When the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament held its Selection Sunday on March 13, 10 huge sports buddies, including three college fraternity brothers, met in Tim McGuire’s Fort Smith, Arkansas living room anxiously awaiting the news of where the Razorbacks would travel for the Round One and Two games.
Seven of the 10 guys were just interested in learning where the Razorbacks would hopefully start their drive to The Final Four in New Orleans for the first time since 1995. The other three, Sigma Nu Fraternity brothers from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith: McGuire, 28, who works in logistics; Jonathan Clemons, 26, a civil engineer, and Tyler Teague, 28, a commercial real estate agent, were watching and hoping the Hogs would open in a city they had already purchased refundable airplane tickets and hotels rooms in.
When the West regional was up on the CBS broadcast, tournament favorite Gonzaga was the expected No. 1 seed, followed by Duke and Texas Tech. Then came the announcement the boys in Arkansas were waiting for—the Razorbacks were seeded fourth. When it was announced they would be playing Rounds One and Two in Buffalo, New York last weekend, the three frat brothers erupted in loud screams and began high fiving everyone in the house while McGuire’s wife, Abbey, too nervous to watch, joined in the celebration.
“We lost our minds when we saw that,” McGuire said with a laugh. Teague added: “It was insane. CBS should have had a live camera in that living room. We were that crazy over the news we were going to Buffalo, NY.”
My good friend, “Sammy V” Violante, who ranks March Madness among his favorite events of the year, and I attended both rounds at the Key Bank Center. After the first game Thursday afternoon, we met McGuire in the concourse. He was wearing an Arkansas t-shirt that seemed to feature every sport the school offered so we struck up a conversation about it and suddenly a friendship began.
We then introduced him to Buffalo Sports icon, Conehead, and bought him a beer from Buffalo’s premier beer vendor.
“I have been all seven of these tournament appearances in Buffalo but this is the best one because it is the first we could sell beer,” explained Conehead, who said the NCAA changed its rules in 2018. Previous to this, Conehead sold sodas at the previous tournaments here. “I must say all of the out of the town fans I sold beers to were outstanding. It was fun being here.”
After hearing his story, Sammy asked the obvious question: “Why Buffalo, New York when you could have wished for Indianapolis, Fort Worth, Portland, Greenville, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, or San Diego?” McGuire took a sip from his can of LaBatts and gave an answer that should earn the trio honorary Bills Mafia status.
“All of our buddies are huge NFL fans and since we do not have a team in Arkansas to root for, we all have our own favorites. The last couple of years and especially this season, we all became Buffalo Bills fans because of the toughness of Josh Allen and how he talks so proudly about his city and of course, the Bills Mafia,” he explained. “When we saw Buffalo announced as one of the first-round site weeks ago, we immediately booked our flights and rooms at the Best Western Inn on Delaware Ave. We then went online and learned the best place for wings was Wingnutz, and we made reservations for Friday afternoon.”
Teague added, “The City of Buffalo blew me away. This was a bucket list location for me and my buddies, and to get to visit while our Hogs were playing made it even better. The great people of Buffalo are proud of their city and that is refreshing because we love Arkansas with that same passion.”
“After following the Bills last year, we were looking for an excuse to come to Buffalo and Razorback basketball was that excuse,” Clemons added with a laugh.
As Sammy and I observed the fan base of all eight teams in Buffalo on Thursday, it was obvious by the number of Cardinal and White jerseys, shirts, and jackets, along with rubber Hog head hats, the large and loud school band, cheerleaders and dancers, that Arkansas travels well and they are used to this. McGuire said there were more than 1,000 Razorback fans in Buffalo, which is 1,105 miles from the Fayetteville campus. The school’s athletic foundation even rented out the LaBatt Brew House adjacent to the arena for private hospitality parties Thursday and Saturday.
Division One college basketball began at the University of Arkansas in 1923-24. The Razorbacks are an all-time top-25 program by winning percentage (.639), top 15 by Final Four appearances (6) and in 1994, won the national championship and were runners up the following season. Their appearance in Buffalo marked their 30th visit to the Big Dance of March Madness.
Our three pals had all day Thursday to explore Buffalo since the Hogs did not play until the late game against Vermont. After the Key Bank crowd witnessed two straight first round upsets, the University of Vermont gave the heavily favored Hogs a game that went down to the wire before Arkansas won to advance to the Round of 32 for the 23rd time in school history Saturday against New Mexico State.
