Albama Arkansas Auburn Florida Georgia Kentucky LSU Mississippi State Missouri Ole-Miss USC Tennessee Texas A&M Vanderbilt

Tennessee Vs Alabama: Can The Right Kind Of Loss Be A Win?

Evin Demirel

You can hear the rasping if you listen closely enough. There it is: that decrepit old maxim – “a win is a win is a win” – now on life support, wheezing out its last breaths. Any week now, expect those tired eight words to keel over for good. And for some Alabama G.A. to wheel it off to the graveyard. Please don’t mourn, though. We really have no more use for such a cliche anyway, not when Nick Saban once again has this tusked beast of his thrashing in the dungeon, set to demolish the whole damn countryside for the fourth time in five years.

The defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide’s dominance has forced most other SEC programs’ fans to alter their definition of success. “Moral victory” means something now. Alabama has become so good it’s seen by many other programs’ fans as a kind of platonic ideal, a standard by which their program can gain or lose legitimacy by playing well enough to simply avoid getting their skulls crushed in. Yes, this Crimson Tide program has become a monstrous mirror, reflecting upstart opponents’ promise or shattering their expectations. Look at Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin last year, their first as head football coaches for SEC programs. Freeze’s young Rebels announced to the nation they would one day be a force to be reckoned by semi-hanging with Alabama on the road, losing by a respectable 33-14 margin. Of course, Sumlin’s Aggies would later one-up everyone by actually beating Alabama, a win that rocketed Johnny Manziel from Heisman Trophy dark horse to frontrunner.

This month, two more SEC newbies – Arkansas’ Bret Bielema and Tennessee’s Butch Jones – have used Bama as barometer. Entering last week’s game in Tuscaloosa, Bielema said he had spent months laying the foundation for a Razorback program that would one day evoke Alabama by grounding and pounding its foes into sniveling, gelatinous masses in the fourth quarter of every game. Granted, as far as last Saturday’s game goes, no rational human actually expected Arkansas to win. But most Razorback fans would have been heartened by a loss like Ole Miss’ last year. Given how young these Hogs are, a 20 point-ish setback against the nation’s #1 team would have gone down as a “W” everywhere except in the record books.

Instead, Alabama out-muscled, out-executed and out-talented Arkansas for a 52-0 knockout. This, a year after beating Arkansas by the same exact score. Indeed, as Bielema put it, Alabama is “some place that we definitely want to strive to be. We’re just not quite in that league yet.” To even catch a glimpse of that league, Arkansas must first find a way to unzip the gimp suit Saban has shoved it into. Saban hasn’t lost to the Hogs since he took over at Alabama in 2007. And notching consecutive 52-0 wins is historic: No SEC team has been dominated to this extreme in back-to-back seasons since the conference began in 1933. Arkansas fans are getting sick of it. They know their program isn’t some chump SEC program like Kentucky or Vanderbilt. Yes, it’s been a rough last year and half, but its fans still expect so much because the program used to win so much – three SEC West titles since 1995, and the nation’s 10th-highest winning percentage in the 1960s through 1980s.

Arkansas fans are not alone in their predicament. Look at Alabama’s next opponent -Tennessee – another historically proud program which in recent years has assumed the role of easily digestible protein source for Saban on his relentless pursuit of gridiron perfection. For this man, football is far less a form of play than it is an outlet for mind-numbing consistency and precision. Case it point: Alabama has beaten Tennessee by exactly 31 points in each of the last three seasons. But those losses transpired in the Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley eras – errors for which an increasingly large swath of Volunteer faithful believe a solution has been found in potential savior Butch Jones. It’s Jones who has Tennessee off to its best start in six seasons and rolling after a 23-21 win last Saturday over No. 9 South Carolina, the Vols’ first win over a ranked opponent since 2009. “We’re trying to get Tennessee back where it needs to be,” Vols offensive tackle “Tiny” Richardson told The Tennessean afterward. “I think we took the first step to getting there.”

Tennessee will take another step by not assuming the fetal position if it gets off to a bad start in Tuscaloosa this Saturday. The Vols’ defense has shown steady improvement through an early-season gauntlet that included four top-20 teams. Yet they could play the game of their season against Alabama’s surging offense and still lose by 14 points. Nevertheless, this would be the kind of loss a first-year coach like Butch Jones could hang his hat on – a signature loss every bit as heartening, in its own way, as South Carolina was a signature win. Because, like Bielema, Jones sees in Alabama a model and benchmark for his own future dynasty. “Their program is what we are building here at Tennessee,” Jones said. “It is based on competition, it is a competitive environment every day when you walk in there; that is what we are building here at Tennessee.”

