story by David Rice
Editor’s note: Welcome to the beginning of the fifth season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics.
The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail
Arkansas football is a big deal, and not just to Tusk to Tail. Last week our coach out-trumped a GOP frontrunner as Bret Bielema and Donald Trump each visited Little Rock for speaking engagements.
Despite their obvious similarities – they’re both confident and successful, albeit brash and arrogant, loving husbands to smoking hot wives – there was one major difference. Trump’s event Wednesday was relegated to Barton Coliseum, the asbestos arena of the fairgrounds held together by decades of Aqua Net, cigarette smoke, and Sweet Connie’s DNA.
Verizon Arena, a much newer and nicer place to see Styx or Def Leppard in the metro, was booked for Signing Day in the Rock. The annual event allows the Head Hog to share tales from the high school recruiting trail, anointing the next class of young men who chose the Razorbacks over more lucrative offers from out-of-state.
While The Donald was reportedly outspoken as ever, Coach B seemed a little down. Perhaps he is road weary, worn down from the 19,000 miles he’s traveled this season to find 20 teenagers strong enough to compete in the SEC and smart enough to pass an entrance exam. On top of his relentless recruiting schedule, this was Bielema’s second consecutive signing day rally following a similar engagement on campus Wednesday. If the man is tired, and just wanted to crawl into his own bed with the aforementioned Mrs. Bielema, it would certainly be understood.
The coach’s demeanor may have also reflected, in part, the vocal minority of Razorback Nation disappointed by the end to this recruiting cycle. It certainly seems Bielema was judged for not sticking the landing without considering the difficulty of his routine.
The 2016 class is rife with talent, bookended by stud defensive end McTelvin Agim and Devwah Whaley, one of the highest rated running backs to ever sign to a school that has seen its share of good ones. Several four- and five-star players entertained Arkansas scholarship offers until the very end, and some of them signed with the Hogs.
Also among those blue-chips was top rated cornerback Kristian Fulton. Pay no mind that his father was a contract employee of LSU and a frequent poster on Tiger message boards. Some of Fulton’s high school teammates and closest friends had already committed to be Razorbacks, and were recruiting him to join them. If nothing else, that got an official visit and an Arkansas hat on the table when the lad announced his college choice on national television.
All told there were three such announcements by blue chip recruits where Arkansas was still in play on signing day. We whiffed on all three, signing only 20 players from our scholarship allotment of 25.
Fulton was considered a long shot all along, but the Hogs thought they could rely on the commitment from diamond-in-the-rough cornerback Joseph Putu. Putu comes from the Ivory Coast by way of the North Dakota State College of Science, and he looks like a puma overtaking a gazelle on his highlight reel, amassing 10 interceptions last season. Arkansas was among the first to recruit Putu, and he promised his loyalty in return.
In a story the week before signing day, Putu proclaimed, “Arkansas was loyal to me and I am going to be loyal to Arkansas. All the attention from the other schools is nice, but Arkansas is the place for me to go see and check out.”
The following Wednesday, he signed with the University of Florida, despite never visiting the state or college beforehand. That leaves our class completely devoid of cornerbacks, which wouldn’t be an issue if our opponents hadn’t averaged roughly half a mile through the air last year.
So one could understand why Bielema wasn’t feeling so chipper. But Tusk to Tail was ready to rage. It was our first time to see each other since the Liberty Bowl, and Dale was bringing spreadsheets. Dale is TTT’s ad hoc treasurer, as well as president, vice president, and social chairman. Gathering for happy hour before the signing day event has become our annual business meeting where we discuss budgets and bylaws over beers. Dale and Greg Houser even skip the Fayetteville ceremony to join the rest of our gang in the Capital City.
There were two price options for this year’s signing day event. The $65 ticket got you a meal and a place at a table in front of the stage, but for $40 less, one could skip the rubber banquet chicken and sit in the arena stands. Most who chose the cheaper option scurried to the front rows while Tusk to Tail hung in the back, closer to the beer line.
“You’re not going to get drunk when they charge $9 a beer.” said Sam Atkinson.
“Challenge accepted,” I replied, plunking down a twenty.
The view was the same from the cheap seats, but allowed us room to critique the ceremony without offending others. At times, it sounded as if our section was occupied by R-rated versions of Statler and Waldorf, the cantankerous balcony hecklers from the Muppet Show.
For some odd reason, the event had a classic television theme. The ceremony kicked off with a montage of clips from The Brady Bunch and other golden age throwbacks played on video screens framed to look like old tube TVs. And then came that familiar chorus.
“Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done. Lay your weary head to rest. Don’t you cry no more.”
A band on the stage below belted out the Kansas classic, absolutely nailing the vocals.
“I think that’s the original singer,” Jay Wagner said.
“Is that our wide receivers coach on keyboards,” I asked of the man getting down in the Razorbacks pullover.
As it turns out, they really did book the band fronted by former Kansas singer John Elefante, who not only rocked a couple more hits, but also made an impassioned speech about the Razorbacks, referring to them as “we” and “us.” I would have pegged him for a Jayhawks fan personally, but it’s alright. We have plenty of room on the bandwagon.
How do you follow a bizarre medley of classic tv and classic rock? By introducing every. damn. one. of the coaches, all the way down to the graduate assistants. I learned we have offensive and defensive directors of quality control, which is helpful because our quality was getting way out of control last year.
Once the platoon of coaches assembled, the arena lit into a Hog Call, and “Voice of the Razorbacks” Chuck Barrett exclaimed, “Are you ready for football season?” Of course we all cheered before realizing that is a really weird question to be asking in February. And thus began Coach B’s cavalcade of teenage superstars, featuring highlight films of all 20 signees, from Agim to Whaley. Both looked impressive, and they could likely see significant playing time in the very first game seven months from now.
Several others in this class should be key contributors as well. Bielema said he considers inside linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris the “steal of this class,” and his video of defensive end Jonathan Marshall received the most replays. Marshall was a one-man wrecking crew, toppling half the opposing team like bowling pins with one move.
We also learned that safety Deon Edwards was the first vegetarian Coach has ever signed.
“But I eat enough for the both of us,” Bielema said to roars of laughter and applause.
Coach made similar quips throughout the night while dropping further trivial tidbits, such as his favorite names (Alexy Jean-Baptiste, followed closely by fellow linebacker Giovanni LaFrance). We cheered when he said he had the most Academic All Americans in program history and we cheered louder when he said seven members of this class had also received scholarship offers from Alabama, up from one in his first recruiting class four years ago.
Sticking with the theme, we hope these young men grow up to be Arkansas football classics. For Bielema and the thousand or so Arkansas fans in attendance Thursday, it seems that beating Alabama would go a long way toward making America great again.