Monday, June 29, 2015

From the Bench

This is the Year for Razorbacks to be in National Championship Picture With a Few Breaks

Robert Shields

It was year three when Bobby Petrino had his best team at Arkansas. His first year was a catastrophe. His second year was better with a bowl victory in freezing conditions at the Liberty Bowl where Alex Tejada hit a field goal in overtime. Then Petrino got to his third season and had Ryan Mallett as a more mature quarterback to work the offense.

In Petrino’s third season, his best team in my estimation, the Razorbacks let a fourth-quarter lead slip away in Fayetteville against Alabama. It was a game the Razorbacks should have won. Then later in the season they dropped a game to Auburn on the road. The Razorbacks fought hard against a team many felt had some questionable players on it. Mallett was knocked out of the Auburn game yet the Hogs hung tough until the end even after getting a few screwy calls from the refs and replay officials. That Auburn team went on to win the national title.

That Razorback team went on to the Sugar Bowl and should have beaten Ohio State even though they had to play a Buckeye team that was loaded with ineligible players. Ohio State later had to forfeit, vacate, or whatever you want to call it. The Ohio State coach was relieved of his duties.

If that Razorback team would have gotten a break or two, maybe it would have played for the national championship. But that’s what happens. Regardless, it was a very talented team and Petrino was able to do it in three years.

All that is to ask, will history repeat itself in 2015?

This is Bret Bielema’s third season, and his trajectory right now looks very similar to that of Petrino’s. For instance, Bielema’s first season was also a disaster. As a matter of fact, it was a record-setting disaster. His second season looked much differently even in losses, and the team rallied to make a bowl game and beat longtime rival Texas.

Bielema begins his third season with a veteran quarterback of Brandon Allen much like Petrino had with a more mature and developed Mallett. No doubt the two quarterbacks are of a different style, but each fit what their coach wants them to do in their system.

This Razorback team is loaded on offense with two 1,000-yard rushers, an offensive line built for the NFL (with returning names of Kirkland, Skipper, Tretola, and Smothers), the aforementioned veteran quarterback, prime-time tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle, and a cast of receivers.

The defense that ended last year as maybe the best in the SEC will have to be rebuilt some, yet it should be good. The linebackers will have to grow up fast, but in other spots the defense should have enough bodies to get the job done.

The team should win its four non-conference games, which leaves it with its eight conference games. Looking ahead, you can easily argue they are all toss-ups. None of those eight conference games will be easy. But, I think this is going to be a magical season, so I’m putting a win in the book for now against Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Missouri.

This leaves the three teams that will be the most talented the Hogs will face in Alabama, LSU, and Auburn. Two of those three are on the road with Auburn being the lone home game of that trio. So, it’s a tough schedule against the tougher teams.

You can hope Gus Malzahn’s comet has peaked and that it comes crashing down to earth this season and the Hogs are the benefactor of such a collapse. You can also hope that neither Alabama nor LSU find a quarterback. If these and other breaks go the Razorbacks’ way, Arkansas will be in the national championship discussion on every ESPN show discussing playoff scenarios.



Send your prophecies on the coming season to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, June 22, 2015

From the Bench

Ways to Improve the Game-Day Experience at Razorback Stadium

Robert Shields

With the coming season should come new ideas. Even though the Paleolithic Razorback offense loves to just grind other teams up, that does not mean that your game-day experience should also be from generations gone by.

Since tickets are so expensive these days (and by saying that I will get a message from somebody well above the poverty line pointing out to me that Razorback tickets are not the most expensive in the SEC), fans should get the opportunity for the maximum added value for your buck for being a loyal Razorback consumer, which is what the UA athletic department thinks of you as.

So here are my suggestions to the UA to help improve your game-day experience.

• First, the end zone needs to be the “play zone” for the hot games in September with a waterslide from the top deck down to the field like they do at Atlantis. You land at the bottom into a big pool, and from there you get into your tube and float back around the stadium in the lazy river to get you back to the gates where you pay the Razorback Foundation again to use the slide.

• When a touchdown is scored, all the cheerleaders have to go down the slide in celebration. This will be an added feature to go along with the fireworks. The pom squad has to go on the third touchdown scored, which should be an inducement to the fans to cheer louder as the game goes on.

• In the other end zone, there will be a large Ferris wheel, but tickets to it will only be given to fans who are at the Broyles-Matthews platinum level in the Razorback Foundation. This way you can claim, “Yeah, I was on the Ferris wheel when that winning touchdown was scored.”

• The skyboxes should be converted into living quarters so people can stay there all the time. I like the idea of the UofA entering into an agreement with Bluegreen time share where they sell points to fans and you can use your points to book stays in the skyboxes. Of course, game weekends will take a premium amount of points.

• After the game, Bret Bielema would no longer hold his post-game press conference. The press would be given the equipment manager to listen to as he reads a prepared statement and then takes no questions. For large donors, you could buy a ticket to an exclusive meeting with Bielema and 100 of the other best Razorback fans who get to ask him questions for one hour. Needless to say, no question would be off limits, but you would have to sign an affidavit of non-disclosure subjecting you to enormous penalties if you revealed any of the discussions with the head coach.

• Before the game, there would always be a concert inside the stadium by groups such as Sawyer Brown or 38 Special. Before the season, ticket holders would get to go online and vote who they want to perform.

• For the October games, fans could pay to enter a chili cook-off on the Broyles Athletic Complex side of the stadium. Jeff Long would be the ceremonial judge. If you win, you get to go to dinner with Long and his entourage, a treat for any fan for sure.

• Not to leave the students out even though they don’t really contribute much to fund the program other than being enrolled in the school, there would be a polar plunge for the cold games where those daring souls could go down the slide in the end zone raising money for the favorite charity – The Razorback Foundation.

All these ideas I propose to help enhance your Razorback experience. Or we can just keep going with endless ads and loud music at every opportunity.


Send your game-day experiences to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, June 08, 2015

From the Bench

How Do I Know It’s Summer in Arkansas?

