Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Bittersweet Anniversary

It's been exactly a year since my friend Steve died of cancer.

As I observed on that occasion, it was 19 years exactly since Steve's — and my — beloved Arkansas Razorbacks won their Sweet Sixteen encounter with Tulsa in the 1994 NCAA Tournament here in Dallas.

That day on the calendar has come around again. It is a year since Steve died, and it is now 20 years since the Razorbacks won that game and advanced to the Elite Eight for only the third time in 15 years. They beat Michigan two days later to earn a spot in that year's Final Four, where they would defeat Arizona in the national semifinals and then Duke in the national championship.

That is something that will live in Razorback fans' minds and hearts forever, and my guess is that Steve would prefer that his friends remember that — and not think of this day last year.

Today I am thinking of both. I miss Steve, and I am sorry he is gone. If he could somehow come back today, I would want him to know that he was not forgotten. The Razorbacks are part of that memory. I watched many Razorback games with Steve, including a Cotton Bowl that he and I and a mutual friend, Mike, attended together.

The Tulsa game was one part of a memory that I cherish and always will. That game is often the forgotten piece of the puzzle for Razorback fans, though. Victories over Georgetown, Michigan, Arizona and Duke get more attention, probably because those basketball programs have enjoyed more success over the years.

But Arkansas and Tulsa are natural rivals. The campuses are only about 100 miles apart. When I was growing up, the football teams met every year. Arkansas usually got the best of Tulsa — but not always.

To top it off, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson coached at Tulsa before he went to Arkansas. The game was loaded with regional significance. Frankly, I was hoping for a classic game. Most Arkansas fans probably hoped for the same thing. We all hoped Arkansas would win, of course, but we hoped Tulsa would make it memorable.

Twenty years ago tonight, the game wasn't competitive. Arkansas simply outclassed Tulsa. The Razorbacks led by 15 at intermission and won by nearly 20.

This year, the Razorbacks made it back to the postseason — NIT this time, not the NCAA Tournament — for the first time since 2008. Last night, they played in the second round against California.

Unfortunately, the Razorbacks lost that game. They fell behind early and, even though they made a few runs at the Bears, they still lost. Ironically, if they had won, their next game would have been here in Dallas — against old Southwest Conference foe SMU.

Steve and I didn't watch that Tulsa game together 20 years ago, and I'm sorry about that. I was living in Oklahoma at the time, and he was back in Little Rock. I'm sorry he didn't live to see the 20th anniversary of that national championship. It probably would have pleased him to reminisce about those days. If I live another two weeks — and I certainly expect to live another two weeks — I will get to do that.

And I will raise a glass to Steve when I toast the Razorbacks of '94.

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