Arkansas fans heard the same kind of words from Bielema all off-season, but they will have a hard time believing them again until the gap is narrowed against one SEC opponent which looms over the rest. Now Jones has his own chance to make a “We’re going to arrive soon” statement.  In a season like this, the right kind of loss can be a win, too.

 

Poll: So, is Tennessee for real? What will be the outcome of its game against Alabama?

 

1. More than 40 points: Hogs Part Deux.

 

2. Between 25-39 points: Proof that Vols’ first-teamers are better than Bama’s second-teamers.

 

3. Between 10-24 points: This is the best defense McCarron’s faced all season.

 

4. Less than 10 points: Bama’s young secondary will miss injured safety Vinnie Sunseri more than you know.

 

5. Tennessee wins: Rocky Top’s back, baby!

A previous version of this column originally published in Sporting Life Arkansas. Evin Demirel tweets here and blogs about the worst back-to-back defeats suffered by each SEC program here.

 

Post Comments » Comments (15)

 

 

Grieving Razorbacks Face Game That Is Both Seismic And Insignificant

Evin Demirel

Years ago, I bartended at the Legacy Hotel in downtown Little Rock. Most shifts were mellow, sparsely populated affairs, with plenty of time to read and chat with the hotel’s handyman. But that all changed one night, when a group from Louisiana rolled in, turning my dimly lit barroom into a din of joking, singing and emotional outpouring. To my surprise, the occasion for the gathering was a relative’s funeral.

As the head of the family rang up the tab with drink after drink, each further loosening the group’s tear ducts in alternating bouts of laughter and grief, I came to realize that for these people death didn’t mean quiet sadness. Instead, it was an opportunity for catharsis through celebration, apparently with screwdriver cocktails speeding the healing. It struck me how dramatically some Louisianans differ from other Americans.
The “Let The Good Times Roll” philosophy permeating so much of Louisiana also surrounds the state’s premier college football team. No. 1 LSU doesn’t have the snazzy uniforms of Oregon or Maryland, but it can boast the nation’s most colorful combination of players, coaches and fans. In the last four years, two Tigers quarterbacks have been been handcuffed for involvement in bar fights.

This season, safety Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu, with a nickname inspired by a mock nature documentary on YouTube, has spawned a cult following with his ball-hawking play. Coach Les Miles, dubbed the “Mad Hatter” for a love of trick plays, occasionally chews on grass during games. Thousands of LSU fans cover themselves with Mardi Gras beads, get soused, and turn games at LSU’s “Death Valley” stadium into Bourbon Street North.

For better or worse, this team – this state – wears its emotions on its sleeve. And usually, that gives LSU even more of a home field edge. Especially when LSU can again secure a place in the national championship game with a win over the nation’s No. 3 team.

But not this week.

There is no fathoming the death of Razorback Garrett Uekman on Sunday at his dorm in Fayetteville. From the outside, the 6-4, 254-pound redshirt freshman seemed the paragon of fitness. It seems any undiagnosed health issues would more likely appear while the tight end played football or even basketball, both sports in which he starred at Little Rock Catholic High. Yet Uekman’s roommate last saw him alive around 10:15 a.m. in front of a screen, playing video games. Another roommate found him about an hour later, unconscious and unresponsive.

Of course, it’s not supposed to be like this. The wound is still very raw for the many people who loved Uekman. His grieving family, friends and teammates must learn to deal with his death in their own way, on their own time. But, through the emotional and possibly spiritual turmoil that entails, there is an urgency for the team Uekman left behind.

Arkansas plays LSU on Friday afternoon in a game that is simultaneously seismic and insignificant.
As far as sports go, this is the state’s most important regular-season event this century. And as far as everything else goes, it doesn’t matter one jot. There are plenty people who would trade a win on Friday to see Uekman alive for just one more minute.

Navigating the Razorbacks through this dichotomy is a chief task for Bobby Petrino and other Arkansas coaches this week. Uekman’s death is only the most recent and unexpected in a series of challenges for Arkansas heading into the long-awaited showdown with LSU. While Arkansas has played its best ball of the season in the last three games, all those routs were at home.

