Two football coaches directly tied to the University of Central Arkansas spoke to neighboring touchdown clubs Monday.
UCA can be proud of both the Bears’ Steve Campbell and Memphis’ Mike Norvell.
Let’s start with the Little Rock Touchdown Club, where Campbell spoke.
The group, as you would expect, consists of predominantly hard-core, energetic and proud Razorback fans. But David Bazzel and his team and sponsors have worked diligently to broaden the scope from the core audience. Columnist/broadcaster Rex Nelson, with Rex’s normal humorous touch, reviews every game by every state school every week and encourages attendees to go see some Arkansas team somewhere every weekend.
The club has set aside a speaking date for the UCA head coach every year. And the audience has always been congenial, appreciative and extremely receptive to messages by both Clint Conque and Campbell when they have spoken. UCA has a broad base of respect and support. Those attendees I spoke to Monday wished the Bears the best in the upcoming FCS playoffs. They are rooting for a championship.
The group always loved Conque’s perception and insight into relevant college football issues. They also love Campbell’s folksy manner, his downhome sense of humor and his storytelling.
They also loved the way both coaches produced and are producing consistent winners at UCA.
Many UA supporters acknowledge that UCA is arguably the best Division I football team in the state at present and don’t want either the Bears or the Arkansas State Red Wolves to play the Razorbacks right now.
There wasn’t a whole lot of Razorback talk Monday after that loss disguised as a victory to Coastal Carolina, a one-win, low-rung Sun Belt team.
Most of the discussion I heard concerned who would be the next coach.
That’s where things are right now with the Razorbacks. The situation and Bret Bielema’s coaching have been discussed, cussed and analyzed ad nauseum. There is really nothing more to be said.
A large number of fans, both casual and dyed in the wool, have made their decision on Bielema and it is reflected in attendance, folks willing to give away tickets, folks putting popcorn bags over their faces during the Coastal Carolina game or those flocking to the exits with frowns and shaking their heads at halftime. A low point Saturday was reportedly some UA fans were cheering for Coastal Carolina to beat the Razorbacks to possibly further motivate the firing of Bielema.
For the average fan and many longtime loyal supporters, anything that happens over the next three games does nothing to significantly move the needle either way.
In a nutshell, good man, bad fit.
That brings us to Norvell, the former UCA star and assistant who will be mentioned for any impending Razorback and SEC openings and maybe more. He has an 8-1 Memphis team in the top-25.
My friends who are Memphis Tiger fans are both stoked and scared. Norvell, as one of the hottest young coaches around, will be courted.
Norvell is personable, inspiring, energetic, has the players’ respect and does things the right way. And he’s a pretty darn good on-field coach.
He spoke Monday at the Memphis Touchdown Club, which is loaded with University of Tennessee supporters as well as a significant group with Ole Miss ties.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones was the guest speaker last month and reportedly encountered a cold reception from the large core UT alumni and supporters. He reportedly got only token applause at best and hardly anyone lingered for any kind of meet and greet.
Norvell’s speech was described as wowing, rousing, stemwinding and stirring. He was described as one of the best speakers the club has ever had.
Geoff Calkins, columnist for The Commercial Appeal, noted that upon entering the banquet room, Norvell went by every table and shook every hand, something he had never seen done before.
When the speech was over, Calkins heard one Tennessee supporter say, "I want him."
Calkins wrote, "Memphis fans should be happy that no athletic directors from other schools were in attendance because they would have wanted to hire Norvell on the spot."
Noting Jones’ awkward appearance, one person told Calkins, "Isn’t it more fun being at a wedding than a wake?"
Whether or how long Memphis can keep him is the question. But Norvell reportedly loves Memphis. It was the opportunity he waited for to choose. And before we get into whether Memphis could get outgunned by resources, note the city has FedEx, which is big University of Memphis supporter.
There is something to be said for building your own program rather than rebuilding somebody else’s. There is something to be said about the challenge of showcasing a community and a program that was rejected for Big 12 expansion.
Norvell has always embraced challenges. He was a little-regarded walk-on receiver at UCA who developed quickly to set career receiving marks that were only eclipsed last season.
There’s much smoke and speculation right now that will take a few weeks to clear.
But those — and I also include Charlie Strong, who is coaching an 8-1 South Florida team — who have roots in UCA soil continue to produce a harvest.