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16 Years Ago Paul Eells Left Shoes That Can't Be Filled

Former Razorback icon did things that aren't possible in Arkansas anymore
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Back in 2011, Bleacher Report ranked the most beloved figures in Arkansas sports history. 

Unfortunately, they got it 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 as it related to Ken Hatfield and Eddie Sutton, between bites of fresh barbecue or fried fish.

However, the one person I never heard a cross word about was the man at No. 2. 

Paul Eells. 

In fact, the state was filled with proverbial woodsheds waiting to accommodate a firm thrashing of anyone who spoke ill of the beloved former Razorback announcer.

Unfortunately, Eells, 70 at the time, died in a car crash along I-40 near Russelville 16 years ago while driving back to Little Rock from Fayetteville.

At the time, he was in preparations to call his 29th season of Razorback football while also serving as the lead sportscaster for KATV and host of both the Razorback football and basketball coach's show telecasts each Sunday after church.

Known for his disarming charm, unique voice, and trademark "glad to meet you" smile, Eells immediately made a strong impression with the state media after being hired away from Vanderbilt late in the summer of 1978.

"I found out from fellow Warren native Dale Nicholson that [Broyles] had just hired Paul Eells, and he asked if I would like to talk to him," allHogs.com owner Andy Hodges said. "I was just hired as the youngest sports editor in Arkansas at the ElDorado News-Times.

"Paul immediately got on the phone with me and we did a short interview and I could not believe how nice and gracious he was. I pointed out it was kinda ironic the Hogs' first game in 1978 was against Vanderbilt where he had been the radio voice in Nashville."

Eells, always self-depricating, pulled back the curtain ever so slightly on his anxiety about making the transition.

"At least I will know the players on one team," Eells said with a laugh. "I just hope I don't screw up and sound like I'm calling the game for the wrong team."

It was Eells 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 fan base.

Beyond his affable personality, Eells developed a reputation for loyalty and building relationships with coaches. 

Eells stood by Ken Hatfield when he opened the football coach's show with the Bible verse "Jesus wept" following a blowout loss to former Razorback turned Miami Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson at War Memorial in 1987. Even as a small child, I knew that was a bit heavy-handed as I watched it from the carpeted floor of my grandparents' living room.

A decade later, following the firing of Danny Ford a couple of years after riding Madre Hill to an SEC West championship, Eells stepped out of character and offered his thoughts, defending Ford against Broyles on statewide television.

However, it was alongside Nolan Richardson, the bombastic national championship basketball coach, where Eells cemented his place most firm as host of the "Rollin' With Nolan" show. 

Richardson could be an admitted gruff person at times, but Eells understood the moment in history and what pitfalls could befall the state's first African-American head coach of a major sport if he didn't come off well on television. 

Eells was the perfect balance to Richardson. He was a trusted face asking an audience to trust him in giving the new coach a chance. 

Eventually the state would go Hog wild for Richardson's brand of basketball and fall in love the the giant bear of a man, but those first 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. Eells found a way to make certain segments of the fan base to see Richardson as just another human being even if they didn't want to do so. While the path wasn't perfect, those moments on air with Eells went a long way in making them much smoother.

Once Eells was gone, his missing presence was felt despite quality men trying their best to fill the shoes of a legend. 

Mike Nail, familiar voice of comfort from the basketball broadcasts had the unenviable task of stepping in to call the 2006 season. Not long after, Chuck Barrett was given the reigns, bringing a style and cadence similar to Eells that continues to echo across affiliates in every corner of the state to this day.

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While Steve Sullivan, who was most known for his energy on Friday night high school football coverage, had already proven himself a great deal at the time and has evolved into truly iconic sports personality in his own right, it felt similar to when Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" after years of hosting each Monday night once KATV slid him into the main spotlight. After watching an icon your entire life, it took a bit to adjust to the guy you typically saw once a week.

KATV was THE channel for most of the state and the Razorbacks were THE team. Eells felt like family even to those who didn't know him personally. 

The combination of KATV's Ned Perme on weather followed by Eells on sports formed such a sweet duo that it felt like the whole family needed to go brush their teeth immediately after the nightly news. 

Football season didn't start until his voice said it was OK to do so.

There may never be another Paul Eells. The sheer amount of work it takes to run a sports department in Little Rock, host multiple coaching shows, and carry out all the responsibilities in Fayetteville is a lot. 

Plus, the university takes on more control of anything related to the Razorbacks with each season that passes. For this reason alone, his shoes will probably be never fully filled again.

Then again, some shoes of some legends aren't meant to be filled.

Arkansas Divider

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