Great Stadium Debate II

I suspect the debate over whether the University of Arkansas football team should play games in Little Rock will always be with us.

I spent more than nine years working in the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee. During that long tenure, guess which issue generated more calls, letters and e-mails to the governor’s office than any other?

If you guessed education reform and school consolidation (though that generated lots of public comment), you would be wrong.

If you guessed controversies over executive clemencies, you would be wrong.

If you guessed the smoking ban, you would be wrong.

If you guessed the Great Stadium Debate, you understand what really gets the heart pumping when it comes to Arkansas males.

Mark Carter of Arkansas Business wrote a story earlier this week about the many things that the energetic chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, Little Rock’s Gary Smith, would like to see happen in the next couple of decades.

As soon as this year’s football season concludes, construction will begin on a $7.5 million press box at War Memorial Stadium that will cover 28,000 square feet. There’s also about to be landscaping in the stadium’s drab parking lots and a walking track built around the outside of the stadium. The new press box will be a grand addition to the work that has already been done at the stadium in recent years.

Frankly, Smith’s ability to find money from various pots for stadium improvements has been amazing. There was the cleaning of the outside concrete walls that brought the stadium’s art deco features back to life. Rusting metal was replaced by glass bricks. There were the improvements to the concourse with new concession stands, flat-screen game monitors, restrooms and more. Inside the stadium, new artificial turf, new lights, new seats, new scoreboards, new video monitors and lots of fresh paint have been added.

Smith is not stopping there, however, with the state-owned facility. He eventually would like to add more private boxes encircling the top of the stadium and perhaps even add an upper deck on the east side. In additon to Razorback games, it seems to me that Arkansas State, UAPB and UCA should play one home game a year in Little Rock with parties for alumni, pep rallies, etc. surrounding those games. And I still think UALR football makes sense (see earlier post).

If you were to take five UALR games, two Razorback games, one Red Wolf game, one Bear game, one Golden Lion game and a bowl game (believe me, this could happen), you would have 11 college football games a year in a revamped state facility in the center of the state’s largest metropolitan area.

Carter’s Arkansas Business story was followed with a column by Chris Bahn of AB affiliate Bahn, though based in Fayetteville, reasoned that the Razorbacks should continue to play at least one game a year in Little Rock.

I think the Hogs should continue to play two or more, and that’s not because I live in Little Rock and tire of the many drives to Fayetteville. Frankly, I attend very few Razorback games. I have far bigger fish to fry — I’m at Ouachita games every Saturday.

But I care about my state. And I know that Arkansas needs its flagship state university to truly be a statewide school, not an increasingly regionalized institution. Nothing does more to unite people from all parts of the state than Razorback football.

It goes without saying that many of the most avid Razorback supporters never attended college a day in their lives. Yet with the state’s rapidly improving public education system and the increased scholarship opportunities that will be made available by the lottery, their children might attend college.

As Bahn points out, Razorback football games in Little Rock are important if we’re to keep the Fayetteville institution fresh on the minds of those kids and their parents.

Gov. Huckabee took the Little Rock side in the Great Stadium Debate because he understood Arkansas — all of it. He had campaigned in all 75 counties in his 1992, ’93, ’94, ’96 and ’98 campaigns. He grew up in a far corner of southwest Arkansas. He knew what makes people in LA — Lower Arkansas — tick. He understood that the flagship university risked regionalizing itself without a Little Rock football presence. He knew it was about far more than how much the athletic department could earn.

We heard all of the arguments. There were arguments along the lines of “Auburn no longer plays any games in Birmingham, Alabama no longer plays any games in Birmingham, Ole Miss no longer plays any games in Jackson, Mississippi State no longer plays any games in Jackson. We’re going to be different.”

My answer: “What’s wrong with being different? I love the fact that Arkansas is unique. When did we reach the point that our goal is to emulate Alabama and Mississippi?”

We also heard the arguments about how the roads to Fayetteville are better now, there are far more motel rooms in the region than there used to be, there’s a good airport, etc.

All of this misses a key point: Fayetteville is not in the South. Fayetteville is in the Midwest. Northwest Arkansas has far more in common with Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri than it does Louisiana, Mississippi and even east Texas.

Little Rock — and points south and east of here — are in the South. The folks in Forrest City think differently, act differently and live differently than the folks in Fort Smith. But Razorback football can unite them as long as you don’t take away a cherished tradition — the tailgating on the War Memorial golf course and the games in the adjacent stadium.

We hear a lot about The Grove in Oxford, but the War Memorial golf course is The Grove times 18 on a Razorback game day. The Grove has the national reputation, but I’ll take the golf course in Little Rock any day of the week. Maybe it’s my inner redneck coming out, but I find the golf course more eclectic, more egalitarian, less pretentious and just plain more fun than the white-linen party in Oxford.

Paul Greenberg and I have debated the question of where the South ends and the Midwest begins. I suspect it is somewhere around Ozark or Alma.

Regardless of where that line is, you would think that a school in the Southeastern Conference would at least continue to play a couple of home games in the South.

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