Monday, April 14, 2014

From the Bench

Cheap Pops: Time to Wipe Away the Tears of Last Season and Get Ready for Winning Again

Robert Shields

Since it is spring practice and all you can have right now as a fan is hope, this column will take the positive spin to bring you new expectations of promise. After leaving the silvery white winter of the Razorback football team’s worst season in history, it’s time for it to melt away into a blooming spring.

Speaking of blooming, Brandon Allen has blossomed into an SEC-caliber quarterback. Back in the fall of 2013 when Allen was struggling mightily on the field, Bo Mattingly made the proclamation on his radio show that before Allen left Fayetteville he would be as good as or better than Connor Shaw was at South Carolina. Allen’s trip to that high point starts now. His marks during spring have been good, and he has been deadly accurate. Looks like Mattingly is on the money as usual.

Let’s assume that Allen has become an extremely proficient passer even as the Razorback defense has become even stronger in its coverage. Both may be happening simultaneously, but Allen is progressing at a faster rate, which is a bad sign for Auburn and the rest of the schools in line for an upcoming air raid. Turn on the sirens because the Razorback offense is fixing to blow through the SEC.

Running back Alex Collins is back in the coach’s good graces after violations of team rules and Twitter policies and is going to be a more polished runner improving on the high bar he set last year as a true freshman. He will be one of the elite running backs in the SEC next season. Any talk of him ever thinking about transferring is hogwash and was probably hatched by someone in Wisconsin shut in for the winter with nothing better to do.

Tight end Hunter Henry is going to be even more solid than he was last season and will probably be one of the best tight ends in the SEC next year in spite of playing catch up after coming in from the playground attack of Pulaski Academy. Henry will be an easy target for Allen and gather several touchdowns in his sophomore campaign. Along with Henry, receiver Keon Hatcher will continue to come on and be a dependable receiver who fans can complain doesn’t get enough touches.

Last season, Arkansas was very close to going to a bowl game, but the breaks just went against them. We all know the Razorbacks easily could have been 6-6 last season and enjoying the spoils of a trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl along with a busload of grateful fans.

If Allen is healthy, the Razorbacks would have clobbered Rutgers, which finished the season 6-7 in the always tough American Athletic Conference. Even with Allen out and using a quarterback with no experience on the road, the Scarlet Knights still had to mount a furious fourth-quarter comeback including a punt return to upset the Hogs. The game could have gone the other way if just a few breaks would have gone the Razorbacks’ way. The first break would have been for the athletic director not to schedule this game.

The Razorbacks definitely showed improvement in the last two games of the season. In Little Rock, they had Mississippi State on the ropes and were about to put the game away. The Hogs drove the field and had victory in their grasp but fumbled it away at the goal line. The game should have been a win right there with fans emptying out into the golf course to set fire to every porta-potty in the way. Instead, Mississippi State drove the field and sent the game into overtime. And in overtime, the Bulldogs used their third string quarterback to score the game-winning touchdown and no porta-potties were harmed.

The next week against a much more talented LSU team on the road in Baton Rouge, the Razorback led the Tigers throughout most of the game. They had LSU pinned deep with 99 yards to stop them. They had the victory until LSU got some breaks and their second-string quarterback drove them the distance with much of it coming on blown defensive coverage in the secondary.

Had those three games turned out as they should have, the Hogs go to a bowl game and the outlook for most fans would be much rosier right now. So for the Hog faithful, wipe away the reasons why the losses happened and pretend the Razorbacks won as they really should have in the first place. The reward of buying tickets and making a trip to a mid-level bowl will be there next season.

In September when the ball is kicked off for the first game in front of sellout in the luxury boxes, the Razorback coaching staff on the defensive side will have its act together and the defense will improve to make Texas A&M the worst defense in the SEC. They will get the younger players to step up and limit their mistakes to improve from the disaster of last season that you should forget about right now.

There is only one place for this team to go, and that is up where Petrino had them.



Send your reasons why I am wrong about the positive outlook for next season to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, April 07, 2014

From the Bench

Presenting the 2014 Benchies to Recognize Outstanding Accomplishments

Robert Shields

In the spirit of the “Hogspy Awards” that the University of Arkansas athletic department will hand out on April 21 to recognize the best memorable moments in athletics, academics, leadership, and community service, From the Bench awards its own version, the “Benchies,” to recognize outstanding achievements in sports.

The UofA’s upcoming Hogspy Awards will be hosted by former Razorback and current ESPN college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes, who will lead us through a memorable year in Razorback athletics. Oh wait a minute, that was last year, and Dykes did such a good job hosting the Hogspy Awards that he was awarded the women’s coaching position this year.

In terms of “memorable moments,” I consider a 3-9 football season and missing the NCAA tournament in basketball again more as “nightmarish,” so I am interested to see what awards they come up with this year. Maybe there will be one for the most important aspect of Razorback athletics, which we all know is fundraising.

So let’s award some Benchies because I have a feeling the Hogspy Awards will gloss over some of these more “memorable” moments of the last 12 months.

“Trending Award” – Michael Qualls
Let’s start with the positive first. The dunk by Michael Qualls to beat Kentucky in overtime at Bud Walton Arena would have been a long-lasting and positive memorable moment had it ended up meaning anything significant for the season. But the dunk was a sensation on social media and everyone’s Twitter and Facebook feed was filled with the final seconds. So, he gets the award for “Trending.” Later, he added to his resume when he hit a game-winning three pointer on the road against Vanderbilt. Again, too bad the season tanked the way it did and neither moment contributed to landing the team in the NCAA tournament.

“Improved Award” – Mike Anderson
The season did not end on a positive note, but making postseason play and winning one game was a step in the right direction for a tiny program trying to make a name for itself. Even though it struggled on the road as it has for the last decade since Nolan was fired and the foundation ripped from the program, the team was competitive in most games, which was an improvement. Sometimes like against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the team even won big ones on the road, which was impossible just a few years ago.

“Karma Award” – Jen Bielema
The tweet heard around the college football world last season was from Jen Bielema, and I believe it is still trending in Wisconsin. After her husband’s former team lost in a close game, she made the #Karma tweet and then something strange happened – karma did strike as her husband’s new team of the Razorbacks never won again.

“The Newbie Award” – Jimmy Dykes
With no head-coaching experience, Dykes was given the women’s basketball job at Arkansas. Many immediately piled on pointing out that he has never recruited a female athlete before. Some joked that he did land his younger cheerleader wife. Others joked that he had plenty of recruiting experience as athletic director of Shiloh Christian High School. Some say this is Jeff Long’s worst hire since John L. Smith and have compared it to the Sidney Moncrief hiring at UALR. Regardless, I get the negative sentiment. It would be like hiring me as the next Razorback football coach because I had opined on the sport a few times.

