Before the list of candidates arrived, Mike Conley and Corliss Williamson were a certain 1-2 or 2-1 on the ballot for the roles they played in Razorback sports on the national stage.
Paring the list from 74 was the hard part and arranging the ballot meant reshuffling several times, particularly in the lower echelons. In every review of the names, Ken Hamlin moved up a spot or two until he wound up No. 9. Although he only played three years Hamlin is the number two tackler in Arkansas history.
KATV sports director Steve Sullivan asked a half-dozen veterans — read that as old — to vote on the top 25 Razorbacks of the last 25 years. The balloting was based solely on the athletes’ time in Fayetteville and such parameters eliminated the likes of John Daly, a former Razorback who has won two major golf championships.
To me, multiple years of accomplishment outweighed one glorious season, which is why Fred Talley was No. 16, eight spots ahead of Madre Hill who holds the UA single-season rushing record.
The votes added up to Williamson, Conley, Matt Jones, Billy Ray Smith, and Quinn Grovey. Rounding out the top 10 were Joe Kleine, Todd Day, Scotty Thurman, Kevin McReynolds and Lee Mayberry.
My ballot began with Williamson, Conley, Smith, Erick Walder and Thurman. They were followed by Steve Atwater, Kleine, Day, Hamlin and Grovey.
Jones is an enigma, just as he was for defensive coordinators in the Southeastern Conference. He may have been the most exciting single wing tailback in UA history or the top athlete of the past years — Conley could do some spectacular dunks — but, as a quarterback, he was behind Grovey and Clint Stoerner. On my ballot, Stoerner was No. 14 and Jones was No. 15.
The teams of Grovey and Stoerner had far more success than Jones’ Razorbacks, although there is the legitimate argument that Jones had less help than the other two.
With Grovey making the decisions, Arkansas won back-to-back Southwest Conference championships and took 10-1 records into the Cotton Bowl.
With Stoerner doing the throwing, Arkansas played in the Citrus Bowl and the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 in 1999 and 2000.
Jones set a Southeastern Conference rushing record for a quarterback, but the last two years, Arkansas was only 11-11. The Razorbacks did reach the SEC championship game in 2002 when Jones hit two big passes in the final seconds against LSU, but he threw 30 interceptions in 755 attempts while Stoerner had only 31 picks in almost 1,000 throws during his final three years.
Grovey vs. Stoerner vs. Jones will not be resolved, but there can be little doubt about Williamson and Conley.
Highly successful under Eddie Sutton, Arkansas basketball became a true national power under Nolan Richardson. With Day and Mayberry, the 1990 team reached the Final Four. With Williamson and Thurman, the 1994 Razorbacks grabbed the holy grail. A year later, Arkansas was back in the finals.
Williamson averaged 20.4 points per game in ’94 and 19.7 the following year and the fact that he was from Russellville only made the team triumphs that much sweeter.
That was the pinnacle in a sport the entire state watched and understood.
The only knock against Conley is that he competed in track, maybe not a niche sport but certainly one that is given only a cursory look by the multitudes. Coach John McDonnell had Arkansas on the fringes of a national championship in the early 1980s before he and Dick Booth recruited Conley out of Chicago. Conley swept the NCAA indoor and outdoor long jump titles in 1984 and 1985 and won five triple jump championships, helping start a run of team titles that is still going strong.
Other voters included Paul Eells of KATV, radio personalities Randy Rainwater and Tommy Smith, former UA sports information director Rick Schaeffer and Hot Springs Sentinel-Record sports editor Bob Wisener.