JONESBORO — An in-state opponent appears to be in Arkansas State’s near future.
ASU and Arkansas-Pine Bluff are close to finalizing a deal that will match the two football teams at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock for the 2013 season opener, new Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir said on Monday.
The contract between the schools originally had the game scheduled for Liberty Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, but Arkansas State’s desire to play in Little Rock led to renegotiating the deal. Mohajir doesn’t anticipate UAPB backing out and believes the in-state matchup will be finalized within a couple of weeks.
“We’re looking at possibly, for a myriad of reasons, moving that game to Little Rock,” Mohajir said. “Now, it has to be approved by them. I haven’t seen anything in writing yet, but I think they are definitely open to it. The real crux is us doing our due diligence and making sure it is a good opportunity for us.”
Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn also acknowledged that talks have taken place with Arkansas-Pine Bluff and moving the game to Little Rock was a possibility. He said UAPB was one of several programs Arkansas State contacted about playing in the capital city.
Malzahn supports the decision to move the game, saying it can help ASU build its fan base, provide recruiting benefits and encourage other in-state matchups.
“We’re trying to make our program more of a statewide program,” Malzahn said. “We’ve had a lot of great response coming out of Central Arkansas. We have a lot of alumni down there and we think that would just be a very good thing for us moving forward in the future.”
Arkansas State has played in Little Rock 13 times, the last in 2006, and has a 7-6 record at War Memorial Stadium. Eight of those games were played between 1967 and 1975.
ASU’s other non-conference games for next year include road trips to Auburn and Memphis, along with a home game against Idaho. The game with Idaho, which will be the front end of a home-and-home series, has not been finalized, either, but the paperwork is close to complete.
ASU does not have any non-conference opponents scheduled for the 2014 season and beyond, according to Mohajir.
Because of scheduling logistics, and hoping to attract more home-and-home series, Mohajir said next season could be the only time the Red Wolves can plan in Little Rock for a while. Taking advantage of the opportunity is important if the agreement can be reached.
“There’s no doubt it benefits recruiting, and we’re trying to increase our fan base,” Malzahn added. “Like I said, we’re trying to make this really more of a statewide program.”
Arkansas-Pine Bluff is a Football Championship Subdivision team and a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. ASU has previously hosted several SWAC teams in Jonesboro, including Texas Southern, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State most recently.
Mohajir acknowledged it is an unusual move to play an FCS member away from campus. But he believes the game can broaden the fan base and appease alumni living in Central Arkansas while keeping marquee non-conference and conference games in Jonesboro.
Mohajir said he is listening to ASU supporters, their concerns and their suggestions.
“I’ve offered that anybody that has questions or is concerned to call me,” Mohajir said. “My phone line is open. Anybody that wants to call me and talk about it, they are welcome to do so. I think once they talk about all the variables that are involved, then I think they will understand a little bit more.”
Mohajir noted that Arkansas had done similar scheduling moves recently.
The UA moved its marquee Southeastern Conference matchup with LSU to Fayetteville this year. Still, Arkansas played Louisiana-Monroe and also has Ole Miss in Little Rock in two weeks to help maintain its fan base in the region.
“It’s a different mindset, it’s a different way of thinking,” Mohajir said. “We need to play a recognizable team in Little Rock. At the same time, our kids want to play the marquee teams in Jonesboro. If we’re ever going to get more season ticket holders to come from Central Arkansas, we need to expand our brand. We need to make it exciting for them to want to come watch us play in Liberty Bank Stadium.”
Mohajir said no formal announcement had been made because the schedule remains so fluid. One of Arkansas State’s non-conference opponents has requested to move dates, which could lead to some minor shuffling.
Future schedules will be much different, too.
Arkansas State has typically played two guarantee games each season and sometimes as many as three. The Red Wolves played at Oregon and at Nebraska this season for guarantees totaling $1.95 million.
Mohajir plans to reduce the number of guarantee games, preferably to one a year.
“We have to be more strategic in scheduling,” Mohajir said. “The guarantee games are going to be more regional and we’re going to try to do one a year. The teams that we play are going to be for home-and-homes. If we can’t get the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, or ACC schools, then we are going to target Conference USA and Big East teams to play in Jonesboro.”