“Disappointment Award’ – Razorback Baseball Team
The baseball team last year was good, yet at the same time hugely disappointing because it started the season ranked No. 1 in the polls. It struggled through the conference at times and was not as dominating as anticipated. Then it made the NCAA baseball field and left much earlier than many were hoping for. Dave Van Horn comes off as even more abrasive in the postgame interviews when the team is not winning.

“Tweeter Award” – Jeff Long
Love 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. That’s awesome. I have noticed some recruits and athletes in the past even retweet his tweets. I find this creepy because it’s like going over to your boss’s house and taking out the trash for him.

“New Jack City Award” – Josh Melton
“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. Last year, this award went to Dakota Mosely and his case down in Auburn. This year it goes to former Razorback football lineman Josh Melton. When you get charged with second-degree murder – well never mind.

“Hero Award” – Bijhon Jackson
Last year this award went to Alex Collins, the incoming freshman with the most pressure on him to perform at an All-American level. For a freshman, he was extremely good and wore the mantle well. This year it goes to incoming freshman sensation Bijhon Jackson. He even recently power cleaned 360 pounds, and David Bazzel even posted “be an impact freshman at the UA.” Rafe Pevy was under consideration, but he seems to have no chance coming out of spring practice unless Brandon Allen gets hurt.



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

Monday, March 31, 2014

From the Bench

Disconnect With Fans Grows as UA Continues to Shut Out Public

Robert Shields

The poorly conceived headline of an ad in Sunday’s statewide sports section read, “Razorback Fans and Donors.” Even with such a brilliant attention grabber like that, I have the God-given gift of being able to grossly ignore advertising I’m not interested in, so I never saw the advertisement until an informant texted me Sunday morning with the message, “Sport section page 5C.”

Though I was in the middle of church, I was intrigued. When I opened the paper, there was the ad that started, “You may be aware that in October of 2013 Athletic Director Jeff Long asked the University of Arkansas to increase his compensation from $1,150,000 to $2,000,000 on the rationale that he had been contacted by the University of Texas about interviewing for the Athletic Director position.”

The ad reported that Jeff Long is the highest paid athletic director in the SEC according to the USA Today’s database of athletic director salaries. I have to mention at this point to the people who wrote this ad that Jeff Long’s official role is not athletic director. As his title so plainly puts it, he’s also a vice chancellor of intercollegiate athletics. To be clear, his title is Vice Chancellor of Intercollegiate Athletics and Director of Athletics.

The ad points out that the football team has only been to three bowl games in his six years, and the basketball team has never made the NCAA tournament under Long’s direction. The NCAA tournament comment is technically wrong because John Pelphrey did make the NCAA tournament in 2008 just as Long had taken over after the official retirement of Frank Broyles.

The “Friends of the Razorbacks” out of Austin, Texas, may not have had everything straight in the ad, but the fact remains that under Long this school year the UA was the only SEC team that failed to make a bowl game in football or an appearance in the NCAA tournament, which officially makes the Razorback Program the worst in the conference.

The ad’s premise is that Long’s compensation does not match production on the SEC battle ground, which is hard to dispute. What the ad does not point out is that Long is a world-class fundraiser, or at least he has about doubled the budget for the UofA Athletic Program since taking the wheel. I guess the fundraising is the “vice chancellor” part of his job.

Unfortunately, money is not the true metric that matters in the SEC where winning is held above everything else.

The timing of this ad was curious if nothing else because Sunday was also the day the statewide paper ran its listing of the highest-paid state employees. Coming in at No. 3 was Long only behind UofA football coach Bret Bielema and basketball coach Mike Anderson -- the two guys who are putting their boss on the hot seat, one more than the other, with ads being run in the statewide paper.

Times are not good for Razorback sports, and if Dickens were writing this chapter of Razorback athletics it would simply say, “It was the worst of times. Period.” The SEC is a truth machine. You can hide your team during spring practice and cloak it in darkness, but play in the SEC brings everything to light. You cannot hide forever how bad you are.

Nothing was more telling than this past week when “The Zone” radio show on 103.7 in Little Rock devoted several hours to the premise that there is a disconnect between the fans and the UofA. Caller after caller made great points about how the UA was continually disconnecting with the fans around the state and with a younger generation not growing up to be Razorbacks.

These days, however, the UA’s answer to this problem is that you can get more connected to the UofA if you send a big fat check.

It could be a sampling error from the radio station, but the callers were overwhelming complaining about how they feel disconnected from the sports program they once loved. When money is the only thing that matters and fans aren’t getting a return on the large investment they are being asked to give, this result should not come as a surprise.

The UA seems unconcerned. It continues to close football practices, even in spring, keep the media out, and only disseminate the information it wants you to know through official channels – its website – charging extra for the access wherever it can.

And then with such lack of transparency as with the case of the UA Advancement department’s budgeting issues, you wonder why people feel disconnected.



Send your performance appraisal to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 17, 2014

From the Bench

National Media Won’t Be Only Group Piling on Bielema if He Doesn’t Win Soon

Robert Shields

Jeff Long of the University of Arkansas is the only athletic director in the SEC not to have either a football program make a bowl or basketball program make the NCAA tournament. But he did turn a $17-million profit in UA athletics, the second-highest profit margin in the SEC, has the school ranked No. 10 in the country in football revenue, and raised $20 million out of you through the Razorback Foundation for the second year in a row.

But this column is about Bret Bielema, who was paid $3 million from all that money Long is amazingly bringing into the program without any postseason play from the two major revenue producers. With that kind of magic, no wonder Long is athletic director of the year.

Last week, your man Clay Travis of OutKicktheCoverage.com delivered a hit piece on Bielema and named him the new Lane Kiffin, the one-time coach from Tennessee who is so hated and despised that he had a sewage plant named after him. One of the main knocks on Kiffin was that he did not fit in the SEC, and Clay Travis is laying the same label on Bielema.

Travis drew many comparisons between the two coaches and hurled the added insult that at least Kiffin did win some at Tennessee. Travis failed to mention that Bielema won three Big 10 titles and trips to the Rose Bowl when at Wisconsin, a level of success Kiffin had never reached at a previous stop.

In response to Travis, many Razorback fans pointed out that when Bielema was hired, Travis wrote that Bielema had the best resume of all the new hires in the SEC, which is in direct contradiction to what he was writing in his hit piece.

When Bielema left Wisconsin, it is well-documented that he engaged in a war of words with Wisconsin and its fans. It seemed to end on his side, when his wife tweeted #Karma. The Hogs have not won since, as pointed out by the Travis column.

If anyone is paying attention, picking the fight with Wisconsin fans came with a price. In the end, Bielema has lost it. It’s a fight with another fan base you cannot win here or anywhere. It can only look petty. As much was said at that time in this space and by others.

