Another college football season begins this week. If things go as planned, I'll be in the broadcast booth at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia tomorrow night to kick off my 38th year of calling Ouachita Baptist University games.
NCAA Division II schools didn't play football last year due to the high cost of following testing protocols during the pandemic. It was strange sitting at home on Saturdays in the fall, something I had never done. On those lonely Saturdays, I had time to think about how much a part of my life the college game has been.
I grew up one block from Ouachita's football stadium. Each afternoon after school, I would hang out at practices. The Tigers' legendary coach, former Razorback star Buddy Benson, was like an uncle to me. As far back as I can remember, I roamed the sidelines during Ouachita games.
My fondest childhood memories are of Saturdays on the road in my father's Oldsmobile (he had been a football star at Ouachita in the 1940s and is in the school's athletic hall of fame) going to Tiger games.
Like other boys across Arkansas, I kept up with the University of Arkansas football team by reading Orville Henry's stories and columns in the Arkansas Gazette. Unlike other boys, though, the Hogs weren't my favorite team. I followed the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. I read Jim Bailey's AIC columns in the Gazette first.
My world revolved around Tigers, Reddies, Boll Weevils, Muleriders, Wonder Boys, Bears and Bisons. Little did I realize back then that small college football would still be a big part of my life once I reached my 60s.
I haven't missed a Ouachita game, home or away, since 1998. And the only reason I missed a couple of games that season was because I was campaign manager for Gov. Mike Huckabee and didn't feel I could be out of state during the stretch run of the campaign. As much as I love politics, I love small college football more. It's who I am. It's what I was raised on.
If you're tired of traffic, inflated ticket prices and outrageous concession costs--or if your favorite Division I team is playing out of state--try catching a game in Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Monticello, Searcy or Russellville. You might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of play in the Great American Conference, which includes six teams from the old AIC along with schools from the old Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference.
So many years of small college football; so many memories. And I'm still making them.
I remember afternoons at what was then A.U. Williams Field in Arkadelphia when Ouachita upset previously undefeated Arkansas Tech teams in 1968 and 1970.
I remember Battles of the Ravine between Ouachita and Henderson, our biggest day of the year in Arkadelphia. It's one of the great rivalries in all college football.
I remember the places where my dad and I would eat, before the game if it were an evening kickoff or after the game if it were an afternoon contest. After all, what's college football without food?
Trips to Magnolia to play the Muleriders of Southern State (later Southern Arkansas University) meant a meal at the Chatterbox downtown. The owner knew my dad and would greet him by name. You could buy copies of newspapers from Magnolia, Shreveport, Little Rock and Texarkana at the cash register. I loved newspapers almost as much as football and food. I would use my change to buy copies.
Trips to Monticello to play the Boll Weevils of Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello) meant a foot-long hot dog at Ray's. I'm happy to report that Ray's is still going strong.
Trips to Conway to play the Bears of Arkansas State Teachers College (later State College of Arkansas and now the University of Central Arkansas) meant a meal at Tommy's. Owners Tommy Paladino and Johnny DeSalvo were quail-hunting buddies of my dad. He wouldn't think of eating anywhere else in Conway. Tommy's was where I had my first whole trout.
Trips to Searcy to play the Bisons of Harding meant a stop on the way home at Anderson's in Beebe for the Saturday night seafood buffet.
Trips to Russellville to play the Wonder Boys of Arkansas Tech meant fried chicken at the Old South, though we strayed for a few years when there was an AQ Chicken House at Russellville. If Ouachita and Tech were playing in late October or early November, my mom would insist on going with us and taking Arkansas 7 north from Arkadelphia to Russellville to "look at the leaves." Those trips included stops for breakfast at Sam Ann's (it's long gone) in the heart of the Ouachita National Forest near Hollis.
The demise of the AIC came in the 1990s when many of the NAIA schools that played football began moving to NCAA Division II. Athletic directors at AIC schools couldn't agree on whether to move or not. UCA and Henderson forced the issue when they jumped to the Gulf South Conference of NCAA Division II for the 1993-94 school year. That left the AIC with just five schools that had football teams. They played what some called an "AIC Lite" schedule in 1993 and 1994.
UAM, SAU and Arkansas Tech were admitted to the GSC for the 1995-96 school year. The conference wouldn't admit Ouachita and Harding, the two private schools. Harding and Ouachita wound up playing in the Lone Star Conference against teams from Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico before being admitted to the GSC beginning with the 2000-01 school year. UCA left the GSC for Division I in 2006.
The GAC was born in the fall of 2011 and has proved to be a worthy successor to the AIC. Let the games begin.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.