Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Fayetteville, AR



A pall of dread and doom, in disregard of what had been a gorgeous Indian Summer day, greeted my late afternoon arrival.

Last Saturday night, for the sacrilege it proclaimed to the college football world, the monstrous new state-of-the-art scoreboard at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium in Fayetteville, AR could not be turned off fast enough:  North Texas State 44, the Arkansas Razorbacks 17. No way. Ok, but how?

 Three in a row
I fear I have picked a most inopportune time to visit Fayetteville, AR, home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Even on Monday afternoon, when I arrive 48 hours after the weekend debacle, a suffocating cloud of disbelief and shock still hung over the Ozark mountain valley that harbors this quaint college town. Last Saturday, the faithful had sat stone silent through a very real old southern style butt kicking. You could have heard a mouse piss on cotton that night in Reynolds Stadium, it was so quiet, a heavily bearded waiter at the downtown Power House Restaurant informs me.  Heaped on top of this night of humiliation for the Hog faithful was another, hard to swallow, one touchdown home field loss to Colorado State the Saturday prior, not the way for a South Eeastern Conference heavy weight to open the season.

The last two Saturdays were supposed to be mere tune-ups for when the big boys of the SEC come a calling, nothing but a fine excuse to tailgate before a walk over win. These early season mismatches for the powers of the big dollar college football club are called win-buys, in other words, pay a weak opponent for a guaranteed win. Give a small school, like North Texas State - that really needs the revenue - a nice paycheck, at times in the seven figure range. It is win/win for both parties. This tidy fiscal arrangement allows for the power conference schools to work out the kinks against a sacrificial lamb that leaves bloodied - but richer. Somebody forgot to get the memo to North Texas State. Losing decidedly to the Mean Green of NTSU elicits the obvious question from the Hog loyalists: So what happens when the Crimson Tide roll into town?

But, the Coach is new this season (his predecessor was given a multi-million dollar buy out of the last three years on his contract to send him quietly on his way out of town) I point out, and the locals will be patient, I assume. Don’t bet on it, a motel desk clerk tells me Monday evening. “We lost a season opener at home a few years ago and Frank (Broyles, the Hogs late, long time and legendary, crusty Athletic Director) met him in the tunnel coming off the field at the end of the game and fired the old boy on the spot. It was the first game of the season,” he laughs “Now, what was that ole boy’s name,” he inquires of his friend loafing at an adjoining table?” Neither have the long term memory to recall the banished coaches’ name, only his sin.

This is Hog Land and don’t patronize the locals with talk about the Razorback’s baseball team that finished last season second in the nation, albeit with a roster full of California and Florida imports; or the cross country and track teams who have won multiple national titles, albeit with a cast of foreign Olympians. Don’t matter. Ever seen a tailgater at a cross country meet?

******

State POY four straight years
I was in town to document the long running blue ribbon Fayetteville High School girls’ volleyball program. However, an underlying reason to make this late summer journey was the opportunity to study and experience a community with both a successful college athletic program blended with a long time successful high school athletic program. I was not to leave disappointed in the insights I gained.

Located literally in the shadows of the Razorback’s gluttonous Taj Mahal of a football shrine (stadium),  currently undergoing renovations that by next fall will add 4,800 seats (raising total seating capacity to over 80,000), including new luxury suites, club areas and loge boxes, Fayetteville High School has built an eye opening athletic dynasty of its own. Recently, Sports Illustrated recognized the 2000 student high school as possessing one of the nation’s top 20 high school athletic programs. Since 1996, the purple and gray clad Bulldog teams have won a state best 90 combined state wide athletic titles.

The volleyball team at FHS over the past 15 years has patiently and methodically chiseled out its own niche in the local sports world. Under the direction of Coach Jessica Phelan and, despite competing in the fall directly with the Deep South’s obsession with football, the volleyball Bulldogs have built one of the nation’s top programs, at times ranked in the national top 20 polls. The Bulldogs enter the 2018 season as a three time defending Arkansas Class 7A state champions. 