The truth is that the rest of the county sees Bielema as an easy target to lash out at for basically anything. Bielema was taken to task recently for his slow play argument and using a football player who died to support his argument when the student really didn’t.

So to summarize, in the last couple of weeks Kevin Scarbinsky of the Birmingham News, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, and now Clay Travis has pointed out how Bielema is just a loose cannon. Many from outside the state are seeing something much different going on in Arkansas than through the rose-colored glasses many Razorback fans are looking through.

The Razorback Athletic Program is in shambles as the basketball team crashed in the last week missing a golden opportunity to make the NCAA tournament that used to be a birthright for Hog fans. The baseball team is still trying to find itself this season, and of course the Razorback Football team is still in the midst of its longest losing streak in its history.

The Travis piece is definitely kicking Arkansas and Bielema while they are down. But it’s easy to do right now. Travis has been no friend to Arkansas in the past, and he must see Arkansas as an easy target to drive traffic to his website. Last year, he did a ranking of the worst fans. Coming in at No. 4 was Arkansas.

Yet after removing all the Travis bias you may see, the column still begs the question, does Bielema fit at Arkansas and in the SEC?

There is really only one way for Bielema to fit now and that is by winning. When he arrived in Fayetteville, Nolan Richardson did not fit in the eyes of some. But he was a fit, at least for a while, after winning and bringing home a national title to Arkansas. He was finally fired when he had his first losing season since 1986.

Bielema’s honeymoon season was burned by John L. Smith. The fans have had to endure two of their roughest seasons in history. They probably will not stomach a third one. Bielema has to win and get the football team back to a bowl game or not only will the national media be piling on him, but even more of his own fan base.



Send your thoughts on Bielema to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 10, 2014

From the Bench

Seven Rules for Running Plus a Few for the Little Rock Marathon

Robert Shields

Bret Bielema gets a pass from me this week.

After Kevin Scarbinsky of the Birmingham News, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, and others including me piled on Bielema for dragging a deceased football player into his slowing-down-the-offense debate, Bielema lost his campaign this past week when the measure was not accepted (I’m actually with Bielema on this rule).

So, I take on another favorite topic of mine -- running. After the Little Rock Marathon, I heard several complaints about the staggered start times, and I heard some people started as late as 50 minutes after the initial gun.

This is a long time to wait in the elements, which were not very hospitable that day. It’s a world of difference running in the elements as opposed to just standing in them. In the past, the stagger between corrals was a matter of moments as they opened them up. I know it causes congestion at the start of the race, but it is a race after all not a time trial.

The advent of the chip timer has allowed people to clock their own time from the actual start to the finish and track to make sure you hit all the catch pads and nobody shortcuts a race. Still, the official time is gun time and it matters in a race. It’s the time officially posted in the past. So don’t hold people for 50 minutes.

I also know it’s just the sign of the times with the race being interrupted and terminated while in progress after lightning occurred because of fear of litigation. I have railed that it’s getting ridiculous with football games also being delayed or canceled because of rain or lightning. It’s a dangerous universe and its propensity to kill us is unlimited. So is the propensity for legal action, I guess.

The St. Jude Marathon in Memphis this year was canceled because of weather. I know nothing is going to change, but don’t cancel races. Runners know the risks.

People train for months for these marathons and take a big chunk out of their lives and time away from their family to do so. Most people train in really rotten weather anyway, especially for the Little Rock date in March because you have to train through the winter months. The weather is really the least of the dangers of the sport as cars and traffic are a much greater concern.

All runners have had to run in rain, wind, cold, and lightning. It’s just one of the dangers of the sport. The Little Rock Marathon makes the waiver clear to all participants that the sport is dangerous, but they need to also make clear that the race will not stop and therefore injury and death is likelihood.

Now while we are talking about safety, and with Daylight Saving Time upon us, many will take to the awesome running trails Arkansas residents are lucky to have, especially those in Little Rock and North Little Rock. I will be one of them. So here are the rules of the road.

1) Most parking lots have a sidewalk or at least an area like a sidewalk. Use that to get to the trail instead of walking right down the middle of the parking lot with your family.

2) It’s fine to walk side by side down the trail and it makes it easier to talk, but realize it takes up more width of the trail so be aware if bikes or other runners are coming up on you. And then move out of the way.

3) If you’re passing, let the other party know and pass on the left, and let them know that is the way that you are passing. But don’t yell it out arrogantly like you own the trail because you are on a bike. Let’s get one thing straight – any runner can get on a bike and ride 20 miles, but most bikers cannot get off their bike and run 5 miles. So show some respect, please. And don’t expect a kid on training wheels to know what you are saying.

4) Dogs are great, but pick up after them. Most trailheads have bags that you can use. What happens if you don’t pick up after your pet? Bikes run through the poo and spread it everywhere making it a huge mess for everyone.

5) Again for the bike riders, when coming off the trail bridges, slow down! I know it’s fun going fast as I ride also, but with nicer days more families and people will be on the trails. So go slow and stay in single file as all the signs posted everywhere instruct.

6) If you’re wearing headphones, you still need to be paying attention to your surroundings and not just be in your own little world listening to the cheers from your Nike app. This also is intended for me as I am often guilty of tuning everything else out while listening to a dramatic reading of the UA athletic department’s annual report.

7) If you’re in Central Arkansas, you have a great asset in the River Trail system. Take advantage of it. If you have ever considered running, there is no better time than the present. If you’ve seen an episode of the “Biggest Loser,” then you know the first thing they get them doing is running. Go for it, and we will all be cheering you on.

Next week back to the Razorbacks and hopefully talking about the basketball team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament.



Send your tips for the River Trail or your favorite trail to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, March 03, 2014

From the Bench

Football Faces Different Wind Than Full Sail of Razorback Basketball

Robert Shields

University of Arkansas “athletic director” Jeff Long’s hope has come true. Or at least that is what I am going to assume.

Back in November, I wrote a piece pointing out that never in the UA’s modern history was it a bottom dweller in both football and basketball at the same time. I then predicted that this basketball team would make the NCAA tournament, and that Jeff Long better hope my prediction is correct.

The Razorback basketball victory over Kensucky made the season sweep of the Wildcats complete. The fans are coming back to Razorback basketball, and it was evidenced in the turnout for the team’s return flight late in the night to welcome their victors, which was very reminiscent of the fans meeting the Razorbacks after the monumental victory over North Carolina and Michael Jordan.

Both events were watershed moments for Razorback basketball. But unlike the game in Pine Bluff back in the days of yore, the recent win in Rupp Arena was big not only because it was a road game but because it was in the toughest environment in the SEC.

