ego, either, which is why my fingers are burning even as I type this, but it's true, isn't it?  Texas brings to the table measurables that no other school can compete with.  This does nothing to diminish the case of adding A&M, by the way.  They bring enough to the table in terms of money and viewers in their own right, and Texas is big enough that it can support two member schools without any drawback from overlapping resources.

The drawback, of course, is Texas' Longhorn Network.  Part of the ESPN family, LHN is Texas' vehicle to further widen the already massive revenue gap between it and all of its competitors, and reap the competitive advantages that come with it.  So many advantages that it seems LHN is becoming as much hairy mole as beauty mark when it comes to finding a permanent conference home.  It apparently presented too much of an obstacle for the PAC-12 to overcome when lumped with Texas' somewhat  understandable unwillingness to share its revenue from the venture. The problem for Texas is that while LHN is delivering guaranteed money right now, its viability long-term is still very much in doubt, and we are presently in a period of positioning for the long-term.  Independence seems the only way for LHN to have enough content to flourish immediately, while at the same time independence virtually guarantees a schedule so boring that it would ultimately be the death knell for the network.  A deal with the Big Ten seems to have been tabled, and joining the ACC lacks the panache a football school like Texas would seem to want.

What's left?  The SEC.  It's been spouted time and again that Texas' refusal to acquiesce with the SEC requirement of equal revenue splits will forever prevent Bevo from moseying over Birmingham way.  But if there's a roadblock everywhere else, why can't this possibility be revisited?  None of their other numerous options look particularly appealing at this point.  Why not the SEC?

If I'm Mike Slive, I give Texas one last chance.  LHN is destined to fail without enticing matchups, and no conference that can provide enticing matchups is willing to serve up a Texas-sized slice of the pie for the Longhorns to gorge themselves on.  What's needed is a graceful exit strategy that saves face for both UT and ESPN.  Enter the SEC, who is just around the corner from their first round of renegotiation with The Worldwide Leader for their television deal.  It will certainly be bigger than any previous deal, and very likely much bigger.  The Longhorns can allow ESPN to rebrand LHN into a conference-wide network, giving the conference another badly needed broadcast stream and giving ESPN a chance to get out of a loser and into a winner with a change made in scope and nothing else.  You're still going after college football fans.  You're just going after more of them.  Texas' lollipop in the deal is that they get to keep the guaranteed money from the terms of the original LHN deal, after which the Longhorns participate in an equal split of all revenue, just like the rest of the SEC.

There.  More exposure.  More money.  Salvaged egos.  A more powerful conference.  Only one problem.

She's such a bitch.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


It was supposed to be a grand opening.  The primetime debut of our spiffy, sparkling, brand-spanking-new home.  Instead, it was a rain-delayed, waterlogged washout.  I was lucky enough to have scored a suite-level ticket in the first ever game inside remodeled and rebranded Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but I contend that nobody felt lucky that evening.  

After enduring two bleacher-clearing bouts with lightning and a fourth-quarter letdown that allowed Tennessee to escape with a sloppy victory, my friend Shane and I set out to return to Carlisle, where he had a sermon to deliver on Sunday morning.  My familiarity with Fayetteville then not being what it is now, and exacerbated by a distracted copilot, driving rain, and unprecedented vehicular volume, I failed spectacularly in guiding my little Chevy Malibu toward Interstate 540.  Long story short, we got lost and ended up taking the Pig Trail.  

I remember how long we seemed to be on that highway.  Inching down the mountain in the fog and the rain, certain that the next corkscrew curve would be the one blocked by a fallen tree.  We had certainly succeeded in removing ourselves from the unprecedented traffic volume.  From the time we passed Elkins until we reached Interstate 40 in Ozark, we didn't see a single car.  Not one.  

The interstate wasn't any better.  I'm pretty sure I had the only vehicle on the road that night that was not an SUV.  Due to road construction, the highway was only one narrow lane for long stretches, and the rain and fatigue quickly made a bad situation worse.  My wipers were fighting a losing battle, and all those SUVs with plenty of ground clearance passed me in an endless parade of road spray, forcing me to slow down even further.  It seems dramatic, but I was genuinely scared for our safety.  I simply couldn't see, and the construction prevented stopping.  Finally, around Conway, the rain stopped and the traffic lessened, and I was able to loosen my death grip on the steering wheel for the last hour of our journey.  We pulled into the driveway of Shane's parsonage at 4:00 a.m., and I promptly fell asleep on the steering wheel.  When I woke up Sunday, I immediately placed September 8, 2001 as one of the worst days of my life. 

I had no idea a big, ugly shadow named Perspective was breathing down my neck.