Robert Shields

During the summer in the land of the Razorbacks, the sports call-in shows get slow and the topics get bizarre. Soon the Razorback baseball run will be over, and hosts, callers, and columnists alike will be left scrambling to find a good topic to discuss for the next two months.

When there is nothing to talk about in Razorback land, this is how you know it is summer in Arkansas. If you are looking for entertaining sports talk, now should be your favorite time of the year.

So here goes my elementary list of how I know it’s summer in Arkansas.

How do I know it’s summer? When Drive Time Sports has a caller who wants to discuss soccer and the topic is punted to another sport like NASCAR and then ends with Schaeffer talking about what a beautiful day it is in northwest Arkansas.

How do I know it’s summer? When some know-it-all Notre Dame fan calls into Drive Time Sports to explain to Schaeffer and Rainwater how Knute Rockne actually pronounced his name and stays on the air for 20 minutes. Oh wait, Rainwater is hardly ever on his show during the summer so it would be some other lame host.

You also know it’s summer? When Randy asks the caller when they go to the break if he wants to hold or fold (this is Randy nomenclature for staying on the line). This means there is nothing else to talk about right now in this Razorbacks-only state except how to pronounce names, so please hold so we can fill more time before Gentle Ben calls into the show.

How do I know it’s summer? Wally Hall will write a column about some guest speaker speaking somewhere at some charity event. All for a good cause, but the chance of it being written about during the season is less likely.

How do I know it’s summer? Matt Jones’ playlist on his iPhone that is used for bumper music will have 50-percent more reggae.

How do I know it’s summer? The scouting report from T. Biddy will be about some kid in the seventh grade. You will also get a call from some relative of a high-school player touting the kid like they don’t know him explaining he is some super athlete and asking Biddy if he has heard of him. Biddy will then say he will look into it. Then the caller immediately gives the relative’s high-light reel website address that they probably paid some outfit a bundle to produce.

How do I know it’s summer? Some people are awaiting the arrival of Hooten’s annual football magazine like it is the biggest day of the year. I halfway expect a marching band to lead every delivery of the magazines to Walmart. (This would actually be a good PR idea for the first delivery, Hootens.)

How do I know it’s summer? Someone will bring up Arkansas and Arkansas State playing each other. During the season, this question gets dumped on the radio shows quickly. But it will get air time in the summer, and the hosts of call-in shows will tackle this issue with vigor from both sides ending with Schaeffer incredulously declaring that “nobody wants to see this game, Randy.”

How do I know it’s summer? When Bo Mattingly has someone on from Auburn on his radio show. I mean, Auburn? Oh wait, I can’t hear Bo Mattingly in Central Arkansas.

How do I know it’s summer? The coach of the Petit Coat Dragons will be interviewed for three hours on Friday and it will be filled with gaffes and jokes. Wait, that happens during football season also.

How do I know it’s summer? The hosts on the call-in shows take off frequently leaving you with guest hosts. This typically leads to a lot of yucking it up with the remaining regular host and the guest host that should have been handled before the “on air” light went on.

How do I know it is summer? When someone calls into a call-in radio show and explains how he played out the college football season on his PS2 and predicts that TCU or Boise State will win it all.

How do I know it’s summer? At least every other caller is going to chime in with their prediction of how the Hogs are going to do. Right now, my unscientific survey seems to indicate it will be 9-3 from callers. My hunch is that is just the starting bid as expectations will grow by the first game in September.



How do you know it’s summer? Send your ideas to fromthebench@yahoo.com and I just might make a column out of your mail, which is another sign it’s summer.

Monday, June 01, 2015

From the Bench

UA Keeping Season Package Cheaper
and More Attractive by Leaving Bad Game in Little Rock

Robert Shields

It’s been a while since I have opined on the Great Stadium Debate. In fact, I have not mentioned it even in passing in probably well over a year. The main reason is that my position after the LSU game was moved out of Little Rock to Fayetteville has been that I see little reason to keep a game in Little Rock any longer.

It’s time to move all the game to Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Heck, move the away games there, too. When the LSU game was moved out of Little Rock, it came as no shock that the Thanksgiving Day rivalry also ended. Now the Razorbacks have Missouri as the new rivalry born of marketers rather than fans or players.

Even though I think all the games should be moved, which is a departure of my position for over a decade as the leading spokesman of the GSD, I don’t know if it will happen.

If it doesn’t happen, my guess is that by putting a bad game in Little Rock, it makes the Fayetteville ticket package look better and keeps it one game cheaper.

It will not be shocking to me if Toledo or Sanford or whatever Sisters of the Poor franchise remains as the typical type of game in Little Rock. It’s a bad game and adds no value to the package at Fayetteville. All it does for a family of four is add hundreds of dollars to the bill and travel expenses for really nothing.

Plus, with the SEC Network you can now see these bad games without making the hours-long drive from wherever you are coming from. Further, the Razorbacks play a baseball game in Central Arkansas every year as does the basketball team. Those events are well-attended, and so the thought might be to keep at least one bad football game a year in Central Arkansas as well just to throw the largest market in the state a bone.

At Riverfest in Little Rock on Memorial Day weekend, the Razorbacks had a booth to help generate interest in UA athletics, which makes sense with 225,000 people making it the largest annual event in the state. It never hurts to do some image and brand advertising.

I have criticized the UA athletic department’s various misguided marketing strategies in the past, but cutting off the fat from the football schedule to make the Fayetteville season package a little leaner is nothing short of brilliant.

If only other major football programs had that option.

-

Marketing 201

Speaking of marketing, here is a little tip for the UofA. A recent email that was sent regarding Razorback football tickets started with the words, “Please disregard email if you are a current season ticket holder.”

This is terrible on a few levels. First, if I ever see an email that starts with “please disregard,” it is not going to take much more convincing for me to disregard it.

It’s Marketing 101 – never start a message in which you are trying to give a call to action with “please disregard.” Readers will disregard.

Second, the fact that you don’t know if your audience purchased tickets or not reeks of laziness. In this day and age of technology, can a query not be run to see who on your email list has and who has not already bought tickets instead of just spamming everyone?

