Salt Bowl: Higher Ed (ition) – UALR-Benton vs. UALR-Bryant

In a previous post, I looked at some 2011’s biggest sports stories … by imagining their implications in the year 2020.
Here are more predictions:
Just wait.
3. In 2011, the Benton campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced plans for its first four-year program. The school says it’s starting small by only allowing 30 students to initially pursue the new E-commerce degrees, but talk still surfaces of building a new UALR-Benton campus.In 2020 … UALR-Benton and the brand-new UALR-Bryant announce plans to start football programs.
Proceeds from the annual football game between the teams, dubbed the “Salt Bowl: Higher Ed(ition),” are expected to fund 90% of the nascent athletic departments. Boosters of UALR athletics lament this as the first documented case of satellite campuses starting football programs before the main campus. Boosters of UALR-Benton and UALR-Bryant begin seriously examining the possibility of preserving their rivalry through football if a University of Arkansas – Saline County is formed.

Predictions for 2020: Joe Johnson mania sweeps Japan, Malzahn becomes Hogfather

Year-end lists this time of year are a dime a dozen.
So, to shake things up, I’ve imagined delving into the future to find some of the most provocative stories of the year 2020, and I examined what 2011 events led to them.
In brief, I found what in nine years will turn out to be the biggest stories of 2011.
Never underestimate an LR Central graduate.
1. In 2011, NBA star Joe Johnson spent his prolonged off season establishing the foundation for a career in Hollywood. The Little Rock native, who was typically reserved while playing at Central High and the University of Arkansas, shares a somewhat surprising revelation he wants to act after retirement. That summer, he is seen at the downtown Little Rock piano bar Willy D’s, rocking a fist-sized diamond watch while singing a rendition of Jodeci’s “Come and Talk to Me.”
Johnson’s public embrace of excess doesn’t end there. A little later, he opens his LR pad’s 500-square-foot closet to ESPN The Magazine. Glistening on its shelves are 436 pairs of Nike sneakers, mostly Air Jordans.
  In 2020 … a retired Joe Johnson, who had been attacking acting classes with the same diligence as he’d applied to basketball, gets his first TV show gig as the head judge on BET’s “Kicks ‘n Karaoke.” The show combines the 38-year-old’s two non-sports loves in a competition format, and Johnson soon establishes himself as the Simon Cowell of the emerging genre.
“Kicks ‘n Karaoke” makes the six-time NBA All-Star more popular than Elvis Presley in Japan.

Why Gus Malzahn is the Chris Paul of college football coaches

They are closer than you think.

Gus Malzahn. Chris Paul.

The two names shall not, it is safe to say, be forever linked in the annals of history.

But last week, these two accomplished team leaders – one a college football coach, the other a pro basketball player – shared headlines across national news outlets as they changed teams.

On closer examination, they actually share much more.

Here’s why:

1) Both specialize in quarterbacking teams to outstanding offensive success.

Malzahn, a former high school quarterback, developed into a high school head coach and offensive coordinator who specialized in turning quarterbacks into record-book smashing Godzillas. At each level – whether Springdale High, Tulsa University or Auburn – he helped that program’s offense set numerous records.

Paul plays point guard, the hardcourt’s quarterback equivalent, and he’s done it at extremely well.Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul averaged nearly 31 points and 10 assists a game. In five NBA seasons, Paul has put up numbers as impressive as  any point guard in league history. Sure, he scores 20+ points but consider that his 9.9 assists per game average is third-highest all-time. Or that he’s the only player to lead the NBA in steals and assists in two consecutive seasons.

2) Their abilities burst into the national spotlight at Baptist schools.

Malzahn’s second head coaching job (1996-2000) was at the private Shiloh Christian School, which is closely tied to the First Baptist Church of Springdale. In 1998, the Saints set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and would win 1998 and 1999 state titles.

Paul attended the private Wake Forest University, which was originally founded by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. The school opened in 1834, with a focus on teaching Baptist ministers and laymen. In 2005, Paul left Winston-Salem, N.C. after a sophomore year in which he had earned first team All-America honors.