The last four Gatorade State Player of the Year awards have been scooped up by two Bulldogs, both who graduated last spring. Haley Warner won the honors in the years of 2014 and 2017; teammate Ella May Powell was the recipient in 2015 and 2016. Warner now plays for the powerful Florida Gators while Powell as a freshman is the starting setter for the University of Washington. Both had been offered Division I full ride scholarships as 8th graders. It is hard, if not next to impossible. on the high school level to lose cogs of that caliber and not endure a bumpy next season.

 Coach Phelan
The 2018 Bulldogs enter the home stretch of their schedule with a very un-Fayetteville mark of 10-12. This is a program that has played for a state title seven of the past eight years, bringing home top honors four times. I had followed online the progress of the season and as the losses piled up, I from afar, grew concerned about my impending visit. How do I put a positive spin on what I anticipated finding - a dispirited team grinding through to finish a forgettable season as soon as possible, a traditional powerhouse that had fallen off the rails, now simply going through the motions before throwing dirt on the carcass of the 2018 season, was the question I pondered on my five hour drive down from St. Louis?

*****



Error, I have learned, is the ultimate inside job, and I have assuredly perfected this skill.

As I tend to do often, my preconceived vision of what I would find at the 2:15 Bulldog practice I was scheduled to attend was off by only a mere 180 degrees. The whole package: energy, focus, organization, supportive teammates; all ingredients that make for a championship level practice were this day vibrantly on display. This team practiced like a three time defending state champion; not a team with a losing record just mailing in the remainder of the season.

 Practice Drills
I asked Coach Phelan why all the positive vibes from a team seemingly anchored in the dire straits of mediocrity and a disappointing season? “I have three great seniors,” she explained in blunt response to my blunt inquiry. “They have been out front in keeping the focus sharp. All three are just outstanding kids. This is a very small class of seniors. The ones, who have stuck it out, these three, knew early that they were behind several outstanding classes and their opportunities as underclassman for varsity court time could and probably would be limited.”

Phelan took objection to my gloomy assessment of the season. “We play a very, very tough schedule. We have lost some close matches, but there can be such a thing as a-”good” loss, I have over time accepted this, when you know you are getting better. We have a lot of volleyball to play yet (this season) and you could see for yourself today that this team’s morale is high. They are having fun.”

The watershed effect of the strong players now graduated is a double whammy to this year’s seniors. “There was never much pressure on this group, they had a comfortable supportive role to play and they did it well,” the fifteen year Bulldog leader says. “All three were contributors to last year’s state (title) team, but they didn’t have to be leaders, until now. And that is tough.” Locked now into a role that requires this trio to quickly gain the respect from the underclassman, to be viewed now as pace setters, is a daunting task.

But, according to their coach, they have conquered well the crucible thrown at them.  “I couldn’t be more satisfied with all three,” is the evaluation Coach Phelan gives. “The positive mood and focus to get better each day, what you saw today (at practice), it is because of the attitude of my three seniors. It gets to the heart of what it takes for a group to be successful, to thrive: you have to work really hard and really embrace the power of being a teammate.”
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 Senior Trio
There is no pressure on this group. All three seniors tell me in a post practice interview that they are comfortable with the lower expectations for the current season, that they can play loose and have fun, but come state tournament time, you just never know who can catch the hot hand. 

A big part of coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled. This will be the main mental focus as the team heads down the season’s home stretch with a 4th state trophy waiting at the finish line. In other words, the hunted has now become the hunter and that, Coach Phelan tells me, is in some ways a welcome role reversal from the high expectations of the past three years. For a team that knows what it takes to win championships to be lurking in the mid-season shadows is not a bad place to be.  "Don’t count us out yet for this year,” a confident Coach Phelan warns me. “I can see the pieces coming together."

*****

Claire Cooper, Carly Unruh and Jaden Weller are enjoying the twilight moments of their Bulldog careers. Unruh intends to play volleyball next year in college. Cooper and Weller plan to be full time students next fall, giving up the sport on the competitive level.

All three point to the resilience of this year’s team with pride, in effect, their footprint on the program’s legacy. They see their “no quit” attitude as a badge of honor they have earned the right to wear. But the goal of resilience is not just to live to fight another day, but, instead, to thrive.