-

Spoon Man

The Razorback social media event of the past weekend was the spoon. Razorback super fan Kent Atkins has been bringing a giant silver spoon to Razorback baseball games for a few years in honor of Tyler Spoon.

But Oklahoma State officials banned him from bringing it into the stadium. A hashtag was started, #freethespoon. Razorback fans, in defiance, raised plastic spoons at the game instead.

From days gone by, I got to know Kent Atkins from a mutual friend named Dale Weitzel, who died unexpectedly shortly after college. All I can say to you, Kent, is that Dale would have been proud of you this past weekend.



Send your marketing suggestions for the UA to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

From the Bench

The Twitter Top Dozen for Razorback Entertainment and Info

#RobertShields

All the kids love the Twitter. And so do the adults when it comes to sports. But who to follow?

Here with the answer is my annual ranking of the top Razorback-related favorites to follow on Twitter, of course excluding Rick Schaeffer’s favorite scribe, @ScottFaldon. Although he has left the newspaper world, he is still a sports fan at heart. So, let’s see where everyone else falls this year.

11) Whole Hog Sports – @wholehogsports (19,814 followers, new to the list)
This was spot last year was held by Matt Jones, but I don’t recommend going to @nwamatt as it’s all in some foreign language now.

10) Jen Bielema – @jenbielema (42,789 followers, up from 30,023 from last year, ranked #2 last year)
The fact she still has more followers than the starting quarterback is interesting. Maybe it is the pics. She has a great sense of fashion that surely sorority girls around campus take notice. She was ranked high last year still in the wake of the infamous #karma hashtag, but that has since faded and so has her spot in my Twitter list. She tweets sporadically, but I have kept her on the list because you never know when she will be tweeting the girls weekend in Vegas. Or have another #karma incident. Once a hashtagger always a hashtagger. She follows 187 on Twitter. I am not one of them.

9) Fake Jeff Long – @FakeADJeffLong (3,809 followers, up from 3,489 last year, ranked # 9 last year)
This is a great source of humor about Razorback athletics. Last week, he tweeted, “After watching our coaches on the golf course today, I have finally found a place where we should yield.”

8) Trey Biddy – @treybiddy (13,598 followers, up from 11,181 last year, ranked #12 last year)
T. Biddy is trending up. He is still the ultimate recruitnik, and I think he would follow recruiting even if he did not make a living out of it. If you love recruiting, he is a must follow, but he might try to direct you to his pay site. He appears almost regularly on Drive Time Sports at the five o’clock hour and was part of the moment of the year on Drive Time. You know the one I am talking about.

7) Richard Davenport – @ARrecruitinguy (31,163 followers, up from 22,793 last year, ranked #11 last year)
Is the fact that his followers increased more than T. Biddy an indication his recruiting news is better? You can follow this guy because he is the statewide paper’s recruitnik who made a name for himself doing the same on Hogville.net. You have to hand it to him for turning a passion into a career. He does a good job and will provide you with more than enough recruiting news.

6) Keon Hatcher – @keonhatcher4 (11,200 followers, up from 7,966 last year, ranked #8 last year)
As the primary returning receiver, he has to be on the list. Last year, I had to admit that I did not understand most of his tweets, but it sounded fun. His tone and demeanor over the last year has changed. Somebody must have talked to him, because his tone is more subdued. It didn’t hurt his number of followers, but it did hurt his ranking on this list.

5) Jeff Long – @jefflongUA (65,022 followers, up from 44,903 last year, ranked #10 last year)
You have to hand it to the UA athletic director. He has really embraced Twitter as a means for communicating with Razorback fans and actually interacts with them as much as he can. He has posted more than 14,000 tweets, making most of you look like amateurs. I wonder if that is the way that he hooked up with Bret Bielema on the hiring before becoming a follower. His Twitter address is also a great way to continually harass him to install natural grass in Razorback Stadium since he fired the coach who requested it be installed. He follows just 159. Again, I am not one of them.

4) Alex Collins – @Budda03 (44,536 followers, up from 29,383 last year, ranked #6 last year)
His follower count still goes up every time that I check. As the star running back, he is a must follow. One thing that I can agree with that he tweeted is “Netflix need to update these movies! It takes me about an hour just to find one I haven’t seen yet.” Man I know that feeling. I wish he would put out a list of must-see movies on Netflix. Yet, I wonder if there is a different type of film he should be watching.

3) Brandon Allen – @BrandonAllen10 (22,183 followers, up from 14,987 last year, ranked # 7 last year)
Two years ago, the plain-vanilla kicker had more followers than Allen. But being the Razorback starter at quarterback will get you followers, especially when fans are turning to Twitter to see more photos of his burned-out truck. But, there is another reason to follow him. I don’t know of many players other than Peanut Adams who have had to endure the hate at quarterback as this kid has had to put up with. If he has a great season, he needs to go down as one of the great Razorback martyrs of all time.

2)Alyssa Orange – @alyssaorange (1.266 followers, up from 570 last year, ranked #3 last year)
I need at least one female on this list for diversity. One year, I had @kkgbitchprobs on this list, and then she quickly vanished from the Twitter seen. Then two years ago, I had @sh_tgirlsthink, which has also gone silent now on Twitter. I questioned if Alyssa Orange would follow the pattern, but she has not. Even though I ranked her high last year in hopes that she would follow me, it did not work. So now I moved her to second place hoping that makes a difference.

1) Bret Bielema – @bretbielema ( Almost 150,000 followers, up from 85,032 last year, ranked #1 last year)
He is the head coach of the Razorbacks so you have to follow him. He can be entertaining and you know any day now we might get a tweet from the golf course. He keeps the top spot for another year.

What UofA players, cheerleaders, or soccer girls have I missed on this list? Let me know your nominees. Follow me on Twitter @robert1shields or send me an email (that is so 2005, though) at fromthebench@yahoo.com.



Robert Shields is a world-class mime who partnered with Lorene Yarnell for a prime-time television show in the late ‘70s. He later moved to Sedona, Arizona, to become an artist and make jewelry. THIS IS NOT ME.