It seems to me that we all go through life wearing different lenses.  At any given time, a person could be wearing any number of these lenses  Some are transparent, while others are a little more opaque.  Some we can choose to put on or take off at our leisure, while others, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, cast their tint on our outlook with a haunting permanence.  After ten years, this lens has faded from a dark,choking, charcoal grey to a lighter hue.  After a decade, the fear emanating from this lens has, for the most part, subsided.  Now, it offers clarity and depth, serving as a largely unseen sentinel in the background of our lives.  

We have a lens for football, too.  Or, at least I do.  Big and bright and Razorback red, it dominates my perspective when I'm wearing it, which is most of the time between August and February.  It colors my life for an entire six months, getting me through the workweek and repurposing my calendar.  Thanksgiving isn't Thanksgiving anymore so much as it's the day before the LSU game.  I LOVE this lens.  Live for this lens.  

This Saturday, fans at War Memorial Stadium will have a unique opportunity to juxtapose their memories of that tragic day ten years ago with all the passion and excitement that they hold for the Razorbacks on game day.  The event is titled Razorbacks Remember.  An opportunity to reflect on what we lost and how we grew.  I do not know exactly what to expect, but I suspect it will be moving.  There's a flyover planned, along with a patriotic Razorback logo, and a coordinated attempt for game attendees to dress in the colors of our flag.  But really, instead of the planes and the songs and the paint, all they really need do is ask.  Right?  

I understand the need felt by the university to make some acknowledgement of the anniversary of that horrific day, and I am quite honestly anxious to participate.  Hopefully it will be a cathartic exercise, serving to cleanse any residue of that dark, terror-stricken lens that seemed lacquered over everyone in the weeks and months that followed.  I know how big and bright my football lens can be, and I recall how it and every other lens was completely snuffed out by those terrorists.  For a while, at least, palatial new stadiums and ulcer-inducing roadtrips were forgotten.  Everything... EVERYTHING was seen through the filter of 9/11.

This Razorback remembers.  How could anyone forget?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Radio Dilemma: A Matter of Frequency

You're standing in line at Chick-Fil-A.  Or sitting at the bar at Bonefish.  Or waiting to checkout in Piggly Wiggly.  Wherever.  The phone of the person next to you lights up and buzzes and erupts with a joyful noise unto the Lord.  Instead of forgettable pop music or unintelligible rap, however, you are met with the exclamation of a man in his sixties. 


The words of Paul Eells, Voice of the Arkansas Razorbacks, after Clint Stoerner fired a beautiful 23-yard strike to a leaping Anthony Lucas for the game-deciding score in a 1999 victory over #2 Tennessee.  It was one of those moments that validates those who say that there is nothing better than college football.  One year removed from the fumble that derailed Arkansas' undefeated season and propelled the Volunteers to a national title, Stoerner got his redemption, Razorback fans claimed their revenge, and Paul Eells left his indelible mark on the fabric of Razorback history.

Seven years later, on July 31, 2006, Eells was returning home to Little Rock from a golf tournament in Fayetteville when his Chevy Impala left Interstate 40 and struck a car in the westbound lane.  Both drivers were killed, and no Razorback fan will ever forget the mourning that followed in the days and weeks after.  After 28 years as Voice of the Razorbacks and head sportscaster at KATV in Little Rock, Eells was one of the most beloved figures Arkansas.  It was a story that consumed an entire state.  Every radio show and every newspaper columnist and every television station paid tribute.  The memorial was packed to the rafters.  Razorback fans spliced clips of "Paul's Calls" into music and submitted them to radio talk shows.  And yes, Eells was even immortalized via ringtone.   

Last Sunday marked the five year anniversary of Eells' death, and the landscape of college football has changed drastically in the interim.  The Southeastern Conference has claimed every single BCS Championship, while 2005 champion Texas is coming off of a losing season, and 2004 champion USC was stripped of their title.  The ACC pillaged the Big East, and the Big East pillaged Conference USA, and nobody is exactly sure who is in Conference USA now.  Discussions of conference expansion are continuous, and the prospect of 16-team superconferences dominating the landscape seems likely. More than anything, however, the biggest change in college football over the past five years has been the dramatic increase in exposure.  

In 2009 the SEC shocked the college football world by making every single game played by its members available to a television audience through ESPN and CBS.  

It was a massive deal, and one that immediately forced other conferences into catch-up mode.  The Big Ten went to work on improving the breadth and reach of its proprietary network, and the Big XII and PAC-10, er, PAC-12 started working on deals of their own.  Where we are headed is pretty obvious.  Within a matter of years, not decades, every single college football game with a major-conference participant will be available to view on television.  Most to a national audience.  

Radio, for the most part, will be obsolete.  

We are, practically speaking, most of the way there already.  Even in 2005, the last season Eells served as Voice of the Razorbacks, there were only a handful of games in which the Razorbacks were not on television.  But there were at least some, and that required fans not in attendance to rely on Eells to follow the action.  Not anymore.

