Associate SID Robby Edwards Wins CoSIDA Nation
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A feature story written by Arkansas Associate Sports Information Director Robby Edwards has been selected by the College Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) as the National Story of the Year in a contest sponsored by the professional organization.
Edwards’ feature on UA Director of Basketball Operations Darren Sorensen and his experience in Quatar won both a feature category and the national story of the year award. The story was featured on the Razorbacks’ official website www.hogwired.com and was distributed to local and national media outlets last spring during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“It is a tremendous honor for Robby to be recognized by his peers,” Arkansas Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information Kevin Trainor said. “This award simply confirms what we have known for a long time that Robby is a talented writer. Writing is the cornerstone of this profession. We are extremely proud of Robby not only for winning this award, but also for his numerous contributions to our department.”
Edwards’ feature was initially chosen as the top coach/administrator profile from Region VI before capturing top honors in that category at the national level. The submission was then selected as the national story of the year, besting the national winners from the five other categories (athlete profile, general feature, historical feature, opinion\editorial) in the contest.
Edwards will be honored next June at the 2004 CoSIDA National Convention in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Before War, Qatar a Positive Experience for Sorenson
By Robby Edwards
UA Associate Sports Information Director
(Originally published March 2002)
March is the month of madness for college basketball fans in America, but this past March, it was madness of a different sort in the Middle East.
General Tommy Franks called the shots for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” from Central Command in Doha, Qatar, a place Arkansas’ Darren Sorenson knows well.
He called jump shots there just over three years ago, from April through November of 2000, as head coach of Qatar’s 18-and-under junior national team, and as an assistant coach of the 21-and-under national team and the pro team.
Qatar borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Except for the capital city of Doha, it’s mostly a barren desert covered with loose sand and gravel. No bigger than the state of Connecticut, Ca-tar or Cutter, whichever you prefer, has limited natural fresh water, and dust and sandstorms are common. It’s 95 degrees by 7 a.m. and temperatures routinely reach 120, but Sorenson jumped at the chance to go.
Actually, while talking to Ed Andrist, his college coach at Mount Senario College in Ladysmith, Wis., where he played from 1991-95, he deprived someone else of the opportunity.
“I was working at Georgia State, and Ed had been hired and he called me to talk about it,” UA’s director of basketball operations says. “He was going to ask another guy to go and, just joking, I said, ‘Oh, you didn’t want me to go with you.’ He said he didn’t think I would want to go since I was working full-time at Georgia State. I took an eight-month leave of absence and went.”
“I had talked to two other former players before I talked to Darren,” Andrist, who is now the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, says. “The first two guys were a little hesitant and Darren said ‘Hey, I’ll go.'”
The pluses were obvious. Sorenson’s goals were and are to be a Division I coach. He broke in as an administrative assistant at UCLA in 1999 and was the director of basketball operations at Georgia State where Lefty Driesel’s team went 29-5 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2000. Per NCAA rules, those positions are prohibited from on-the-floor coaching.
Sorenson was responsible for all aspects of the 18-and-under team. As the assistant on the other teams, he was responsible for the offense, individual workouts, all conditioning and working with the post players.
“I was able to spend all day coaching basketball,” Sorenson, who helped Andrist and Mount Senario win the 1994 National Small College Athletic Association national championship, says. “I didn’t have to worry about kids going to class or getting ready for camps. Personally, it was great to get back on the floor. I’m always up for something new. It was a job coaching basketball, which is what I wanted to do, and I was getting paid.”
During the preseason, each team lifted weights for an hour in the morning, had individual workouts for an hour in the middle of the day and practiced two hours in the afternoon and evening. During the season, they practiced every afternoon and had occasional meetings during the day.
Other than being far from home, the drawbacks weren’t too bad.
“No matter where you go in the world, some people understand English,” he says. “Those guys had played basketball for a while and had played for American coaches. Each pro team can have one American player and then you can have three African players, as long as they’re under 18 years of age. There are six or seven club teams in Qatar. They go to Africa and bring these kids over that are 15, 16 and 17 years old, so they have all these good players. All the African players speak English, Arabic and French. They’re all really bright kids.”
The African and American players may have understood, but that didn’t help with the other players on the 14-man roster. Andrist and Sorenson used their manager, Rashed Al Takrooni, who served as the team’s interpreter, to get their point across to the players.