Monday, May 18, 2015

From the Bench

Win against Texas A&M is Critical to a Successful Football Season

Robert Shields

Looking ahead at the Razorback football schedule, the game that sticks out is the Texas A&M game on September 26. It will be Arkansas’ fourth game of the year, and the Hogs should be 3-0 when going into the game in Dallas against the Aggies.

The game will be the fourth game in a row where the Razorbacks will face a team that starts with a “T” for those that care for such weird facts as the Razorbacks play Texas-El Paso, Toledo, Texas Tech, and then Texas A&M. And for those that love streaks, the Razorbacks actually play their first five games against a team that starts with a “T” as the fifth game is against Tennessee.

The team could survive a loss to Texas A&M, but to show improvement over last year the team needs to win it. The game last year was so close and heartbreaking.

Maybe you have blocked this out of your memory, but the Hogs led 28-14 into the fourth quarter only to see the lead and game slip away as the Aggies scored the last 21 points. The Razorbacks outplayed the Aggies for the entire first three quarters. Then fate struck as Kenny Hill hit Edward Pope for an 86-yard touchdown pass to cut the Razorback lead to 28-21.

For the first time in years, Arkansas almost showed that it might have the killer instinct with around 6 minutes left in the game when it started a time-consuming drive that stalled with a little more than 2 minutes left in the game. A field goal probably seals the game, but as fate would have it again, the Hogs missed a 44-yard field goal. Two plays later, the Aggies would be back down the field for a touchdown to tie the game at 28.

The game went into overtime and the Aggies scored on their first play of the overtime to take a 35-28 lead. The Razorbacks tried to respond on fourth and one, but they were stopped short ending the game.

What should have been a strength for the team running the ball ended dismally as the team struggled to get even the fewest yards on the ground late in the game and overtime. Sorry to remind you.

I firmly believe that Brandon Allen was still feeling out his receiving corps last year at this point in the season against A&M leaving the team more one dimensional. The team will be more balanced on offense next season not totally telegraphing when a running play is about to happen.

Still, it was a bitter defeat.

Thus I come back to the coming season when the teams get rematched and Arkansas needs to beat them. A win launches the Razorbacks into the SEC West race with a winning record. A loss and everyone starts to wonder if the team is any better than last year.

It won’t be the easiest game, and even when Bobby Petrino was beating A&M in Dallas they were never easy as most of the games went to the wire. I expect the game this September in Dallas will be no different.

A&M will be showcasing their new defensive coordinator that they lifted from LSU. A&M’s weakness over the last few years has been defense, and the new hire is supposed to fix that problem. Yet, this A&M team is not the same since Johnny Manziel left.

All the more reason the Razorbacks need to win the game.

I will get messages telling me all the games are important and that is true, but some set the stage for a season to be special. The Razorbacks need this win over Texas A&M to shake the ghosts from last year and to prove they are a newer and an improved group from the previous year.

And all this is assuming the Razorbacks beat Texas Tech the week before.

I had to write something. I guess I could have written about Bruce Jenner.



Send what game is the most important for the season to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, May 11, 2015

From the Bench

Where Would Program Be Now Had Petrino Won National Title Prior to Motorbike Mishap?

Robert Shields

Back by popular demand, From the Bench plays “What if?” going back in time a la “Hot Tub Time Machine” to see what might have happened had the wheels of history turned a different direction.

I did this a few years back and it drew a big response. The hypothetical a few years back was, what if Reggie Fish actually fields the punt against the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship Game?

Had he fielded the punt properly and no fumble occurs in the end zone, the Gators would never have gotten momentum and the Razorbacks would have won the game and gone on to the national championship game because you could not hold a championship game back in this time frame and not have an SEC team. We all know the SEC wins every time in the title game unless it’s Auburn, so the Razorbacks win the NCAA championship and nobody transfers after the bowl game and Houston Nutt leads the Hogs into more special seasons.

Of course that never happened.

And this scenario that I am about to unfold never did either, but what if?

This hypothetical comes from reader named “Sterling,” although that is not his real name. Sterling wants to know what happens if the Razorbacks would have beaten LSU in 2011.

To rewind the clock and go down memory lane for some who may have forgotten, right before the Razorbacks played LSU, the AP poll, the only one that matters, had LSU at No. 1 followed by Alabama and Arkansas. It was when the SEC was at its zenith. It’s hard to imagine a Top 25 with the top three owned by one conference going into the last week of the regular season, yet that is where it stood.

LSU had beaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa earlier in a 9-6 defensive brawl in overtime. Six-million players were drafted off those two teams’ rosters that played in that game. It was a titanic matchup during the regular season. LSU went on and won the SEC Championship and then lost in the rematch with Alabama in the National Title game. It was the SEC at its best with the opportunity to match up two of its schools for the national title.

Arkansas met LSU in Baton Rouge the day after Thanksgiving in 2011. Unfortunately, the Razorbacks had to deal with a devastating and unexpected loss of a teammate in Garrett Uekman.

In reality, the Razorbacks really did get off to a fast start in the game and had momentum. Then something unfortunate happened on the way to the bank. A guy named Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu returned a punt 92 yards to tie the score at 14-14.

The momentum shifted and the Tigers went on to put a beat down on the Razorbacks, and Bobby Petrino dropped the F bomb on Les Miles on national television. This column called out the Razorback coach for acting look a fool in the public spotlight, but Razorback fans immediately ran to Petrino’s rescue.

But… what if the Honey Badger had fumbled that ball into the end zone when fielding the punt, and the Razorbacks recover the ball for a touchdown and go up 21-7 on the Tigers. The Hogs would have gone on a roll and blitzed the Tigers at their home.

With Arkansas beating LSU and pretending Auburn beat Alabama, the Hogs would have jumped to No. 1 and gone to the SEC Championship game because it would have held the tie-breaker over LSU.

The Hogs go to the SEC Championship Game and kill the SEC East. This in turn sends the Razorbacks to the national title game, and again, SEC teams always win it unless it’s Auburn. The Razorbacks win their first ever AP poll national championship and their first football title since the 1964 season.