Continue reading Why Gus Malzahn is the Chris Paul of college football coaches

Of Mayflower, paintball and the Heart of Darkness

In some wussed-up places, like Germany, people must be at least 18 years old to play paintball. Which may explain why that country hasn't won a war since like the 1800s and no German's milquetoast face has ever been sculpted into the sport's Mount Rushmore. Paintball Arkansas, on the other hand, allows minors to play. And straight-up bloom into warriors. Another reason America just keeps kickin' ass, ya'll!

When novelist Joseph Conrad tossed around possible settings for what would become his signature work, Heart of Darkness, it’s a safe bet Mayflower wasn’t a candidate.

 Even at the turn of last century, there was far too much civilization in this south Faulkner County area to support Conrad’s harrowing tale of moral disintegration. No true chaos can emerge from the so-called wilderness flanking I-40. Yet in those sparse woods, among rusting husks of old cars and vans and hordes of young men wearing plastic masks evoking chemical warfare, I saw the lights going out.

Laughter filled the few hours we seven adults shared on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the paintball facility Paintball Arkansas. Two women and five guys, all affiliated with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, with hardly a scrap of paintball experience between us.

It showed.

Still, after five games between ourselves, we felt ready to take on the outside world.

That came in the form of four boys, 11-to-14-year-olds, who assured us they hadn’t played much organized paintball. We nervously laughed. One of their guns far too closely resembled an AK-47 for us to take them lightly.

Continue reading Of Mayflower, paintball and the Heart of Darkness

Tim Tebow: Divine Revelation or Poor Tackling

With each passing week, the question rings louder.

Each time Denver’s second-year quarterback rolls up his sleeves, tightens his cleats and steers his Broncos to yet another improbable win, the clamor builds.

“Is Tim Tebow for real?!”

After six consecutive Denver wins, more people than ever believe the answer is “yes.”

More and more, that belief is expressed through irony. You’ve probably seen the NFL analyst remixes and the celebratory Tebowing in public. If Denver (8-5) beats New England (10-3) on Sunday afternoon, ironic praise will surely pour forth from the masses at historic levels.

And while so many sports fans focus on the Tebow’s outward expressions – the kneeling, the virginity, the gee-whiz vocabulary – Tebow himself seems zeroed in on winning two things – games and souls. For Tebow, achieving the former goal matters only so far as it expands his platform for his main evangelical mission.

After the Broncos beat the Bears on Dec. 12, linebacker Wesley Woodyard told the Denver Post that his quarterback had been giving just about the most reassuring motivational speech possible: “Tebow came to me and said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ because God has spoken has spoken to him.'”

When discussing the Bronos secret to success, Tebow’s pastor was a little more blunt. “God favors Tim for all his hard work,” Wayne Henson told’s Rick Reilly.

It’s seems the question of whether  Tebow can succeed as an NFL  quarterback has been around for ages. The Broncos’ stunning recent success, however, pushes a truly ancient issue to the forefront:  Is there a God who interacts with humans? If so, has that God rewarded Tebow’s faith with football success?

I’m no theologian, but my sports saavy buddy Steve Sullivan graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and has been ordained as Baptist minister. Until the Bears game, Sullivan, who is a self-proclaimed progressive, chalked off much of Tebow’s success to luck. Surely, God’s concerned with more serious stuff than a quarterback’s prayers, he reasoned.

Continue reading Tim Tebow: Divine Revelation or Poor Tackling

Pulaski Academy vs. Gus Malzahn’s best high school team & 2010 Shiloh Christian

[Go to bottom of post for more on Malzahn’s 2005 Springdale team]

None of Pulaski Academy’s 14 wins this season came down to the wire. Votes for season-ending rankings, however, proved a different matter altogether. As expected, there is a severe rift in public opinion concerning Arkansas’ best overall high school football team this season.

