When Hawgball Ruled in Little Rock and Pine Bluff

The Hogs sure had some good times in Pine Bluff.
The Hogs sure had some good times in Pine Bluff.

Researching for this Sporting Life Arkansas piece on the Great Stadium Debate, I realized it’s been 20 years since the Razorback basketball team stopped playing in Little Rock and Pine Bluff.

Starting in 1977, Arkansas played at least one regular season game in Pine Bluff and one in Little Rock.

Below are the results of those games.

In this span, Arkansas was 28-2 in Pine Bluff.

In Little Rock, Arkansas was 33-4.

1977-1978
Miss St. @ LR W 94-61
Hofstra @ PB W 95-70

1978-79
So. Miss @ PB W 93-79
Memphis @ LR W 82-69
N. Texas @ LR W 96-71

1979-80
Ole Miss @ LR W 67-59
LSU @ LR L 56-55
Kansas State @ PB L 66-57
Northeast La. @ PB W 74-51

1980-81
Eastern Ky. @ LR W 80-74
So. Miss. @ PB W 76-68
Nebraska @ LR W 64-52
Alaska-Anchorage @ PB W 92-58

Continue reading When Hawgball Ruled in Little Rock and Pine Bluff

Basil Shabazz Memories: An Unexpected Christmas Gift

I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, so I no longer expect to wake up on Christmas morning with treats stuffed in my stocking.

I do, however, believe in longtime Arkansas sportswriter Walter Woodie. And Woodie recently left an email in my inbox that made me smile as much as any snow-dusted Snickers bar from the North Pole could have.

He sent me the following game report from an Arkansas high school football final in 1990. I consider the game’s star, Basil Shabazz, to be an Arkansas version of Bo Jackson. This game represented his finest moment:

Shabazz Texarkana REAL

 

 

 

 

Here are some immediate impressions:

1. Texarkana quarterback Mike Cherry would end up as a highly touted freshman for the Arkansas Razorbacks. As Barry Lunney’s perpetual backup, however, he never could carve out consistent paying time. Houston Nutt, then a UA assistant, coached him at the start of his college career. In 1993, Nutt left to become head coach of Murray State. Two years later, Cherry transferred to that same Kentucky school and led Nutt’s teams to two conference titles.

Continue reading Basil Shabazz Memories: An Unexpected Christmas Gift

So exactly how dominant has UA track and field been over the decades, anyway?

I admit it.

I don’t follow track nearly as much as I should. My roommate during my freshman year at the University of Arkansas, Ramon Washington, was a triple jumper on the UA sqad, but I am ashamed to say I never watched him compete.

Over the years, I’ve taken it for granted my alma mater would consistently pump up out national championship caliber cross country and track and field teams. So much so, I never actually examined how many national championships these programs won.

That ends now:

Men’s Cross Country

NCAA Championships – 11 Titles

Year     UA Points     Runner-up    Points  Margin     Host
1984        101                Arizona            111         10       Penn State
1986         69                  Dartmouth     141         72       Arizona
1987         87                 Dartmouth      119        32       Virginia
1990         68                  Iowa State       96          28        Tennessee
1991          52                  Iowa State       114       62         Arizona
1992          46                  Wisconsin        87        41         Indiana
1993          31                   BYU                   153      122      Lehigh
1995         100                N. Arizona       142      42         Iowa State
1998          97                  Stanford           114       17        Kansas
1999          58                  Wisconsin        185       127      Indiana
2000        83                   Colorado          94          11         Iowa

Continue reading So exactly how dominant has UA track and field been over the decades, anyway?

Exclusive Q&A w/ Bobby Portis, Arkansas’ Best Big Man Since Corliss

Bobby Portis learned the art of rebounding from Corliss Williamson. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Bobby Portis learned the art of rebounding from Corliss Williamson. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


Big man Bobby Portis is new school. He shoots threes, leads fast breaks and has a shoe collection as diverse as his game. Off the court, he rocks the same nerd-chic glasses and bow tie swag Kevin Durant has helped popularize in the NBA.

But when Portis takes his game to Fayetteville next season, it’s the promise of returning Arkansas to old school glory that most excites Hogs fans. Portis, after all, is the state’s best big man since his former coach Corliss Williamson. He’s already followed Williamson’s lead by leading the Arkansas Wings to an AAU national championship. The 6-10 senior center may also be the most dominant player from Little Rock Hall High since Sidney Moncrief, another Razorback All-American.

Portis, we find out, fully embraces the legacy of all his schools – past, present and future:

Q: Let’s get this out of the way first. You’ve been known to wear some crazy, neon-colored shoes on the court. How many do you have and why do you wear them?

A: I have Nike shoes in the neon pink, orange, blue, red and green.
It’s just a different style. I like to wear different types of colored shoes, you know. It’s nothing serious. My mom sees the shoes, so she buys them.

Q: Who is most responsible for helping you develop as a post player?

A: When I was little, it was Corliss Williamson. He taught me a lot. But then he moved on to coach UCA and couldn’t coach us [in AAU] anymore. Then I started working out with Marcus McCarroll. He’s in athletic trainer here in Little Rock, and he’s also a part of the Wings.  He really helped improve my post game.

