CELEBRATING SWAC WIN — Longtime Lions fans: Title plays into ‘new attitude’

If the Southwestern Athletic Conference named a Fan of the Year, Pine Bluff’s Bubba Pettigrew would certainly be among the top candidates.

Pettigrew may be chiefly known across the region as a popular, long-time car salesman at Trotter Ford Lincoln here, but when it comes to University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff football, he’s regarded by players, coaches and other supporters as one of the team’s most animated and vocal backers.

“Listen here,” Pettigrew said this week while relating his views on the Golden Lions’ overtime win in Saturday’s SWAC championship game at Birmingham, “I can’t tell you how much UAPB football, UAPB sports, means to me. I absolutely love UAPB and its sports teams. The only thing I love more is my family.”

Pettigrew — easily-recognizable with his white hair and beard — thinks UAPB’s first-ever outright SWAC football title may have more than just immediate significance. And he believes, too, that it may be indicative of something beyond mere athletic achievement.

“I think it could help give Pine Bluff a new attitude, or add to a new attitude that’s been evolving for a time,” he said, noting that UAPB’s football team has black and white faces, just like the city. “One thing I think it can do is to help in continuing to bring people together here, turning this community around. People here — blacks and whites and others — all want our city to be the best it can be and for each of us to successful and enjoy living and working here. It doesn’t matter what color you are, everybody has to work together to win a sports championship or be successful in life, period, so that’s a good lesson for all of us.

“My biggest hope is this will fill the stands every time UAPB plays a game here. I would like to see football tickets get to be hard to come by. And I would like to see our football success become the norm in every sport. And I want to see black and white faces in the stands.

“Back in the 1960s, UAPB’s basketball teams were big time,” he continued. “They led the nation in scoring for a while. And at every home game, there would be a section of the stands filled with whites. UAPB basketball was the hottest ticket in town and everyone shared in it. I truly believe that UAPB sports could be the best catalyst for tourism in Pine Bluff, and business here could benefit and grow from that.

“And I believe (UAPB football coach) Monte Coleman is the perfect guy to take the lead in helping to make all that happen.”

The 65-year-old Pettigrew’s mother was a UAPB faculty member and his father ran a nearby grocery store. “I grew up on the campus,” here said. “Our property adjoined the football practice field. I watched coach Vannette Johnson and his teams practice and play, and I idolized those guys. The UAPB campus is sacred ground to me.”

Pettigrew isn’t sure how long he’ll “stay up in the clouds” because of UAPB’s title game performance. But he’s not in any hurry to return to earth.

“I’ve had some disappointments through the years as a UAPB sports fan,” he said. “But those help me to have even more appreciation for the great moments I’ve experienced. But nothing can match how wonderful I felt in Birmingham and how I’m still feeling now. It’s second to none as far as sports is concerned. I’ve been walking on air.”

Through his many seasons as a UAPB football fan, Pettigrew has become “big brother” or “father” figures to a number of players, offering congratulations, encouragement or advice as needed. Pettigrew said “my boys” this year were Ben Anderson, Kenny Eagle, Robert Dorsey and Bill Ross. The night before the championship tilt, Pettigrew had a photo made with Anderson and Ross, who wound up winning the game’s outstanding offensive and defensive player trophies, respectively.

“Ain’t that something?” Pettigrew laughed. “I am so proud of those guys. I’m so proud of all of the guys.”

Pettigrew said he takes it as a personal affront when fans here “yell criticism at the coaches or the players.”

“The people here need to remember that we’re better than that,” he said. “If you can’t be positive, stay at home or find something else to be negative about. Our guys are always doing their best, and sometimes that’s not always enough, but it’s always the most that they can do, and we need to let them know we appreciate their efforts.”

Former UAPB coach Lee Hardman, now the institution’s director of recruitment, agreed with Pettigrew that the Golden Lions’ win translates into “more than just a game.”

“It was big because we had never won it before, and the attendance by our fans was big, too,” said Hardman, who guided UAPB to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship game in 1994. “I think it’s bringing this community and UAPB together. It has certainly sparked a lot of interest. It’s a major plus for the city as well as UAPB.”

Hardman certainly knows about winning football. He resigned as the Golden Lions’ ring master in 2003 with the most victories in school history, forging a 64-58 mark over 11 seasons. Previously, he won four state championships and enjoyed a streak of 51 consecutive wins during a storied run at Dollarway High School.

Former UAPB Sports Information Director Carl Whimper — a one-time staff reporter at The Commercial — has a 42-year association with the university, first as a student and then as an employee. Currently Hardman’s chief assistant, Whimper compared the school’s SWAC championship to its ‘94 national title game, won 13-12 by Northwestern (Okla.) State.

“Those two events really showcased UAPB — the coaches and players, the band, the fans and all the students,” he said. “Both games were needed shots in the arm for the city and UAPB.”

Mayor-elect Debe Hollingsworth said she and her husband, Jack, attended Sunday’s celebration in which the UAPB coaches and players were toasted as they returned home after claiming the SWAC crown.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more impressed,” she said. “They gave God all the glory for their success. Coach Coleman and his staff and the players are first-class individuals, a first-class team, and that speaks volumes for UAPB and the city. I don’t know how to say it, other than we’re honored and blessed to have Monte Coleman as our coach.”

Coleman makes no secret of his Christian faith, to which he has testified since his playing days with the National Football League’s Washington Redskins while working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and similar groups.

“I think you could say that this team certainly earned its championship,” said Hollingsworth. “It resulted from their dedication, hard work and perseverance. The caliber of this team is second to none. They’ve obviously got talent, but I think they won just as much — if not more — because of their character. You don’t win without heart and the right attitude. These guys are special, and I hope they know that what they’ve done is huge for this city.”

Hollingsworth said the team’s new-found success seems to “fit in” with the city’s “moving in a new direction,” a theme oft-repeated during her 18-month campaign and since her Nov. 6 election.

“I want them to make winning SWAC championships a habit,” she said. “I’m looking for their success to continue.”