Crossing the ravine

I wrote last week about the 84th Battle of the Ravine in Arkadelphia. The game itself wasn’t as close as some past games had been as Henderson defeated Ouachita by a final score of 35-26.

But the weather was perfect, and both teams had talent as a crowd of almost 10,000 people looked on.

Something struck me as I spent the day at Henderson’s Carpenter-Haygood Stadium: From an economic and community development standpoint, Arkadelphia is finally getting its act together. A look at the election maps from Tuesday, unfortunately, shows that Clark County remains stuck in a one-party mentality that has stunted fresh thinking there for far too long. But that too will change at some point.

As noted in last week’s post, the football series between Ouachita and Henderson was halted from 1951 until 1963 due to excessive vandalism. Prior to that 1951 suspension, however, an energetic chapter of Arkadelphia Jaycees worked during the late 1940s to transform the Battle of the Ravine into a weeklong series of activities that people across the state and region would want to attend. Arkadelphia was perhaps the most progressive city in the southern half of the state back then.

As part of the economic and community development work I did during my 13 years in government, I constantly preached that communities must identify what makes them different and then build on those assets. Arkadelphia, for example, is different from other towns in the southern half of Arkansas because it’s the home of two four-year universities. That’s what sets it apart from Malvern, Camden, Magnolia, Monticello and all the rest.

And it already has this unique annual event — the one college football game in the country in which the visiting team actually walks to a road game since U.S. Highway 67 is all that separates the two stadiums.

After ending the spring Festival of Two Rivers a few years back, business and civic leaders in Arkadelphia struggled to come up with something new. As is so often the case in communities, the answer was right in front of them. The Battle of the Ravine is unique. They should build events around it, just as the Jaycees had done back in the 1940s, and then promote the festival statewide. I preached on that subject in appearances before the Arkadelphia Football Club and Leadership Clark County.

Fortunately, there’s a new generation of leaders now stepping forward in a city that has been stagnant from a population growth standpoint for decades. Those young leaders seized on the idea. Led by people such as Blake Bell of Edward Jones, they created a festival known as the Rally on the Ravine and came up with complementary events such as a golf tournament, a community pep rally and a road race.

Spurred by Bell and other graduates of Leadership Clark County, the group behind the Rally on the Ravine obtained sponsorship money from a variety of sources. Southern Bancorp was the title sponsor. The next two largest sponsors were the Ross Foundation and the Arnold Batson Turner & Turner law firm.

In the next tier of sponsors were Leadership Clark County, the Dawson Educational Cooperative, the Arkadelphia School District, the city of Arkadelphia, Summit Bank, Edward Jones, Vision Source, Treadway Electric, state Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, Print Mania, Minks Inc. Design and the two universities.

It was an unqualified success and no doubt will grow in future years. These young leaders should shoot for the stars. Occasionally, ESPN will take its “College GameDay” program to a small college. For years, Henderson sports information director Troy Mitchell has been working to get ESPN interested in the Battle of the Ravine. The cable network has yet to bite, missing an opportunity to show viewers across the country what small college football is really all about. Attracting ESPN to Arkadelphia could be one of the goals of the leadership group.

In a state that’s painted Razorback red this time each year, the football rivalry between Henderson and Ouachita has never received the attention it deserves. In fact, it sometimes get more attention outside the state than inside Arkansas.

A recent feature article in Touchdown Illustrated, a publication distributed during football games at colleges and universities across the country, began this way: “There is a small town in southern Arkansas where two rivers meet, with a highly traveled scenic highway and two institutions of higher learning within a stone’s throw of one another. This town is Arkadelphia, Ark., and one day each year it plays host to the most unique sports event in intercollegiate athletics.”

You read that correctly. A national publication called the Battle of the Ravine “the most unique sports event” in all of college sports.

Having started in 1895, it’s one of the oldest rivalries in the country. Harvard has been playing Yale since 1875 in what’s known simply as The Game. Amherst has been playing Williams since 1884 in what’s known as the Biggest Little Game in America. Army has been playing Navy since 1890. Alabama has been playing Auburn in the Iron Bowl since 1893.

But the Battle of the Ravine is older than rivalries such as Clemson vs. South Carolina, Ohio State vs. Michigan and Oklahoma vs. Texas. And you can’t get more evenly matched. Following Henderson’s victory last Satuday, the series is even at 39-39-6.

Ouachita athletic director David Sharp put it this way in the Touchdown Illustrated story: “There is not a more unique setting for a game. This is the only place where you can literally take a driver and a 3-wood and hit from one school’s stadium to the other.”

The story also reported on the pranks that are so much a part of this crosstown rivalry: “Along with the game are the shenanigans that lead up to that day. There are always pranks and practical jokes in which students from both schools participate. The pranks intensify during game week. Those involved in these pranks include members of both institutions’ current faculty, vice presidents and government officials. Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was involved in lighting Henderson’s homecoming bonfire a day earlier than scheduled.

“Other pranks include HSU sorority and fraternity members painting marshmallows in the school’s red and gray and having a crop-duster drop them on OBU’s side of the street; diesel fuel used to burn OBU into the grass on Henderson’s main campus; and Henderson students painting the Tiger statue. Ouachita students would sabotage the Henderson fountain, which is a focal point of the Henderson campus. … Students have been known to put purple dye or fizzies in the fountain.

“During game week, numerous monuments and memorials on both campuses are heavily covered in plastic to prevent them from being painted, as well as each school’s football stadium lights remain on throughout the evening. … The game won’t draw 100,000 fans, but rather 10,000, and each and every one will come away knowing they have been part of one of the most storied events in all of college football.”

To borrow the cliche, you simply can’t buy national attention that good.

Enrollment is up at both Henderson and Ouachita this summer. There seems to be a renewed spirit in the town. The Battle of the Ravine is simply one piece in a very large community development puzzle, but the crop of young leaders must build on the successes of last week as they work to help an Arkansas city finally achieve its potential.

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