Sorenson could have used Takrooni with the 18-and-under team. The manager was bitter over not being named head coach, and he undermined Sorenson’s authority by telling players what he wanted them to do instead of what Sorenson had instructed.
“There was this kid in the stands watching us practice who could speak English,” Sorenson says. “One day he told me the manager was telling the players the wrong things. I wondered why we were struggling so much. I ended up firing the guy so they switched him to this fifth and sixth-grade team.”
When it came to actually playing, their teams were very good, mostly due to the African players. The 21-and-under team won the Asian League for Young Men championship and the pro team won the Gulf Coast Countries title. The 21-and-under team beat favored China and the pro team upset Saudi Arabia.
Sorenson still has contact with several people in the area, including the pro team’s best player, Yaseen Mamoud, who once told him: “A basketball is a small ball, but it can take you around the world.”
“They call him the ‘Michael Jordan of Asia,'” Sorenson says. “He’s really good. He’s 6-7 and was the dunk champion. He played in the Asian all-star game with Yao Ming. He would have been drafted by the NBA, but he came over and played in the NBA developmental league one year and didn’t like it, so he went back home.”
Soccer is king in Qatar, where only 25 percent of the population of 800,000 is made up of Qataris. The rest are Pakistanis, Indians, other Arabs and Iranians, but they did get into hoops, maybe a little too much.
“We played the under-21 championship at our place,” Sorenson says. “Our fans played these drums all the time, like bongos. There would be a timeout and they would get going really good and we couldn’t hear. It was actually a disadvantage.”
There was also plenty of media coverage, but in a land where English is the second language to Arabic, Sorenson can only assume it was positive.
“We had press conferences and reporters traveled to the games,” he says. “I have a bunch of newspapers from over there with my picture in them, but I don’t know what they say.” Sorenson, who joined Stan Heath’s Arkansas staff in 2002 following a year as the director of basketball operations at Jacksonville (Ala.) State, never felt he was in any danger, but he knew there was always that chance.
“As an American, you stand out over there,” he says. “If somebody wanted to make a statement, you’re a target. They took care of me, but you just never know.”
Sorenson had one brush with death while overseas, but it had nothing to do with the bombed out buildings he saw in Beirut, Lebanon, where his team played in a tournament with barbed wire wrapped around the building and troops with rifles were positioned at the top of the gym.
Instead, it was a trip he didn’t take to meet his team.\
“My team was in Egypt for a tournament and I was excited about going to Cairo and seeing everything there is to see there,” he says. “I was going to fly to Egypt at a later time and meet my team, but they decided I should stay with the national team. The plane I would have been on left Bahrain and crashed. Everybody died.”
Gulf Air flight No. 72 crashed into the Persian Gulf on Aug. 23, 2000, off the coast of Manama, Bahrain, killing all 135 passengers and eight crew members.
The most danger Sorenson was in may have been after winning the Asian League title.
“After they win a championship over there, it’s tradition that everybody form a circle and throw the coach up in the air,” Andrist says. “After we won, they threw me, Darren and Rashed up in the air a good 10 times. They were pretty excited. You don’t know when you come down if they’re going to be there to catch you or not.”
In a country where 95 percent of the people are Muslim and where Amir HAMAD bin Khalifa Al Thani ousted his own father in 1995 to become chief of state, Sorenson was told, just to be safe, to never speak about religion or politics.
“Sports almost separate politics,” he says. “It’s strange. It’s almost like a different population. My trainer was from Iraq. He was a great guy. He would tell me ‘My country is beautiful’ and would tell me Iraqis like Americans. Iraq is a country that, if the right people are running it, has enough natural resources to get back to where it was economically.”
Qatar bases its economy on oil, natural gas and fish, and is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as well as the Arab League and the United Nations. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Qatar’s exports and government income.
Sorenson says he and Andrist still get offers to go back as pro coaches.
“If you’ve ever been overseas for a while, you just want to be around people that speak your own language,” he says. “When you get a long weekend, it’s not like you can fly home and see your family. I wanted to be a Division I college coach. I probably should have done it, but I was just going in a different direction.”
Now, so is that part of the world.
“When I see the news and updates on TV, I know how hot it is and what the humidity is like,” Sorenson, who still has his Qatari drivers license, says. “When YOU watch it, you just see the pictures. I went to a place where people are scared to go and don’t really know a lot about. I understand what it’s like to be over there.”
Even if just a little, we do, too.
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