When it was announced last week that the women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament and College World Series had been called off, I thought of my good friend Phil Elson. Phil, a longtime broadcaster in the state, is the radio voice of Razorbacks women’s basketball and baseball. I knew that news would be devastating in more ways than one.
I wanted to get Phil’s reaction to the COVID-19 news on the world of sports. In the interest of social distancing, I emailed Phil 10 questions. Phil, the co-host of “Halftime” on ESPN Arkansas heard statewide, discussed what could have been with Hogs baseball and women’s basketball, the effect on him personally, how the absence of spring football will impact the Hogs, life as a talk show host with no sports and more.
AMP: What was your reaction last Thursday when the SEC announced the end of the men’s basketball tournament and the College World Series in rapid succession?
Elson: After Rudy Gobert’s infection became public and the NBA suspended their season, I expected that the NCAA basketball tournament would be cancelled, but was surprised at the College World Series being cancelled so quickly. A week later it makes sense that all events have been cancelled because we have a better understanding of what is happening in this country and across the world. The cancellation of the CWS hit me really hard because I realized that the entire college baseball season would probably be cancelled and that left me in a daze for a while.
AMP: Have you talked to any baseball coaches or players to get their reactions?
Elson: I spoke with a few of the baseball coaches. It’s a tough thing to accept that all the hard work and time put into preparing for a season would all be for nothing.
AMP: The Hogs were trying to work through a slump. Did you feel good about them pulling out of it as the Mississippi State series was set to being SEC play?
Elson: I had some concerns about depth of starting pitching and the need for talented young arms to emerge from the bullpen. But I do think the offense was going to come around to the point where the bats might carry the team for a bit. MSU was hit hard by injuries and I thought the Hogs might have a good shot at a winning weekend followed by a tough home series against Alabama. There is a ton of “what would have been” with this team and the entire SEC this year.
AMP: How does the shutdown affect you personally as you will not be broadcasting games in the near future?
Elson: There’s a financial effect and there’s an emotional effect. I’m not sure which one hits the hardest yet. Baseball on the radio is a very large part of who I am. It brought me to Arkansas and has given me wonderful experiences over the years. I found a terrific kinship on and off the air with Bubba Carpenter , and always look forward to the time we spend together doing Hogs games. The toughest part of it is knowing that on beautiful sunny weekends when we should have giant crowds at Baum-Walker delivering the single-greatest atmosphere in college baseball and Bubba and I would be there to tell the story of the game, the day, and our players and coaches…that instead we’re going to be trying to fill the time with other things. I’ll eventually replace the money. I hope…no…I NEED to be back on the air doing baseball again next year.
AMP: Arkansas’ women’s basketball team played well in the SEC Tournament. How did you feel about their chances in the NCAA Tournament?
Elson: This team had everything necessary to make a run into the tournament. They had great on-court leadership and so many different scorers and ways to score. Their quickness and togetherness would have been a problem for any team to game plan for. I have no doubt they could have been playing in the Sweet 16 and possibly deeper.
AMP: The NCAA has said spring sports athletes will get another year of eligibility. Should basketball players get another year, too since postseason play was canceled?
Elson: I think the winter sports who had their regular seasons finished will not see extra eligibility for their student-athletes. It’s a tough idea to swallow that you had a great season should be playing in a championship tournament, yet you’re stuck at home. BUT…at least they had their full regular season. The NCAA will have to cut the extra eligibility somewhere and I think it’ll be for the spring sports who saw 75% of their regular seasons cancelled.
AMP: Spring football has been canceled. How devastating is this to Arkansas first-year Coach Sam Pittman? What do you think the SEC will do to aid football programs prepare for the season?
Elson: It has to be really tough for any first year head coach because the spring is such an important time to begin installing schemes and philosophies, so it has to set Coach Pittman and his staff back (same at Miss State, Missouri, and Ole Miss). Whatever the SEC can do to help football programs will depend on where we are in the fight against coronavirus and slowing the spread of the disease. Because if we don’t, as a society, take the necessary precautions then it won’t matter what the SEC does for football programs because we won’t have a 2020 football season.
AMP: How has it been hosting a daily sports radio show with no sports?
Elson: I’m really thankful for the people at ESPN Arkansas, especially our market manager Tommy Craft, and my co-hosts Matt Jenkins and Matt Travis. Our show continues to circle around sports topics, but it also becomes a place for regular conversation. I’ve always thought radio shows (aside from the sports content) should be about relationships between the co-hosts. The three of us have only been doing the show together for a month now, so there’s plenty to learn about my co-hosts while we initiate conversations about Arkansas-related sports topics. This crisis challenges our personalities to be creative, have fun, take some chances, and remember that our listeners lives have been uprooted just as much, if not more, than ours. They need whatever sense of daily normalcy we can provide, and I hope we can help our communities make it through the coming weeks and months.
AMP: What are you doing with the abundance of free time?
Elson: I’m spending a lot of time with my girlfriend, Katie, and her daughter. We’re cooking, taking walks, watching movies and shows, enjoying each other’s company. I’ll get back into a routine of running four miles every other day. Definitely practicing sleeping in, too!
AMP: Major League Baseball has already been delayed until May. Do you think we will see baseball before the All-Star break?
Elson: Unfortunately, I don’t. I expect it to be a few months before we’re back to real normalcy. And we have to keep in mind, that the players will need another spring training. It’s impossible to just snap our fingers and have them ready to play.
Image courtesy of University of Arkansas athletics deparment