Spring forward to April Fool’s Day 2012 and the events as Bobby Petrino goes for a motorcycle ride with his girlfriend (who worked for him and apparently nobody in the athletic department knew anything about it) and has his wreck. This is what Sterling really wants to know what happens. Do the events after the April 1 wreck play out the same with Jeff Long and Petrino?

Does Long fire the coach who just won the national title and has a team that some were speculating to be in the hunt for a national title in 2012? Sterling, my gut says no. The politics behind firing someone just winning a national title would have been too difficult. Another solution would have been found and the Program would have developed a more certain moral flexibility. With that said, either Petrino needed to win the national title or not have the wreck with his former girlfriend.

Regardless, as fate may have it, maybe the Razorbacks were lucky and things played out for the Program’s best interest.

Under this hypothetical of Petrino winning the national title, would that have been bad as the fans would have been stuck with the foul-mouthed, ill-tempered coach? Didn’t the team end up better off in the long run landing Bret Bielema, who under my estimation will win at least 10 games next year?



Send what you think happens to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, May 04, 2015

From the Bench

Presenting the 2015 Benchies to Recognize Outstanding Accomplishments in Sports

Robert Shields

In the spirit of the “Hogspy Awards” that the University of Arkansas athletic department hands out every year to recognize the most memorable moments in athletics, academics, leadership, and community service, if you buy that, From the Bench awards its own version, the “Benchies,” to recognize those who have made their mark in the past year in the athletic kingdom.

We all know the most important award to Razorback athletics is fundraising, but here are the rest. So let’s award some Benchies for the more “memorable” moments of the last 12 months.

“Trending Award” – The Boot
Photos of the aftermath of the Razorback victory over LSU with the team and fans celebrating the return of the Golden Boot left a lasting imprint from the season. After shutting out LSU in Fayetteville, the team streaked across the field to seize the Boot from the LSU sideline and then lofted it high and took it out onto the field. It was a jubilant moment and it played out on Facebook and whatever your favorite social media outlet is.

“Improved Award” – Bret Bielema
Mike Anderson could have won this award again by making the NCAA tournament and winning a first-round game. It very well may have been the best team in basketball since 1999 with Derek Hood and Kareem Reid. But in the end, it goes to Bret Bielema, who more than doubled his number of wins and won a bowl game against the Texas Longhorns curb stomping them. That’s always a great way to end your season.

“Karma Award” – Steve Spurrier
We all know who won this award last year and is responsible for the name, but this year it goes to Steve Spurrier. A year after putting a beatdown on Arkansas and saying the Razorbacks will have to recruit their way out of this mess when they were going 3-9, the Gamecocks were terrible while the Hogs just kept getting better and better. For Bielema, the success he enjoyed last year was more than just good recruiting -- it was good coaching and preparation, unlike Spurrier’s season.

“The Newbie Award” – Jimmy Dykes
With no head-coaching experience, Dykes was inexplicably given the women’s basketball job at Arkansas. He won this award last year also, but he is still the newbie. Some told me he turned the women’s basketball season around. I have no reason to doubt them.

“Disappointment Award’ – Razorback Football Team
I know this seems odd since I have done nothing but praise the football team, which finished strong winning three out of its last four games and shutting out two ranked opponents in back-to-back games. The disappointment comes from losing so many tight games. The team lost a heartbreaker to Texas A&M in overtime. It was a game where the Razorback outplayed the Aggies most of the game and was the superior team. The Hogs then went on to drop other very close games including one to Alabama where a fumble out of the back of the end zone cost the Razorbacks seven points and to compound it they also missed an extra point and lost the game 13-14. The losses to Mississippi State and Missouri were almost as equally as painful. The more I am typing the more I am beginning to wonder why we are all so optimistic about next season.

“Tweeter Award” – Jeff Long
Love him or hate him, this guy knows how to work Twitter. Maybe he should teach a class for student athletes and famous people how to do it appropriately. He has many loyal followers and has composed thousands of tweets yet never once alleged that he’s been hacked as an excuse for a bad tweet. That’s awesome. I have noticed some recruits and athletes in the past even retweet his tweets. Long won this last year and looks to be a one-man dynasty with a lock on this award for years to come unless he takes another job somewhere that leads to a Twitter meltdown.

“New Jack City Award” – Jason Henry
“Are you my brother’s keeper?” It’s OK if you don’t get the early 1990s reference. And if that is the case, you probably also don’t get the rivalry with Texas, which is not OK. Two years, this award went to Dakota Mosely and last year to Josh Melton. When you get charged with human trafficking… well, never mind.

“Hero Award” – Dominique Reed
Two years ago this award went to Alex Collins, and last year it was Bijhon Jackson. The award has typically gone to an incoming freshman with the most pressure on him to perform at an All-American level. Rafe Peavey was a close runner up last year. This year it goes to a junior college transfer who is not even on campus yet. The award goes to Dominique Reed as the team needs his big-play potential. Collins and Jackson did not disappoint, so the bar is high for Reed to perform.



What are your awards? Send them to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 27, 2015

From the Bench

Razorback Football Will Be Exciting to Watch Even With a Few Missing Links

Robert Shields

Great weather arrived for the Arkansas Razorbacks’ Red-White football game on Saturday and so did a good crowd that got to witness the 2015 version of their team. This team has the ability to be a special one and might be the most well-rounded team since the 2006 season.

There are some needs that have to be met for this team to get to the next level in the SEC, though. For this coming season, maybe the most important recruit was one of the last singed in Dominique Reed, a high-caliber receiver who was sought after by many schools including Texas. He has big-play potential if the Razorbacks can get him ready by the beginning of the season.

Arkansas has a good contingency of receivers and tight ends -- among them are Keon Hatcher, Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle, Drew Morgan, Cody Hollister, JoJo Robinson, Jared Cornelius, and maybe Kendrick Edwards. They are a dependable group.

The missing component across the board is the guy who is the game breaker. Those Randy Moss or Terrell Owen types of receivers are hard to find. But, it’s what this offense needs to be very difficult to stop.

The team needs a receiver who is the answer when the opposing defense decides to go man up on the corners -- the type of receiver who can blow past a defensive back with his speed and is strong enough that when the defensive back tries to lock him up he can push right past him.