Then the usual letdown after such a big win did not follow as the Razorbacks dispatched Georgia on Saturday. The basketball team has climbed its way back onto the NCAA tournament bubble and controls its own destiny of making the field. Arkansas is playing its best basketball at the end of the season and winning on the road, which supposedly weighs heavily with those on the selection committee not on the take.

So maybe, once again, the University of Arkansas has one of its major revenue sports back within the realm of national relevance. History dictates as much.

One of the few times when both football and basketball were at the height of the college world was the era surrounding 1978 when the football team wiped out Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and followed that with the triplets making the final four.

After that crescendo, the teams rose and fell in seesaw motion. In the bad years of Jack Crowe and Danny Ford, Nolan Richardson was winning championships. Then Houston Nutt arrived and the football team started winning again and basketball declined from its lofty perch. When Nutt started losing, Stan Heath made it to the NCAA tournament. Bobby Petrino arrived and lost in his first year, but John Pelphrey took the basketball team to the NCAA tournament and beat Indiana.

Today, the football team is as bad as any football team to ever take the field at Arkansas when you consider its current losing streak. As the football program’s slide went down, basketball fans were more than willing to give Mike Anderson three years, and it’s starting to pay off.

Bret Bielema faces a different wind. The current losing streak is weighing on fans and another losing season would be bad for his future. Fans would certainly give him three years to make his way back to winning, and Jeff Long has to save face.

The problem the UA faces is that Bielema’s honeymoon year was burned by John L. Smith. If the football team starts to lose again next season, it will be the fans’ third horrendous losing season and patience will wear thin – or be gone.

The rise of the basketball team may not be what Bielema needs right now. Fans may actually start to care again about basketball and expect the other programs to win, and basketball will then start to overshadow the football program again.

Because if the pendulum stays toward Arkansas being a basketball school, the fans will be reliving the ‘90s.

And that was not a good time to be a football coach.




Send your favorite basketball memories to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, February 24, 2014

From the Bench

Bielema’s Mouth Again Writing Checks Even the Razorback Foundation Can’t Cash

Robert Shields

If you are a head football coach in the SEC, you can’t go into a strip club in Pensacola and think no one will notice you.

Such is the enduring legacy of former Alabama coach Mike Price who provided the ultimate example of what happens when a coach from outside the South does not understand his place and its magnitude in the SEC where everyone is watching what you are saying and doing every minute of the day.

Arkansas Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema made a similar mistake last week. You can’t spout off about something in Searcy, Arkansas, without expecting it to be broadcast nationwide.

So if you are going to go on a rant about the direction of college-football offenses – and criticize a style that is very popular in the region of the state where you reside and then bring in a player who has died as a bad example to support your argument – you might as well have the apology prepared by one of the public-relations whizzes at the UA in advance.

I don’t know if Bielema doesn’t know or accept the fact that everything he says will be broadcast to all parts of the SEC and beyond, or if he really wants everyone to hear these things such as he’s going to beat Saban and erroneously using a dead player to help make his argument about a rule change.

Regardless, he has to be sharper in his message delivery concerning what he wants to say and thus what people hear. Because in the college football business, not all press is good press.

Putting aside the delivery, few fans in Arkansas agree with his stance anyway, and it comes off as mostly crybabying after losing to every fast-paced offense in the conference.

The issue is the proposed 10-second rule to slow down the hurry-up offenses like Gus Malzahn’s so that an offense could not snap the ball in the first 10-seconds of the play clock.

In slowing the pace of play, I actually agree with Bielema on this one, though not exactly for the same reasons, and I can make the case without any reference unfortunate circumstances with players at other schools that I know little about.

Almost all major rule changes in the last several years have favored the offense to make the game more exciting. These rule changes include narrowing the hash marks, allowing the quarterback to throw the ball out of bounds when flushed from the pocket (which actually punishes the defense for flushing the quarterback), and prohibiting hitting with receivers beyond the line of scrimmage.

The offense has also now been allowed to spike the ball to stop the clock, which in any other circumstance would be grounding. And although it’s a good rule, defenses are no longer allowed to blow opposing players up with the imposition of the targeting rule.

The defense should be allowed to substitute freely just like the offense. The offense should not get to dictate when the defense substitutes. If that’s not the case, the sport might as well go back to the day of not allowing any substitutes during a quarter to make it equal.

A coach should be allowed to switch his defensive players. Just because an offensive coordinator gets a favorable defensive alignment, it should not allow him to exploit it as long as he wants by speeding up the play of the game. It would also not be fair if the defense forced the offense to the same play. Further, a player should be able to take himself out of the defense without faking injury.

But what Bielema said that really mattered to everyone across the country was that he brought a dead football player into this argument.

The dead player had nothing to do with the pace-of-play rule. It was a disingenuous stretch by Bielema.

Many found this to be offensive and callous to the dead player’s family. Bielema later had to issue an apology, and the statewide paper ran “apology” in its headline reporting on such. But, as Scott Faldon of the Southwest Times Record pointed out, you never heard the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” from Bielema or the University of Arkansas.

This blunder was big. And there was no real apology.

When Kevin Sarbinsky of the Birmingham News, perhaps the most influential news outlet for SEC football, is covering it and plastering it all over Alabama and computer screens in the SEC through AL.com, it’s a big deal.

Bielema’s comments in Searcy have now been heard all over the SEC, and it hurts the UA and the football program.

It could really hurt recruiting, and it makes the coach look out of touch and, at worse, callous to potential recruits and their parents.

I wonder if Bielema realizes that many of the most-talented offensive skill players in high school love the hurry-up offense, right?

All this is to point out that I again question if Bielema gets the SEC.

Last year, he went off and said he came to beat Saban. Sure that’s a true statement, but you just don’t say that before you have even coached a game in the SEC.

You don’t show up and say you’re going to whip the big guy on the block. It’s a sure way to make sure that the monster of the conference puts it all over you, and they did beating the Razorbacks 52-0.

You also cannot be so consumed by your former school that your wife is tweeting out the “karma” hashtag. Could you imagine Barbara Broyles doing such a thing?

After calling out Saban, Bielema later got into publicly exchanging football ideology with Gus Malzahn. Just why? Can someone tell me one positive impact Bielema’s mouth has made to Razorback football?

In the words of The Rock, when you are a head coach in the SEC, know your role and shut your mouth.

Even in Searcy.




Send your public-relations recovery plan to fromthebench@yahoo.com and I will pass it on to Jeff Long at our next breakfast at IHOP.

Monday, February 17, 2014

From the Bench

Anderson, Bielema, Long Driving the (Rich) Fans to Drink

Robert Shields

Despite the loudmouth malcontents doing their best to run Mike Anderson off like they did with Nolan Richardson, it isn’t working so far.