On one hand, the state’s largest newspaper deemed P.A. the best team, followed by Fayetteville, then Bentonville. Central Arkansas-based sportswriter Robert Yates constructed these Democrat-Gazette’s rankings.’s national prep sportswriter Dallas Jackson also deemed P.A. as the state’s best, again followed by Fayetteville and Bentonville.

The Arkansas arm of national prep sports outlet VYPE, meanwhile, conducted a poll with Arkansas prep football coaches. Fayetteville won this poll, with P.A. and Bentonville trailing. Finally, about a dozen Associated Press members released their poll Monday. Their rankings mirror VYPE’s.

That the 4A Bruins didn’t top the Associated Press poll isn’t a surprise.  In fact, no team of a similar classification (4th-largest) has ever finished first in the state’s final A.P. poll. Only two teams – 1964 Conway and 1987 Arkadelphia –  have finished atop that final poll. Both teams were in the second-largest classification at the time.

Hunter Henry is one of P.A.'s several future Division I players - possibly seven or more. Is that much talent enough to beat powerhouse 7A squads?

This is according to the Almanac of Arkansas High School Football, by longtime Arkansas sportswriter Leland Barclay.  Barclay, conveniently enough, also happens to be one of the Associated Press members whose votes comprise the poll.  For Barclay, 7A teams – even those with multiple losses – are nearly always better than lower classification teams:

“Schools from the state’s largest classification will always get the nod as the overall final No. 1 team in the state because as the state champion that team had to compete and excel against the best teams in the state over an 11-week stretch. Schools from the other classifications don’t do that…”

Continue reading Pulaski Academy vs. Gus Malzahn’s best high school team & 2010 Shiloh Christian

Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley discusses hypothetical overall state football playoffs

Pulaski Academy football coach Kevin Kelley doesn’t like his players to wait around long before a game.

To Kelley, extra time on the field doesn’t help his kids play better. In fact, it can make the experience less enjoyable. “Most teams warm up for an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes before a game,” he says. “We try to get to games 25 minutes before kickoff because we don’t want our kids sitting and getting stressed out and things like that.”

Instead, he tries to take his players minds off the game at hand. They’ll grab a bite to eat, or catch a movie. Which was the idea a couple weeks ago before Pulaski Academy’s state playoff semifinal at its west Little Rock campus. The Bruins planned to see Immortals, a rah-rah take on a bloodthirsty army’s quest in mythic ancient Greece. Instead, because of a time mix-up, they got part one of  The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn.

“We thought Twilight was going to be all about vampires, and it turned out to be a love story,” Kelley recalls. “That was a miserable movie for teenage boys to see. They all hated it. But we had fun talking about it, so it worked.”

A lot has worked for Pulaski Academy this fall.

In the semifinal, the Bruins beat Pine Bluff Dollarway 51-32. On Saturday, the Bruins (14-0) won the 4A state title by defeating Malvern 63-28. In both games, the Bruins didn’t wait long to strike, outscoring their competition by a total of 87-13 in the first halves.

Continue reading Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley discusses hypothetical overall state football playoffs

Can Malvern close the curtains on PA’s “Greatest Show on Turf”?

Anything’s possible, but this is highly unlikely.

Heading into Saturday’s 5A state title game, the Pulaski Academy Bruins are simply one of the greatest offensive machines this state has seen.  “The Bruins average 534.2 total yards and 50.6 points per game, figures that likely would be even higher if their starters weren’t pulled at halftime in many games,” Robert Yates wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The Bruins have outscored opponents 534-126 in the first half and its starters have played in the fourth quarter in just two games.”

And this year, with the help of numerous future D1 players, their defense has been pretty top-notch, too.

Here’s a taste of what Malvern has to stop:


As you can see, stopping the Bruins will be a monumental task. Malvern itself knows this firsthand, after playing P.A. on Oct. 21. The Leopards lost 47-16 on the road.

