Tuesday, August 30, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Distractions abound for Arkansas opener

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE – As Arkansas season-openers fare on Razorback fans’ attention spans, Saturday’s 3 p.m. clash with Louisiana Tech of Conference USA at Reynolds Razorback Stadium fits somewhere between last year’s opener with Texas-El Paso and the 2014 season opener with Auburn.

That’s probably true for the Razorback coaches, too, though of course, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema isn’t doing his motivational job should he admit that publicly.

“I get the question, but from our point of view you’ve got to take it all the same,” Bielema said.

Perhaps most should, but most don’t. Including any SEC coach kicking off the season with an SEC opponent.

Louisiana Tech’s Bulldogs, with a rich tradition that includes eventual Pittsburgh Steelers NFL Hall of Fame quarterback become long time NFL TV analyst Terry Bradshaw, and coming off a 9-4 season, certainly evoke respect way beyond the UTEP Miners program that Arkansas routed 48-13 last September at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

However, in SEC vernacular, Louisiana Tech ain’t Auburn.

The timing and place couldn’t have been worse for Bielema the first and only time Arkansas has opened the season on the road against an SEC team. The then second-year Bielema had gone 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC when he took his 2014 Hogs into Auburn, Ala. The Tigers of Gus Malzahn, the Arkansas native, formerRazorbacks offensive coordinator and Shiloh Christian and Springdale state champion high school coach in Arkansas, had gone 12-2 as the 2013 SEC champion and national runner-up.

Shattering in the second half a 21-21 first half, Auburn romped, 45-21 that sultry Aug. 30 night. Given that Bielema’s Hogs finished by surging to 7-6 as Auburn fizzled to 8-5 that season, Arkansas fans had cause to ponder the what-ifs, had that game been scheduled for November rather than August.

“Auburn was unique because it was on the road,” Bielema said last week. “That was the SEC Network (debut) and we were the guinea pig that year, I think. We weren’t quite where we needed to be and the SEC just kind of slotted us where they needed us to go. But as we’ve gained a little bit of clout, hopefully that’s helped us in our scheduling and everything else.”

With tongue in cheek, Bielema, at last week’s Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club, remarked Arkansas didn’t help itself by scheduling attachments to this Saturday’s season-opener.

Skip Holtz, a former Fayetteville High student, coaches Louisiana Tech.
His dad, Lou Holtz, went 60-21-2 coaching the Razorbacks from 1977-83, including an epic 31-6 Orange Bowl rout over prohibitively favored Oklahoma. After a Friday night banquet inducting him among eight Razorback legends into the UA’s Sports Hall of Honor, Lou and his fellow Hall of Honor inductees also will be honored Saturday during the game in which his son coaches the opponent.

“I don’t know why they did this,” Bielema told the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown at Mermaid’s restaurant in Fayetteville. “But the Razorback Foundation decided to honor his father the day that we have him here as a coach. They’ll probably have three buses of Holtzes here. I’m sure they’re great people, but I don’t need them.”

For the record, Bielema was joking as he was with another story alleging his wife, Jen’s, fondness for Holtz’s quips as an ESPN college football analyst.

“My wife has a little crush on Lou Holtz,” Bielema said.

So Bielema made note of that one summer when the Bielemas together met Holtz and other ESPN celebrities at the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Ct.

“I said to him, ‘my wife has kind of had a crush on you,” Bielema said, using Holtz’s famous lisp while quoting Holtz’s reply.

“Oh, you don’t shay,” Bielema said quoting Holtz.

Actually, Bielema has great respect for Lou Holtz, a college Hall of Famer most notably for his success at Notre Dame and Arkansas. He also has a great rapport with Skip Holtz.

“I know Skip very well,” Bielema said, noting not only his own experiences, but also that of Arkansas linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves.

Hargreaves assisted Holtz’s defense at East Carolina and South Florida.

“I have been around him on several occasions,” Bielema said. “Vernon has spent a lot of time with him. They’re going to come in here with the intention to knock out a SEC football team and we gotta prepare that type of answer.”

While Arkansas fans undoubtedly peek ahead to visiting the Big 12’s nationally 13th-ranked TCU Horned Frogs on Sept. 10 in Fort Worth, the Razorbacks have the glaring reminder of last year’s upset loss at Little Rock to Toledo in the season’s second game as a grim reminder of consequences of putting the game after ahead of the one you are playing.