Continue reading Exclusive Q&A w/ Bobby Portis, Arkansas’ Best Big Man Since Corliss

Comparing How Much $ Arkansas School Districts Spend on Sports

In my previous post, I explored reasons why NWA 7A high school football dominates the rest of the state – specifically, central Arkansas.
All coaches I interviewed said NWA school districts prioritize sports and allocate more money for them. I was curious, then, how much NWA schools spend on athletics vis a vis central Arkansas schools. As you see below, only Cabot places among the top five districts in terms of estimated athletics expenditure per student:

NWA Ark Money Better

How I got these numbers:

1. Most recent expenditure numbers (2011-12) came from the Arkansas Department of Education.

2. I also got most recent school enrollments (2010-11) from the ADE. Some schools in the districts (all elementary schools and most middle schools in NWA) don’t have athletic programs so I subtracted the enrollment of those schools. Therefore, the number of students mentioned in the above graph pertain to only the enrollments of high schools, junior highs and middle schools with athletic programs.

3. I divided the expenditures by the number of students to get a rough estimate of how much priority the districts give to sports. Rough, because I took numbers from two separate years. Also because I used only expenditure numbers from one specific year and those can strongly fluctuate based on major infrastructure building projects.

Still, the goal here was to provide a snapshot giving us a ballpark idea of why NWA keeps coming out on top. I believe the graph does that.

Oh, and here’s one of the consequences when it comes to football:

 Since 2005, NWA teams are 24-10 vs. central Arkansas teams in the 7A playoffs. Six times in that period NWA has battled central Arkansas with a spot in the finals at War Memorial Stadium on the line. Six times, NWA won:

2005 Springdale 49, LR Catholic 14
2006 Fort Smith Southside 40, NLR 34 (2 OT)
2009 Springdale Har-Ber 14, Cabot 10
2009 Fort Smith Southside 24, NLR 23
2011 Bentonville 31, NLR 7
2012 Fayetteville 30, NLR 28

The Uneven Playing Field: NWA vs. Central Arkansas

Sorry, Prince. "Purple Reign" belongs to the Fayetteville Bulldogs these days.
Sorry, Prince. “Purple Reign” belongs to the Fayetteville Bulldogs these days. Courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A casual observer might call the down-to-the-wire victory Fayetteville High pulled off at North Little Rock High on November 23 an act of God. North Little Rock had just finished surging back from a 24-6 deficit early in the fourth quarter to take a 28-27 lead with 30 seconds left in the 7A state playoff semifinals. As the teams lined up for the ensuing kickoff,  the home crowd was rocking. Surely, after so many close calls, North Little Rock would make its long-awaited appearance in the state’s football championship game.

Then, the most statistically probable miracle in Arkansas sports happened.

In 25 seconds, Fayetteville drove the ball down the field with almost surgical precision. A 22-yard kickoff return and two passes totaling 37 yards led to a 38-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights and cut through the heart of every blue and yellow clad fan in the stands that bitter cold night.

Was it manifest destiny that Fayetteville return to its third straight championship game, where it would win its second straight title?

Maybe.

But, more likely, it was only the latest result of Arkansas sports’ own law of probability: Most things being unequal, northwest Arkansas football teams have the edge over central Arkansas counterpart long before they ever take the field.

Since 2004, no central Arkansas team has made the finals of 7A, the state’s largest classification. A team from the northwest, including Fort Smith, has won the title every year since 2005. Each runner-up since 2006 has also been from NWA. This year, NWA dominance extended to the second-largest classification when Greenwood beat Pine Bluff 51-44.

Central Arkansas’ biggest schools keep falling short. “Frankly, it’s almost embarrassing to those who have some pride in your athletic programs,” says Frank Williams, the athletic director at Little Rock McClellan High School, which is in 6A.

Why can’t anybody beat NWA?

“All coaches have talked about it from time to time, and everyone has their own theories,” says Shane Patrick, head coach at Springdale High School and former president of the Arkansas Football Coaches Association.

Continue reading The Uneven Playing Field: NWA vs. Central Arkansas

Of Booty Calls and Bret Bielema

Of all the stories coming out of Bret Bielema’s hiring as Arkansas’ head football coach last week, perhaps the most endearing is how he wooed his wife Jen.

One evening in April, 2008, Bielema was enjoying a game of blackjack at the Wynn Las Vegas when he spotted “a smiling blonde, brown-eyed woman wearing a teal tank top, blue jeans and black flip-flops,” as recalled in a 2011 Fox Sports article. Interest sufficiently piqued, Wisconsin’s head coach approached the beautiful stranger to start what became a five-hour conversation.

While the attraction was initially physical, it soon became so much more. After that night, Bret and Jen didn’t see each other for five months. They relied on phone talks, the postal service and, later, flying halfway across the country. Love flourished; they married last March.

Many Americans believe this is the stuff of true romance. The couple took its time getting to know each other. They turned a chance encounter into a long-term relationship, choosing trust before intimacy.

This progression matters not only to Bret and Jen, but to Razorback fans and recruits. It tells the public: Here is a good man who refrains from acting on impulse for the sake of others.