The above video isn’t mean to target or disparage Dollarway in any way. I only meant to showcase the mind-meltingly efficient blitzgrieg nature of the Bruins’ attack. It’s an attack HBO will soon feature on national television, and one headed by possibly the greatest dual-threat quarterback in the state’s history. Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten, who has completed 240 of 328 passes for 4,239 yards and 63 touchdowns this season. Knighten has also rushed 93 times for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

No matter what happens  against Malvern, this P.A. team’s numbers so far this season will be hard to topple for any future juggernaut.

Oh, and here’s some of the players who feature prominently in the video:

#1 L.J. Wallace

#5 Jack Snider

#7 Fredi Knighten

#9 Kendall Bruce

#16 Aum’Arie Wallace

#22 Cody Adcock

#82 Hunter Henry

In Cowboys Stadium, a tour of Cotton Bowl and cheerleading headquarters

Here are a few highlights from my tour of Cowboys Stadium, the world’s largest domed structure, a month before the Cotton Bowl.

This stadium’s roof is as tall as the top of the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

In Texas, it is said everything is bigger. The Cotton Bowl’s executive staff, which includes 48 people whose titles include the words “president,” “owner,” “CEO,” “director” or “chairman,” is no exception. Nor is the Cotton Bowl’s trophy, which weighs in at 62.5 pounds, and is constructed by the same folks who trophies for the Oscar’s. The Super Bowl’s trophy, by comparison, is a waif-like seven pounds, the tour guide informed us.

Arkansas, which is 3-7-1 all-time in the Cotton Bowl, has its stateprints all over Cowboys Stadium.

Between 1977 and 1999, the Hogs played twice in the Cotton Bowl. They lost both games, including this one in which they fell 31-27:

Willy’s World extended to the gridiron, too. Through former Razorbacks Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, he sampled the glory of the Cowboys’ 1990s dynasty.

Dear wife Susan, I only entered because I didn’t want to make my tour guide mad.


Continue reading In Cowboys Stadium, a tour of Cotton Bowl and cheerleading headquarters

Cold is Calling: Sonny Weems, Patrick Beverley & Courtney Fortson thrive away from NBA

It seems like only yesterday the NBA’s powers-that-be were on the verge of shutting down their entire 2011-12 season.

Nearly five months into a labor standoff that began in June, NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter had their guns drawn, staring each other down across a saloon full of lawyers and ESPN reporters.

No one, it seemed, dared blink.

A cold wind swept in under the swinging door, bringing tumbleweed and union decertification papers with it. The movie’s action paused a beat as Stern looked to side, into the camera, and uttered in his most ominous tone: “We are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA.”

That mid-November moment, however, proved the worst of it. From there on out, the two sides warmed to each other. They will soon begin a shortened 66-game regular season schedule, saving Christmas Day games and sleighfuls of cash for owners, players and team staff alike. On Dec. 9, Arkansas’ usual suspects in the world of pro basketball will start the grind of training camp: Derek Fisher in L.A., Joe Johnson in Atlanta, Ronnie Brewer in Chicago and James Anderson in San Antonio.

But while some of the state’s bigger names have been waiting for the NBA lockout to thaw, other NBA hopefuls with Arkansas connections are already deep into their regular seasons. Indeed, as Stern was warning the world of nuclear winter, two former Razorbacks were already enduring all the winter they could handle…

“It’s a blizzard over here in Russia!!!,” Sonny Weems tweeted on November 20. “S*** is crazy.” Weems, a fourth-year pro from West Memphis, would have been playing for the Toronto Raptors were it not for the lockout. But, when it looked like he could lose out on an entire season, he signed with the same Lithuania team with which fellow West Memphian Marcus Brown ended his stellar career.

With Zalgiris Kaunus, Weems is playing in three separate leagues but he’s been at his best in the top one, the Euroleague. Weems
Baltic state residency can do a shot good.

was averaging 17.9 points while shooting 47.8% on three-pointers through his first seven Euroleague games. He also averaged 5.3 rebounds, one assist and 1.4 steals.

