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 ArkansasSports360.com. 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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11 Responses to “Great Stadium Debate II”

  1. Ted Barker says:

    Rex –

    Love your new blog, read it everyday. How about a saturday of GSC games featuring the six Arkansas schools? Kick off at 11 AM, 3 PM and 7 PM would work.

    Ted Barker

  2. rexnelson says:

    Thanks so much, Ted. Hey, I love the idea of having an all-GSC day at War Memorial Stadium. That would be fun — Rex

  3. HIllbilly says:

    Fayetteville isn’t in the South? I’m sure that would surprise all the folks who live in Fayetteville. I lived up there for several years. I found it to be a college town with a nice amount of Southern appeal.

    Because of the University, Fayetteville has a population made up almost entirely of people from other places in Arkansas. I’m from Little Rock but almost everyone I knew up there was from some small town in East or South Arkansas.

    I gotta question if you’ve ever been to the Midwest before, Rex? The Ozarks are nothing like Kansas, Oklahoma or anywhere else that is actually in the Midwest. Are the Ozarks just like the Delta, no; but then again, most parts of the South aren’t like the Delta either.

    You can’t exclude Fayetteville from the Greater South

  4. I'm a Wolf says:

    If Arkansas being the Flagship School in the state would act like most of the other Flagship schools in their states and actually play the other Division Football team in this state then I might actually care what happens at the Stadium in Little Rock. They don’t act like a flagship school because they would rather help out ULM instead of their own instate school. Kentucky just recently signed a four year contract to play Western Kentucky. Arkansas and ASU could and should do the same thing and play the game in LR. Until that happens I don’t care what Arkansas does.

  5. CentralArkansan says:

    How is the proposed WMS expansion the Great Stadium Debate II? Is Jeff Long or the UofA FORCING state taxpayers to build a new press box and add the luxury suites to continue playing in Little Rock? Given you had no quotes from any UofA official, it must not make a bit of difference to them.

    Did you contact anyone at the WMS Commission to find out what other events will be held at WMS after spending in excess of $100MM to add the press box and ring of luxury suites? After all, it would be incompetent spending so much of our state’s tax money if they had no new tenants for WMS.

  6. Dave Edmark says:

    Wow. Stadiums, football and regional culture, all in one blog post. Rex could have been less controversial if he had merely explained how to handle health care or what should have happened in Cambridge, Mass., a couple of weeks ago.

    I live in Fayetteville and it’s likely apparent where I am by default on the stadium business. I’m actually with Rex, more or less — literally. He said the Razorbacks should play two or more games a year in Little Rock. I say they should play two or less. We have found common ground, and we are both better for it.

    That was easy to resolve, especially compared to the knotty issue Rex raised when he said, “Fayetteville is not in the South. Fayetteville is in the Midwest.” Well, yes, no, sort of and not entirely. Fayetteville is in the South, the Midwest and the Southwest all at once, part of each of them and indicative of none of them. There are also small traces of the Northeast and West Coast here too, all welcome parts of the mix even if somewhere under the radar.

    (By the way, opinions expressed here are those solely of the author and not necessarily those of Northwest Arkansas, and definitely not intended to be representative of the city of Fayetteville, where consensus is rarely found on anything other than our fierce determination to be Fayetteville, depending our various factions think that is at a given moment.)

    Back to the main point, as to Fayetteville’s geographic inclinations. People from the three predominant regions mentioned above have been coming here for decades and settling in with those already here as native born or long-time immigrants. Those from the three regions fall into two categories:

    – The ones who look around and see most of the culture is not exactly like it was back home, wherever that was. They hoped for a carbon copy of life back home and didn’t find it here. They complain a lot and generally flee within a few years or less.

    – The ones who look around and see, in addition to some of their original home’s culture, an intriguing blend of other regional cultures that appears to co-exist and thrive rather well within one municipality. They stay for a long time and become part of a local melting pot that is largely indifferent to where one is from, much less where one’s ancestors lived.

    So Rex is right in noting that if you’re in Fayetteville and looking for the real South, you’ll probably have to drive at least as far as Little Rock to find it. For that matter, if you want to find the real Midwest you’ll have to drive about as far the opposite direction and head to Kansas City. If you want to find the real Southwest, start in Tulsa and keep going. It’s all easily accessible to us from Fayetteville and makes us a bit separate from everyone else. Nobody has ever really claimed us. It could be the ultimate identity crisis, but it’s probably more of an issue to people far from Fayetteville than it is to the local citizenry. We’re quite content with what and where we are, whatever and wherever everyone else may think it is.

  7. tmfw says:

    So, by this reasoning Nashville is not in the South b/c it is closer to Missouri than it is to Memphis?

  8. Barbara Dalby says:

    War Memorial games make the Razorbacks more accessible to the rest of the state, and that’s good for recruiting purposes. I don’t want to refight the Civil War, but the South goes all the way up to Southern Missouri (I know..their cornbread is cooked in a square, metal pan with a little sugar, but at least they eat it instead of bagels).

  9. rexnelson says:

    Cairo, Ill., is also the South. At the downtown barbecue there, they say: “Y’all come back.”

    It’s really more of an east-west distinction in this part of the country than a north-south distinction. Generally, the further east you go (even the Missouri Bootheel and Southern Illinois), the more Southern it gets as opposed to far western Arkansas and western Missouri.

    I would contend that these days, Cairo is more Southern than Rogers — Rex

  10. Andy Glover says:

    Rex – I just found your blog tonight – great stuff. As someone who grew up in the deep South of Arkansas but has lived in the Northwest corner for 15 years, I think your comments about the differences are right on. It is different here. Not bad, but different.

    It’s a small thing, I know, but this sums it up for me: When I go back South, people in passing cars wave, and I wave back. My kids ask “Dad, do you know that person?” “No,” I say, “that’s just what people do down here.”

    No doubt there are lots of fans here, but they don’t seem to me to have the same passion for the Razorbacks as the folks back home. I hope the Hogs continue to play in LR forever.

    Apologies to any of my neighbors that I have offended.

  11. Jeff Necessary says:

    In its day War Memorial Stadium was a wonderful place for college football. That day is past. And unless Gary Smith can find about $100 million buried under a tree on the War Memorial Park golf course, that day will never return. It’s just not an SEC-caliber facility, and no matter how much lipstick the stadium commission puts on that pig, it’s still a pig. My seats are right next to the visitors’ section, so I hear the visiting fans’ comments. They are, shall we say, not impressed. It does not reflect well on our state. Is it really the best thing for Arkansas to force the state’s team to play in a substandard facility year after year?

    If people are really serious about maintaining WMS’ role in Razorback football long term — and that’s what we’re talking about here — something is going to have to happen, and that something is going to involve many millions of dollars. I just don’t see that anyone is going to step up to the plate and come up with the cash to do what needs to be done — the legislature, the city, or private interests. Gary Smith has the right idea, but he doesn’t have the funds to do it.

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