Anderson still has plenty of support, and most sensible people have been patient as he tries to right a ship that was way off course. Although the improvement has been slow, it has been certain. The team has lost so many close games, including going to overtime with the best team in the SEC, but that is a sign that the Razorbacks are consistently competitive.

There was a time not so long ago that this team was not at all competitive in the SEC. As a matter of fact, it was the worst basketball team in the conference.

There was a time when the Razorbacks went on the road and automatically got demolished. Now they are within a shot at the end of winning most of them. Worse, I remember a team from Coastal Carolina (where?) that bussed over to Arkansas and beat the Razorbacks in Bud Walton Arena. That would not happen now.

The Razorbacks have been competitive in nearly every game this year. It’s been baby steps, but the improvement is evident. This is the most talented team in probably a decade. It’s a somewhat ignorant team at times on the court, but I blame that on the fact the most impactful players are also the youngest and their inexperience often shows up.

It took Nolan into his fourth season to really break through. I expect the same next year from Anderson. He will have to have a turning point next season or more fans’ patience will run thin with another bad losing season.

Anderson is short a point guard for this team. It’s the quarterback to his style of play. He needs a Truck Bowers, Robert Shepherd, Lee Mayberry, or a Corey Beck. Even a Kareem Reid might do. Hopefully, one of his newest recruits that will be in Fayetteville next season will fill that bill. Anderson needs for them to come through.

-

Football Staff Jumping Ship?

Meanwhile on the gridiron for the UA’s other all-important revenue-producing sport, the defensive staff from last year’s football team has been mostly replaced if you have not been paying attention. Overall, six people have left their positions.

Chris Ash left to go to Ohio State as a defensive coordinator. Charlie Partridge became head coach of Florida International. Chris Hurd followed Partridge. Taver Johnson went to Purdue. Brian Early went to ASU. And, recently, Chris Hauser left the UofA. Maybe, too many of them had the name Chris and had to go. It’s amazing with so many defections that the recruiting class was held together.

There are several possibilities as to why the mass defections. One is that the rats are bailing from a sinking ship. They see the writing on the wall and know their time at the UofA is limited. They see that their coach will not make it in the SEC, so it’s time to find job security somewhere else. They don’t see this exercise working.

Or, Bielema will not tolerate staff members who are underperforming, and no area underperformed more than the defense did last year. Bielema ran off his offensive line coach, Mike Markuson, at Wisconsin after just a couple of games. So there is some proof he will not accept guys failing at their job. It also explains why Randy Shannon did not get the defensive coordinator position. After last season with this terrible defense, how could you promote anyone on that side of the staff?

Or, maybe Bielema is just difficult to work for.

If the losing continues next season, will the other side of the staff be gutted or will it be all of them including the head coach?

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Drinking for the Rich at Razorback Stadium

The UofA recently announced that beer will now be served in the club-seating areas at Razorback Stadium. I’m not sure why it took the UofA so long to tap into this potential revenue stream. The insulting part is that the new beverage-selling discovery is mostly reserved for the rich. It screams of hypocrisy.

Why can only the rich get drunk at Razorback games? Does the poor’s money spend differently? This echoes back to the day when luxury boxes were introduced to Razorback Stadium. The rich who got to be in the boxes were always rumored to sneak their liquor into the boxes by the dolly cart the day before the game.

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Long Jumps Shark With Presidential

Well, it has been a nice run for athletic director Jeff Long because you have to wonder if he jumped the shark with the Powers That Be in northwest Arkansas when he retired the number 42 in honor of Bill Clinton at Bud Walton Arena.

NWA has been republican since the time of the Civil War. The area was home to Arkansas’ only republican representative in Washington, D.C., John Paul Hammerschmidt, even before the rest of the state starting turning red with the rest of the South.

I have to wonder if the celebration of Bill Clinton on Saturday was more than some of these NWA republicans could take. It’s always dangerous to interject politics into sports as fans tend to be from both parties. Regardless of how you felt about his number being retired, it was good to see old number 42 at the Razorback game as he has always been a big supporter of the Razorbacks.

But Long needs all the support he can get right now with the current state of the basketball and football programs. If things get any worse, he is going to have to serve liquor to everybody.




Send your game-day drink of choice to fromthebench@yahoo.com


Monday, February 10, 2014

From the Bench

Bielema’s Job Now to Turn Recruits Into Additional Stars

Robert Shields

Razorback football coach Bret Bielema has completed his second year in the SEC recruiting trenches. The kids are no longer “commitments” but signed to the UofA. The signing parties have been held in Fayetteville and Little Rock, and the highlight videos have been shown.

It’s important to remember now that what you have seen in the video footage is a high-school athlete at his very best. For many as they are introduced into the SEC, you will see them at times at their worst. The SEC is brutal, cruel, and one of the toughest sports leagues in the world.

Yet, you have been told on recruiting bulletin boards and by radio personalities that these kids are good and not to worry about star ratings. On paper, this is a bad class. Luckily for the Razorbacks, the games are never played on paper.

If he were honest, Bielema would tell you that he would trade his class for the one Alabama signed last Wednesday. And on average, Alabama’s five-star recruits are going to beat Arkansas’ three-star recruits. On paper, though, this class is no better or worse than what Arkansas has recruited over the last several years. I compared the football program to a prize fighter that was knocked down, and maybe this recruiting class will come back screaming off the mat.

Depending on the recruiting service, this class landed around No. 30. Not bad, and it put them around perennial powers such as Oregon, Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska. It can also be argued this is actually an excellent recruiting class considering the circumstances that it was born out of.

After not winning an SEC game, losing a record-setting nine games in a row, and finishing 3-9, you can claim it’s a victory to not fall in the recruiting rankings. It’s a base to build the future upon.

On the other hand, if you want to be negative, it was a class that was behind most of Arkansas’ competition in the SEC.

Many stated that last year’s team was talent deficient. In that world, it had to be disappointing that the team could only sign 24 out of a possible 26. It’s understandable to not waste two scholarships on two players who you know will never make it at the school.

But, you have to wonder why it ended up that way. The team needed to max out at 26 with as many new talented bodies as it could. This was not the case.

The team loaded up with people in the secondary in this recruiting class -- a sign that times have changed as Bobby Petrino loaded up his classes with so many receivers.

The high volume of added players who can contribute to the secondary should come as no surprise to anyone who saw last year’s team. The final drive by LSU last season was a great example as the Tigers drove 99 yards, much of it through the air from their little-used back-up quarterback.

The poor secondary last year, which was so maligned, resulted from more than just a lack of talent. Players got injured and the secondary got no help from a completely depleted linebacking group that was often learning on the job.

It also did not help the secondary, just as the rest of the team, that they were fighting through their fourth coach in about a year and a half. The lack of coaching stability can affect the best of players.

