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The joys of Division II

While many Arkansans are in front of their television sets Saturday afternoon watching Arkansas play Florida in The Swamp, I’ll be at Wilkins Stadium in Magnolia watching the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University take on the Muleriders of Southern Arkansas University.

There’s no place else I would rather be.

Having grown up in Arkadelphia just two blocks from Ouachita’s A.U. Williams Field, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference played a big part in my life. And it was a wonderful time to be in Arkadelphia. In football, Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter was winning at Henderson and Buddy Benson was winning at Ouachita. Both men are in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. In basketball, Don Dyer was winning at Henderson and Bill Vining was winning at Ouachita. Both of those coaches also are in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. It was a golden era for small college sports in the city.

As a student in the Arkadelphia public schools, you were either for Ouachita or Henderson. There was just not much in between. You dreaded going to school when your team had lost to the school on the other side of the ravine in football or basketball. And you couldn’t wait to get there when your team had won.

In addition to attending all Ouachita games home and away, I still work in one or two Razorback games a year. And I never miss a Cotton Bowl. But the older I get, the more I appreciate football in the Gulf South Conference. It’s the SEC of Division II without the parking problems, the long lines at the concession stands and the high ticket prices. It’s fun and relaxing at the same time, which is a hard combination to top.

Back on Sept. 29, The New York Times published an interesting story on Division II athletics. It talked about how the presidents of Division II schools once joked about “ticker envy,” the yearning that their scores run along the bottom of the screen on ESPN.

Katie Thomas wrote in the story: “For years, colleges and universities in Division II were defined by what they were not. They were not Division I, with its outsize athletics budgets and national news media attention. They were not Division III, with its reputation for rigorous academics and a ban on athletic scholarships. … Now, members of Division II say they hope they have found their niche by offering a haven from the kind of big-time college athletics that are increasingly seen as overly commercial and exploitative.”

In January, the NCAA is expected to approve a plan to shorten the Division II schedule in 10 sports and cut back on practice time in football by allowing players to report one week later.

Tim Selgo, the athletic director at Grand Valley State in Michigan, told the newspaper: “There’s some authenticity to what’s happening in Division II that you may not see at some universities. Yes, we play highly competitive athletics, but we don’t want our student-athletes’ time consumed by the intercollegiate athletic experience.”

The Divison II football schools in Arkansas are Arkansas Tech, Henderson, Harding, UAM, Ouachita and Southern Arkansas. Four of those six have mascots that are unique in the country. Nowhere else can boast of Wonder Boys, Reddies, Boll Weevils and Muleriders. And those six former members of the AIC all have colorful traditions.

More Arkansans should make an effort to get away from the televison set on a Saturday and try out a game in Russellville, Arkadelphia, Searcy, Monticello or Magnolia. Those games just might be Arkansas’ greatest entertainment bargain.

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