Game action vs. Heritage
Adversity can tap unexpected strengths. “I am not naturally outgoing,” says Weller. “It has taken some real effort on my part to become more of a vocal leader.” She feels a strong obligation of duty to give back to a program that has given her so much. “Last year, I was the back-up setter to Ella May (Powell). She was an All-American, but she was just so good to me, taught me so much. For a player of her ability to be so supportive of her backup just meant everything to me. I can never begin to fill her shoes as a player, but I can strive to do my best in setting an example and to be the best teammate possible, like she was to me.”

Cooper and Unruh grew up as friends in Branson, MO, over the state line and an hour north of Fayetteville. “We knew each other all of lives,” says the gregarious Cooper. “I moved here in 8th grade and Claire in 9th grade,” says Unruh. “It was just coincidence it happened this way, but it was nice to have a friend already here.”

All three were involved in multiple sports through their elementary school days, but all concentrate now on just volleyball. “We pretty much have to,” says Cooper of the specialization. “It takes a lot of time to drill to be able to play at this level.  If we are not involved in the school season, then we are getting ready for club season,” she says of her year round commitment.

All three agree wholeheartedly that the school team takes priority. “We spend the club season trying to get better with the goal of winning the state championship for our school,” states Weller. “I cannot describe how good it felt when the ball hit the floor on the last point last year and we knew we were state champions. It seemed like the ball was never going to come down. It is something I will never forget; always take with me and it makes all the work worth it.” Cooper says that defining moment in the state title match still, "gives me chills."

I am impressed that the Bulldogs seniors have figured out that a failure in life will never be greater than a life’s regret. They all three inform me that when in a few weeks they peel away their sweat socked Bulldog game jerseys for the last time, they will do so with no regrets.

*****

The Northwest Arkansas region has seen an explosion in growth over the last generation. Fueled by the world headquarters of the retail giant, Walmart, the towns to the north of

After school practice 
Fayetteville - Bentonville and Rogers, have been inundated with so many new families the local school districts are stretched to their limits with constant building.

The four-county Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area, with 463,204 residents, is today ranked as the nation’s 105th most populated region. Fayetteville in 2010 was home to 73,580 people, a growth rate of 26.8% from the year 2000.

Fayetteville has all the ingredients that make college towns a desirable modern habitat. Locals enjoy a cultural identity from the University of Arkansas found nowhere else in the state. The area is a prominent arts and music center with a vibrant college entertainment district, anchored by numerous trendy and exotic bars and restaurants. And of course, there are the Razorbacks. Fayetteville's passion for the Hogs earned the city a #15 ranking on Forbes' latest "Top College Sports Towns" list. 

*****

When you are honest, sans the blinding pageantry, there is no logical educational defense for America’s obsession with intercollegiate athletics. But, its imminent demise has been proclaimed for almost as long as the existence of intercollegiate athletics itself. Like some pollution resistant carp, the beast continues to not only exist but to thrive in the very toxic quagmire itself  has created.

The National Collegiate  Athletic Association, who oversees major college athletics, is a text book example of a Cartel. By enforcing rules that prevent paying players (euphemistically called student-athletes by the NCAA) what they would make in a competitive labor market, they have created a slave labor pool of  students who own  high in-demand skills, but have no rights under the current system to share in the incredible wealth their labors produce.  

A superstar athlete in the two sports that are responsible for almost all of the revenue produced in college athletics, men’s basketball and, of course, football; generate literally millions of dollars but will receive only scholarship assistance and a small additional spending allowance in return. Wealth that would under a capitalistic system go largely to players flows instead to those who recruit them, namely coaches and athletic administrators. When Charlie Ward, a quarterback at Florida State University, won the
Top flight facilities
1995 Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in the nation, the FSU owned University book store made tens of thousands of dollars selling replicas of Ward’s  number 7 game jersey. But Ward himself, he testified, could not afford the $50 asking price to buy his own jersey. Today, 23 years later the throwback jersey is still a hot item on the FSU book store website. The now 47 year old Ward has never received any of the proceeds his image still to this day generates.

The University of Alabama’s football coach, Nick Saban, makes over $11 million annually to oversee the dynasty style Plantation he has built in Tuscaloosa, earning about as much in a month as his boss, the University of Alabama’s president, earns in a year. Today, in 41 states the highest paid state employee is a collegiate men’s basketball coach or a football coach. The starting Quarterback who led the Crimson Tide to a national football championship last January, Tua Tagovailoa, with his “salary” scholarship, is receiving less than one percent the earnings of his coach. Contrast that to professional sports where in a true free market capitalistic system the true worthy commodity, the players, have salaries that dwarf that of their coaches.

