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After the first fall meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club, Bruce James stands off to the side of the Embassy Suites’ banquet hall talking with friends. An elderly man, who like so many in the crowd has a deep devotion to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, has worked his way across the room to James.
“Bruce,” he says as he reaches for his hand. “You keep telling it like it is.”
James just nods and smiles. It is not that uncommon an occurrence anymore.
“I had no idea Bruce would become so big,” said Steve Sullivan, who hosts KATV, Channel 7’s popular “Sports Week” each Sunday night with James and David Bazzel. “I can’t tell you how many times during the weekend that someone will say, ‘Can’t wait to hear what Bruce is going say about that one.’ ”
James, a 1970 All-America defensive end at Arkansas and a three-year starter on Hog teams that compiled a 28-5 record and played No. 1 Texas in the “Big Shootout” in 1969, has become a rising Arkansas media star.
The reason is simple. He’s not a cheerleader for “the program,” though he loves it deeply. He’ll say when a player missed an assignment or a coach blew a call. Coaches and players, already under pressure from the proliferation of radio shows and Internet message boards, are known to chafe at the knowing comments of a former Hog with a high-profile platform.
James insists he doesn’t set out to be critical and is philosophical about those who criticize him. “I try to look at a ballgame at the University of Arkansas that I am going to comment on without my heart. I am looking at it totally objectively. Did this guy get blocked, did that guy miss a tackle or was that a dumb call on fourth down? Did you hand the game to South Carolina or not? That is the way I see it.”
Last week, after the Alabama game, James questioned why quarterback Casey Dick was not in the game after “chosen one Mitch Mustain” had thrown three interceptions. “How many do you have to throw, eight?”
Years ago, when running back Cedric Cobbs was taking a beating because of a lack of blocking, James said, “Cedric needs to take a baseball bat back to the huddle.’’ He regularly takes aim at the coaching staff for poor recruiting evaluations and those in the media who exaggerate recruiting efforts.
James is a tough grader. After the Alabama game he gave the offense a D and said, “I am being kind — it should be an F.” After LSU’s big victory in Little Rock two years ago, James lamented, “They took us out behind the barn and explained a few things to us.’’ After the 14-10 loss to South Carolina last season when Arkansas failed on a fake punt on a fourth-and-1 deep in its own territory, James called it “the dumbest play I have ever seen called.’’
He has also been critical of the way ex-quarterback Robert Johnson was replaced after one game and moved to receiver so freshman Mustain could play. “I just don’t understand how you publicly tell the player he has won the job, he is your man, and after one game where he didn’t play poorly tell him he is no longer a quarterback.’’
Unlike Sullivan and Bazzel, the Moss Point, Miss., native James never had any intention of being a media personality. He tried pro football briefly after his Razorback career and returned to Little Rock to start an insurance business. But given the opportunity to join “Sports Week” in 1998, he has spoken his mind.
One of the ironies of “Sports Week” is that KATV has for 40 years been known as the “Razorback Station,” because of an official arrangement with the UA to host the coach’s show. Does that produce pressure on James?
“Channel 7 and Sully don’t muzzle me,’’ James said.
James graduated from the UA with a business degree. “I was horrible,” he said, in the one communications class he took.
Yet here he is, doing a weekly TV show, contributing a weekly column on Hog football games to the Arkansas Times and being a regular each Thursday morning on Tommy Smith’s popular radio show in Central Arkansas.
Early on with “Sports Week,” Bazzel says, James wasn’t comfortable with the back-and-forth banter. But eventually, Bazzel said, “the more comfortable he got he began to throw out these Bruceisms, the Southern phrases that really make him who he is. And I think, too, he is going to call it the way he sees it — he has pretty much done that since Day 1. He is not going to sugarcoat it. Some people think he is always negative — he takes a negative slant, but I have heard him give credit when credit is due to Houston or players. I just think he is honest.”
James says he was a “stumbling, mumbling idiot” out of the “SportsWeek” gate.
“I told Baz there are enough homer shows out there,” he said, “and I don’t want to name other venues, but if I am going to do something, then I am going to break that film down and I am going to grade that film. I mean when I was a player and that coach, my defensive coordinator, broke that film down, you either did it or you didn’t. There isn’t any gray area.”
James’ passion for the Hogs, or for SEC football, isn’t in question. He loves them both, especially the Razorbacks. And he will spend several days on the road, both in the spring and in preseason, visiting the campuses and practices of Arkansas’s five rivals in the SEC West Division.
At Arkansas during its heyday of the late 1960s and ’70s, he was an All-America defensive end on one of the best defensive squads in the school’s history. He is, however, one of a handful of standouts from that era who are not in the school’s Hall of Honor. Is it because he talks too much?
“There are some other All-Americans not in there,’’ James says. “I think we have had 40 or 41 in football in more than 100 years. But most schools have their All-Americans in the ring of honor.
“I have heard comments through other people, but I wouldn’t call it heat from Fayetteville. They shouldn’t care what I say. I mean, it is a TV show, and we can be critical of the UA and Houston [Nutt], but they are a lot bigger than that. It shouldn’t influence anything.”
Little seems to influence James’ comments. Even after the recent 24-23 double-overtime victory over Alabama and a 3-1 start to the season, he stayed his course. He questioned Nutt’s mounting the bandstand to lead the Hog band in the fight song after the game and called quarterback Mustain’s performance like it was, generally poor despite a game-winning touchdown pass. He had plenty of good things to say, too.
It’s apparent that the Razorback hierarchy hears him. While “SportsWeek” is not carried live in Fayetteville, the show is delayed on KATV’s website and is often available within 30 minutes of signoff.
When Nutt appeared at the Little Rock Touchdown Club last spring, he brought Bazzel and James a couple of green “no-tackle” green jerseys worn by the Razorbacks during spring workouts. The use of the jersey was criticized by the pair during a “SportsWeek” special.
James is a full-contact guy, a product of the glory years of Razorback football. He refuses to believe the Hogs can’t be as good as they once were.
“The thing about it, I don’t care who coaches the Razorbacks,” he said. “It can be Coach Nutt or Ivan Bookowski from Russia. What I want is, I just think the Arkansas Razorback program … can be great. I don’t think we have ever touched what we can do at the University of Arkansas. Our facilities are better than anyone’s in the country, we are the only big-time football program in the state — and that is no reflection on Arkansas State, because I am a big Steve Roberts and ASU fan. I even believe ASU and Arkansas should play — 100 percent. I am sure that will score me a lot of points up there [in Fayetteville]. “