When Arkansas State released a statement about conference changes last week, it must have had better bowl games in mind, but not necessarily the potential of being snubbed by a next-door bowl.
That was the common train of thought for the school’s fans, that the Liberty Bowl would open its doors to a school from its own region, as it’s done many times for nearby SEC and Conference USA schools. The only problem is that Arkansas State is not at the level of either of those conferences, and the Liberty Bowl is trying to keep up with the big boys.
An argument can be made that Boise State played there before its BCS-busting days. Boise State also was an undefeated team that had an outside shot of convincing voters it should win a national championship, but the Broncos hadn’t reached the big time yet.
And despite its long history, that’s what made the Liberty Bowl a must-see. Could the Broncos, then of the WAC, compete with the No. 10-ranked team in the country in Bobby Petrino’s Louisville Cardinals? (They did, but lost 44-40.)
That wasn’t even a decade ago. That was 2004.
Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson remembers this very well. He was the commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference, Boise State’s league then, at the time.
Naturally, he thought he could get Arkansas State into the Liberty Bowl. He felt a school from a lesser-respected conference could command the local fanfare.
The dots were right in front of the Liberty Bowl officials. All they had to do was connect them:
Arkansas State is a Mid-South school. Memphis is the capital of the Mid-South. Our bowl thrives on matchups that draw the Mid-South’s attention. Therefore, we should reach out to our neighbors in eastern Arkansas and give all of the Mid-South a good product that will strengthen the local economy.
If only the Liberty Bowl heads thought that way.
Their eyes were set on something “bigger,” like a bigger conference. In their minds, bigger was better, even if it meant putting a 6-6 Iowa State team that’s supposed to make the Memphis locals care because Iowa State is from the Big 12.
“We just felt it was in our best long-term interest as we get into contract negotiations next year for future games in this ever-changing football climate, that we establish a relationship with a BCS conference such as the Big 12,” Liberty Bowl executive director Steve Ehrhart told the Commercial Appeal newspaper.
And that’s why you have a relationship with Conference USA? Please.
The moment Ehrhart and the Liberty Bowl heads understand that regional appeal is what makes their bowl attractive, they’ll understand the mistake they made in passing up Arkansas State. For now, it will take A-State getting into Conference USA and winning it to make them understand.
I.C. Murrell is the sports editor of The Commercial. Email him at email@example.com.