In the 1950s NCAA bylaws stated: “Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” 

In today’s athletics arms race universities, despite a stated mission to create a place of higher learning and intellect, have commercialized athletics to the point where they are essentially running professional teams. Not burdened to pay market driven salaries while exploiting hundreds of athletes by using their images and skills for profit, the colleges hold all the bargaining chips, with the player’s scholarships dependent on participation.

According to data from the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s largest athletic revenue producing institution, the educational journey of a college athlete will often suffer a dismal crash landing. Nearly one-third of the recruited athletes to its Ann Arbor campus in the class of 2011 — 70 out of 221 — had quit their sports by November 2010, according to a report submitted to the provost by the Compliance Office. U of M’s Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger said the numbers are very similar year to year.

Major college athletics is fundamentally based on a mercenary system that one must believe will eventually cannibalize itself. The out of control spending on facilities to stay in competition with fellow institutions of high learning is insane. It is a system that cannot be maintained and will eventually cave under the weight of its own greed and the hypocritical treatment of its most basic and indispensable revenue source – the athletes themselves.

High on the Hogs
In 2015, when the players at the University of Missouri threatened to not play in a home football game against Brigham Young University unless the University President resigned, their demands were quickly met. The mostly white alumni were infuriated with the thought that such a small minority had seized such power, in effect, the patients running the asylum. The mostly black athletes on the Mizzou football team were almost giddy with the empowerment their threatened boycott, a work stoppage in labor terms, had so quickly sparked an unconditional surrender from the school’s administration. Shock waves rolled through the office of every Athletic Director of a major university in the land. Was there a revolt brewing on the plantation? Have the athletes finally figured out they are the valued commodity, not the coach, and without them there is no show, no need to expand stadiums and build new luxury boxes at Fayetteville’s Reynolds Stadium?

They have not, yet.

*****

Coach Phelan has a loaded volleyball resume that is of a five star caliber.  Growing up in the small and picturesque Missouri River town of Hermann, MO, she learned the sport under the tutelage of legendary Bearcat mentor Linda Lampkin, the winningest volleyball coach in state history. To go along with Lampkin’s 900+ wins and counting are 12 state championships, two on teams led by Phelan. “I grew up wanting to be a Hermann Bearcat,” Phelan says. “It meant everything, to try and keep the program going strong. I so looked up to the older players ahead of me. I like to think we have instilled those same traits, and the work ethic (needed) to make it happen, here at Fayetteville.”

Phelan matriculated to Northwest Arkansas in the fall of 1995 as a top recruit of a program in its infancy. The Razorbacks had started an intercollegiate volleyball program in 1994, the year before her arrival on campus. Known as Jessica Field in her Hog undergrad days, she was a true trailblazer. “It really appealed to me to come in on the ground level, to be a leader early on and to be part of building a strong program,” she says. Phelan’s accomplishments in her four year collegiate career are impressive. She left as an All-American, the first volleyball Razorback so honored. Her junior and senior seasons both ended with successful NCAA national tournament runs. She was honored as an Academic All-American for her work in the classroom. She was also a two time All-SEC first team selection.

After graduation, opportunities to continue her playing career were few. “I trained between my junior and senior college seasons with the US National team, but there was not really a professional league to move on to,” Phelan states. “I didn’t really give it much thought; these were the days (when) no real options were out there. I just accepted my playing days were over. I married after my college graduation and it just seemed like it was time to move on. My husband is from Fayetteville and played on the tennis team here so it was just natural to stay here and begin our careers. I earned my Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling and we just got on with our lives.”

Phelan spent four years working in the rehab field. She also volunteered to coach on the area’s expanding club volleyball scène. “The schools in the area had never had volleyball, but when the University added the program in 1994, it spurred the interest and area high schools started to add the sport,” the coach says. Fayetteville High School added volleyball to its athletic offerings in 1995.

“I, at first, was not interested in coaching,” Phelan says. “But with starting a family, I realized I wanted to coach at a level above just helping with a club team.” For one year she took a teaching/coaching job at nearby small school, Prairie Grove, with the assigned task of starting up the school’s volleyball program. The following year, the job at Fayetteville High opened and Phelan jumped at the opportunity to become the head coach of the volleyball program. Her reputation as a Razorback player gave her instant credibility. “The first few years we did struggle,” she shares. “We have always had good kids who will work hard, they just needed to see how much and how hard they had to commit. By the third year we were in the state tournament.”

*****

The Bulldogs demolish this evening’s competition, Rogers Heritage High School. Heritage is a relatively new school, a by-product of the Walmart infused area population growth.  The War Eagles, in existence for only a decade, have nowhere near the tradition of Fayetteville. From the boom area just north of Fayetteville, Rogers is still a school looking to mesh in the midst of so much upending growth. Tonight, they fall like dominos in three progressively widening straight sets; 25-19, 25-12 and 25- 9. Rogers has a young energetic coach determined to build a competitive program. But, on this evening they are not yet ready to compete with a program the caliber of Fayetteville. The home team is clearly too big, too strong and too skilled for the upstart opposition. However, to give the War Eagles some hope, the great thing about high school sports is that in the near future, with the hard worked needed, the fate of tonight’s adversaries could easily in a few years flip.
 
This is a young but talented Bulldog team. The VolleyDogs, as they are introduced in the pregame by the school’s professional sounding public address announcer, start two sophomores and two juniors. They rotate in two more juniors and a sophomore.

The Fayetteville program supports five teams; two freshman squads, a sophomore team, a junior varsity squad and the varsity. Over 70 girls are currently in the program. Phelan has four full time assistants. The younger squads are able to insert an athletic hour into their class assignments, but with the school employing a two hour block type schedule, the classes for activities do not meet each day. Some before and after school practices are necessary for the younger squads to get in adequate in-season court time. The varsity and JV both practice together, starting with the last class block of the day at 2:30, finishing each day at 4:30.

All five teams play full season slates necessitating a travel nightmare of cross scheduling. It is not unusual for some of the five teams to be at home on the same night others are traveling. Despite accommodating such a large number of student athletes, season starting roster cuts are still an unpopular chore for the coaching staff. “We have two feeder junior highs that come to us as freshman,” explains Phelan, “and they all have multiple teams. There are a large group of girls right now in Fayetteville wanting to play volleyball.”

*****

As I pack the car on Wednesday morning, headed home, I ponder Coach Phelan’s upbeat attitude about a season that on the surface the hard core critics would call disappointing. I look for a parallel I cannot find when reading the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday morning on-line edition’s obituary on Saturday’s Hog’s football loss. No one in the current Fayetteville volleyball program wants a season derailed anywhere short of a 4th consecutive state championship trophy and they will continue to pay the price to compete on the highest level their skills will take them to. But, they will not be held up to public ridicule if they fall short. That is the difference between student centered high school athletics and profit centered big time college athletics. I cannot as a lifelong educator logically defend the passion I (admit), like a majority of Americans, invest in college athletics. I can, however, climb up on my soap box and staunchly defend the resources we commit to high school athletic program such as the one at Fayetteville High School. Unfortunately, I can find no noble confluence of the two.

I ask Coach Phelan why she is not coaching at the collegiate level. With her background as an All-American player and multiple state titles on her coaching resume, it seems it would be a natural progression up the coaching ladder for a still young coach. “The competitive me would enjoy the college level," she told me. "But I would have to give up too much to go that direction and I am not willing to do that. I am a mother of three and a wife. Even coaching high school it gets hectic, but not like the time demands would be on the college level.”

“And,” the well decorated and cerebral coach says, choosing her words carefully, “I would miss the academic classes I teach. I teach three Advanced Placement Psychology classes. I love the mental stimulation I get from the academics here. It is a very nurturing environment we work in. The faculty really supports the athletic program and we coaches feel an obligation to produce players who achieve both on the court and as good school citizens. As you can imagine, we have students here who thrive when challenged in the classroom. That would be missing if I was a coach first and foremost, like I would be in college. For me, high school coaching is a much more impacting fit.”

Amen, Coach.