The position of play-by-play announcer in the SEC is historically somewhat of a permanent position.  It's the top rung of the ladder instead of a stop along the way.  Most of the twelve current play-by-play men are either into their third (or fourth or fifth or sixth) decade of describing the action, or were selected to replace such a legend, and have no plans of going anywhere.  What happens, though, now that their role is somewhat superfluous?  Will the role of "Voice of the ___" continue to produce legends when 80% or more of those who care aren't even listening?  

When was the last game you were truly dependent upon radio play-by-play to follow your team?  I remember exactly which game it was for me.  Arkansas at Mississippi State in 2006.  It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and my cohabitant girlfriend put up our Charlie Brown Christmas tree while I paced outside our apartment, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights and cursing ESPN and JP for not picking the game up.  Darren McFadden took a kickoff to the house and the Razorbacks took care of business, but that day only reinforced what I already knew:  living and dying with your team through nothing but the voice of a play-by-play announcer sucks.  Hard.  

Don't get me wrong, I love the romanticism that these guys bring.  Ancient and unabashedly homer, they have a wonderful partiality that is endearing even when your team is the rival.  My favorite radio call ever was a 2005 touchdown run McFadden had as a little-regarded freshman against Georgia.  He broke through the Bulldog front seven, and the race was on.  As he found fifth gear and split the safeties, Larry Munson lamented how "Five" was "running away from us, just running away from us".  Not going to get that from Verne Lundquist or Brad Nessler.  Or one of the Daves.  

The thing is that for someone like me, who will, by God, be ass-in-seat for as many games as possible, and ass-on-couch for the rest, the radio call is something I want to hear on the way home, as much to hear what the crowd sounded like as anything else.  It's an extra, not a need, and with athletic departments more business-minded than ever before, how much longer will advertisers pay premium prices to keep those legends in the booth?  College football is everywhere, and the number of ways that target demographic can be reached is growing every day. 

So where do we go from here?  What's next?  Television deals and superconferences and, eventually, a playoff system seem to be what college football is destined for.  Increased college attendance and the internet are maximizing the footprint of the game, and because of that, it is evolving and improving for everyone that enjoys it.  But it is important not to let these guys, these legends and legends-in-the-making, get left behind as flotsam and jetsam in the wake of progress.  Jack Cristil has called more than half of Mississippi State's football games.  Ever.  The Bulldogs need Jack Cristil, and more importantly, they need to believe that their next Voice will be another Jack.  Around for the duration, not just until ISP moves him to another market.  

It's easy for me to say that.  To say that I hope my son can enjoy as an adult the voice he grew up with as a child.  Those are empty words, though.  He's not going to listen to the game with me.  He's going to WATCH the game with me, either in the stadium or on the television.  We just won't need a radio guy.  Which is great.  And sad.  I really want the great tradition of SEC play-by-play announcers to continue.  I want to wax poetic about Jack Cristil and Eli Gold and Jim Hawthorne, but I must readily admit that I'm not doing my part, and don't plan to. 

I sure do miss Paul, though.


Trent Wooldridge will be that guy with enough bourbon.  He loves the S-E-C chant and honks because he hates Texas.  He puts honey on his pizza, demands aisle seats, and sees quitting golf as more of a hobby than actually playing golf.  Follow @twooldridge and track his quest to transform his one-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.  Because nursing homes suck.

Monday, July 25, 2011

O-H-N-O You Din't

There was a time that I liked Ohio State. Not that long ago, even. 

I thought that Eddie George seemed like a really stand-up guy, and those ESPN spots of Greg Oden as an ad man were hilarious, and what about that dotting-the-i thing they do?  Awesome.

I didn’t care about Maurice Clarett getting paid, having guns, or collecting felonies like yards after contact.  Everyone’s got problems.  It didn’t bother me that they were selected to play in the BCS National Championship Game one year after getting embarrassed by Florida while playing for the same stakes.  I didn’t even mind when Troy Smith was awarded the Heisman over Darren McFadden in 2006.

Wait.  Yeah, that pissed me off.  That was bullshit.  But I didn’t hate Ohio State for it. And I certainly didn’t hate the state of Ohio because of it. 

What fueled the hate came after that BCS Championship Game in January of 2008, when it became very evident that Ohio State fans are obviously ignorant of the Rule of What Not to Do After You’ve Completely Humiliated Your Program. Instead of taking their lumps, they lashed out.  Buckeye Fan emphatically and irately informed anyone who would listen that it WAS NOT a vulnerability to “SEC speed” that did them in.  Two consecutive years. In convincing fashion.  Couldn’t be.