The Hogs won that game to advance to the Sweet 16 for the 13th time. They play this Thursday against top seeded Gonzaga in San Francisco. Our trio will not be making that trip, but they do have refundable airline tickets and room reservations in New Orleans for the Final Four weekend.
After the Arkansas trio explored our region Friday and Saturday, we picked them up for dinner before Saturday night’s games. We chose Sidelines Sports Bar and Grill, 189 Delaware Ave., because owner Hillary Collura has created such an amazing establishment since it opened eight years ago with large screen televisions everywhere and some very cool, autographed Buffalo sports legend’s jerseys adorning the walls.
Unbeknownst to us, the headquarter hotel for the Arkansas basketball team was the Embassy Suites in The Avant, directly across from Sidelines. In fact, before the Razorbacks left Arkansas Collura was contacted to email the food menu to a team representative. They ordered meals to be packaged and delivered to the hotel upon the team’s arrival last Wednesday. She said the meals were well received.
“They ordered a complete variety of the food we offer and on Friday they called and ordered 20 large boxes of chicken wings to be delivered to them,” explained Collura, who was working the restaurant’s second NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in Buffalo. “Throughout the tournament we had so many of their fans in here and they loved it and we loved them. We are now rooting for the Razorbacks to go all the way.”
As we made our way upstairs, they stopped at a table of Hogs’ fans to hug and have photos taken with Linda Williams, the mother of Arkansas star, Jaylin Williams. They are both from the trio’s hometown of Fort Smith and Jaylin also attended their same high school.
After Sideline’s young, efficient and patient server, Paige Dent, took drink orders and placed a bucket of chicken wings as an appetizer, Sammy surprised the boys with gifts of green baseball caps with the distinctive Buffalo on the front (lead image – courtside Saturday night before the Arkansas vs. New Mexico State game inside Key Bank Center.). They wore them proudly throughout the night and it is safe to say it will be displayed in their homes with a long story to tell about them.
An interesting sidenote to the caps: The trio had first row seats behind the Razorback bench Saturday night and before the game a statistician for CBS Sports noticed the caps the three of them were wearing. He offered an official NCAA towel that is used on the benches in exchange for a cap. They did not budge. However, when pressed, they told them how they got the caps and where we were seated. At halftime, the statistician, who has worked with former Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker on NFL games years ago, made his way to our seats and after hearing his plea, I traded my cap for the towel, which I gave to Sammy for his sports collection.
During dinner, the review of the Queen City from McGuire and his pals could be used on a Visit Buffalo Niagara commercial.
“Buffalo is a great city that feels like a small town,” McGuire said with authority. “We met so many wonderful and great people with awesome stories and they were all so friendly and accommodating with suggestions.”
Clemons added: “My time in Buffalo is a trip that will be remembered and talked about for the rest of my life. It reminded me of being at home in Arkansas where the people are just as passionate as they are kind. Buffalo has a charming small town feel where it seems like everybody knows everybody. We met Pat and Traci Murphy during our stay, and they treated us like family. A sweet family and a friendship to carry back home.”
When Sammy asked why they picked Wingnutz over Anchor Bar, Duff’s or LaNova for wings, McGuire said this about the Kenmore Avenue restaurant, located inside the Knights of Columbus building: “The on-line recommendation was spot on. We ordered 50 wings and they were awesome. The owners, Alicia and Ed (Wrazen) had the greatest story and were so proud of their restaurant. They were also so kind to every customer and it is obvious, they treat every single person that walked in there like family. They care so much about their food and customers.”
Each morning while in town they headed south on Delaware and began the day at SPOT Coffee, which they said, “had the coolest, hip atmosphere with great employees.”
“Hands down, the food was great,” McGuire added. “Gabriel’s Gate and Wingnutz were undoubtedly our favorite stops.” They also tried the Blackthorn Restaurant in South Buffalo and Bar-Bill in Amherst along with shopping at Pasteurized Tees and Rick’s Sports Apparel in Allentown.
“Let’s talk food!” Teague said. “I have eaten my body weight in chicken wings and loved every second of it. But I can honestly say I didn’t eat a bad chicken wing in Buffalo. All and all, this trip will always be some of my favorite memories to look back on. Thank you, Buffalo. Go Hogs!”
McGuire added: “Thank you to our two adopted Buffalo Godfathers, Sammy V and Michael B, for the great hospitality and lifelong friendships we gained. Can’t wait to return for a Bills game this season.”