“Don’t make any sense how cold it is out here!!!,” Weems again tweeted on Dec. 3. That may be true, Sonny, but given your outstanding improvement in Arkansas and the NBA, it does make sense how hot your shooting is over there.

Guard Patrick Beverley grew up in Chicago before starring for a couple seasons as a Razorback. He also spent his first season as a pro in the Ukraine. So, you would think the man could handle his subzero temps. Well, it turns out that time spent in Greece (in 2009-10) and Miami (Beverley played summer ball with the Heat in 2010) may have spoiled him somewhat before he returned to Europe’s less balmy climes in early 2011.
“Cold as f**k in Russia!!!!!,” Beverley tweeted on Nov. 25, with a photo of a landscape that makes the moon’s surface look as inviting as Cozumel.

Beverley led Spartak St. Petersburg in Russia’s top league with 15.8 points on 53% field goal shooting through five games. He also averaged 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.2 LOLs a season on his twitpic stream. Seriously, check @patbev21 out. P-Bev’s pretty hilarious, whether expounding on how he blew 5K playing cards or ragging on a millionaire teammate for rolling with rinky-dink cellphones.

What’s not as funny for Arkansas fans is how Courtney Fortson, who was talented enough to become an SEC player of the year, never got it together in his two troubled seasons on the Hill.Since leaving Arkansas in spring 2010, Fortson has found little success in the pros. He briefly considered playing in Israel, and last spring averaged 1.5 points and .7 assists with the Reno Bighorns of the National Basketball Development League.

Recently, though, Fortson has received a second chance with the NBDL, and this time seems to be taking full advantage.
He averaged 15.5 points, including 58% on three-pointers, through his first six games with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. The 5-10 guard has chipped in 4.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 steals and has even limited turnovers, a big problem at Arkansas, to 1.67 a game.
Like Weems and Beverley, this former Hog is flourishing in a quality league outside of the NBA. And, just like the other two, Fortson isn’t digging on cold, desolate places. On Nov. 24, the day before his season debut, he tweeted: “Being in north dakota is like sitting in a closet.”

 To avoid getting totally Hog-centric on you, let’s glance at the pro careers of some other pro ballers from the state of Arkansas:
  1. Solomon Bozeman (UALR) – After a summer chipping away at his master’s degree in Little Rock, the Sun Belt Player of the Year is staying in the Sun Belt to try his hand at a pro career.  In early November, the Austin Toros drafted Bozeman, a Magnolia, Ark. native, in the fifth round. Through his first three games, he averaged four points, one rebound and 2.3 assists while teaming with former Razorback Stefan Welsh.

  2. Shane Edwards(UALR) – Bozeman would do well to find the same level of NBDL success as Edwards, who averaged 16.7 points and 6.8 rebounds over 45 games for the New Mexico Thunderbirds last season. But despite playing in NBA summer leagues and tryouts for two consecutive summers, Edwards hasn’t quite been able to break into the domestic big time. So, this fall, he’s taken his act to Italy’s second-best league, where he undoubtedly makes many times over the $15,000-$25,000 he was annually banking in the NBDL.

    In his first nine games with Tezenis Verona, Edwards averaged 9 points on 52% shooting from the field and 87% from the free throw line. He led his team with 4.9 rebounds a game, along with 3.2 turnovers and 1.7 steals. Tezenis started the season 3-6.

   As an interesting aside, Von Wafer, the top Italian league’s leading scorer through early December, also has Arkansas connections. The north Lousiana native first gained national attention playing with the AAU Arkansas Wings summer league team before his high school senior year in 2002-2003.

3. Kim Adams (ASU) – I met Adams, a 2000 Little Rock Fair High School graduate, a few years ago at the Little Rock’s Dunbar Recreation Center summer league. The 6-8 center seemed like a nice enough guy, and mentioned he had been playing in Spain. Well, it looks like he’s still working his craft there, and doing quite well. He’s averaging about 7.5 points and rebounds a game while shooting 63% on field goals, according to Eurobasket.

         The above post is an expanded version of a piece originally published in Sync magazine.