Calling Hogs is no easy trip in slop for their most ardent fans NCAA TOURNAMENT


There's the man from Fayetteville who couldn't afford to donate enough in order to qualify for basketball season tickets, so he enrolled four years ago at the University of Arkansas -- at age 26 -- to get into home games as a student.

There's the woman from Springdale who started going to Arkansas games back in the 1940s with her husband. Though her husband died, and her eyesight is nearly gone, she still goes to games, listening from her 10th-row seat on a transistor radio.

And there's the kid from Hope who left home for Yale and Oxford, returned to practice law and become governor, then left again to run the country and make a recent cover of Sports Illustrated, wearing his Arkansas basketball jacket.

There are thousands and thousands of others from Fordyce and Hot Springs, from Fort Smith and Rocky Comfort, who've followed their beloved Hogs all over the country and who this week are descending upon Charlotte, N.C., for the Final Four.

With or without tickets to tomorrow's NCAA semifinal between Arkansas and Arizona.

"They'll come to be part of the festivities," said Clay Henry, editor and publisher of Hawgs Illustrated, a 2-year-old newspaper devoted solely to the Razorbacks. "And they hope that Duke loses [to Florida] so the fans dump their tickets."

Arkansas fans have a way of finding tickets. When the Razorbacks were still in the Southwest Conference, Reunion Arena (site of last week's Midwest Regional championship) was so dominated by Hog worshipers for the SWC tournament that they unofficially renamed the place "Barnhill West."

In the three years since Arkansas joined the Southeastern Conference, its fans signed up for the booster clubs of other SEC schools just to get on the list for tickets to the league's postseason tournament. This year at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tenn., they took up about 9,000 of the 20,000 seats.

"The way you could tell is that when the Arkansas players came in during the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game, about half the place got up to call the Hogs," said Henry.

Though this is a relatively new phenomenon, the fanaticism in Fayetteville is similar to the lunacy of Lexington, Ky., where season tickets have been left in wills and bargained into divorce settlements for generations. Arkansas went to the NCAA tournament as far back as 1941, but interest didn't take hold until the mid-1970s under Eddie Sutton, who coached the Razorbacks to their first Final Four in 1978.

When Sutton left for Kentucky nine years ago, many thought the program would be strictly like the rest of the SWC, a pleasant interlude between football and spring football. Enter Nolan Richardson, the man who made polka dot shirts a fashion statement at Tulsa and was the coaching antithesis of Sutton.

Both were disciples of the late Henry Iba, but that's where the similarities ended. Sutton played for the legendary Mr. Iba at Oklahoma State, but Richardson took many of the defensive principles taught him by another Iba protege, Don Haskins at Texas-Western (now Texas-El Paso). But Richardson's teams play a more wide-open offensive game.

"We feed off our fans," said Corey Beck, the team's junior point guard and captain. "When they're making all that noise, we play harder."

For Sunday's regional final, the Razorbacks fed on the presence of the team's First Fan, Bill Clinton, and his family. It marked the second time this season the president watched Arkansas in person.

After an early-season game against Texas Southern, Clinton visited with the players for a half-hour in the locker room. This time, he gave hugs and high-fives by the bench.

"When you have the No. 1 man in the country posing on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing an Arkansas basketball jacket, to me that's priceless," Richardson said in the locker room Sunday. "You can't buy that type of advertisement."

Said freshman center Darnell Robinson: "It's great for the team, and pretty good for him too."

Clinton is the team's most recognizable fan, but he is certainly not its most ardent. Among those who could vie for the title is Bryan Caldwell, a vice president for Sun Belt Plastics in Monroe, La., who makes the seven-hour drive to Fayetteville for nearly every home game.

Or Florene Wilson, the woman from Springdale. She started going to Arkansas games "when we used to run up and down the sidelines" and has seen her third-row seats moved back "when they priced me out and all the young turks with big money came in." Wilson, who'll turn 80 in June, can remember "when there were 300 people in the stands."

Asked why there is such a great fervor for the Razorbacks, she says, "We're such a small, poor state. This is something that makes everyone feel good."

The roots are not as deep as they are in Kentucky, but the passion is just as strong. One of the reasons so many Arkansas fans pile into their RVs and accompany their team on the road is that they can't get into home games. Even going from a 9,200-seat pit like Barnhill to the 19,000-seat palace of Sam Walton Arena has not helped satisfy the masses.

And, like the fans at Kentucky, the passion stems from the fact that it is the only game in town, which in this case encompasses the entire state. Lexington is a booming metropolis and a cultural mecca in comparison to Fayetteville. So the $29 million Walton Arena, built with $15 million from the Walton family (of Wal-Mart fame) and the rest from private donations, has become the pride of a state, a school and a population that are often the target of jokes.

"The roads are bad, there are no 5-star restaurants or hotels, no other teams," said Henry, whose father, Orville, was the legendary sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette for a half-century. "But this arena is as good as anything in the country. It's only for basketball. You couldn't have a tractor pull in it."

Gary Dickison is supposed to graduate from Arkansas in May with a degree in marketing. But something happened last fall possibly to alter those plans. Dickison, who was born and raised in Arkansas before his parents moved near Mobile, Ala., while he was in high school, became the Razorback mascot.

"Now, I'm thinking about doing a double major," Dickison said Sunday, pulling off his headgear to join in the celebration. "I don't think I've ever had a better feeling in my life as I do right now."

That feeling is shared with thousands and thousands of Arkansas fans. From Fayetteville to Hot Springs, from Fort Smith to Hope, they are in the same place. It's called Hog Heaven, and this week it's moving to Charlotte.

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