In my estimation, I can only remember a handful in Razorback history that had that kind of ability. Maybe Derek Russell, Anthony Lucas, Marcus Monk, Greg Childs, or Joe Adams fit that description.

Those types of guys are not very common, but when you have that player who is faster, more powerful, and has great hands, the defense has to play differently because the offense can make the defense pay in a big way if it takes the risk to man up on the great receiver. Defenses often have to back the safeties out of the box and leave them there for over-the-top coverage.

Reed could fill that role if Bret Bielema is correct about what he was saying about the kid on signing day. We will see, and it’s a lot to put on a new arrival, but it would be well-received by all involved if the kid has that ability because if he does, the Razorback offensive line is going to be able to run on most teams that do not commit extra people for run support. Reed is hopefully the guy who can stretch the defense.

Another need that needs to be filled is a speed back. Korliss Marshall was the guy last year. This year it’s to be determined. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are great backs, but they are not burners like a Fred Talley. When they get in the red zone, the Razorbacks need that back that can run 15 yards faster than the defense can run 12 yards. It becomes more difficult to plow your way into the end zone when the defense gets compressed against the goal line. You have to have that guy who can stretch the defense horizontally. Right now, the offense does not have that guy.

The defense also has a big need. They need to fill the shoes of Darius Philon. It won’t be easy. Philon was a block-absorbing black hole. I think sometimes he took up four blocks. He kept people off Martrell Spaight all year. Philon made it difficult to run his direction. If you did, you often found Spaight unencumbered ready to kill the running back. Spaight became a great student of the game, which allowed him to use Philon to his max and lead the SEC in tackles.

It’s just as tough to find guys like Philon as it is to find that big-play receiver. Maybe, Bijhon Jackson, Jamichael Winston, or Deatrich Wise will fill that role.

No team is perfect and most have some area where it can be improved. Yet still, this team is going to be very exciting to watch.



Send your spots that are in need to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 20, 2015

From the Bench

Riches of NBA Still Don’t Outweigh the Value of a Year in College

Robert Shields

That large part of the Razorback Nation that is always fully expecting to get its heart broken did this past week when Bobby Portis announced that he would declare himself eligible for the NBA draft even as many fans had recently proclaimed that Portis would stay.

You can’t blame the kid for leaving college for the lure of a huge payday that will also benefit his family and to another degree his agent.

Every year Portis waits to play professional basketball, millions of dollars are lost that he can never recover. The window to play professional basketball is limited, and every year spent playing in college is one fewer where you can earn real money.

This unsolvable dilemma that plays out the same way each year around this time and leads to a diluted product on both sides is the reason college basketball and the NBA are nowhere near where they were 20 years ago in terms of popularity.

And I don’t know the number, but I will guess the number of college kids who leave for the pros early and then go back and get their degree is low.

Some think the answer is to pay college kids playing in athletics in the revenue sports such as football and basketball so that they will be more inclined to stay and get their degrees. The universities make millions off these kids while they are playing sports and some who call for justice think the players should share in that bounty.

Not this capitalist. I’m in the camp of not paying players.

No one squawked that loud when Bill Gates was making millions while kids minted software for him or when Steve Jobs made billions with kids creating circuit boards.

No matter what anyone says, no one has to go to college. There are plenty of major success stories of people who didn’t.

However… the value that the universities provide to a student’s life beyond their education is never fully appreciated.

There is an enormous value that college provides a student with the experience outside of football and basketball that is so great it cannot be quantified.

You never want to be the one at a social gathering when the question comes up about where you got your degree and be in the position of either lying or explaining that you do not have a degree. Even if your degree is in paper cutting, it matters that you have it. Because when you have a degree no matter what it is in, everyone knows you earned it.

But the college experience gives a person more than just a degree.

It provides you the opportunity to find out who you really are, which is not really afforded to you in high school because of existing friendships and peer pressure. In college is where you really learn to socially interact with contemporaries.

In college is where you meet the people that often impact your life forever.

It’s often where you meet your future spouse.

College is where you let Sherman sleep on your dorm-room floor because he has been kicked out of campus housing for fighting Rofo and has nowhere to sleep but has eight weeks of school left and no money. Ten years later, you’re in an interview with Sherm.

In college is where you learn self-awareness, and it’s where you learn to not take yourself so seriously.

It’s where you run in the steam-duct underground between the library and the student union.

It’s where you learn your limitations.

It’s where you learn a baby tiger cannot be housed in a dorm.

It’s where you meet girls at Humphreys while stealing the Christmas tree off their floor.

It’s often where you find your religion or lose it.

It’s where you learn that people expect you to be an adult.

And to cut yourself short of that experience or think you should be paid for it is misguided and only robbing from yourself of what you could be in the end.

While it is hard to see past NBA money, whatever they are paying you is not enough to miss a year of your life.



Send your college experiences to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 13, 2015

From the Bench

UA Athletic Department Has Successfully Squeezed Out the Press to Control Its Message

Robert Shields

The most exciting thing to report on Razorback football right now is the hunt for a consistent field-goal kicker because the lack of one cost the Razorbacks two games last year.

In other words, there’s no more drama in uneventful Razorback Nation.

Gone are the days of worrying about a coach’s cell phone and text messages or if he is dating one of his subordinates and taking her on scenic motorbike rides.

Even in the midst of a 17-game SEC losing streak, there was no campaign to fire the coach. Maybe the fans are just worn out from a decade of soap operas and were ready to give the latest coach time to right the ship.

Or maybe something more is at play.

I used to refer to the media people who followed the Razorback Program like a fan club as the “Incestuous Razorback Press Clique.” I think that is unfair now. It’s just the “Razorback Press” because you now only hear what the Program wants you to hear and the folks on the beat have been silenced other than to be mouthpieces for Jeff Long.

The falling circulation of the statewide paper has not helped, either. Many fans are now relegated to Razorback message boards on the Internet. A negative word is rarely allowed on some of these fan sites, and if it is then it does not last very long before an overzealous administrator hits delete to make the comment disappear.

