Legislation won’t be needed to bring ASU-UA athletic competition

It’s time for the Legislature to adjourn when our lawmakers get down to filing bills to schedule football games. One of the hundreds of bills filed just before the deadline was one that would force a matchup between the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University for charity.

House Bill 2274 actually came from a Central Arkansas lawmaker, state Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, who was then joined by a co-sponsor, Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, a couple of days later. That makes it one of the few bipartisan efforts we’ve seen so far in this session.

Together they set up a website, www.ArkansasASUbenefit.com, to gauge the interest of Arkansas citizens for such legislation. The poll ended Saturday with just over 25,000 votes cast but not exactly a ringing endorsement — 51.8 percent favored a one-time benefit game and 48.2 percent opposed the idea.

Those participating were also asked to designate a charity to receive at least $250,000 from the proceeds. The overwhelming choice was Arkansas Children’s Hospital with 71.1 percent of the votes cast, followed by the Arkansas Veterans Home, War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock Zoo and Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

The bill does not specify what charity would benefit from the game.

Ordinarily, I would suggest that the Legislature has better things to do, but we haven’t seen much of a constructive nature coming out of this year’s session so perhaps this bill will get a full airing. After initially being assigned to the House Education Committee, it was sent to the House Rules Committee.

Over the years, many bills have been filed in an effort to force athletic competition between the state’s two largest universities, and this is one of the least ambitious. HB 2274 calls for only a single football game, perhaps in the hopes the event would be so grand it would become an annual thing.

If you’re going to get involved legislatively, let’s go for an annual game and also include competition between men’s and women’s basketball teams. A holiday basketball tournament involving UA, ASU, UA-Little Rock and either UA-Pine Bluff or the University of Central Arkansas could fill Verizon Arena for three or four days.

Attempts at legislative scheduling aren’t confined to Arkansas. In late January a bill was introduced in the Texas House to require an annual football game between Texas and Texas A&M. That great rivalry, dating to 1894, halted when A&M moved to the Southeastern Conference in 2012.

A bill in the South Carolina legislature would preserve the rivalry between Clemson and South Carolina. Although the two schools are still playing, the bill’s sponsor fears that conference realignments will break up the rivalry.

And last month the North Dakota House sacked a bill that would have required an annual football game between North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota. Their century-old rivalry ended when NDSU began moving up to NCAA Division I in football.

The most meaningful such legislation was a simple resolution passed by the Alabama House in 1947, encouraging Auburn and Alabama universities to renew their rivalry, which had been suspended 40 years earlier because the schools could not agree on the expenses to be paid players or where to get game officials.

That didn’t have the force of law, but the Alabama legislature also threatened to withhold state funding if the schools didn’t comply. They did a year later, and today the so-called Iron Bowl is considered one of the top rivalries in all of sports.

Neither university seems to have been harmed by the resulting sharp division among Alabama football fans. Of course, both play in the SEC, which makes the competition mandatory.

I agree with Gov. Mike Beebe, who has one degree from ASU and another from UA, that competition between the two schools would be great but shouldn’t be mandated by legislative action. I’d take it one step further to say that competition isn’t that far off.

Although UA officials maintain the haughty no-compete policy of former athletic director Frank Broyles, UA’s fortunes have been dropping while ASU’s have been climbing, especially in football. A couple more seasons like 2012 and UA officials will be looking for something to rekindle Razorback fans’ fires. An intrastate rivalry, regardless of the outcome, would be a natural.

Competing in the SEC makes for a tough schedule, and losing non-conference games to the likes of Louisiana-Monroe (last year) and Louisiana-Lafayette or Samford (both are on this year’s schedule) dampens fan enthusiasm. The Razorbacks basketball team hasn’t won an SEC Tournament game since 2008.

I covered the UA-ASU matchup in the 1987 National Invitational Tournament, and I can testify that the atmosphere in the old Barnhill Arena was electric. More importantly, the victory rebuilt “Razorback mania” and helped propel Nolan Richardson’s teams to national prominence.

ASU Chancellor Tim Hudson, on his way to Mexico to work on the ASU branch proposal there, sent an e-mail Friday, saying, “We do not favor legislation to get it done, but it would be the biggest sporting event in the state if it could happen.”

He’s right. You could charge an average of $50 a ticket and raise $2.6 million (or more) every year, just on ticket sales. University officials ought to jump at the opportunity.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net