A radio personality said 2012 is the first year in state history that the head football coach at Arkansas State University is better known than the head coach at Arkansas.
That’s not a knock on John L. Smith. Most Razorback fans knew Smith as Bobby (and Paul) Petrino’s mentor, but nobody thought of him as Bobby Petrino’s successor until the motorcycle fiasco and the revelations that followed.
Gus Malzahn, the first-year ASU coach, made headlines — a lot of headlines — in Arkansas before Smith arrived in the state. Malzahn, offensive coordinator at Auburn until his new job, earned his reputation as a high school coach. Some people scratched their heads when Malzahn moved from tiny Shiloh Christian to Springdale as the head guy. Some wondered if he would have the same kind of success playing against big schools.
Malzahn spoke to the Little Rock Touchdown Club during the season of the so-called “Springdale 5,” which included heralded Mitch Mustain and Damian Williams. Houston Nutt was head football coach at Arkansas and Casey Dick was the quarterback. Malzahn told Razorback fans, talking about Mustain, that “Help is on the way.”
Then, in a confusing series of events, Malzahn became the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. It seemed an uncomfortable fit — at least on the inside. To their credit, Nutt and Malzahn kept their disagreements private, but it was painfully obvious there was trouble in paradise.
Backing up in history — nothing to do with Malzahn, Nutt, or any other individual, except maybe longtime UA coach and athletic director Frank Broyles — there was a political football being tossed about that would have the Razorbacks playing Arkansas State in a regular game in Little Rock. It even drew some legislation that went nowhere and considerable discussion under the Capitol dome.
To be candid, I’ve always thought a game between the two schools was a good idea, mainly from a monetary standpoint. Why give the directional schools in Louisiana and elsewhere a big payday rather than keeping that money in the state?
An ASU alum in my hometown was part of a discussion back in the mid-1980s.
The next week he brought me a cap (when ASU’s nickname was the Indians) that depicted mascot Indian Joe on the front with a tomahawk chasing a Razorback. Underneath that were the words, “How long can the Hogs run?”
Broyles always opposed the match-up. The buck stopped there. Discussions never happened in places that counted.
The arguments among Hogs-only fans included Arkansas being the only big-time team in a small state with no professional teams and they didn’t want that to change. There was the argument of tradition, too. Razorback fans didn’t want to start one. And, there was the age-old argument about Arkansas having nothing to gain, so why give the upstart school from Jonesboro any standing.
Oh, and there’s the argument about the negative impact on Razorback recruiting. Really?
Tradition is no longer a valid argument. Arkansas plays in the SEC, which supplies five of the nation’s Top 10 schools in the preseason AP poll. ASU is in the Sun Belt Conference where there is no valid path to the BCS. The other arguments aren’t valid either.
Arkansas, the state not the school, has a lot to gain nowadays. Look at the schedule. Arkansas plays Sun Belt member Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock on Sept. 8, in addition to its warmup game against Jacksonville State in Fayetteville on Sept. 1. Either of those games — especially the Little Rock game — could just as easily be against the now-Red Wolves of ASU.
The Red Wolves, meanwhile, will travel to Oregon in Week 1, then go to Nebraska for its third game.
Malzahn has reached out to UA Athletic Director Jeff Long about a future game. If there is anything in the works, nobody knows it.
The time has come.
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Dennis A. Byrd is chief of the Arkansas News Bureau and covers Razorback football as part of the bureau’s game day team. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.