This is it for me. My final story covering the Arkansas Razorbacks for SEC Country. It’s not just me, either, as June 30 marks the end of SEC Country altogether. I’m not sure anyone saw this coming so soon. But business is business and this isn’t the time or place to get into that.
However, this is the perfect time for me to say thanks. First and foremost, thank you to all the fans and readers. You all have made this experience so much fun. Your passion for the Hogs isn’t topped by any other fan base and that’s what makes this place special.
And to Jason Kersey, thanks for convincing me to join you in Fayetteville. Working with you improved every aspect of my abilities as a reporter. More importantly, I can continue calling you one of my best friends. Speaking of friends, I can’t write this without mentioning Eric Bolin and Jimmy Carter, two lasting friendships I’ve made on this journey.
Nothing is set in stone as far as what I’ll do next. But if I get to cross paths with Hog Nation again, I’ll consider myself very fortunate.
Kudos to everyone at SEC Country for tirelessly working to deliver a great product. I especially owe a great deal of gratitude to Ken Bradley and Thomas Neumann. I hope I get the chance to have another editor half as good as those two.
So, let’s lay this thing to rest with a recap of my 10 favorite stories while covering the Hogs.
10. Santos Ramirez sounds off after South Carolina loss
Arkansas safety Santos Ramirez has always been a great interview. He’s regularly very thoughtful and honest without insulting his teammates or coaches. That’s extremely rare. Following a loss at South Carolina last October, Ramirez provided some brutally honest feedback regarding the state of the program.
“You can’t put that dog in people. You’ve got to have that dog already,” Ramirez said. “I believe that over time, we’re going to get tired of losing and then it’s going to come alive. But it needs to come alive sooner than later. Some people have it, but everybody has to have that.”
That game stands out because it’s when Bret Bielema’s job status truly became in danger. The Razorbacks were 2-3 at the time with Alabama and Auburn the next two weeks. Maybe things would’ve turned out differently had the Hogs had enough “dog” in them that Saturday.
- Read the full story here: Arkansas captain: Hogs don’t have enough ‘dog’ in them
9. Revisiting the 1975 Texas A&M game
Before Arkansas faced Texas A&M in 2016, I planned to do a story on a past game between the two teams. The choice was easy: The Hogs’ 31-6 victory over the Aggies in 1975. Texas A&M entered the season finale for both teams undefeated and contending for a national title. It’s very likely Arkansas’ greatest triumph in the series.
My favorite part of doing this story comes from the postgame celebration as told me to by offensive lineman Greg Koch. The game was in Little Rock and the Hogs stuck around the state capital to celebrate. Koch and fellow offensive lineman R.C. Thielemann walked into an establishment that evening to find assistant coach Jimmy Johnson in a great mood.
“The two best [gosh darn] offensive linemen in the country!” Johnson declared as Koch and Thielemann walked through the door. That quote was toned down a little bit with the usage of gosh darn. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what Johnson really said.
- Read the full story here: Revisiting 1975, when Arkansas emphatically ended Texas A&M’s national title hopes
8. The introduction to Chase Hayden
I’ve covered Arkansas recruiting very closely for the last two years. During that time, I believe running back Chase Hayden was the Hogs’ most underrated signee. I felt confident he had what it takes to make a significant impact. What I didn’t know was how early that might happen.
I found out he was immediately ready when he had a 74-yard touchdown run against the first-team defense in a scrimmage last August. I instantly wanted to know why this supposedly undersized 3-star recruit who played small-school ball in high school was ready for the SEC from Day 1. The search for that answer led to what I think is one of the best stories I’ve written.
- Read the full story here: Arkansas freshman Chase Hayden poised to make immediate impact
7. Manipulation of the Springdale 5
The Springdale 5 is still a bit of a sore subject for some around Northwest Arkansas. And although I’m not originally from the area, I understood that going into this story and found those feelings relatable in a lot of ways.
But I couldn’t just leave it alone. So, more than a decade later, I had to get a perspective for myself on the Springdale 5 from someone not named Mitch Mustain.
That led me to Ben Cleveland. He was perfect for the story. He was the only one of the five who stayed at Arkansas throughout his career. Cleveland was an outstanding interview, and I believe he gave a perspective a lot of readers hadn’t yet heard.
- Read the full story here: Revisiting how the Springdale 5 were ‘manipulated’ at Arkansas
6. Raising 2-sport star Connor Noland
Arkansas freshman quarterback Connor Noland was one of the first recruits I got to know on this job. Our first interactions came shortly before he committed to the Hogs in July 2016. Throughout my nearly two years of writing about him, he always maintained that he planned to play football and baseball — he’s a talented right-handed pitcher — in college.
I was skeptical, and who wouldn’t be? The demands of playing one sport at the SEC level are immense. Participating in two is nearly incomprehensible.