It’s yet to be seen how much of their recent improvement in all phases will translate to the road, where the Hogs have struggled against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama.

The team Arkansas faces in Baton Rouge will unleash a defense just as dominant as Alabama’s. While the Hogs’ defense has recently tightened (buoyed by the returns of Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright, who were injured in September), showdowns between dominant defenses and dominant offenses (but not great defenses) usually favor the defense.

LSU’s rugged, athletic defenders give Petrino one of his biggest tactical challenges of the season. He must also adapt to a short week of preparation, which usually favors the home team. Petrino thrives in meticulous, scheduled settings that would make a CEO proud, but now has the biggest emotional challenge of his coaching career. Time will be spent grieving (and honoring) Uekman that would usually go toward game preparation.

Petrino’s biggest task is channeling the extreme emotions coursing through his team. Passion from both sides will spill all over the field Friday. The crowd’s roar is sure to deafen, as the Tigers’ blitzes repeatedly rupture Tyler Wilson’s timing. With the upheaval of the past week, the whole thing will be tinged with a sense of chaos, as again and again the Hogs evoke Uekman’s memory on the sideline.

No matter Friday’s outcome, the Hogs have already suffered their biggest loss of the season. Whatever strength, whatever good, can be wrenched from its aftermath will resonate far longer than even a berth in the national championship game.

This article was originally published in Sync magazine, a central Arkansas weekly. The author blogs about sports at thesportsseer.com

Post Comments » One Comment

 

 

Arkansas Native On Houston Nutt: “Confident He’ll Turn It Around”

Evin Demirel

At age 24, Clark Irwin finally has a normal life.

The Little Rock native works fairly normal hours, has plenty of time for his wife and parents and occasionally catches NFL games on TV. In the last eight months, he’s even found time to shoot hoops in a Little Rock park, not too far from the neighborhood where he grew up.

So far, so good with this normal adult life stuff.

The way Irwin sees it, he jumped into it just in time.

Until February, Irwin had essentially coached under Houston Nutt for half a decade. Irwin spent three years seeing spot action as a backup Razorback quarterback and special teams player, but his real value was as an understudy to the coaches. He signaled plays to the offense and helped run passing drills with fellow quarterbacks Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain, both of whom were roommates at different times.

“I was getting my minor in graduate assistantship if you want to look at it that way,” Irwin says.

He officially took that position in early 2009 after following Nutt to Oxford, Miss., where Nutt had started as head coach at Ole Miss the season before. There, Clark spent late summers and falls immersed in game planning, film study and practice seven days a week. “It’s almost like you can ever do enough,” he says. Game days – with the crowds, the adrenaline and the constant in-game chess match between coaches – were the most fun part of it all.

Everything seemed primed for Irwin to take the next step up the coaching ranks, to one day possibly follow in his mentor’s footsteps as a head coach himself.

Irwin felt himself drawn closer to the point of no return for a game he’d deeply loved since childhood.

(Full disclosure: My younger brother was Irwin’s friend in childhood, and I knew Irwin when he was in grade school I recall my brother talking about Irwin’s lunch recess exploits on the playground field there and, a few years later, at middle school)

By the time Irwin started leading Little Rock Central High School’s ninth grade team to an undefeated season, he was a fairly seasoned young quarterback who knew his squad could be special on the varsity level. “We had Antwain Robinson [who would play for the Razorbacks], Mickey Dean and Kevin Thornton [both would play for Arkansas-Pine Bluff]. It was such a good group of guys, and we had all known each other from AAU basketball.”

Their chemistry was evident as sophomores, when they finished 7-4 with a share of a conference championship. In the next two years, though, the group finished 27-1 and won two state championships. In his career, Irwin passed for 3,000 yards, rushed for 700 yards and was the first quarterback to start every game in former Central coach Bernie Cox’s 37 years there.

Irwin, at 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds, knew he wouldn’t get many scholarship offers. But he did get an offer to play for Nutt, with whom he shared similarities. Both had been quarterbacks leading Central to state championships while starring in multiple sports – Irwin in baseball, Nutt in basketball. “I think he had some pride in that … He had a role for me help him and kind of assist him in coaching and signaling.”

