Touchdown in Little Rock: David Bazzel Oversees Little Rock Touchdown Club Growth, Success
David Bazzel’s “baby” turned 18 last month, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Razorback Football Coach Sam Pittman and several hundred more Arkansans joined the proud papa in downtown Little Rock to celebrate.
The celebration actually was for the opening of the Little Rock Touchdown Club, now in its 18th season. In his role as head Hog, Pittman kicked off the 2022 speaker series. Now a tradition, the Arkansas head coach leads off the season’s lineup; another packed house filled the Doubletree Hotel’s banquet room to hear him.
Bazzel’s brainchild, born in 2004 — about a week before Rex Nelson reached out with the same idea — was launched with 17 founding members. It’s grown from “around 40” at those first-year meetings, where members simply gathered and talked shop, to a membership of more than 500 today. Its speaker series regularly attracts nationally prominent former players, coaches and broadcasters.
Now considered one of the nation’s best and fastest-growing touchdown clubs, LRTDC pulls in an average crowd of about 250 to 300 for its weekly luncheon meetings. The Monday meetings begin each year in mid-August and run through the remainder of the calendar year, culminating in an awards banquet. Both the 15 weekly meetings and the awards banquet distinguish LRTDC from other clubs of its kind.
The local support the club receives also sets the LRTDC apart from others. For big name speakers, and especially when the Razorback coach is in town, the club will draw upwards of 750 attendees. This year’s lineup features several national A-listers sure to draw packed rooms: Kirk Herbstreit, Jon Gruden, Ed Orgeron and Paul Finebaum are among the first speakers for 2022.
The club historically has been able to draw nationally prominent figures. But Bazzel considers this year’s roster perhaps the club’s best overall.
Nelson, senior editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a noted authority on Arkansas sports, politics and culture, and a driving force behind the club. He thinks LRTDC’s lineup of speakers makes it one of the best in the nation.
“The club has far exceeded the expectations that any of us had for it in the early years,” Nelson said. “Our speaker lineup really distinguishes us with big names, week after week.”
Bazzel thinks Jon Gruden’s stop in Little Rock may represent his first public speaking appearance since his controversial firing last fall as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. Known for his candor and humor, Gruden was expected to command a sell-out, and his appearance may garner even some national media attention. Headed into the ‘22 meeting season, Bazzel was expecting a “very intriguing” event with Gruden.
“The first five this year are about as unique and national personalities as we’ve ever had,” Bazzel said.
Last year’s lineup included the likes of legendary broadcaster Verne Lundquist and NFL Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw. All these names — Herbstreit, Gruden, Bradshaw among them — represent big-market gets for a mid-size city like Little Rock.
Thanks to a healthy roster of corporate sponsors – including presenting sponsor Simmons Bank – the club can afford a national set. Bazzel said the club pays anywhere from $1,500 to $25,000 for speakers, though not all speakers charge a fee. This year, LRTDC has spent $100,000 to nail down its full lineup.
In addition, the club pays for all hotel and travel costs, sometimes relying on sponsors’ private jets to ferry speakers to Little Rock and back, and is known for rolling out the red carpet, thanks to its large contingent of volunteers. Neither Bazzel nor the club makes a profit. All proceeds return into securing future speakers and paying overhead-related expenses like audio/visual and security.
“It can be difficult to get national folks,” Bazzel admitted. “Little Rock’s not the easiest place to get to when you have to make connections. My thought going in is, who can I get here and afford? Simmons has really helped us raise the bar.”
Arkansas connections can help. Gruden’s friendship with Arkansas golfing legend, John Daly, was crucial to landing the coach, Bazzel said. But ultimately, it comes down to money.
George Makris Jr., Simmons president and CEO, said partnering with the club is a priority for the bank.
“It’s an honor to hear from so many coaches, athletes, administrators and commentators each year,” he said. “Their stories resonate with Simmons Bank’s values of high performance and passion. To curate a star-studded list of speakers year after year requires financial support. Partnering with the Little Rock Touchdown Club is one way we connect with our community and customers, and we are proud to be the presenting sponsor.”
