From the Bird’s Nest: Road Trip: Jonesboro
I have to say that Jonesboro is probably my least favorite road trip in the Sun Belt. No, it's not because it's Arkansas. Arkansas is a beautiful state. And, it isn't because it's in a dry county. I've lived without a beer before. Besides, if night life were that important, Memphis is just an hour south. And, it's not because of the city itself (65,000) which has some downright friendly people (even though many of them think that sweet tea is a strong drink.)
Nope, it's getting there that's the bummer.
Now, you can fly to Memphis and rent a car. But since Jonesboro is usually coupled with either Little Rock or Monroe as a two city trip, flying isn't really practical. Besides, the flight from Lafayette to Memphis is much more expensive than it should be, given the distance. And, to get there you drive the entire length of the state of Mississippi on I-55 and that can get tedious.
I left about 9:00 Wednesday morning. Headed east on I-10 and hooked up with I-12 to Hammond. Then started the 350 mile drive on I-55. With the timing of the departure, it meant I had choices for lunch....and both were enticing.
When you cross the border into Mississippi, the first exit you see is for Osyka. If you take that exit and go about 1.5 miles east to US 51 and take a right, you'll get to Nyla's Burger Basket. It's a small restaurant (Osyka is a very small town) and you can get burgers, plate lunches and fried just about anything. Now, right across the Louisiana border is Kentwood, and one of Nyla's claims to fame is that little burger place was the favorite hangout of Britney Spears when she was a young teen. In fact, you'll see posters of the pop star all over the restaurant. I had wondered if he posters would have come down when Britney went through her rough patch and those infamous pics hit the itnernet, but Nyla's has remained loyal to their favorite daughter.
If a burger isn't your thing and you want something a little more down home, you can go another 20 miles north to McComb, MS and check out "The Dinner Bell." Located downtown, this restaurant consists of huge circular tables that seat twelve. Everyone is seated family style. There's a big lazy susan in the middle of the table, and the servers at the Dinner Bell bring out platters of fried chicken, meat loaf and more, along with just about every veggie you can think of. Sweet potato casserole, corn, black eyed peas, turnip greens, rutabagas....you name it. Then, toward the end of the meal, assorted desserts as well. With tip, you're out of there for about twelve bucks. Last year, I took UL assistant SID Matt Hebert to the Dinner Bell and we both thought it was great. But on this day, I opted for Nyla's.
The plate lunch special was red beans and rice with a fried chicken breast, smothered okra and cornbread. Plus chocolate pudding for dessert. I go to Nyla's for the burger. Handmade, always perfectly cooked, always juicy. Had it with the battered fries and sweet tea. And, as usual it was terrific. Be forewarned if you ever go, however, that they won't run a credit card for less than a twenty dollar purchase, so make sure you have cash.
After lunch, the drive was pretty uneventful. Quite a bit of snow on the ground as you headed north. But, stopping for gas just north of Grenada, the temperature had dropped considerably. And the wind was howling. By the time I got to Jonesboro at about 5:30, the temp was well below freezing.
The team had always stayed at the Holidome, which was really the only full service hotel in the city. But this year, we were booked at a brand new Hilton Garden Inn. I went to the desk to check in. Jordan was the young lady behind the desk. I was booked in a 4th floor room and I asked if she had anything on the ground floor. She said no and then asked if I was a smoker. I said yes and she said she could book me in a smoking room (I thought those things didn't exist anymore.) She said I'd actually be doing them a favor since they were pretty full. I agreed and she said "as a matter of fact, I'm upgrading you to a suite."
Went upstairs and checked out the suite. Very nice indeed. I set up my computer and did a couple of things on our website then headed out for dinner. We joked on the radio show about there not being a lot of choices, other than chain restaurants, in Jonesboro. But we found Ron's Catfish Buffet on the internet (thanks, Kevin) and I decided that would be the dinner spot. In fact, the team was going to eat there after practice. Ron's is off the beaten path about eight miles from our hotel. But it was worth the drive. In addition to the catfish (both whole and filet), there was fried chicken, boiled shrimp and tons of sides. All with drink for about twelve bucks. I'll go back. Then, back to the hotel, a facebook update or two and then I turned in for the night. The temperature got down to 11 degrees overnight.