After doing this story, I came away realizing two sports at Arkansas would be possible for Noland. There aren’t many athletes his age, if any, more prepared for such a task. It all stems from his upbringing and the important people he’s surrounded himself with, which is prominently highlighted in this feature story.
- Read the full story here: Raising a 2-sport star: Arkansas QB commit Connor Noland as humble as he is talented
5. The rise of Joe Craddock
I believe Arkansas has an outstanding offensive coordinator in Joe Craddock. I’m not alone, either, which this story verifies.
My main goal was to illustrate how Craddock went from calling plays in high school in 2011 to offensive coordinator in the SEC seven years later. I thought this story came together perfectly, because it has all those answers with some interesting personal stories included.
- Read the full story here: Arkansas OC Joe Craddock a rising star in coaching profession
4. Johnny Majors remembers Frank Broyles
When Frank Broyles died last August, I found myself searching for a unique way to write about him. I knew a lot about Broyles, but I had no personal connection to him. Several others who cover the Razorbacks did, which almost always makes writing about someone such as Broyles much easier.
I went to the memorial service looking for something unique. Who could I talk to who would be exclusive and insightful? I was very close to giving up on that idea as I melted in the heat on the sidewalk outside Bud Walton Arena. Then an elderly man with a familiar smile and charisma stepped out of an SUV in front of me. It was Johnny Majors. I was able to speak with him alone for about 10 minutes and I had exactly the story I wanted.
- Read the full story here: Former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors reflects on relationship with Arkansas legend Frank Broyles
3. The profane professor
Bret Bielema was almost always the last person off the field for Arkansas following a game. He had a tradition of greeting his players as they walked to the locker room. It was cool to see a lot of the time as it gave me a longer glimpse at the fresh emotions after each outcome. That stuff helps in writing stories.
But in one instance, things got crazy. Following Arkansas’ loss to Alabama in 2016, a fan who clearly was intoxicated began berating Bielema. I didn’t hear all of his tirade, but I did catch a couple sentences that included some very colorful language.
The man also stated he was a teacher at the school, which turned out to be true. He kept his job, though, and I thought that was a good decision by the school. This wasn’t a story I wrote, our breaking news team handled that, but I was mostly responsible for making this news public with a picture and a tweet. It’s definitely something I’ll never forget.
Fan arrested for yelling at Bielema: "If I had your record I'd be f****** fired. F*** you." Also said he was a teacher at the school. pic.twitter.com/SvMYqJ2WvZ
— Trent Shadid (@Shadid13) October 9, 2016
2. T.J. Hammonds saves Arkansas and I’m a knucklehead
Few things have been more frustrating for Arkansas fans the last two seasons than the lack of playing time for running back T.J. Hammonds. I sensed that and agreed that it didn’t make much sense. I knew at some point I’d likely have to write a harsh critique of the coaching staff on this situation.
That opportunity came when Hammonds saved the Hogs from an embarrassing loss to Coastal Carolina last November with 179 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns on just eight touches. I wrote this story the day after Arkansas prevailed with a 39-38 victory. It didn’t exactly go over well with Bielema.
When I asked him a question about quarterbacks the following Monday, Bielema gave me a response about Hammonds’ playing time. I thought, “That’s weird, maybe he’s mad at me.” That was confirmed later in the week when he called me a knucklehead on his radio show and said I was trying to challenge him.
I understand why Bielema reacted the way he did. It was a very difficult season that ended with the first true failure of his coaching career. So, his emotions were high. I actually appreciated the honesty and confirmation that he reads at least some of what I write. I still think he’s a really good dude, and I can’t totally disagree with his knucklehead assessment.
- Read the full story here: Bret Bielema’s misuse of T.J. Hammonds shows why Arkansas is in crisis
1. Seeing the upbringing of McTelvin Agim
Prior to the 2017 season, I knew I wanted to write an in-depth story on Arkansas defensive lineman McTelvin Agim. I found my angle when I came across the background photo on his Twitter profile. It’s of an old brick house surrounded by a chain-link fence. I knew nothing about the home, but I knew there had to be a good story behind it. I asked Agim and discovered he’d grown up in that house in Texarkana, Texas. It was owned by his late grandmother, who remains one of Agim’s greatest motivations in his quest to play in the NFL.
I made a trip to Texarkana a few weeks later. I felt I had to see the house to do this story justice. Several of Agim’s family members were kind enough to meet up with me. We walked and drove around the neighborhoods. The experience was incredibly motivating for this story and a lot of fun. The members of Agim’s family I met were very good people.
I came away realizing the area Agim grew up in is tough. That’s the best adjective I can use to describe it. It showed me that while he has been blessed with a lot of gifts to play football, he had plenty of obstacles in his path to get to where he is now. Agim had his grandmother, though, to set a positive example for him and several other members of his family.
- Read the full story here: Persistence personified: The unlikely rise of McTelvin Agim