Irwin felt loyalty to Nutt and his staff tug at him in the winter of 2008, when they suggested he become a GA in Oxford. He’ll feel it again when he travels to Mississippi to watch Saturday’s game Razorbacks-Rebels game. “Me and Danny Nutt [Houston’s brother] were very close. I’d love to say hello to them. Haven’t seen them in close to eight to 10 months.”

Last Saturday, Ole Miss (2-4) lost at home 52-7 to No. 2 Alabama, the Rebels’ worst defeat in 30 years. Ole Miss (2-4) has lost nine consecutive SEC games dating back to last season, and Irwin’s aware of the talk about Houston Nutt being on the hot seat. “I don’t think it would bother him, just because he doesn’t like to read any of that stuff. During the season, he’s focused on one thing.”

“I hate it that they had a rough start, but coach Nutt’s upset too many teams in his career to be worried. I know he’s got those kids ready to run through a brick wall for him. I mean, that’s the type of motivator he is… I’m confident he’ll turn it around and try to get them to a bowl and make the season a success.”

Without doubt, when Irwin visits his old haunts and co-workers in Oxford, he’ll remember all he loved from his past life. But he and his wife, Megan, decided that career didn’t allow the stability they wanted. Young coaches, lrwin says, need to move often “to learn other people’s schemes and philosophies.”

“I knew down the road if I got too much into it, I wouldn’t want to get out. I thought right now would be a good time for me to try the business world a little bit and see what I thought.”

So Irwin left coaching in February and now works as a broker for Irwin Partners, a commercial and investment real estate firm in which his father is a principal broker. He’s surrounded by familiar faces in the hometown of him and his wife.

Settling down, for the long haul, seems so easy. That’s the likely route, but it’s too early to tell, Irwin says. If working in business “turns out not to be for me, I may try coaching again.”

No. 10 Arkansas will be heavily favored on the road against Ole Miss. But Houston Nutt, God bless ‘em, has this habit of springing big upsets at the unlikeliest of times. Plus, he beat Arkansas in 2008 and 2009. Who’s taking this one and by how much? Share game predictions at Sync magazine.

Post Comments » Comments (14)

 

 

Richardson Adjusts to Women’s Game

Arkansas
Content provided by The Slophouse.

Editor’s Note: Former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson was inducted into the Arkansas Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame last Friday in Little Rock. Prior to the ceremony, the current WNBA coach sat down with Evin Demirel to recap his first year coaching women’s basketball.

LITTLE ROCK - Although Nolan Richardson was recently inducted into the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame primarily for his accomplishments as a men’s college basketball coach, his new gig wasn’t far from his mind.

In late August, Richardson, who coached Arkansas to three Final Fours and an NCAA championship in 17 seasons at the school, wrapped up his first season as the head coach of the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. He went 6-28, his worst season in a head coaching career that includes championship-winning stints at Western Texas Junior College and Tulsa University, in addition to the Razorbacks.

At each stop he developed his trademark “40 Minutes of Hell” style, which emphasizes full-court pressure defense. But with constant trades changing the Shock’s team this summer, it made it harder to set a tone and teach the method’s intricacies. Another major factor in the disappointing season was learning the difference between how men and women are wired when it comes to basketball, Richardson said before the hall of fame’s Arkansas Induction Ceremony in downtown Little Rock.

Richardson said he didn’t stress the “us-against-the-world” mentality he used so often to fuel his Razorbacks squads.

“But I am into ‘We work harder than anybody else and we deserve to win,’” Richardson said. “If you work harder and do the things that are asked then our chances of winning should be better than those who just come out to play.”

Richardson, 68, added that while he feels like professional women can adopt his style as well as collegian males, he has found it difficult to instruct them to play in a “controlled chaos” system demanding constant spurts of improvisation.

“(Women) don’t play pickup games; you don’t have off-season type play,” Richardson said he told his players. “You just play in Europe and you come over here, and you’re structured all the time. We’re going to show you how to use your instincts, too, to be a better ball player. That’s what I think guys do.”

Finally, professional basketball playing opportunities abroad can siphon some players’ energy, Richardson said.

“The sad part about the females is they play in Europe, they come straight here and play again, then they go right back,” Richardson said. “The body never ever has a chance to rest. Here I am trying to implement my game? It’s a little tough … The reason they don’t buy into that is they’ve got to save themselves to go overseas.”

Indeed, Shock point guard Deanna Nolan signed a contract for $750,000 annually in Russia last season, Richardson said. As of 2006, the average
WNBA player made $45,000 a year, according to an ESPN.com article.

