In 1923, the now revered Arkansas basketball program was in its infant stages. So early, in fact, the Hogs found themselves gracing the floor of the Little Rock High school gymnasium before they competed on their own home court during their inaugural season.
Fans in Fayetteville had to wait until the turn of the new year to see their tall, wiry star, Elbert Pickel, play with their own two eyes, inside a gym colloquially known as “Schmitty’s Barn” after the first Razorback basketball coach Francis Schmidt.
Schmidt and the early Hogs laid the foundation for what was to come. The gymnasium named in his honor had been a converted automobile showroom, and it didn’t take long for him to rev up the competitiveness of the program.
Forgotten Accomplishments of Francis Schmidt
The Hogs amassed a winning percentage of 83.7% under Schmidt, the highest among all 13 coaches in UA history. He’s less well known to the modern fan, in part, because the NCAA Tournament didn’t even start until 1939, so his team couldn’t do the same damage in the postseason as his more recent counterparts, who have combined to amass one national championship, an additional runner-up, six total Final Four appearances, and more recently, three straight Sweet 16 appearances to go along with countless other accolades.
All of the top coaches, whether Schmidt, Eric Musselman, Eddie Sutton or Nolan Richardson, put defense first.
Sure, that winning clip should be taken with a grain of salt. Musselman’s Hogs mostly play top-tier NCAA DI teams and not random teams in a high school gym, but Schmidt’s record still stands at the top a century later.
Schmidt accomplished a heck of a lot in a short amount of time, coaching Arkansas basketball, baseball and football after initially being poached away from then-rival Tulsa, as well as holding the athletic directorship at Arkansas for seven years for good measure.(His 41-21-1 football record was no joke.)
As if that wasn’t enough, he later secured Southwest Conference titles at TCU and Big Ten Titles at Ohio State to round out his coaching career and eventually earn him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Arkansas Basketball 100 Years Ago
So much of the Roaring Twenties basketball world is unrecognizable to the fan today. Basketball’s popularity was a shell of what it is today — no television and, for the Hogs, no state-wide radio either. The first college football television broadcast wasn’t even until 1939. You’d be laughed out of the room today if you attempted to play the game in the glorious attire that the first Razorbacks played in with the capital ‘A’ stitched across the front of their chests.
Some of the Razorbacks’ non-conference opponents were highly suspect by modern standards. They played practically anyone and everyone across the state with an organized basketball setup, leading to opponents like the Ozark Athletic Club, Boyton de Molay and the Gay Oil Company.
Nowadays, one is more likely to see the Razorback stars at the YMCA for a charity event or community engagement rather than playing a Sunday league team in an official game that actually counts on the record.
The Razorbacks would often use high school gyms, including that of what’s now known as Little Rock Central High School. Remember, all of this predates even the most iconic of Little Rock sports venues. War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948 and Barton Coliseum — where the basketball Hogs often played in central Arkansas before Simmons Arena — didn’t open until 1952.
First Star of Arkansas Basketball
So options were severely limited when Arkansas took the court for their fifth-ever game in Little Rock on Dec. 29, 1923. The opponent: the Gay Oil Company, sandwiched between bouts against the Jonesboro YMCA and North Little Rock High School.
Arkansas’ star, Elbert Pickel, was just 17 – the age range of college players fluctuated wildly in that era. The shot clock didn’t even hit the NBA until 1954. Integration was more than 40 years away. The advent of the three-point line would take even longer. Even things as basic as the court size had just been agreed upon a few years earlier.
In an Arkansas Gazette article headlined “Sensational Shooting of Elbert Pickel, Arkansas Forward, Who Cages 12 Goals from the Field Largely Responsible for Arkansas’ Victory,” the author seems amazed by Mr. Pickel’s abilities.
If only writers today had the panache and the gall to articulate such beautiful descriptors as this:
“Elbert Pickel, long and lanky center, skipped about the floor with the grace of a ballet dancer and shot goals with the deadly accuracy of an Ozark squirrel hunter and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks humbled the Gay Oil Company Team.”
Sensational imagery aside, Pickel seemed like quite the basketball player. Come to think of it, that sure sounds like another Razorback, one with whom fans of this year’s team will be far more familiar: Trevon Brazile.
Minus the cornrows and swagger that Brazile plays with, perhaps there is more in common with our basketball ancestors than at first glance. Both stars certainly can shoot well, with Brazile second on the current team in three-point percentage.
The article continues with the subhead strong on defensive:
“On the offensive the rest of the Arkansas team gave the busy Mr. Pickel of Fayetteville very little assistance but defensively the other Razorbacks were with him.”
Pickel sounds more like a mythical creature rather than a basketball player, but the family created something of a Razorback basketball family dynasty. His younger brother appeared in two games in the 1928-29 season and scored nine and 13 points. There is also a Frank Pickel, potentially his father, in the biology department at the time living on Maple Street, according to census data.
It appears Arkansas didn’t play its first-ever game in Fayetteville until Jan. 4, 1924. Then, the gym would have held a max of a few hundred fans. Nowadays, we can expect something in the 20,000 range when the Hogs open SEC play vs Auburn at Bud Walton Arena on Saturday. Either way, in either era, you can bet similar surges of excitement have coursed through the veins of the Razorback faithful.
As the calendar turns from 2023 to 2024 instead of 1923 to 1924, so much has changed from that first season. The heart of why we gather, though, remains the same.
Elbert Pickel is pictured seated below, second to the right:
Research Acknowledgements: Justin Gloor, Jerry Hogan and Chris Anderson
Evin Demirel contributed to the above feature.
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