State of the Hogs: Witte Key Figure in Arkansas sports history

The obituary covered the Al Witte resume, but it didn't reveal that he was THE key advisor for Frank Broyles during a long period for Arkansas athletics. Here's a front-page commentary on the passing of Witte, long-time faculty representative and UA law professor.

There are some extreme characters floating around Fayetteville, but the most extreme -- and perhaps the one with the sharpest wit -- has passed away. Those who are left will have to go a lot to dazzle the way Al Witte did for most of his 92 years.

How he will be remembered varies. Some got their feelings hurt by his gruffness. It was just a cover up for a massive heart and a caring attitude.

His obituary called him a retired law professor at the University of Arkansas. That's not really doing it justice. He was still teaching at the end, if you wanted to knock on his door at the nursing home. Many still did.

There's other mentions, all significant. He was faculty representative for the athletic department for over 20 years. He also served as NCAA president, although the position then didn't have the current clout. Too bad. He would have fixed some things.

What the obit doesn't say is that Witte was the closest and most trusted advisor for athletic director Frank Broyles.

If there was a major decision to be made, Frank sought Witte. Or, Witte beat him to it, and came to him. If you looked for Broyles, there is a good chance that Witte would be sitting across from him in the office.

Broyles is bright, but knew Witte's intelligence and judgment was at the top of the charts. And, here's the key, Witte could and would tell Broyles when he was wrong and often times Broyles listened and backed off a stance.

It was Witte who helped Frank reach the decision to move to the SEC, one of the most brilliant moves ever made in college athletics. Witte guided him through the myriad of legal issues to help Broyles slip away from the Southwest Conference into a new SEC that revolutionized and still seems like the ultimate masterstroke.

If there was a key Broyles speech, it's almost certain that Witte wrote it, or at least tinkered with it. And he wrote many.

What many didn't know, Witte was a college English teacher before deciding to get his law degree and eventually matriculate into teaching law school. He loved the written word and the classics. He was drawn to the good writers in the newspaper business and loved to argue grammar or usages of the language.

I remember walking into the press box with my father, Orville Henry, at both Little Rock and Fayetteville. Witte would be waiting, ready to argue a style point. They went back and forth on whether the possessive of Arkansas was Arkansas' or Arkansas's. And, they might just as well be discussing Shakespeare or Hemingway. Some of the topics were not colorful when I learned them in school, but came to life in their discussions.

“Brilliant,” is the way my father referenced Witte.

“That's right,” Harold Horton said. “Coach Broyles relied on Al because he knew he was brilliant. In many situations, Coach Broyles went to Al and trusted him to help him make the right choice. He could tell him no.

“There was mutual trust. They were together professionally and away from campus. They spent a lot of time together.”

Horton recalls Witte's thumbs up on the Danny Ford hire. Certainly, Witte could research with the NCAA the question marks about Ford at Clemson.

“There was a small committee,” Horton said. “Coach Broyles wanted Danny and Al supported that, too.”

Witte was the reference point for all NCAA matters at Arkansas. Attorney Woody Bassett sought his advice when there was thought that Sunday Adebayo could petition for a sixth year after transferring back to Arkansas from Memphis.

“I had studied the NCAA manual and thought we might get a year back for Sunday,” Bassett said. “It looked like a long shot, but I knew Al would know. We went to lunch. He agreed it was a real long shot. I asked him who would be the one to call at the NCAA. He didn't really have an answer.

“Then, he called me back later. He said there was one person there with compassion. It was David Berst. If you'll remember, Berst was the guy who did the press conference in Dallas when the NCAA gave SMU the death penalty.

“Sure enough, Berst would see me. I went to Kansas City and he did show compassion. We got the sixth year for Sunday. Al thought it over and then told me exactly right. His judgment was always on target.”

Witte's mind was better than his body. No one ever accused Witte of being athletic. But Horton said there was some ability there.

“Bill Lewis and I were young coaches on staff for Coach Broyles, and he and Al would want to play us in tennis,” Horton said. “We thought it would be easy because they were so much older. We never beat them. Al wasn't fancy, but he'd beat you.”

Witte beat you with his wit more than anyone, though. He reveled in trading barbs. If you didn't fight back, he thought less of you. But, be prepared to lose.

I recall being challenged on a column a couple of times. He said, “I agree with the conclusion, but not because you supported it with anything. You can do better, or maybe you can't.” Then, there was a smile and a sparkle in his eyes as if he was proud of himself. And, he was.

“He was my favorite law professor,” Bassett said. “And, he would light you up. After awhile his students figured out it was a badge of honor if he came after you.”

That's my thought, too. I wish I could do a little better job of telling you about Al Witte. But maybe I just can't.

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