The best source on the Internet for a message board is by far Hogville.net. Its sister board at FearlessFriday.com is also great for high-school football and other sports. (Cheap pop, Lanny, so don’t delete me.)

I have been banned from several message boards over the years, and most Razorback observers have told me I should be proud of that because it shows I am doing something right.

But whether it be message boards, radio shows, Hawgs Illustrated (especially Hawgs Illustrated), or what the guy is reading on the television news, a dissenting viewpoint on the Razorbacks is not tolerated these days.

The fans don’t want to hear something negative about their coach or team, which is understandable. But without dissenting thought, it’s difficult to keep the UA athletic department accountable.

Apparently, many inside the program and those close to it knew of Bobby Petrino’s baggage and of Houston Nutt’s text messages, but the fans often never hear about it until after the fact because everyone is out to protect the program rather than report the facts.

The moment a coach has been fired, you hear about what a scoundrel that person is forever more. But where was this talk earlier in the game. In the words of Damien Hogdow, “Silence!”

The Razorback athletics message is strictly controlled now by the Powers That Be, and everyone in the state seems to be a willing participant. It’s the sign of the times, and the best information we get these days is the tired coach clich├ęs.

If the UofA wanted to have radio silence, it has won. Mission accomplished. All you will hear is their perspective and it will be positive. Even Wally Hall is playing along. Probably because those who don’t have their access to the program revoked in a clandestine sort of way.

You cannot blame the people in the athletic department. It’s their job to deliver their propaganda. With practices mostly closed, you only know what they want you to know. I just wonder if they knew it was going to be this easy.

Even in Little Rock, “Sports Talk with Bo” is off the air and now missing its largest audience, and the UA secretly has to be loving this development.

Bo Mattingly’s show typically just leveraged the positive, but at least you heard at times meaningful pieces, guests, or positions. Sure he was on board with the Program, but at times he would at least question some things.

All you have now in the largest market is the caller-driven radio show in the afternoon, Drive Time Sports, which has been caller driven by the same callers for several decades.

Mattingly’s show was different, professional, and more to my taste. Even though I was critical of his show from time to time, it was a great source. Now, Central Arkansas is even more in the dark about Razorback athletics.

I hope Mattingly finds a new home in Central Arkansas sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we are relegated to hearing whatever the Buzz puts on the radio.

To the UofA, I tip my hat. You have won. You can now follow all your Razorback sports news needs on @ArkRazorbacks on Twitter because the UA has effectively squeezed out all the other sources.



Send your dissenting opinion to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 06, 2015

From the Bench

With Strong Finish to Season, What’s Next for Bielema and Razorback Football?

Robert Shields

Three years ago on April Fool’s Day, then Razorback football coach Bobby Petrino literally and figuratively ran the football program off the road and into a ditch. It was a Sunday, and attempts by Petrino to quell initial information about the accident, the rumors started to fly and the truth slowly trickled out, although the truth as reported is still in doubt for some who still question exactly how the wreck occurred.

Petrino was fired a week later for lying to his superior and failing to disclose a conflict of interest. This would get almost anyone fired from their job, and not even the brash and successful coach who took the Razorbacks to a No. 5 ranking, its best in decades, could survive such a stumble.

After this cataclysmic event in Razorback history, I speculated it would take at least half a decade to recover, and if basketball is any indication it could take well over a decade.

Jeff Long, if he was being honest, would admit he followed the firing of Petrino with his worst decision as a vice chancellor of athletics -- he hired an interim coach for the cutthroat SEC and on top of that it was John L. Smith, not even the cool one who dated Pocahontas.

The team appeared to be self-taught at that point and one could understand if the remaining assistants were trying to find a plan to exit in one year when Smith would be relieved of his duties as interim coach.

Somehow in that hot mess in the wake of the brief John L. Smith era, newly married Bret Bielema decided to leave his winning ways at Wisconsin and three Big Ten titles to become the head football coach of the Razorback train wreck.

Bielema arrived talking loud and big. It was a rough start and the national media took its shots. Under Bielema, the football program set a record for losing with a 17-game streak in the SEC.

Heartbreaking losses followed him into his second year with an overtime loss to Texas A&M. The Razorbacks outplayed Alabama, yet an extra-point attempt and a fumble into the end zone cost them a victory over the Crimson Tide. The Hogs tried again against the No. 1 team in Mississippi State and took the lead into the fourth quarter, but again the team collapsed late in the game.

Then something happened. The Razorbacks shut out LSU and won the David Bazzel Boot. It was the turning point. The team followed that up with a shutout against Ole Miss. Three years into some of the worst football in Razorback history, the light appeared in the tunnel.

The football team went on the road to Missouri and could not hold onto the win. If Brandon Allen was healthy, the team probably wins, though, and Bielema said as much in hindsight he probably should have put Austin Allen into the game.

Brandon Allen got well and the Razorback went on to smash the Texas Longhorns in the Texas Bowl. He became the game MVP and the Razorbacks looked like one of the best teams in the SEC by the end of the bowl season.

If the Razorback football team continues the turnaround into Bielema’s third season, it will be one of the fastest rags-to-riches stories in Razorback history. It’s hard to imagine the distance the team has come from the departure of Bobby Petrino to now.

Fans are excited about football with Dave Van Horn’s baseball team languishing this season and basketball season being over. The biggest topic for fans right now is the Red-White game, and the credit belongs to Bielema.

Bielema learned fast. He shut his mouth. He changed key people on his staff and turned the defense around in one year. This year, he hopes to accomplish the same thing with the offense.

Bielema is at the starting line of his third season, and the expectations are growing quickly as a byproduct of his own success. Can he feed the monster in one of the toughest sports leagues in the world?



Send your hopes for next season to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 30, 2015

From the Bench

Lots of Questions Still to be Answered to Move Beyond Two Conference Wins

Robert Shields

The silvery, white winter in Arkansas has been slow to give way to warmer temperatures with snow even falling into March, yet the Razorback football team practices in earnest.

The big news from the spring practice is that a receiver is in trouble with Coach Bret Bielema and is probably no longer with the team. With so many players on the roster, there will always be someone who is not happy or someone who refuses to follow the rules, so look for this storyline to repeat just about every year.