That’s when I started to realize that, no, I actually did not like Ohio State very much. As happens when you discover you do not like something, I paid more attention to the Buckeyes and their fans.  I read the comments following articles about them. Even made the mistake of visiting their message boards.  My dislike grew rapidly as their whining grated ever on.  If you’re wondering, and I know that you are, Ohio State could win them all every year if they accepted anyone that can spell their name right, like the SEC does.  They would also win every year if bowl games were played up north, out of the backyard of the Southeastern Conference, and in the elements.  Where real football is played. When it’s not being played inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game will be held in December.

What else?  Oh yeah.  Oversigning.  To an Ohio State Buckeye, every school in the SEC deserves to have an asterisk next to each win due to their audacity to follow NCAA guidelines for awarding scholarships in a manner which maximizes wins, minimizes losses, and does not result in a violation of NCAA regulations.  Cheaters, the lot of them, whether they are following the current rules or not.  It compromises student-athletes!  Ohio State would never do that.  Unless you’re talking about looking the other way while your coach looks the other way while those student-athletes congregate around a drug dealer to trade signatures for tattoos and merchandise for money.  That type of compromising doesn’t require a step down from the pedestal.

Which brings me to the 2011 Sugar Bowl.

Certainly as a result of proximity to the bowl site and no other reason whatsoever (a loyal and rabid fan base like the SEC is known for having… another myth, Buckeyes?), I, along with many other Razorback fans bought tickets to the Sugar Bowl through Ohio State after Arkansas’ allotment quickly sold out.  If I wasn’t convinced from the Bourbon Street tailgating that the word Buckeye was Iroquois for “narcissistic douchebag”, sitting behind enemy lines quickly and permanently cemented the notion.

Due to my insistence to be on the aisle at all seated venues, my trio thankfully had Ohioans only to our right.  To their credit, even as Ohio State jumped on top early, our neighbors were cordial.  We swapped pleasantries and some light banter back and forth until the Buckeyes threatened to break it open in the second quarter. Communication at that point pretty much ceased, at least until halftime.  During the intermission, as I pulled out my phone to snap pictures of that lucky sousaphone player dotting the “i”, the Rust Beltian next to me went on and on about the bands. How great Ohio State’s was.  How terrible Arkansas’ was.  I agreed wholeheartedly, and told him so, but the funk of douche was growing.  Bands?  Really?

After establishing the superiority of his band, this idiot pharmacist from Cincinnati or Dayton or wherever leaned over and honestly, genuinely, inquisitively asked “So what do you do in Arkansas?”

Notice the italics.  He wasn’t asking about my profession.  He meant between milking Bessie and feeding Wilbur.  Between pumping well water and slaughtering dinner, I guess.  He was surprised to learn that we had mastered both indoor plumbing and the internal combustion engine.  We’re even getting an Apple Store.  I told him about Wal-Mart and Tyson Chicken and Stephens, Inc.  He was blown away. 

That exchange sealed it for me.  The naïveté of Marie Antoinette without the stature to support it doesn’t even make for condescension.  Just stupidity.  People in ivory towers look down on others.  Jersey-draped nimrods who voluntarily cheer for the Reds don't.  Something about throwing stones from glass houses, right? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland fits right in with the rest of the state, apparently. 

Which brings me to Friday.

After years of Ohio State fans screaming about the underhandedness of the SEC, months of denying that their legendary coach Jim Tressel could ever perpetrate a cover-up of NCAA violations, and, finally, weeks of running the proverbial bus back and forth over their former hero after it was realized the overhanging NCAA cloud, like Cleveland smog on an August day, would not just blow out onto Lake Erie, Buckeye fans learned Friday that their beloved program would not be hit with the charges of “Failure to Monitor” or “Lack of Institutional Control”. 

You’d think the reaction would be one of relief.  Of a bullet dodged.  Certainly not one of defiance, smugness, arrogance. Unless you’re talking about Buckeyes, of course.  In their eyes, the news Friday brings vindication.  A righted ship. Nevermind that the proud program had to vacate an entire season, give up their only EVER bowl win against an SEC opponent, and jettison the coach whom school president Gordon Gee once jokingly intimated had the clout to dismiss him.  Friday signified a return to normalcy for Buckeye fans.  A victory over Yahoo and Sports Illustrated and ESPN.  Those mean, nasty, agenda-driven haters who’d done nothing but grind their axe against a proud program while they should have been elbows deep into the inherent advantages of oversigning and warm-weather bowl games.  Pathetic. 

Though it will certainly be pegged as such, this is not sour grapes from an Arkansas fan. Not in the least.  I’m glad those five players participated in the Sugar Bowl.  Ohio State was the better team that night, and earned and deserved their victory.  I didn’t want a “W” that way then, and I will not claim one by forfeit now.  And I won’t dismiss the shortcomings of the SEC and its problems with playing by the rules.  What I will do from now on, though, is forever mock Ohio State and its fans for their absentee integrity, apparent ignorance, and brazen hypocrisy.  They’ve been pointing that finger and banging that drum for the past half-decade.  Turns out they make a pretty good target, too.

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