Whither Little Rock

The social media morons were out in force last Saturday and Sunday.

Blaming a stadium for a college football team’s loss rather than a lack of preparation and a lack of execution is a new one on me.

But, yes, let’s blame War Memorial Stadium, not the coaching staff or the players at the University of Arkansas for that Citadelesque loss to Toledo (or was it Akron? All those MAC teams look alike to me).

On the morning of the game, the state’s largest newspaper (I happen to write a weekly column for that newspaper) had a large headline on the front of the sports section that read “Countdown to zero” with an altered illustration of a half-empty War Memorial Stadium.

It was as if the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wanted to make the chance that the University of Arkansas will cease playing football games in Little Rock when the current contract expires at the end of 2018 a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No more Hog games in the capital city: That seems to have become the conventional wisdom, driven in part, I suspect, by the fact that the Razorbacks are now 1-5 in Little Rock since 2012 (and ignoring the fact that Arkansas has had a poor to mediocre football program since 2012).

I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. The situation is, in fact, far more complex and fluid than the social media morons would have you believe.

I was a senior staffer in the governor’s office at the time of the original Great Stadium Debate (simply known as the GSD for you message board trolls) and was deeply involved in this issue. Just as was the case back then, the decision in 2018 will not be made by the athletic director in Fayetteville. It will be made by the members of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees since Razorback games in Little Rock are such a part of the cultural fabric of this state. It’s bigger than football.

Just last week, it was reported that even though the University of Arkansas has the largest freshman class in its history, the number of students from Arkansas is down.

The Democrat-Gazette reported: “Growth largely has been based on an influx of out-of-state students. This year’s freshman class of 4,916 students continues the trend with 51 percent arriving from outside Arkansas. The size of the freshman class increased by about 7.5 percent compared with last year’s 4,571. UA spokesman Laura Jacobs said the university counted 15,237 students from the state. This is a decrease from the 15,329 Arkansans counted in the university’s 11th day enrollment report from fall 2014.”

Imagine that. The majority of students in the freshman class at the state’s flagship university are from outside of Arkansas. And that’s in a state that badly needs more of its high school residents obtaining college degrees (former Gov. Mike Beebe set a goal of doubling the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025).

If this trend continues, members of the board will have to take a strong look at whether the university still appeals to young people in places like east Arkansas and south Arkansas. Many Arkansans already are referring to the school as the University of DFW at Fayetteville due to the influx of Texans. Playing Razorback football games in Little Rock traditionally has been a part of the university’s strategy to connect with families who live far from the northwest Arkansas campus.

No one argues that the athletic department makes more money by playing games in Fayetteville. The numbers speak for themselves. Athletic directors must be concerned with things like that. Members of the board, however, are appointed to 10-year terms by the governor to look at the big picture. And the big picture is starting to play in favor of keeping at least one game a year at War Memorial Stadium as an outreach to families in other parts of Arkansas.

There are a number of misconceptions spread by the social media morons.

Let’s address a few of them:

  1. I read over and over that “no one does this anymore,” meaning the idea of giving up a game on campus to play somewhere else. Huh? We’ll just look at schools in this part of the country. Oklahoma and Texas still play each other every year at the old Cotton Bowl in Dallas because it’s a tradition. Georgia and Florida still play each other each year in Jacksonville, Fla., because it’s a tradition. Could there be a stronger tradition than the Razorbacks playing at least once conference game a year in Little Rock for 78 consecutive seasons prior to this year? Texas A&M will play games in both Houston and Arlington, Texas, this season. Auburn opened its season in Atlanta. Alabama opened its season in Arlington. North Carolina and South Carolina opened their seasons in Charlotte. Tennessee opened its season in Nashville. Missouri tried to play last Saturday’s game against Arkansas State in St. Louis. The Tigers played Illinois in St. Louis in 2002-03 and from 2007-10. The bottom line is that playing games away from campus is now becoming more of a trend, not less of one.
  2. I also read about the financial hit the athletic department is taking each time the Razorbacks play in Little Rock. The huge amount of money that Southeastern Conference schools are now receiving for television rights (the SEC Network has been successful beyond even the most optimistic predictions) make actual per-game revenue a smaller part of the overall athletic department budget than ever before. In other words, Arkansas can easily afford to make a little less money in Little Rock than it would make in Fayetteville if playing in Little Rock on one or two Saturdays each fall better advances the overall goals of the university. Bottom line: Per-game revenue is just not as big an issue as it once was.
  3. People point to the annual conference game against Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington as a complicating factor. I don’t see it. There’s no reason the Hogs can’t continue to play at Jerry Jones’ palace while also playing at least one game (and maybe two in some years) at Little Rock. If the choice did have to be made between Arlington and Little Rock, members of the board would need to ask themselves this question: “Is it more important to the overall goals of the university to have a game each year in an adjoining state or in the largest city of the state where the university is located?”
  4. To those who claim that “nobody else is doing it,” I would at least request that they be consistent. Here’s what “nobody else is doing” in the SEC these days with the exception of Arkansas: Refusing to play in-state opponents. LSU was going to open the season this year with McNeese State before lightning forced the game to be called off. Auburn was taken to overtime last Saturday in its game against Jacksonville State, which is just 108 miles from Auburn campus. Mississippi State opened its season at Southern Mississippi. Georgia will close its season as always against Georgia Tech. It’s high time for Arkansas and Arkansas State to play each other on an annual basis.

A friend who has decades of experience in the world of Arkansas football recently laid out his “dream scenario” at a time when so many are predicting that college football is about to become a thing of the past at War Memorial Stadium. He said he can see the day when:

— UALR starts a football program (it’s already in a football conference, the Sun Belt, and has an athletic director from a football family) and plays its home games at War Memorial Stadium.

— Little Rock finally gets that bowl game it was so close to landing a few months ago.

— A coalition of legislators from northeast, southeast, southwest and central Arkansas pass legislation mandating that Arkansas and Arkansas State play each other in football each year at War Memorial Stadium.

I don’t see all of that happening.

But I do see the UA trustees taking into consideration more than just the football program when it comes time to renegotiate the contract with the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

I like Bret Bielema personally. I like Jeff Long. They’ve been nothing but nice to me. And I have good friends on both sides of this issue. I simply want what is best for the university and the state as a whole.

It all comes down to this: At a time when Arkansans now represent a minority of the freshman class at the University of Arkansas, there’s far more than the wants and needs of the athletic department to consider.

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