In the latest edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” we circle back to longtime Down the Drive friend Reece Kelley Graham. Reece gave an outstanding interview during our first season of “Conversations,” when he was covering SMU sports for The Daily Campus.
Reece is now working as a digital producer for the Dallas Morning News.
In a wide ranging discussion, Reece and I delve into the merits of Jim Cornette, SMU football, and covering high school football in Texas, among other topics.
Clayton Trutor (CT): Tell us about your new gig.
Reece Kelley Graham (RKG): I’m really enjoying working with The Dallas Morning News. I was formerly an intern on The News’ breaking desk, so continuing on with SportsDay seemed quite apropos. It was an extraordinary blessing to already be working in the industry by the time I graduated from SMU. Our team is fantastic and top-class in every regard, and it’s a privilege to work with and learn from them.
CT: How would you grade SMU’s hiring of Sonny Dykes to replace Chad Morris?
RKG: It’s probably too early to grade the Sonny Dykes hire right now, but I do think Dykes was the best available and the best SMU could hope for. Some alumni seemed underwhelmed by the hire, but that probably had more to do with Chad Morris exiting.
With the exception of maybe Dabo Swinney, there’s not a D-I coach with more energy than Morris. Chad’s 12-pack of Red Bull a day wasn’t hyperbole. He’s the Michael Bay lens flare of the college football world. Morris was well liked on The Hilltop, so I can understand if some feel underwhelmed by Dykes.
But not so fast!
Dykes most recently served as an offensive analyst at TCU, and while that was not a coaching or recruiting position, he knows the football climate in the area. He’s also from Texas, which is a huge plus. Having recruiting success in this state can come down to who you know. SMU’s incoming class took some hits when Morris departed, but Dykes landed some nice players just before signing day, including the highest rated players the Mustangs have signed this decade. SMU fans have reason to be optimistic about Dykes.
CT: How will SMU football do in 2018?
RKG: Somewhere between 3-5 wins. And that prediction isn’t entirely indicative of the roster’s talent or the new coaching staff. I think the Mustangs could be back within bowl contention next year. SMU’s non-conference schedule nor the AAC’s increased parity will do the Mustangs any favors in 2018. Having to play North Texas, TCU, Michigan and Navy consecutively to open the season is brutal.
Also, games against teams like Tulane, Tulsa, UConn and Cincinnati are no longer guaranteed wins for anyone in the conference. Under Dykes, SMU will be transitioning to an air raid offense after having lost its top receivers to the NFL Draft. The Mustangs have two Courtland Sutton prototypes in Judah Bell and Alex Honey waiting in the wings, but can SMU develop them in time?
CT: Look into your Magic 8 Ball and tell me how SMU’s 2017-2018 basketball season will be remembered.
RKG: Oh boy. From an opposing fans’ perspective, I know SMU basketball doesn’t have many friends in this conference. After everything that’s happened in the American’s short history, I imagine getting Cincinnati or UConn folk to feel sorry for the Mustangs would be like pulling teeth. Wichita State’s first encounter with the Ponies left them pretty shocked too! See what I did there?
So, sure -- don’t feel bad for SMU. That’s fine. But I wouldn’t get too comfortable with the Mustangs being a non-factor, either. This season will be remembered as, “The year they got us.” The “they” is pretty interchangeable.
First and foremost, injuries. SMU has been riding dangerously for awhile now. The Mustangs won a conference championship with only seven scholarship players last season and miraculously escaped with only a few bumps and bruises. Murphy’s law was due, and it showed up full force this season. Transfer Akoy Agau sat out a good portion of SMU’s non-conference slate recovering from a knee infection. Then Jarrey Foster went down with a partially torn ACL. Then Shake Milton hurt his hand and SMU hasn’t won a game since. Ben Emelogu and freshman phenom Ethan Chargois haven’t been 100 percent either.
This is also the first year SMU’s NCAA probation really took a toll. The current freshman have promise, but the Mustangs couldn’t recruit as normal thanks to scholarship limitations in effect through next season. A lack of scholarship players plus these injuries has led to disaster.
SMU was 12-3 entering January with only one bad loss to Northern Iowa. The Mustangs have wins over Arizona, Southern California, Boise State and Wichita. This SMU team wasn’t championship caliber, but was tournament bound, no doubt about it. Expect a similar projection next season.
If Shake Milton jumps to the NBA, Jahmal McMurray replaces him. That prospect should scare the conference in itself. SMU’s frontcourt could be quite potent next season as well. Agau petitioned for an extra year of eligibility. Chargois -- or as I like to call him, Kyle Wiltjer Jr. -- will join him along with a healthy Foster, Duquense transfer Isiaha Mike and 4-star forward Feron Hunt.
