Hog fans who followed the football team in the 1980s no doubt have great memories of watching Tony Chercio, the undersized but tenacious noseguard who starred for Coach Ken Hatfield from 1984 to 1987. Cherico, who was an All-American in his senior season and a three-time member of the All-Southwest-Conference team, finished his Razorback career with 258 tackles and 26 tackles for loss. Now a defensive line coach for the legendary Barry Lunney Sr. at Bentonville High School in northwest Arkansas, Tony was gracious enough to talk with us about his Arkansas career. In today's installment, he discusses his recruitment and the differences between Hatfield and Lou Holtz.
Many thanks to Tony for his time and many thanks to commenter Eddie Van Hoglen for helping to set the interview up.
Expats: Tell us how you became a Razorback in the first place.
Cherico: It was kind of by accident. I was playing my high school ball up in Kansas City. At the time I was recruited, I didn't want to play in - back then it was the Big 8. Unless you went to Oklahoma or Nebraska, all the programs were pretty much down.
And if you went to Nebraska, you had to wait to be a senior to actually play. And Oklahoma, if you weren't real fast and athletic, you weren't going to get on the field for a long time.
Arkansas at the time really kind of caught my eye because it was far enough away from home, but still close enough - it was only four hours away - so my parents and family could come down and see me.
[Assistant] Coach [Jesse] Branch was recruiting me. I came down for my official visit and all that. I was really trying to - I said, "I'm going to commit to you. I want to be a Hog."
I think it was like a week before signing day, Coach Branch pretty much came back and said, "Now, Tony, here's what's going to happen. We have a running back out of Texas that we want, a fullback. And it's between Baylor and us. If he chooses us, we're not going to have a spot [for you]." Which crushed me. And he said, "If he chooses Baylor, then you have a spot."
Well, lo and behold, he took Baylor, which was the best choice he could make, and I had the opportunity to come down to Arkansas.
Expats: You redshirted Holtz's last year, right?
Cherico: Yeah, I played under Coach Holtz. Matter of fact, I loved when I first came to Arkansas because when I read the papers, I was a 6'3", 248 pound defensive end. And actually, I was barely 6'1" and about 225.
At that time, they had a great defensive line. They were kind of thin on the offensive line.
So I came in my true freshman year as an offensive guard, [and] they bulked me up somewhat. I actually was in the rotation. I played in the first three games my true freshman year, just sparingly. I was a back-up.
I got hurt in practice. Back at that time, you could play early and then after a certain time, they could declare me for a hardship, so I got a medical hardship, which basically was a redshirt. They ended up redshirting a lot of my class.
We went home for Christmas break. I was home. We had a meeting before we left with Coach Holtz and everything. We all went home. I guess it was just a day after Christmas or something, and my dad said, "You ought to come down and watch ESPN." And they were announcing that Holtz had resigned.
So, I was in limbo there for a couple of weeks. We were on vacation. I wasn't down in Fayetteville. No one really knew what was going on. Back then, we didn't have the Internet or anything like they have now, where it's instant information. When we got back, that's when they made the announcement that Coach Ken Hatfield was coming back.
I was excited because Coach Hatfield recruited me hard out to the Air Force Academy. I really thought about going out there to play for him because I liked the system that they had. I was going to fit in as a defensive lineman. I fit their scheme. But the military commitment, I couldn't commit to.
Anyway, he came back, and the rest was history.
Expats: Did you and the other players sense that something was off with Holtz that year? I remember as a kid hearing that he and Frank Broyles were fighting. Did that seep into the locker room?
Cherico: As the season wore on, you could tell. He removed himself from practice a lot more. He usually was a hands-on type guy. He was out there. He was a motivator. He was fiery. He was intense.
But as the season went on, he found himself removing himself from the actual practices. Sometimes, he would sit up in the stands and watch, and we thought that was odd. But then again, you look back and Bear Bryant and some of the other coaches used to coach up there in the skybox looking down, yelling and all that.
But we could tell as players that it was different. The feeling, the tenseness was there.
As I mentioned before, he had spoke before we all went home, saying this was his dream job, [that] he was going to retire here. "You're going to hear a lot of rumors. Don't worry about it." And then, bam, a week later, on the news, he's gone.
Expats: Having played for both Holtz and Hatfield, how would you compare their leadership styles and the way they interacted with the team?
Cherico: Night and day. I have all the respect for both. In fact, Coach Hatfield just moved back up here, to the Northwest Arkansas area. It's kind of weird now because I see Coach Hatfield all the time. Our relationship's a lot different from being a player and him being my head coach. I guess the mystique and just the sheer terror of him being the coach is gone. He's just like another guy.
But anyway, getting back to this: Coach Holtz - if you ever had one coach to get you ready for one game, Coach Holtz was probably one of the best motivators for that. A great example being the Orange Bowl. He took a team that Vegas took off the board because they were such big dogs, and he won that game. He could motivate you for one game.
I think the biggest difference was if a player was walking by the head coach's door, and the door was open, Coach Hatfield was the type that you could walk into his office, and he always had a candy drawer. You could go in there and get a piece of candy, and he'll talk to you.
Coach Holtz, as a player, you do not go in there. You're scared of him. Even though the guy was a short man - he's not real big - he would bring terror to you.
But again, he had his moments too. Off the field, he brought us over to his house at times, and he'd go back and show the tape of when Arkansas beat Texas or some of the other big games. I remember that.
But for the most part, in season, the wrath of Coach Holtz - you didn't want that. I saw that first hand. Being an offensive lineman, when you didn't know your plays - my gosh, many times I got sent down to the scout team on the lower field.
Coach Hatfield and his wife Sandy, they never had kids, but he treated all his players as his sons. At the time, when I was playing for him, that was one of the most frustrating things, I guess. Because I didn't see it that way. I was an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kid, and I'm like, "I already have a dad. I don't need you telling me what I need to be doing, watching over my shoulders."
But when I got away from it and looked back, I said, "That was the best thing that could have ever happened to me."
When he was at Rice, I had the opportunity to send some players to go play for him, and they said the same thing: Coach Hatfield treated his starters and his walk-ons the same way.
Coach Holtz had a lot of great qualities, but Coach Hatfield - again, I played for him for four years and got to know him and have known him ever since then, and he was the type that you could go in and you could share everything with him. Now back then, I didn't share anything with him (laughs).
Plus, he already knew what I usually did, so I was in his office a lot and had a lot of chances to share a lot of things with him, good and bad.
I coach a lot off of what he taught me. Now when I was playing for him, I said, "I'd never coach like that." But looking back, it was the best thing. He was the one who kept me straight.