Last year, the question for the team was, would the quarterback play of Brandon Allen improve the most or would the defensive play improve more? In the end, they both improved, but it’s hard to argue against the defense being very salty for most of the season. Martrell Spaight led the defense and also the SEC in tackles.

The question for the team this year is, will the defense remain at the same level with the huge losses of Darius Philon, Trey Flowers, and Martrell Spaight? And will the new offensive coordinator, Dan Enos, be able to make the offense move the ball better and be more productive.

The offense, especially on fourth down and short, typically failed last season and maybe led the coach to not go for it on fourth down as much as he could have. Enos inherits a senior quarterback and an experienced running backfield. He also gets back a dependable receiver in Keon Hatcher who at times last year also blocked really well when he went in motion.

The tight-end position will be loaded especially if the new talent emerges. And the offensive line should be solid again next year with the return of Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper, Mitch Smothers, and the ever-versatile Sebastian Tretola. Frank Ragnow also now has the opportunity to step up and improve the line. In the end, the offense should be improved and hopefully be able to take some of the pressure off a defense that has to be rebuilt.

Brooks Ellis was a solid linebacker last year and improved measurably over his freshman year. He will have to lead the defense this year as a junior. He will hopefully be helped by two sophomores next year in Khalia Hackett and Randy Ramsey. Supposedly, these guys are an improvement in speed, but there is more to the game than speed at linebacker.

On the upside, the linebackers have help in the secondary, which should be more dependable than in the past with the return of Rohan Gaines, Jared Collins, and DJ Dean.

On the defensive front, Deatrich Wise, Anthony Brown, Bijhon Jackson, Tevin Beanum, and JaMichael Winston have some huge shoes to fill in replacing Darius Philon and Trey Flowers. In the end with the Bret Bielema scheme, it always comes down to line play and these guys will have to show up.

I have little doubt about the offensive line, and it might finally reach the point that Bielema envisions his offensive line to be.

Lastly, the kicking game can definitely be improved. The punt-return team was adequate last year and didn’t make mistakes, but it can be better in getting yards to set up the offense. Kickoff coverage was also decent, but it can be better.

The team has a lot of questions to fill this spring to move beyond the seven-win mark with just two conference victories. Hopefully some of them will be answered.



Send your spring hopes and dreams to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 23, 2015

From the Bench

Eleven Reasons to Hate the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen

Robert Shields

If you were unfortunate enough to come across an article last week written by “Mrs. Tyler Thompson” of Kentucky Sports Radio that was titled “11 Reasons Why America Should Root for Kentucky,” then you now know what a wonderful program they have over in Lexington even beyond the current winning streak.

The article points out that those Kentucky Wildcat players get involved in the community and basically walk the earth doing good works when not playing ball for Coach Cal.

They are such an incredible team, as the following passage illustrates, that we should all be grateful to be able to watch such beauty: “Watching Kentucky play is like watching a ballet of giants… when Willie gets the ball and a clear path to the basket, it feels like the basketball gods slow down time so that everyone can fully appreciate his gift.”

My favorite part of the myopic Kentucky viewpoint is that the piece was written like no other schools in America have basketball players that fans think “are a special group” who go visit schools and hospitals and love hanging out together.

Basically, only in Kentucky do you not realize that your list of 11 reasons to love your school applies to nearly every other basketball program in America. I especially like the part about the “nerdy kinesiology major” that never identifies what kinesiology is – as if that’s the major that all the nerds gravitate toward.

(Note: Kinesiology is physical education and popular course of study for scholarship athletes in basketball and football. It is actually the last place on campus you would expect to find Sheldon V. Nerdster.)

So as a favor to America in an effort to counterbalance this absurd list, here are my 11 reasons to be against Kentucky now that this special group that is “not identified by one-and-dones,” according to the article, has advanced to the sweet sixteen.

1) If you’re pulling for Kentucky, it’s like pulling for the bully at the school when he is stealing from the younger kids. You want to be able to cheer when the David slugs the Goliath in the mouth and knocks him down. It’s memories like this that have made the NCAA tournament so great, and it’s time to make a new memory involving Kentucky getting beat by a last-second halfcourt shot.

2) You should pull against Kentucky because Ashley Judd is for them. Who brings their dog to an NCAA tournament game? Ashley Judd does. Who kisses Dick Vitale? Ashley Judd does. She is quickly becoming the Kim Kardashian of the NCAA basketball world. Plus she badmouthed the Razorbacks saying that they played dirty. What? Kentucky has taken playing dirty to new heights on and off the court.

3) You should pull against Kentucky because they are emblematic of what is wrong with college basketball. The number of players who go to Kentucky and play a year or two and then leave is the reason college basketball is not as fun as it used to be and as a bonus is damaging the NBA. Kentucky is not just part of the problem – it is the problem.

4) If you have ever met a Kentucky fan, then you know why you should hate them. Oh for the days when Nolan Richardson used to walk into Rupp Arena and shut them up.

5) If Kentucky wins, it will just perpetuate the problem of John Calipari continuing to be rewarded and lavished with accolades after leaving a wake of destruction at every college program he’s ever headed in the past.

6) The only good thing to come out of Kentucky is bourbon and even that is debatable.

7) It’s fun to see streaks end. You never hear anyone say, “it’s a shame that Bill Walton team didn’t beat Notre Dame and keep winning.” Or, in football, “It would have been nice for Florida State to have beaten Oregon in the college football playoff and just keep winning.” It’s time for this streak to end in glorious fashion.

8) You can’t respect an SEC school that has forsaken football and only worries about basketball. Why Kentucky wasn’t jettisoned to Conference USA long ago is beyond me.

9) Kentucky is the new Duke. Not only should America not be jumping on the bandwagon to root for them, but websites should be popping up solely dedicated to hating this school that sold its soul in hiring Calipari. He is one motorcycle ride away from scandal.

10) “When they called me, believe me, I would have crawled all the way to Lexington.” Never forget.

11) You never want to have to look back in life and think, I pulled for Kentucky.



Tweet your #12threason why we should all hate Kentucky to lose to @robert1shields.