It is a sad state, though, that the once-proud Razorbacks that used to feature secondary talent named Danny Walters, Greg Lasker, Steve Atwater, Orlando Watters, Kenoy Kennedy, Kenny Hamlin, and David Barrett to name a few now features a continuing cast of understudies. Heck, I’m sure last year even would have welcomed Tony Bua.

So sticking with theme of the week that stars do not matter, who will be the biggest contributor in this freshman class? Why not go with the kid from Pine Bluff Dollarway, Joshua Liddell? He has two stars by all the recruiting services and will probably be the kid that pans out.

And in the end, like all his predecessors since Arkansas entered the SEC, it will be Bielema’s job to turn these three-star recruits into four-star players and hope as much. As Razorback fans suffer through the winter of their discontent with the previous season, with this class, some fans can still see the sun.



Send your favorite recruit to fromthebench@yahoo.com

Monday, February 03, 2014

From the Bench

UA Athletic Department Rewarded With Wealth for Unproductive Revenue Producers

Robert Shields

In last week’s column, I suggested forming a committee to help the flailing University of Arkansas athletic department find its way back to winning in the two major revenue-producing sports.

But the biggest problem with convincing the UA that it needs to do something differently is that those two losing programs are still producing major revenue out the proverbial A.

I generally loathe the suggestion of forming committees to address problems, and maybe my suggestion was partially in jest, but in my estimation UA football and basketball are in a dire situation even if the UA can’t see through the money it keeps bringing in.

To be clear, I never intended such a committee would be formed to micromanage the football team or athletic department. Instead, the hope would be for committee members to come up with creative ways to help the state’s flagship athletic program off its current path.

The UA does a great job of marketing itself on and off the field. But marketing is about making money, not putting a winning team on the field or court. And it’s important to note that.

In spite of all the marketing, the Razorback brand is tarnished, and there have been many reasons why starting with the drama surrounding the firing of Nolan Richardson, the Houston Nutt fiasco, playing musical basketball coaches, and Bobby Petrino in the neck brace.

I’m not alone thinking the brand has become diminished. When CBS Sports publishes a story about how far the basketball program has fallen, it’s bad.

The Razorback right now is not the old iconic winning image of the past or one to ever be feared by an opponent. It is now just a cleaned-up trademark that sits in the middle of an unintimidating home court.

The Razorback is like an old champ that has been knocked down for the count, and its other 13 brethren in the SEC keep punching and kicking it to make sure it stays out with each blow.

Last week, I said the only metric that really matters in the SEC is winning. Yet the powers that exist at the UofA keep getting bonuses and raises, so their evaluations must be based on something else other than producing winning programs.

My guess is that it’s revenue building that is the benchmark by which one is judged on these days, and thanks to the continual rising tide of SEC television money, the view is that the Program’s office is winning even as the teams it oversees aren’t.

In its annual report, the UofA Athletic Department budget has expanded from $49 million five years ago to $76 million in the 2012-13 period. Ticket revenue in the same period has blossomed from $29 million to $39 million. The annual fund has increased from $11 million to $21 million. And lastly, the average gift has increased from $1,066 to $1,623, according to the report.

The growth in revenue has been impressive to say the least. The facilities have been expanded, and there are quite a few more projects on the table for the athletic department that look awesome -- all made possible by what the University calls “gift giving.”

Apparently, the Razorbacks have a business model of getting rewarded for being unproductive.

I would like to think more from the fan perspective that’s it’s an investment with the hopeful return of success. The success should not be seen as building more wealth, but victories, trophies, and good memories in your life.

But as it stands now, the clear metric at the UA athletic department is wealth building.

More than anything, the UA only wants your money, which it continues to get. Cry all you want about winning, but it is not a priority.

I will leave you with this quote from the UA’s annual report.

“As Razorback Athletics continues to move forward strategically focused on its mission, it will do so building on the measurable progress it has made in every aspect of the program and looking remarkably different than it did just more than five years ago.”

Indeed.



Send your memories of the last two years to fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 27, 2014

From the Bench

UA Needs Independent Task Force to Get Athletic Department Back on Winning Course

Robert Shields

As some Razorback fans fixate on who will be the next defensive coordinator for the football team, the larger issues before the University of Arkansas remain.

The Razorback basketball team is on a current trajectory to miss yet another NCAA basketball tournament, making it one of the longest droughts from being in the Big Dance in modern history. This is coupled with the football team setting the record for the most losses in a row in the long storied history of its entire existence playing football.

As I have heard several old-timers say, this is the lowest point in Razorback athletics that they can remember. If you’re resorting to looking forward to baseball already, that should tell you everything you need to know. And even baseball was a major disappointment last season.

If you have been paying attention without the filter of willful delusion, the problems facing Razorback athletics are lengthy. The UofA cannot sell out games in Little Rock or Fayetteville even in a season when you are starting with a new coach, which typically should bring renewed optimism to any program.

Fans are becoming more apathetic by the month, and with the product being rolled out for years now, how can you blame them? Attendance being down should not come as a shock to anyone.

If you’re under the age of 25, you have never been exposed to great Razorback basketball. You get the feeling that some people have discovered they don’t need Razorback sports and are moving on with their lives. There are other disappointments to find in life rather than witnessing the demise of their Program on the field and court.

There are other problems besides losing, although that’s first and foremost. It’s really all that matters if you’re honest with yourself, and if you or the UofA don’t believe that then Arkansas is playing in the wrong conference.

Let’s not fool ourselves about other sports. There are only two sports that matter, and basketball is secondary to football in the SEC. Auburn might talk some about its women’s diving team, but if you drilled their fans, it’s really all about football. It’s life in the SEC. And life in the SEC is about winning.

And if that is the standard in the SEC, then the Razorbacks are last. And, I mean dead last by a long way right now. There is no other time in the UofA history that you can compare to right now. It’s bad and someone needs to remind some people that it’s not about making money but about winning.

I am a firm believer in virtuous cycles. The Razorbacks are stuck in what I would call a negative feedback loop -- such as me writing negative things every week about them and then getting a lot of feedback from people telling me that I’m negative.

Given the current state and unless you’re in willful delusion, how could anyone be anything but negative? It’s really hard to find a positive outside of how much money the UA is getting out of you.

Being positive, you can ask yourself when Razorback sports will be good again. It won’t be easy. The entry of Missouri and Texas A&M into the conference has made it much more difficult on Arkansas. The UofA used to go into Texas and Missouri and use its SEC credentials as one of its selling cards, but no longer is that the case.

The entry of those two schools affects no other SEC school like it does the UofA. To make it worse, the conference additions coincided with the Program playing musical chairs with its football coaching staff and essentially taking off a year in recruiting, which was a death punch to Razorback football.

