Tusk to Tail’s trip to Houston for last Monday’s AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl was best summarized by Arkansas senior captain Trey Flowers. The stalwart defensive end, one of the few players who played in the Razorbacks' last bowl game three years ago, said, "Stay level-headed and understand it's a big-time city. Understand it's a business trip, and we're going to take care of business.”
The rest of the team obviously heeded the advice, crushing the hapless Texas Longhorns 31-7 before a sold out crowd of 71,115.
Our tailgating caravan has partied all season long from the plains of Auburn, Ala., before Labor Day to the sunken stadium of Columbia, Mo., after Thanksgiving. The yearend Houston trip was executed by our 23 travelers with professional efficiency, yet relatively little fanfare. Like Flowers, Tusk to Tail was strictly business this time.
Travel began Sunday morning around 8 a.m. for Dale Cullins’ car departing Fayetteville and Jack Clark pulling out of Little Rock. Craig May would be a few hours behind, as he waited for Jeffrey Wycliffe, whose journey began at 6 a.m., in Carbondale, Ill., where he had been visiting for the holidays. Based on the speed May typically drives, we expected them to make up much of the lost time.
Wycliffe wasn’t the only weary traveler. May was recovering from a nasty cold that had kept him bedridden for days. I had spent the holidays with my in-laws in Mobile, Ala., returning home the night before heading to Houston. Clark had stayed up until 1 a.m. that night, catching up with old friends who were home for the holidays. Rain, traffic, and foggy roads further detracted from the drive.
We were all a little groggy upon check in. Clark collapsed upon his bed the moment he walked into his room, never rousing until after dinner. Most of us had brought our children, who gathered in one of the hotel suites to stare into the screens of their phones. In the meantime, the rest of us watched the afternoon NFL games before meeting in the lobby bar to discuss dinner options.
The bartender seemed as though she preferred to be anywhere but there, grousing to and about her customers, and offering virtually no assistance to the visitors asking for directions or local advice. Once the check came, we learned that each meager cocktail cost almost twenty bucks, so the feeling soon became mutual.
The service improved at the Italian restaurant around the corner, despite the long wait to seat a group our size. The wine and cocktails flowed while we waited, to the extent that they flowed right off the table once we were seated. Before the feast had concluded, nearly half the group had spilled something. I’m sure the wait staff really hated to see us go.
The following morning was the final Razorback game day of 2014. It was going to be a long one, since kickoff wasn’t until 8 p.m. To break up the day, Clark took his son to the NASA Space Center. For the rest of us, the morning was spent procuring tailgating supplies including snacks, soft drinks, beer, ice, and mixers.
Next was a visit to Christian’s Tailgate Sports Bar & Grill, a great greasy dive consistently rated as home to some of the country’s best hamburgers. Their food did not disappoint, providing the fuel we needed to survive a full day of tailgating.
Mark Wagner, who hadn’t missed a game in five seasons, could not join us in Texas. He was ringing in the New Year with his wife and friends in California wine country, a reservation clearly made with little faith that the Hogs would be bowling at season’s end. Wagner shoots the games from the field for the university, a job that requires large packs of gear to be carried into the stadium. One of the biggest challenges for each road game is to find a tailgating spot close enough to stop Mark from bitching about his walk to and from the stadium. We are rarely successful. So of course we found an open lot directly across from NRG Stadium for the only game he has missed since early in the Petrino era.
Within moments, our tents were raised, the flat screen TV was beaming the Liberty Bowl from chilly wet Memphis, and coolers were being filled. We were soon surrounded by familiar faces from the road, including Randy Cutting and Randall Ford. These men are Arkansas tailgating royalty, each seeing more games than our own Godfather of tailgating Craig May. Many of us in the lot were featured on local Arkansas news, broadcasting live from tailgating ground zero.
At a typical Tusk to Tailgate, the bar is in full swing shortly after setup. You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning. But things were more subdued this day. Some may have been recovering from the holidays and accompanying travel. Others were attempting to pace themselves for the late kickoff, enabled by the trays of food provided by Torchy’s, the legendary Texas taco purveyor.
Perhaps the mellow mood could be attributed to the carnage wrought by our season-ending dance with the devil juice, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. Following a few weeks of our gang getting loose in the turns, master planner Cullins refused to buy the stuff for the Texas tailgate. It took Cullins’ prudence to finally provide a response to our drunken rally cry, “Turn down for what?”
But the change of pace may have done us right. The message can be found from the bible to classic hip hop: Check thyself before thou wreck thyself. Besides, most of us were still able to get our game face on long before the 8 p.m. kickoff.
Once the sun went down and the temperatures began to drop, I knew the party was coming to a close. I began to mix a drink, but before I was finished, there were no more tents, no more TV, no more tacos. The Tusk to Tailgate was dismantled faster than the military strikes you see on CNN. It was game time.
In Texas, football is equal parts sport, science, and religion. So what I saw on the field that night was baffling. Simply put, the Longhorns are awful. Texas lost the battles on both lines of scrimmage, and only managed two rushing yards more than you or me. The Longhorns’ 59 total yards were far less than what each of their fans walked back to their cars, giving up on the game midway through the third quarter.
Based on what I saw on the field, Arkansas is rebuilding its football program the right way.
Following a season of parties home and away with Tusk to Tail, the future appears bright indeed.