But if Bret and Jen had gotten hammered that fateful night in Las Vegas, hooked up in the backseat of a cab and exchanged oaths at a drive-thru wedding chapel, would their story still charm? Would it even be shared?

I think not.

Continue reading Of Booty Calls and Bret Bielema

Bobby Portis Discusses How He Could Have Helped Arkansas Against Syracuse

bobby portisCourtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Last night I had a good interview with Razorback signee Bobby Portis, whom ESPN has ranked the nation’s 12th best senior. The 6-10 Portis plays for Little Rock Hall High, and a glance down his Twitter feed shows there are plenty Razorback fans who likely wish he’d skip his senior season altogether and join Arkansas for SEC play (a la Jarnell Stokes at Tennesse last season).

This won’t happen, but it’s fun to imagine.

Portis himself can’t help imagining how he could help this year’s batch of Hogs as he cheers them on. Last Friday night, he watched the Hogs fall 91-82 to No. 6 – ranked Syracuse and said he thought he could have used his size and quickness to neutralize the rangy, long athletes who comprise Syracuse’s famed zone defense:

Syracuse’s zone was just killing us. I think I could have flashed to the high post and knocked a couple jumpers down to make [the defenders] come up and then that would have opened up driving lanes for B.J. [Young] and Ky [Madden]  to drive to the hole and stuff like that.”

It’s hard to argue Portis could contribute right away. Last summer, he took an unofficial visit to the Fayetteville campus and scrimmaged on a team including Kikko Haydar, Rickey Scott, Michael Qualls and Anthlon Bell. That team played against teams composed of other Hogs excluding Marshawn Powell,  who was recovering from injury. Portis recalls his team going 5-0.

A more detailed Q&A with Portis will publish in the Dec. 19th issue of Sync magazine

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Is Ziggy Ansah a Greater All-Around Athlete than Bo Jackson?

 

ziggy ansah

A recent Sports Illustrated profile of an athlete every bit as impressive as Bo Jackson

There’s a point near the start of “You Don’t Know Bo,” ESPN’s upcoming “30 for 30” episode about one of the early 1990s’ most iconic ahtletes, where the Bo Jackson praises really start gushing. At one point, an interviewee suggests Jackson may be equal if not greater than  Jim Thorpe in terms of all-around athletic excellence.

Bo Jackson: history’s greatest athlete?

As the movie walks through his long list of accomplishments, there is an argument to be made. Jackson, at 6-1 and 220 pounds, presented a combination of power, speed and ability nobody had ever seen before in baseball and football. At the NFL Draft Combine, he ran a 4.12 in the 40 yard dash; he starred in the NFL and MLB , becoming the the first person named an All-Star in two major American sports leagues.

Jackson’s versatility certainly makes him one of the greatest athletes of the modern sports era (and, in terms of team sports, of all time), but if size, strength, speed and versatility are main criteria for grading an athlete’s rank, then we should consider Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah as someone who has entered Jackson’s stratosphere.

Let’s get this out of the way: Ansah hasn’t achieved anything near the level of success in his chosen sports as Jackson. He grew up playing soccer in Ghana, but as a teenager dreamed of playing in the NBA with LeBron James. Five years ago, he arrived in the United States, and tried to parlay his 39-inch vertical jump into a spot on the Brigham Young  University basketball team.

He was cut.

Instead, Ansah walked on to the BYU track team, and promptly ran a 200-meter dash in 21.9 seconds. Over the next couple years, Ansah used his 6-6, 250-pound frame to dominate at intramural baskeball. He was so impressive that football players told him he should give their a sport a spin. At last, he gave in.

At the start of BYU’s 2010 summer camp, Ansah told head coach Bronco Mendenhall he wanted to play the game for the first time in his life. He didn’t know the rules. He had never lifted weights before. But he was big, fast, smart and eager to learn, as Jeff Benedict writes in Sports Illustrated.

Amazingly, two and a half years later, Ansah is a dominating nose tackle on the nation’s third-ranked defense. Despite not starting until the fourth week, he has 48 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss and is projects to be a first-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft.

This, from a neophyte who was shoving his thigh pad into his knee pad slot two years ago. This, from a guy who until recently ran around the field without the slightest clue of how to tackle. “He was not lowering down and gearing up to hit someone,” another BYU player told Benedict. “He was just running. That allowed him to hit opponents with a speed that they were not prepared for. But he also wasn’t naturally protecting himself the way football players do. So he was taking blows to his body that most guys would never be able to endure.”

Now that Ansah actually understands the game, and now that he’s up to 270 pounds, he is  a major pro prospect. “The combination of his height, weight and speed is probably unmatched,” one NFL scout told Benedict.  As is Ansah’s story.

Jackson will always be considered one of the greatest athletes because he played so well – and so spectacularly – in two pro leagues. Ansah won’t have that chance (unless LeBron hears about his story and takes him under his wing as a publicity stunt), but his multi-faceted sports background, ability to quickly adapt to a brand-new game and a height, weight and speed combo that’s off the charts make him the 21st century version of, well, Bo Jackson.