Richardson believes the Shock will improve next summer with more roster stability, more comfort with his system among returnees and an influx of talent through the second and seventh picks in the 2011 WNBA Draft next spring.

Richardson wasn’t the only one with University of Arkansas ties honored or inducted at the ceremony, held last weekend.

Darrell Brown Sr., who was the first black athlete to attempt playing for the Razorbacks when he returned kickoffs on practice squads in 1965 and 1966, spoke to the more than 70 attendees. So did Betty Fiscus Dickey, who became the only Arkansas female to score more than 2,000 points during her career in the early 1980s and was the first athlete – male of female – to have a jersey retired by by the university.

Still, it’s likely nobody has spots in more halls of fame than Richardson.

“This is my ninth hall of fame,” Richardson said. “That’s a very deep blessing. I take very, very deep pride in being here.”

For more visit WholeHogSports.com.

Post Comments » No Comments

 

 

Richardson Finds Women’s Game Tough

Arkansas
Content provided by The Slophouse.

Editor’s Note: Former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson was inducted into the Arkansas Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame last Friday in Little Rock. Prior to the ceremony, the current WNBA coach sat down with Evin Demirel to recap his first year coaching women’s basketball.

LITTLE ROCK - Although Nolan RIchardson was recently inducted into the Multi-Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame primarily for his accomplishments as a men’s college basketball coach, his new gig wasn’t far from his mind.

In late August, Richardson, who coached Arkansas to three Final Fours and an NCAA championship in 17 seasons at the school, wrapped up his first season as the head coach of the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock. He went 6-28, his worst season in a head coaching career that includes championship-winning stints at Western Texas Junior College and Tulsa University, in addition to the Razorbacks.

At each stop he developed his trademark “40 Minutes of Hell” style, which emphasizes full-court pressure defense. But with constant trades changing the Shock’s team this summer, it made it harder to set a tone and teach the method’s intricacies. Another major factor in the disappointing season was learning the difference between how men and women are wired when it comes to basketball, Richardson said before the hall of fame’s Arkansas Induction Ceremony in downtown Little Rock.

Richardson said he didn’t stress the “us-against-the-world” mentality he used so often to fuel his Razorbacks squads.

“But I am into ‘We work harder than anybody else and we deserve to win,’” Richardson said. “If you work harder and do the things that are asked then our chances of winning should be better than those who just come out to play.”

Richardson, 68, added that while he feels like professional women can adopt his style as well as collegian males, he has found it difficult to instruct them to play in a “controlled chaos” system demanding constant spurts of improvisation.

“(Women) don’t play pickup games; you don’t have off-season type play,” Richardson said he told his players. “You just play in Europe and you come over here, and you’re structured all the time. We’re going to show you how to use your instincts, too, to be a better ball player. That’s what I think guys do.”

Finally, professional basketball playing opportunities abroad can siphon some players’ energy, Richardson said.

“The sad part about the females is they play in Europe, they come straight here and play again, then they go right back,” Richardson said. “The body never ever has a chance to rest. Here I am trying to implement my game? It’s a little tough … The reason they don’t buy into that is they’ve got to save themselves to go overseas.”

Indeed, Shock point guard Deanna Nolan signed a contract for $750,000 annually in Russia last season, Richardson said. As of 2006, the average
WNBA player made $45,000 a year, according to an ESPN.com article.

Richardson believes the Shock will improve next summer with more roster stability, more comfort with his system among returnees and an influx of talent through the second and seventh picks in the 2011 WNBA Draft next spring.

Richardson wasn’t the only one with University of Arkansas ties honored or inducted at the ceremony, held last weekend.

Darrell Brown Sr., who was the first black athlete to attempt playing for the Razorbacks when he returned kickoffs on practice squads in 1965 and 1966, spoke to the more than 70 attendees. So did Betty Fiscus Dickey, who became the only Arkansas female to score more than 2,000 points during her career in the early 1980s and was the first athlete – male of female – to have a jersey retired by by the university.

Still, it’s likely nobody has spots in more halls of fame than Richardson.

“This is my ninth hall of fame,” Richardson said. “That’s a very deep blessing. I take very, very deep pride in being here.”

For more visit WholeHogSports.com.

Post Comments » No Comments

 

 



Follow Us On:
Mobile MrSEC