LRTDC’s meetings, as the annual lineup reveals, have grown into mark-your-calendar events. Little Rock’s The Buzz 103.7, for which Bazzel co-hosts the morning drive show, broadcasts live from LRTDC each Monday in the fall, and meetings are livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube. No other club can match such coverage. Bazzel said that while livestreaming meetings can be a detriment to attendance, “We don’t care.”
LRTDC is unique as well in making speakers available for photos with members. Doors open each week at 11 a.m., and Bazzel said he may find 100 people lined up as early as 9:30 some weeks to hear big-name speakers.
The luncheons are open to everyone — $35 per luncheon for members and $45 for non-members. Annual membership packages are available on five levels, four of which entail voting rights in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.
Another LRTDC perk is its awards lineup – an inevitability with Bazzel at the helm.
Bazzel created the Golden Boot and Battle Line trophies awarded to the winner of the Arkansas-LSU and Arkansas-Missouri football games, respectively, as well as the national Broyles and Burlsworth awards, presented to the top college football assistant coach and the nation’s top college football player who started out as a walk-on. The club itself presents several trophy awards at its annual year-end banquet, recognizing Arkansas high school and college players as well as some of the top small college players in the country.
Club membership reflects a true Arkansas crowd, Bazzel said –– a melting pot of lawyers, judges, minimum-wage workers, rich, poor, male, female, Black, white. A typical meeting can feel like the famed annual Coon Supper in Gillett, candidates working the room in election years and strangers swapping stories – a preseason tailgate.
Nelson, who has spent most of his adult life traveling Arkansas and chronicling what makes it unique, believes LRTDC’s rise to “event” status helps distinguish it from other clubs.
“It has, quite simply, become one of those places where well-connected Arkansans go to see, and be seen,” he said. “I can honestly say that in the fall, there is no bigger weekly lunch gathering in the state than the Little Rock Touchdown Club. That’s not the case with football clubs in other states.”
For Bazzel, LRTDC represents a labor of love for his adopted home state. Growing up in the Florida panhandle before starring as linebacker for the Hogs in the mid-‘80s, he was exposed to the influence of touchdown and quarterback clubs in nearby markets like Atlanta, Mobile, Birmingham and even Gainesville.
“I just felt like Little Rock needed one,” he said. “And then Rex reached out with the same idea. There was a group of folks who thought it had potential. When I started this, I thought it had a chance; and if I’m gonna do something, I want it to be the best.”
Makris said Simmons shares Arkansans’ passion for sports and believes the club plays an important role in the community.
“Simmons Bank wants to provide football fans an opportunity to participate in what they love,” he said. “The Little Rock Touchdown Club has worked hard to create one of, if not the best, touchdown clubs in the country, while bringing an amazing lineup of speakers year-in and year-out.”
Bazzel is quick to disperse credit elsewhere for the club’s success — to Nelson, to those early believers, to the sponsors, members, volunteers and even the Doubletree, where the club seems to have found a home.
Memories that stand out for him include Bradshaw’s appearance last year; former Razorback interim coach John L. Smith referring to Arkansas as “the state of Alabama”; Finebaum playfully asking Lunsford Bridges, president of the former Metropolitan National Bank, if he had a job; the return of Bobby Petrino after the infamous motorcycle wreck and his standing ovation; the Tennessee tiff of Johnny Majors taking a shot at Phil Fulmer and the great Earl Campbell staying long after the luncheon ended to sign every autograph.
When Bazzel hears talk of LRTDC being one of the best clubs of its kind in the country, he’s ready to believe, even channeling a certain hall-of-fame former Arkansas basketball coach.
“I look at it as a source of pride, what the club is doing, especially in a small market,” Bazzel said. “I honestly thought this could be successful. But if you’d shown me this year’s speakers list 17 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“But like Nolan [Richardson] said, when you create a monster, you gotta feed the monster.”