You just can’t give yourself a self-imposed death penalty in the SEC where winning is everything and expect to survive. And if you have really been paying attention instead of drinking the punch, you have seen the result in what will probably end up being a 10-game losing streak to start next season.

I believe the dearth of the problems facing the Program to be so great that money alone will not fix it. The Program can throw millions at it and it won’t change. It’s going to take some innovative thinking to catch lightning in a bottle.

Changing coaches, which always seems to be the expedient answer with some fans, will not fix anything either unless you like spinning the roulette wheel hoping to come up with 00 with your next hire. It could happen, but the odds aren’t good. It’s going to take greater problem solving.

The UofA Board of Trustees needs to form a task force with a flashy name like the “Committee on Sports Excellence” to review the problems facing the athletic department and develop a long-range plan to right the ship.

The committee needs to be formed from some of the greatest minds available to the UofA. Maybe some of them are already on the Board, but more than likely they are busy enough with other matters. It has to draw from larger problem-solving background than the usual suspects of former players.

The state is filled with a disproportionate amount of successful business people, and the UofA sports Programs needs their help.

I typically hate bureaucratic groups such as the one that I am suggesting, but I believe things to be so dire to call for a proactive solution. I also hate groups like this because they want to establish measurable metrics that are usually bull. The metric coming out of this group is easy – it’s winning.

Again, let’s not fool ourselves that we care if they are building great minds and future leaders. That left the football field a long time ago.

It’s possible there are minds in the state that have better ideas than what is currently being implemented at the UA with little success. The majority of the people on the task force should come from outside those working at the UofA. It’s a tough conundrum and is larger than the group currently working on it.

Right now, those in the Broyles Athletic-Industrial Complex have to feel overwhelmed.


Send your nominations for the “Committee on Sports Excellence” to your favorite board of trustee member or fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 20, 2014

From the Bench

Oaklawn Handicapping Class is in Session with Bonus Dating Tips

Robert Shields

As you wait for football spring practice to begin and wonder if there will be a quarterback controversy or if a secondary may miraculously materialize for the defense, you can go to Oaklawn Park and watch the horses run away with your money.

Oaklawn is a great Arkansas pastime that often outdraws Razorback football games in its final week of the season known as the Racing Festival of the South. If you have never been to Oaklawn, I recommend watching “Secretariat” before making the trip to Hot Springs to give you some bonus atmosphere.

As a service to my readers, I will briefly cover the 11 basics of going to Oaklawn and how to handle your date or significant other while you are there. You can thank me as you cash in your ticket.

1) Start a show pool with your friends. It’s the best way to make it to the $50 wager window. A show pool is when each person in your group contributes $5 to make a pool of money for wagering on an agreed-upon horse to show. The winnings, if there are any, are carried over from race to race until the group decides to cash in the pool to be divested among the participants. I’m always the one who wants to cash in the pool early only to be foiled in the end by others wanting to continue to test their luck, which is exactly what your date will want to do. So tell your date to keep her yammer shut unless she does this all the time. If it’s your friend’s date causing the problems then ask her, “How many grams does she carry in the saddle?”

2) Do not bet on every race. If you want to keep your money, some races are better skipped – another reason to have a show pool so you still have a horse to follow during a race. The show pool is kind of like a bad mistress, but you’re glad she is around for the extra excitement. Hopefully, this is not how you feel about the date you are on. While at Oaklawn, be sure to refer to your date as “the Filly.” This will help you gauge how uptight or fun she can be.

3) Buy your own racing program. It’s rude to borrow others’ especially while the person’s back is turned at the beer line. If your date wants to share a program with you, it’s a great indication she is too clingy. So then ask her, “If you were going to measure something, would it be in centimeters?”

4) Bring your own writing instrument from home. Those pencils they sell at Oaklawn are lame and using them shows the people in line at the betting windows that you are a novice. Also, never borrow someone else’s writing utensil. Again, it’s a good indication your date is too clingy if she is borrowing yours all the time. Shouldn’t she have her own pen in that big-ass purse she hauls around everywhere? What is in there if not? Also, if she’s using your pen too much just ask the question, “Do you grip everything that way?”

5) Eat the gumbo. Again, get your own and do not ask others how it tastes hoping for an opening to share a bowl. Unlike the previous rules, if your date wants to share a bowl of gumbo, this may be a sign that the green light is on for later.

6) You do not have to always bet on the gray horse. It’s not a unicorn that developed its super-magical abilities by eating dragon meat even if that’s what your date’s kid thinks. Wait a minute, your date brought her kid to Oaklawn?

7) Stay away from exotic wagering. The payout is higher for a reason. If you want something exotic, Hot Springs has a few establishments for just such activity, and this is how you also find out more about your date. Much more.

8) Listen to the Oaklawn announcer between races. He has no real incentive to mislead you like your friend’s date does. The track has no vested interest in who wins. If you can’t ever hear the announcer because your date won’t stop talking, she better at least be talking about something she read in the racing form. To shut her up, you can ask her, “What’s the biggest thing you have ever put in your mouth?”

9) Avoid people who talk to themselves, including your date. If your date is talking to herself by the fifth race, she is one of those Ole Miss bad-drunk types and it is going to be a long drive back after the races are over. You handle this by asking her, “If you were going to tie something down, would you use rope or duct tape?”

10) A horse using Lassix for the first time is likely to have an improved performance. (L1) will be the designation in the program for a first-time Lassix user. A lot of times, you have no idea what your date is on until it’s too late.

11) Always look at your horse before wagering in person. Would you ever buy a car without looking at it first? No. By visually seeing your horse, you might see something that encourages you or discourages you from betting – like the horse limping. This is also called the Match.com rule if you’re thinking of dating someone online.

Happy wagering!



Subscribe to my horse-racing tout sheet/dating advice newsletter at fromthebench@yahoo.com.

Monday, January 13, 2014

From the Bench

UA Rarely Gets It Right in Coaching Search

Robert Shields

The University of Arkansas’ two major revenue producers in the athletic department are struggling. The basketball team’s loss over the weekend to Florida was painful for the fan base. A win over a top-ranked team is desperately needed right now, but the effort fell short.

With every loss by Mike Anderson in his third season, his chances of making the NCAA tournament start to slip away. Anderson needs to return the program to the big dance this year or fans will really start to call for his head as Razorback fans tend to do as they continue to hope that one of these teams they watch and invest their time and money in will start winning.

The pressure will grow on athletic director Jeff Long to find a winner, which has been a challenge for the Program in the major sports lately. As the home of the Frank Broyles Award and the cradle of many great future coaches, the UofA has struggled to land many.

Since the firing of Nolan Richardson in 2002, the basketball Program has not been able to find a winner. The hiring of Stan Heath failed followed by the disastrous hiring of Dana Altman that lasted one day. A consulting group found John Pelphrey, who was way over his head.