The too long, didn’t read: SMU will survive probation. Having reported on SMU during the Larry Brown era, I’m excited to see the program shaped in Tim Jankovich’s image.
CT: What’s the best place to watch a high school football game in Texas?
RKG: That’s a hard one. As a disclaimer, I’ve only covered high school football in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so I can only speak for those venues.
The obvious choice is Allen High School’s Eagle Stadium. Allen has an amazing football program that consistently ranks among the top 10 in the nation. The Eagles have won four state titles since 2012 and have been declared national champions numerous times. They opened their current stadium in 2009 -- an 18,000 seater that could easily be expanded. In Texas, high school stadiums rival the size of smaller college venues.
But I’m also a nerd when it comes to stadium architecture, so I have other favorites.
Many of the schools in Arlington, Texas, play at Maverick Stadium on the campus of UT-Arlington. UTA hasn’t fielded a football team since 1985. Almost nothing on the interior has been replaced and watching a game there feels like being in a time machine. The original box-column supports and beige linoleum are a real throwback. The seating was built with a curved rake that you just don’t find anymore. Even the concessions taste like what I imagine the 1980s tasted like -- it’s so magical.
CT: Did you ever set foot in the Dallas Sportatorium?
RKG: Unfortunately, no. I’m not original to Dallas -- I’m an East Coast guy. The Sportatorium was demolished in 2003, a full 10 years before I ever stepped off a plane in Texas. But I have visited the site. I walked over with a group of wrestling fans from around the world during WrestleMania weekend in Dallas two years ago. To pay respects, in a way.
The Fabulous Freebirds were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame that night, and if you know anything about World Class Championship Wrestling, I’m sure you’ll find that irony amusing. It’s just an empty field these days. Overhead hangs the I-35 overpass I use to reach work everyday. Seeing a wrestling show there during the 70s or 80s would’ve been truly special.
The last decade of the Sportatorium’s existence wasn’t too kind to the venue’s legacy -- awful attendance and squatters. The land is owned by the city, which gives me hope it might be rebuilt one day -- though I doubt it. The cleared site of Reunion Arena (another WCCW venue and former home of the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars) is just a few blocks away. Both venues have largely been forgotten, unlike Fuel City -- a gas station that sits across the street from where the Sportatorium once stood. Some of the best street tacos you’ll ever have.
CT: Jim Cornette or Vince Russo?
RKG: I’m definitely a Jim Cornette guy, although I think Vince Russo gets a bad rap from the internet wrestling community and hardcore fans. I appreciate Cornette from the standpoint of a wrestling purest, but I also consider myself a storytelling purest. Russo could tell a story. He also wasn’t afraid to innovate, which I can respect.
Professional wrestling today lacks both innovation and good storytelling. So much so to the point that Cornette and Russo’s war of words was maybe the most interesting angle of 2017. I love that Cornette still actively tries to be involved in the wrestling industry, whereas Russo mainly sticks to the convention circuit. Cornette made an appearance at a NWA show in Fort Worth last spring I wish I had attended.
CT: What is your favorite sports book?
RKG: I‘m the kind of person who could comb through a baseball almanac for hours. A favorite sports book? Shoeless Joe, the W. P. Kinsella novel that inspired “Field of Dreams.” And yes, I actually have read it -- in middle school. I admire how closely the screenplay followed the book. The only notable changes are J. D. Salinger becoming Terrence Mann and the reveal of Ray’s father being a surprise. Also, Ray’s twin brother Richard doesn’t exist in the film. I’m a real sucker for a good magic/supernatural realism tale, so throw in baseball and it’s just the best.
I went to boarding school in Greenville, South Carolina, where the real-life Shoeless Joe died in 1951. He was born in nearby Pickens County. By complete accident, I was there for the opening of a small museum dedicated to his memory. Greenville’s minor league team was playing that night. I didn’t even know he was from the state before then.
CT: How many games are the Braves going to win this year?
RKG: For a franchise with the best farm system in baseball, the Major League win total doesn’t matter. I just hope our young pitching corps has another fantastic year in the minors. The Braves develop pitching better than anyone else. From Rome to Orlando to Jackson to Gwinnett, I’ll be paying attention. In Atlanta, Ronald Acuna’s rookie year will be the highlight. He’s the next Andruw Jones. That’s not me saying that, that’s Chipper Jones saying that.
CT: When you become a major league baseball player, what will be your walkup music?
RKG: Haha, “when.” This isn’t an exciting answer. I’ve always thought my walk up music would be a reflection of the type of player I’d become, or at least the team I played for. In other words, I would probably let others pick it. My pick would be something stupid and my teammates or the fans would have a better idea.
Or, you know, I could always hire Jim Johnston to compose...
Follow Reece on Twitter: @ReeceKelleyG
For more of the same, follow me too: @ClaytonTrutor