At breakfast the next morning, I saw Coach Marlin. I told him about the suite upgrade and he said "you got my room." He said they checked in but when he saw ash trays in his suite, he asked for a regular room. I wound up in Coach Marlin's suite.
I really like Coach Marlin.
Did some writing during the day and realized I had forgotten to pack a tie for the trip (I usually wear a coat and tie to road games.) So it was off to Sears to buy a couple of ties.
At the arena, visited with Matt Stolz, the ASU play by play man. He told me that John Brady was pretty popular in Northeast Arkansas. They did Brady's radio show at a local restaurant and they packed em in every week. Quite a contrast to Brady's time in Baton Rouge, when he wasn't very popular, even when they went to the Final Four. Brady caused a bit of a stir during the media days teleconference when he railed against the conference's new scheduling criteria for basketball, a rant that earned him some ink in USA Today (and, I believe, a letter of reprimand from the Commissioner.) After reading the USA Today piece, I emailed Brady and basically told him I thought he was right on. Matt told me that Brady told him about my email back in October. After setting up equipment I went into the media room to get game notes and ran into the Red Wolves coach on my way back to the arena. I reintroduced myself to him. He thanked me for the email and we chatted for about ten minutes about scheduling, the conference mandates (he's not much into mandates) and talked a little about his days at LSU. One thing I'll always give Brady is he wasn't concerned about scheduling the Cajuns, Louisiana Tech and Tulane. Dale Brown refused to play those schools and it was Brady who got them back on the LSU schedule.
As gametime drew nearer I wondered if the Cajuns would be able to compete with ASU. The Red Wolves were unbeaten at home. They had three good guards and a load inside with Martavius Adams. The Cajuns would be without Josh Brown, still nursing a knee injury. They also didn't have Courtney Wallace on the trip because of an academic question. And, Randell Daigle had not practiced all week and I was pretty sure Coach Marlin wasn't going to play him, even though Daigle said he was ready to go. With Marlin, if you don't practice, you don't play. La'Ryan Gary is the exception, since he can only go every other day because of his knee.
The Cajuns got down double-digits early and were down 30-15 at the under 8:00 officials' time out. But the Cajuns went on a 10-0 run to cut the lead to five, before ASU took a nine point lead into the locker room. The Cajuns had done a great job rebounding the basketball against a team that had a +5.5 rebound margin this season. And, if they could somehow cut into ASU's shooting percentage (56% at halftime), maybe they had a chance. J. J. Thomas had nine points in the first half and Javan Mitchell had given the Cajuns a big boost on the offensive end, tying his career high win ten points.
But it didn't happen. Arkansas State shot 50% in the second half as well. Thomas and Bryant Mbamalu kept the Cajuns in it on the offensive end, and La'Ryan Gary hit a couple of big shots. The Cajuns got it down to four points and were down five with the ball with 1:30 left. But crucial turnovers really hurt and ASU wound up with a 74-65 win.
It was Thursday night in the Sun Belt and the officials let the teams play. The Cajuns, in fact, were only called for twelve fouls in the game. But the crew was a little testy and during a timeout, Coach Marlin got into it with an official who said he had to be in the coaches box, even during a timeout. Now, can someone show me THAT rule? That exchange got a little heated, and the official got his revenge shortly after, hitting assistant coach Nikita Johnson with a technical for saying "call it both ways."
My frustration with officials this year were well chronicled in a previous blog. As I pointed out, many of the officials this year can list the Sun Belt as the highest level they've ever officiated. And, one of the byproducts of that, in a few instances, is that some of these officials have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. That was pretty evident last night. It looked as though that official was looking for a reason to make a call. And, at Coach Johnson's expense, he found one. We saw a similar situation at home against Troy when one of the officials got into it with a fan sitting courtside. Not always all about you, guys.
Back to the hotel after the postgame show. Temperature had dropped into the low 20's on its way to the teens again. Postgame meal was out of the question, as virtually every restaurant, even most of the fast food places, shut down at 9:00.
After all, this is Jonesboro, Arkansas.