Already challenged to recover from firing Nolan, this series of hires doomed the once-famous basketball Program and we can only wonder if it will ever be resurrected.

Mike Anderson seemed on paper to be the perfect hire. He could mend the broken fences over the Nolan debacle. He built winning programs at UAB and then Missouri where he cleaned up a mess that was left for him.

If Mike Anderson can’t get it done for Razorback basketball, can anyone? I personally thought Anderson was the guy for the job, but his time is running out to get it done with every loss because Razorback fans are not known for their patience.

On paper Bret Bielema looked the same way. He had a winning record from a major program. He was the best hire at the time on paper the Razorbacks could have made.

But in the last week, two people with Arkansas ties who were passed over for the Razorback job have gone on to great things with two of the biggest football programs in the country. Gus Malzahn made the BCS championship game, and Charlie Strong was named the Texas Longhorns coach.

If both coaches go on to successful runs, you have to wonder if passing on Malzahn and Strong in the same year could go down as one of the biggest mistakes in Razorback history – perhaps even bigger than firing Nolan.

But whether these Arkansas natives would have had any success at Arkansas is unknown, which only adds to the list of unknown potential that has passed by Arkansas over the years.

Jimmy Johnson was at Oklahoma State and could have been on the table, but Arkansas hired Ken Hatfield instead. Johnson went on to win the national championship at Miami and later a Super Bowl with Dallas. In his first effort against Arkansas, he pounded the Razorbacks in Little Rock.

The history for Razorback football then grew dim as Hatfield left, Jack Crowe was hired then fired mid-season, and Joe Kines took over. Then followed Danny Ford, another coach from a major program with a national championship to his name. He failed. This led to Houston Nutt and split Razorback Nation the minute Orville Henry wrote he was madder than hell after the hiring.

Bobby Petrino was hired then fired to put in an interim in the spring named Taver Johnson only to be followed by another interim in John L. Smith. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and at the UA history has repeated itself many times.

As we watch Anderson and Bielema, coaches with somewhat similar resumes, and the losses mount, you have to wonder if the UA athletic program got it right with these two hires.

Then again, you look at history and wonder if the UA athletic department has ever gotten it right.



Send your favorite hire to fromthebench@yahoo.com.


Monday, January 06, 2014

From the Bench

Falling Short in the College Football Pool Once Again

Robert Shields

So the college football season comes to an end, and so does my latest effort in the college football pick’em pool that I participate in. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then this column is in ode to the dean of Arkansas sports writers, Harry King, as he has written about this same football pool at the beginning of the season the last few years.

I have tried and failed in this pool for more than a decade. Approximately 150 players are allowed into it each year, and they hail from all over the country and include a wide-ranging collection of lawyers, accountants, teachers, reporters, ad wizards, doctors, vagabonds, and even a couple of Heisman voters all vying for the coveted Ramon Escobar Trophy. Escobar was known as a punishing running back in the Parochial League while playing for the mighty Wabbits of Holy Souls and is now a bigwig at CNN.

Most participating in the pool could not care less about the cash and other prizes, but all want the trophy, a Heisman-looking player running with a football.

Women have done surprisingly well in this pool in the last 11 years and own a few of the Escobar trophies. The pool’s Facebook page and blog have been littered with the trophy displayed in flower beds or wearing a pink skirt of tulle fabric. How do I know its tulle? Because I asked a woman named Beth, a previous winner of the esteemed trophy.

Speaking of Facebook, I was reprimanded by the pool master for allowing someone into the pool’s Facebook page. I was told the page was for participants only. It allows free trash talking between participants without outside peer pressure.

Genius is in simplicity, and on the surface this college pool is simple – the five best games each week and you pick them straight up. Sounds simple enough, but it’s far from it. The twist is that for significant underdogs there are bonus points if they win. When you fall behind in the pool, the bonus points can be alluring, and I fell for that in the South Carolina vs. Arkansas game this year. Arkansas, a huge underdog, was worth a lot of points. My belief was that the Razorbacks would win at some point. How wrong that I was.

One of the rules in the pool is that once picks are submitted you cannot change them. This is a running joke inside the pool as people ask to make a last-minute change. One person even suggested that players be allowed one change for the season if they pay extra. The resounding push back from the pool as a whole was “NO!”

Week after week, the pool is riddled with people going 3-2 and 2-3. There is a realization that picking losers can actually be even more difficult than picking winners, and so there is an award for having the worst record. Because if you’re shooting for bottom, the heavy underdogs are not a bonus but a penalty if they win. Take Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, for instance.

The one rule for finishing last is that you must submit all picks throughout the season. Skipping a game disqualifies you from that bottom award. This is just one of the oddities of the pool. Everyone understands the results could easily be reversed. You want to be the outlier.

Some believe that by picking games involving three teams accurately each season you can win the pool. Those teams are Clemson, Notre Dame, and Auburn as those teams tend to be the most schizophrenic. A post on the pool’s page after the Orange Bowl just read, “Clemson! (drops mic)” after someone picked Clemson correctly for the first time in three seasons.

Subgroups have formed over the years inside the pool and give their own awards with some of these groups named Beowulf’s Mead, Pacheco’s Punch Chalice, Jersey Shore Smackdown, Skoal Bowl, Davis Cup, and the Taco Bell Chilito Challenge. There is even a subgroup for media types. And, of course, there is the Shields-Yada Cup.

While I may have won a subgroup or two of a few people, I feel as though I’m the most tortured and tormented soul in the pool. If you hate me, you will enjoy this part of the story.

I have made it to the final game with a chance to win the whole thing two times. Last year, I win if Notre Dame would have won. Instead, the Irish were crushed along with my dreams of having my own Ramon Escobar Trophy. The other time, my screaming of “Nooooooooooo!” probably still echoes through the universe from when Vince Young scampered into the end zone to beat the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl to win the title. To this day, because of that game I still hate official review and knew that Lane Kiffen was no football mastermind.

Enter this year, I was mired in the middle of the 150 participants heading into bowl season. I needed some good fortune and went after some bonus points. I picked Oklahoma over Alabama and some other key games. Before I sent in my picks, I talked to a previous winner, Beth, and inquired if Central Florida had any chance of beating Baylor. The response was, “hell no.” I agreed.

Then came the message of the latest pool update. I had vaulted all the way to third place. The difference in not being in first place was the Central Florida win and its bonus points that I did not garner. So after a titanic comeback, I will fall short once again.

I walk into my den to see on my mantle a Ramon Escobar Trophy as a mocking monument to my failures in the pool. This trophy is not mine as it wears pink tulle. Since Sunday, the pool is not discussed in the Shields household.



Send your questions about why I hate review and why Lane Kiffen owes me a Ramon Escobar Trophy to fromthebench@yahoo.com.