In 2011, Bleacher Report ranked the most beloved characters in Arkansas sports history.
Unfortunately, they were wrong.
At No. 1 sat Frank Broyles, who is well deserved as perhaps the most influential. However, as a child and teenager, I sat on many porches listening to the elders complain about Frank Broyles, especially regarding Ken Hatfield and Eddie Sutton, between bites of fresh barbecue or fried fish.
However, the one person I never heard of was the man at #2.
In fact, the state was filled with proverbial pyres waiting to welcome a firm beating from anyone who spoke ill of the beloved former Razorback announcer.
Sadly, Eels, 70 at the time, died in a car accident along I-40 near Russelville 16 years ago while returning to Little Rock from Fayetteville.
At the time, he was preparing to call his 29th football season Razorback while also serving as KATV’s main sportscaster and host of the Razorback football and basketball coach TV shows every Sunday after the church.
Known for his disarming charm, unique voice and “nice to meet you” smile, Eels immediately made an impression with state media after being hired away from Vanderbilt in the late summer of 1978.
“I found out from another Warren native, Dale Nicholson, that [Broyles] just hired Paul Eels, and he asked me if I wanted to talk to him,” allHogs.com owner Andy Hodges said.
“Paul immediately phoned me and we did a short interview and I couldn’t believe how nice and courteous he was. I pointed out that it was a little ironic that the Hogs’ first game in 1978 was against Vanderbilt where he had been voice radio in Nashville.”
Eels, always self-deprecating, pulled back the curtain slightly on his anxiety about making the transition.
“At least I will know the players of a team,” Eels said with a laugh. “I just hope I don’t go wrong and look like I’m calling the game for the wrong team.”
It was Eels who became famous for the “Touchdown Arkansas” slogan throughout his tenure and for connecting with each coach, guiding them through presenting a positive public persona to the fanbase.
Beyond his affable personality, Eels developed a reputation for loyalty and relationship building with coaches.
Eels was alongside Ken Hatfield as he opened the football coach’s show with the Bible verse ‘Jesus wept’ following a blistering loss to former Razorback turned Miami Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson at the War Memorial in 1987. Even as a small child, I knew it was a bit heavy as I watched it from the carpet in my grandparents’ living room.
A decade later, after Danny Ford was fired a few years after leading Madre Hill to an SEC West championship, Eels stepped out of character and offered his thoughts, defending Ford against Broyles on national television.
However, it was alongside explosive national championship basketball coach Nolan Richardson that Eels cemented his steadiest place as the host of the “Rollin’ With Nolan” show.
Richardson could be an admittedly gruff person at times, but Eels understood the moment in history and the pitfalls that could befall the first African-American head coach of a major state sport if he didn’t do well at television.
Eels was the perfect balance for Richardson. It was a face of confidence asking the public to trust him to give the new coach a chance.
Eventually, the state would become Hog Wild for Richardson’s brand of basketball and fall in love with one man’s giant bear, but those early years were tough. Especially during the years when he and his wife, Rose, struggled alongside their daughter Yvonne, Richardson was vulnerable under a pile of emotions.
The relationship between the two was something special. Eels found a way to make certain segments of the fan base see Richardson as just a human being, even if they didn’t want to. While the path hasn’t been perfect, those on-air moments with Eels have gone a long way to making them a whole lot smoother.
Once Eels was gone, his absent presence was felt despite quality men doing their best to fill the shoes of a legend.
Mike Nail, voice familiar from the comfort of basketball shows, had the unenviable task of stepping in to call the 2006 season. Soon after, Chuck Barrett took over the reins, bringing similar style and cadence to Eels which continue to echo through affiliates in every corner of the state to this day.
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While Steve Sullivan, who was best known for his energy on Friday night high school football coverage, had already proven himself a lot by then and become a truly iconic sports personality in his own right, it was like when Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” after years of hosting every Monday night once KATV slipped him into the main spotlight. After watching an icon your whole life, it took a little while to adjust to the guy you usually see once a week.
KATV was THE channel for most of the state and the Razorbacks were THE team. Eels felt like family even to those who didn’t know him personally.
The combination of KATV’s Ned Perme on weather followed by Eels on sports made such a sweet duo it seemed like the whole family needed to go brush their teeth immediately after the evening news.
Football season didn’t start until his voice said it was OK.
There may never be another Paul Eels. The amount of work required to run an athletic department in Little Rock, run multiple coaching shows, and handle all the responsibilities in Fayetteville is enormous.
Additionally, the university is taking more control over all things Razorbacks with each passing season. For that reason alone, his shoes will probably never be completely filled again.
Then again, some shoes from some legends are not meant to be filled.
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