As the engine hummed and we bounced to and fro, I knew I didn’t belong.
And yet, Frank Broyles welcomed me with open arms, made space for me, actually, toting me across state lines, around thunderstorms to an unforgettable night — and back.
Broyles, the University of Arkansas icon who built a football dynasty in 19 seasons as a coach and then outdid his own legacy with 23 years as a visionary athletic director, died on Monday at the age of 92.
I covered Broyles’ program for 2 ½ years, and his strength, presence and personality left an imprint on me whether we were talking on the phone or conducting an interview in his grand office or simply shaking hands at a funeral.
The year was 1998, and I was the Tulsa World’s beat writer assigned to cover the University of Arkansas football and men’s basketball teams.
(Just go with me on this one. It was a simpler time. Newspapers poured out money like one might pour honey into hot tea — more just makes it sweeter. At the time, we still delivered more than 10,000 papers into Northwest Arkansas, and the Democrat-Gazette was just figuring out that most of those subscribers would rather read the Little Rock paper than the Tulsa paper. Only two years later, the World stopped covering the Hogs on a beat basis.)
Anyway, when I joined the paper in 1992, I was one of the last full-timers hired by legendary sports editor and columnist Bill Connors. By 1995, he had retired from his sports editor duties, and by 1998, he was writing columns for us only part time.
No sports editor/columnist at any newspaper ever commanded more respect than Bill Connors.
In his heyday, he was close personal friends with the likes of Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, Henry Iba, Eddie Sutton — and Frank Broyles, among tons of other sports luminaries. Bear Bryant once asked Connors what Wilkinson was going to wear to meet John F. Kennedy, for crying out loud. Only, Connors wasn’t “friends” in the way that would ever compromise his journalistic integrity. Texas legend Darrell Royal told Connors of his retirement before he told anyone in Texas. Johnny Bench tipped off Connors in 1970 that he would be named National League MVP.
When Broyles needed to hire a basketball coach in 1974, he asked Connors, who told him all about Eddie Sutton. Connors also helped guide Sutton’s hiring at Oklahoma State. Oral Roberts himself, one of the most influential personalities on the planet and a self-described sports nut, frequently sought Connors’ counsel.
I recall other stories about phone calls to Bill Connors from those dignitaries and others, like Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Knight and Mickey Mantle, asking him for advice. Connors would then write a column, usually positive but sometimes maybe not all that favorable, frequently on deep background information alone. But you knew that information was unassailable because Connors’ sources were unimpeachable.
Imagine how starstruck a 30-year-old cub reporter like me was by those stories.
When the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame inducted Connors in August 1998, I was starting my second year on the Razorback beat. I sure didn’t want to miss the induction, in Oklahoma City, of a man whom I so admired, a man who thought enough of me to hire me and then put me in charge of designing his sports section every day, a man I considered a mentor.
But I also knew there was no way Connors would approve of me skipping my preseason football duties. I was in Fayetteville for two-a-day interviews on Aug. 10 (it was my seventh wedding anniversary; I was already in hot water), and there was no way I could get my practice report and player profile finished and drive all the way to OKC for the 7 o’clock ceremony.
And that’s where Frank Broyles saved me.
A few days before the hall of fame ceremony, I was probably whining to then-sports information director Rick Schaeffer about not being able to do interviews in Fayetteville and make the event in Oklahoma City, when Schaeffer made the simplest of gestures.
“Let me ask coach Broyles.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. But Schaeffer came back a few minutes later and asked if I minded riding in the back of a Cessna.
Having never ridden in the back of a Cessna, I couldn’t confess to minding it.
Broyles had just hired Houston Nutt, and I was the first to break that story. I certainly couldn’t miss Nutt’s first training camp. But Schaeffer also knew how much Connors meant to me.
Rick told me that when I returned to Fayetteville for interviews the following Monday afternoon to wear a suit and nice shoes. You have to tell sportswriters these things sometimes.
Frank Broyles had reserved a spot for me in the back of the single-engine Cessna that he, his wife Barbara, and Schaeffer (an OSU alumnus who had worked closely with Connors) were flying to OKC.
So I wore the suit and interviewed Nutt and probably the offensive line coach and a couple of offensive linemen and the quarterback and maybe the defensive coordinator. A typical day covering the Hogs. When it was over, Schaeffer drove us to a nearby airstrip, where Frank and Barbara Broyles were waiting in a tuxedo and formal gown.
I climbed in first, scooched my butt to the back of the aircraft (I think I sat on some luggage; I can’t recall there being a real seat, and had to hunch over to fit), and then shook my head in disbelief as Broyles and Schaeffer climbed into the back row just in front of me while Barbara Broyles, looking stately and elegant, took the co-pilot’s seat.
And just like that, we were in the air.
As physically awkward and uncomfortable as I was, I unfolded my laptop and wrote my practice report and player profile, just as if I was back in the media room at the Broyles Athletic Complex. It was bumpy and loud and hard on the back (and the backside), but I finished them before we touched down at Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City.
(I was able to finish for one reason and one reason only: we had to route around a massive thunderstorm over central Oklahoma, which took an extra 20 minutes or so. The turbulence in this tiny airplane was a nightmare, but it allowed me extra time to get my work done.)
Once on the ground, we all climbed into a limo and headed to the OKC Marriott, and when we got out, more than a few of my Oklahoma colleagues looked at me like I had nine heads. Which was fine, because that’s what I felt like, walking into a formal event alongside a VIP like Broyles, a beat-up satchel under my arm looking for a telephone line to transmit my stories back to the copy desk.
I filed my copy and joined the rest of the Tulsa World contingent for the dinner. We stood and applauded as Barry Switzer delivered both Bill Connors’ induction speech and Jack Mildren’s induction speech. (Switzer had cut short a two-week motorcycle adventure through Colorado to honor Connors and Mildren. Eddie Sutton and wife Patsy had pushed back their Hawaii trip by a day.) I ate some swanky but forgettable hotel banquet food, and I regaled tales of my travels to colleagues at my table.
And we all toasted our beloved Bill Connors.
When the night was over, Schaeffer found me. Time to go.
Broyles had to fly to Birmingham, Alabama, for SEC meetings the next day, so he chartered a different flight out of OKC. I rode back to Wiley Post with Schaeffer and Barbara Broyles, and we flew back to Fayetteville. This flight was much more enjoyable: no deadline stories to write, no turbulence, and I got to sit in a real seat.
The following week, I was back in Fayetteville for more post-practice interviews. But I went early this time because I wanted to catch Frank Broyles in his office. I seized his hand to tell him again how deeply I appreciated his efforts to let me share in Bill Connors’ big night.
He simply said, in that sing-song Georgia drawl that he made so famous on ABC college football telecasts in the 1970s and ‘80s, “You’re welcome, John,” and turned back to his desk.
Then he stopped and pivoted and shot me one of those Frank Broyles sideways glances.
“I’m sure Bill is very happy that you made such an effort to be there with him and honor him,” he said.
I had known what a great man Frank Broyles was from the empire he had built in the hills of Northwest Arkansas. But it was at that moment that I comprehended the extent of Broyles’ greatness.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.