The 2014 football season may be in the rear view mirror for Hog fans, but despite the seemingly mediocre 7-6 record it will live on in Razorback lore as both satisfying and significant.
Former Hog great Michael Shepherd understands both elements. A Monroe, La., native, he settled in Little Rock and has worked in professional health sales for 20 years. Currently, he's a regional manager for Briova Specialty Pharmacy Services. And he still follows the Hogs, well, like one of us.
He's a fan who also lived the dream. Shep and wife Karen have two kids, a daughter at Central and a football-playing son at Catholic High (where Shep is a volunteer coach). Savvy Hog fans caught Shep on KTHV's Hog Zone broadcasts before and after Razorback games this fall.
Shep was an all-conference defensive lineman for the SWC champion Hogs of 1988 and '89. He was No. 98 in our programs of yesteryear, but No. 1 in our hearts. Shep anchored a defensive line alongside other notable former Hogs such as Wayne Martin and Henry Ford. He lettered from '86-89, and helped lead the Hogs to back-to-back SWC championships under Coach Ken Hatfield.
The man has insight and was kind enough to share some with us. It should also be noted that he's one heck of a youth soccer coach who, as part of a legendary coaching trifecta, applied his gentle giant tactics to help lead the old Riverdale Blue Hogs to, uumm, not championships per se, but, well, players and coaches alike had a blast.
Without further adieu, our Q&A with former Hog great Mike Shepherd:
AF: First off, give us your off-the-cuff reaction to the season. What were your expectations going in, and did we meet them, fall short or exceed them? What would be your letter grade for Hog football for the fall semester? Obviously, we aced the final....
Shep: My preseason record prediction was 5-7. I foresaw a tough schedule and a lot of young players. I also saw a competitive mindset and knew that we'd improve vs. the introductory/remedial experience of last season. This group of coaches and players exceeded expectations. This was a B+ grade in an Advanced Placement course.
AF: The dominant Texas Bowl win was huge on two fronts: Obviously for the forward momentum it created for a program banished to football purgatory the last two years, and for us old timers, because it was Texas. As a former Hog letterman who actually experienced the Texas intensity on the field, just how big was the win in Houston for you? Getting back to the forward momentum, how big was it for recruiting in Texas?
Shep: First off, these guys finished the most memorable season that I've experienced as a fan. They came back every week with a disciplined mindset and showed resilience after the crazy losses to A&M, Alabama and Mississippi St. You could see and feel that things had shifted and our work was paying off. These young guys grew up during the struggle! They knew how close they were to winning yet realized that they weren't closing out the 4th quarter. The victory over Texas was a perfect closing scene as it brought players, fans and coaches validation. If Brandon Allen is healthy in Colombia, Mo., we finish the season 4-0.
Didn't it feel nice in Houston to finally play an average team? [Editor's note: Amen.]
Arkansas appears to sign a majority of the players that they go after. Certainly we enter Texas high school player's homes with new credibility. Not only was our victory big for Hog recruiting in Texas, it also opened the gate for Texas A&M and TCU! Texas is in for a looooong recovery.
Also noteworthy, I'm undefeated in the city of Houston as a Razorback player and Hog fan...:)
AF: How would you rate the staff in regards to its Texas recruiting? Is Florida our new Texas, and can we afford for it to be? Obviously it depends on who we get to replace Randy Shannon, but will his departure impact our south Florida pipeline?
Shep: A couple thoughts come to mind:
1) Bielema has had a longstanding presence in Florida. I think Broward County has shown positive results for him? We'll maintain our presence and perform well in Florida.
2) What Arkansas brings to the table (Bielema and his current staff) is viable in every part of the country. Our reach into new recruiting markets just hit a new level. So much has been going on behind the scenes in addition to the positive exposure of this season that Bielema's appeal to recruits is very high. I'd play for him.
3) Shannon was headed back to Florida no matter what we did. We kept him last year by creating a new title for him and upping his salary. Based on Bielema's ability to hire and manage high performing assistants I suspect that Shannon's replacement will be a pleasant surprise. I'd work for him.
AF: As a former standout on the D-line, how satisfying has it been to see the line excel? And that extends to the whole D as well. A top 10 defense...are you kidding me? That's what we finished with. I think most of us expected some improvement, but just how good a job did Smith, Jennings, Seacrest & Co. do? Have you ever seen a transformation so drastic, and what can we expect out of the D next year?
Shep: Going into this season I was having a hard time looking at our secondary and seeing success. Most people spoke of our offensive potential as being the key factor. Wow! We ended up as sound as any defense in the nation. The key change that Smith and company made was simplifying our approach. Each position got better every week at fundamental performance. This is a direct result of these defensive coaches' leadership and direction. Smith and Company drew trust, effort and performance out of these guys. That is championship coaching! Overall all positions made first hit stops, tackling improved, confidence ramped up and players over achieved.
Our defensive backfield was young and demonstrated maturity by the end of the year. Struggle fostered growth for them. We have some young players who will be solid. We still need more speed! The defensive front kept pocket discipline, they were gap sound. By the end of the season we were platooning 2 groups that were machines. Depth was a key factor for our front 4. Flowers was the best at keeping leverage while using his speed. His length and quickness combo is rare. We will miss him yet look at who comes back!
The linebackers were so good at their keys toward the end of the season. We really did well with our middle backers vs. the passes in the middle. We disrupted multiple teams by simply reading and dropping to the middle zone. Versus the run we were very effective with run blitzes. When you have key players and effective play calls you look great. Spaight is the best linebacker that I've seen play at Arkansas in several years. His speed and power are the best on the field every game. His motor is crazy! He seemed to be in on every other tackle in every game.
I am concerned that we lose noticeable strength next season without Spaight and Flowers. At the same time our player development and game preparation gets the best out of every player on that defense. Smith and company have a good recipe and young talent. We'll be good next year.
AF: Many of us spent our childhood dreaming about playing for the Hogs. Tell us what it's like, and the pride you feel, actually strapping on that cardinal helmet and running through the A, representing an entire state. Do folks fully appreciate how intertwined into the cultural fabric of the state the Hogs actually are?
Shep: That dream is what it's all about. For me it was the dream of playing at the highest level of college football. My experience was different as I didn't know the Razorbacks well growing up. I was very fortunate that Arkansas recruited me out of Monroe, La. I felt that Coach Hatfield's approach -- the Ozark foothills, Arkansas' defensive history and the cooler climate -- all made the Arkansas Razorbacks and Fayetteville the place for me.
As I've gotten older, I recognize the unique opportunity that I was given to play for a team that holds such a powerful place in the hearts of this state. I am now so proud to be a loyal Hog fan that dreams of winning the big game. That big game is coming and I'll be right there yelling, calling the Hogs and dancing in the stadium when we get it done!
AF: Growing up in Monroe, which team did you dream of playing for? I know your folks are big ULM fans...did the school then known as NLU recruit you? (And by the way, 2012 must've been kind of bittersweet for them...)
Shep: My father, mother and brother all graduated from Northeast Louisiana University. My father and brother both played football and ran track for NLU. I grew up attending NLU games and am still a fan. NLU recruited me and ironically the coach that I was in contact with was J.B. Grimes. Coach Grimes ended up at Arkansas during my senior season (1989) and was integral in our SWC championship run that year. He is well respected in the SEC as an offensive line guru.
I admire my family for passing on the opportunity to gloat after that game in 2012. We actually have never really spoken of that game!
AF: What was it like playing for Coach Hatfield?
Shep: Coach Hatfield is one of the finest men I have ever been around. He is a primary reason that I chose to play at Arkansas. He treated us as if we were his teammates. He respected us as talented individuals and was very loyal to his word.
His key priorities for us were: 1) The team comes first 2) Do your best on every play 3) Have Fun! We focused on all 3 while winning 2 conference championships in 1988 and 1989.
AF: What's a favorite memory from your playing days?
Shep: As a team, 1988 was special because we were 7-0 in the conference. That same year I received SWC Defensive Player of the week with Wayne Martin after we beat UT in Austin. We had a very good defensive team that year and individual recognition came to me a little easier in that environment.
AF: We mentioned it above, but for the kids in the audience, remind us of the years you lettered and your all-SWC accolades.
Shep: I played defensive tackle for the Hogs from 1986-1989. I was very fortunate to have been all-SWC in 1988 and 1989. My proudest accomplishment is to have been voted Team Captain in 1989.
AF: And finally, because it's absolutely relevant, who was the greatest youth soccer coach you ever worked with? (John Johnson is ineligible.)
Shep: Mark, the Blue Hogs were a dominant franchise and most people don't realize that you were the force behind that run of Riverdale victories. Truly you were the only one that understood the concept of "offsides"!
[Editor's note 2: MC still can't wrap his brain around offsides...]