We call Craig May the Godfather of Tailgating. Of the 235 football games the Arkansas Razorbacks have played since 1999, May was at 234 of them, be it in Los Angeles one week, or Tuscaloosa the next. The one he missed was at Athens back in 2005, when the eventual 4-7 Hogs, Houston Nutt’s second consecutive non-bowl eligible team, lost to Georgia 23-20. May couldn’t find anyone to go with him, and that was just too far to go alone for a guaranteed loss. That was 154 games ago.
I mention May’s consecutive games streak because it highlights a basic underlying principle of Tusk to Tail. We put our money where our mouths are. Most of us have bought tickets and paid the mandatory scholarship donations every year for generations. Though maybe lots of people buy tickets, we actually show up week after week.
Saturday, I did not recognize a single season ticket holder in my section. Everyone else had given their tickets away.
Attendance was announced to be over 61,000, which is a ridiculous overestimate unless they are counting the number of tickets sold. Anyone with eyes would agree that less than two-thirds of that actually showed up, and many left when the mighty Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (1-8) pulled ahead of the Hogs (4-5) by two scores early in the 4th quarter.
“Poor Burl’s Kids,” someone texted about the youth organization that attends games via donated tickets. Theirs was one of the few remaining populated sections outside of the May family.
There have been plenty of highs and lows during Craig’s journey. The two SEC Championship games and the Sugar Bowl – all losses – each provide a perfect thumbnail of both. But with the exception of occasionally heckling the opposing kicker, or once pelting Les Miles with a sugar cube, the Godfather has kept a pretty even keel.
Even after the TCU and A&M losses to start this season, Craig still towed the company line. His logic was simple, and other Tusk to Tailgaters including Mark Wagner were completely onboard. Negativity only hurts the program. You can’t hope to heal a symptom but not affect the cause.
“Tonight I found out that winning doesn’t solve everything,” Wagner said after the game.
You think so, doctor? That was a win for the record books only. Everything about the game Saturday was downright maddening.
By every conceivable metric, the Chanticleers are one of the worst teams in college football. This is their first year in the FBS division, and their only win is over an FCS team. When their head coach faced offseason health issues, Coastal supposedly brought an interim coach off the street, rather than promoting from within. When the Hogs knocked out their starting quarterback, the Chanticleers sent in backup Kilton Anderson. Against our defense, he looked like Tom Brady.
That’s part of the lunacy of this team. The dreaded Q-word is one of the worst in the football swear jar, but how many times has it looked like Arkansas flat out quit in games this season?
In the last two games, against inferior competition with little to play for, the Hogs flipped on their give-a-shitter just in time for a last minute comeback. When is the last time the Razorbacks played with urgency for a full 60 minutes? Maybe you could say the Texas A&M game. Of course that game went into overtime, so 60 minutes still wasn’t enough.
Even this game’s most positive takeaway leaves a bitter aftertaste. On the one hand, running back T.J. Hammonds had an incredible night with 179 yards and 2 TDs on just eight touches. But on the other, why is this stud only getting the ball eight times? And why haven’t we seen more of Hammonds before now? After the game, Hammonds said his 60-yard screen reception for a touchdown was the first time he had ever run the play, including practice.
At some point this season, in the miles between Arlington, Texas and Columbia, S.C., with a few trips to Fayetteville in between, the Godfather finally snapped. May was pretty vocal in Oxford when Arkansas was down 31-7 in the second quarter, but that was on the road, before the dramatic comeback.
Craig reached a breaking point Saturday. In the same seats the Mays had witnessed Jack Crowe’s execution by the Citadel 25 years earlier, the Godfather began a rant to his son, brother, and anyone within earshot for multiple rows around him. May was being encouraged by a clever heckler who sat behind him.
“I love the Hogs but they need to fire Bret Bielema,” said the jolly drunk. “I take a knee in protest during the Hog Call.”
May’s sermon was filled with a lot more piss, vinegar, and perhaps a smidge of sweet tea vodka. A couple of zingers garnered a chuckle from his neighbors, like when he yelled to those leaving early, “You’re going to miss the last 10 minutes of Bret Bielema’s coaching career!”
Ultimately it was an impassioned plea from a guy who’s fed up with Bielema. He makes a convincing argument.
“Most of the people who were offended were the ones who left when we got behind. They didn’t even see us win. They won’t be in Baton Rouge next week, but I will. We all want the same thing, and that’s to win. But I’ve seen enough. They just don’t want to hear it.”
This season may have been May’s Cronkite moment. If Bielema’s lost The Godfather, he’s lost Tailgate Row. As he’s done so many times before, I asked Craig to take us home. This is what he had to say.
“This is going to offend some people, so I’m just going to go ahead and apologize on the front end, but sometimes the truth hurts.
“This football program is a mess. The coaching staff is not getting it done in recruiting, player development, or game day preparation. The results speak for themselves. Let’s forget about the debacle on Saturday against Coastal Carolina. This staff has won 11 SEC games in 5 seasons at Arkansas. Five of those wins came in one season. Four have come against Ole Miss, so thank God for those guys, right? Our SEC record in the last five seasons is atrocious and a complete embarrassment to this proud program.
“Jeff Long and the Board of Trustees have some big decisions to make over the next several weeks. In my opinion they’ll be committing business malpractice if they choose to bring this staff back for a 6th season. At this point the fan base is apathetic. Another season with this staff and you’ll be dealing with a fan base that’s angry and we all know how ugly that can get.
“You have to be able to sell the fans some hope for the 2018 season. That’s probably going to come in the form of a new coaching staff. I’m looking forward to it.”
Onward to Baton Rouge.
Editor’s note: Welcome to the sixth 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 against the advice of attorneys and family. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail