Seventy-two former athletes and coaches from the late great Arkansas Intercollgiate Conference gathered at the The Greens at Nutters Chapel to morph into a time warp with stories, handshakes, hugs and golf that reminded many of the physical passage of time.
There were old Bears, Warriors, Wonder Boys, Boll Weevils, Reddies, Tigers, Bison, Muleriders, Scots and Pipers and Mountaineers/Eagles. They sat around tables and remembered the good ole days that are rapidly fading.
Fifteen individuals didn’t play golf but showed up for lunch to see old friends and rivals.
The intensiveness of the rivalries was been superseded by the extraordinary nature of the relationships that have been decades in fermentation.
The AIC was an exclusive conference of Arkansas institutions that was special for its natural, deep-seeded rivalries and the cooperative effort among public and private institutions with priorities and missions as different as their mascots.
The league shut down for good in the mid-90s because the differences in those missions finally trumped geography.
More than two decades later, the tie is strong and noticeable within moments.
These former fierce competitors — many of whom played and coached together in high school and later settled or retired in “enemy” territory — really like each other. The smiles and hugs are genuine. The stories are endless with touches of exaggeration.
The annual reunion, organized around the Harry Hall Invitational Golf Tournament (named in memory of the last commissioner), began informally shortly after the league dissolved. Through the efforts of Vance Strange and former coaching rivals and legends Cliff Garrison, Don Dyer and Bill Vining, it has grown to almost a “must-attend” event.
“I get so many calls about people wanting to come because they are concerned they may not see these guys again,” said Strange, a former coach at both Hendrix and UCA and athletic director at UCA, as he checked off names off an entry list.
Some individuals have various disabilities and are unable to play golf. But they can still laugh and share stories, trying to keep memories alive of a conference that some are just realizing had a special touch of greatness.
Thoughts of mortality have superseded invincibility.
“We’re losing more of the core group every year,” said Garrison, the longtime coach and athletic director at Hendrix. “But people keep coming back. There us a strong bond. They realize how unique this league was and how good it was. We competed hard against each other, but there was a lot of respect. It’s a bond you don’t see often nowadays in sports.”
“I remember being 25 years old and coaching at Henderson State and I later realized how special it was to coach against legends like Bill Vining and Cliff Garrison and Don Dyer and you could go on and on,” said former basketball coach Grady Bean. “Every team you played was well-coached and well-prepared and so many of the players grew up with each other.”
UCA teams with Scottie Pippen and Hendrix teams with Lawson Pilgrim never made it out of district to the NAIA national tournament. For almost a decade, the conference basketball champion never could win the District 17 tournament, the NAIA qualifier.
‘We beat up on each other pretty good,” said Garrison.
“Another thing that formed a bond was coaching staffs were smaller and coaches coached multiple sports and got to know each other better,” Strange said.
For example, Alvy Early, one of the winningest women’s basketball coaches in the state, also was secondary coach for the Boll Weevils and was head coach for the softball team.
One of the highlights Monday was the appearance of retired sports writer Jim Bailey, who set the bar for coverage of a conference with the late Arkansas Gazette. Bailey, who has health problems, was in a wheelchair but still seemed to enjoy the camaraderie — especially when his wife, Peggy, and Ken and Donna Lampkin Stephens teamed to drive him about the course in a cart so he could visit with old friends.
With out four holes left for most teams, the ominous weather that had been floating about the area, erupted in a clubburst, sending most golfers scurrying to their carts, their vehicles and shelter in the clubhouse.
Every scorecard turned into tournament officials, was soggy and limped and had to be hung out to dry.
Who won? No one really knew because the holes played and finished were apples to oranges for each team in the scramble.
Few cared. Many spent 30 minutes to an hour in the clubhouse, just exchanging old stories and catching up on new ones and reflecting on bygone days.
Several approached Strange and Garrison and said, “Thanks for doing this. Thanks for keeping this going.”
“This is history, so many legends,” said George Jones.
“I’ll play until I’m in a wheelchair,” said Jodie Carter, a former Henderson State star football player who was one of the youngest participants.
Every year at the NAIA basketball tournament, Harry Hall would gather all the representatives from Arkansas and host a meal and fellowship at a local restaurants.
As the rain fell and the laughter continued Monday, Hall would have smiled.
The conference structure is dead. The spirit is alive.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)