It’s a wonder Nolan Richardson had any time at all to prepare for his team’s game against UNLV. The No. 1 Runnin’ Rebels were about to invade Fayetteville to play Richardson’s No. 2 Hogs in February of 1991. Game planning for Jerry Tarkanian’s dangerous club, though, wasn’t the only thing on the Arkansas basketball coach’s mind.
“If you answer the phone, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Richardson told the media leading up to the game. “Ninety nine point nine percent of the calls are about tickets. People who went to school with me in the first grade, judges, lawyers, coaches. Coaches who I like them as friends saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do me a favor. I need a couple.’”
Veteran sportswriter Dudley Dawson said he remembers friends begging him for tickets that were being sold for as high as $250 to $500. Adjusted for inflation, $500 would be worth about $1,141 now.
“I told them, ‘I am just a sportswriter, I don’t have any tickets,’” he said. “The game was on a Sunday, my daughter’s third birthday. Fans were lined up the hill at Barnhill Arena when I got there around 8:15 a.m. I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s the biggest non-conference game I’ve covered. The only other game that compares is when Houston played at Arkansas in 1984 with Hakeem Olajuwon. But that was a conference game (old Southwest Conference), so that was bigger.”
Sky-High Ticket Prices
Thirty-two years later, the Fayetteville campus is bracing for yet another monstrous non-conference game. No. 9 Duke comes to Fayetteville Wednesday for a prime-time ESPN showdown. Duke, of course, lives in Arkansas lore because the Hogs knocked off the Blue Devils for the 1994 national championship. Legendary guard Scotty Thurman’s three-pointer late iced the game. The two teams have only met once since then – a 2022 Elite 8 NCAA Tournament game which the Blue Devils won 78-69.
In late October, ticket prices for Arkansas vs Duke soared to more than $1,000 on the aftermarket ticket site, StubHub. A quick check of the site on Sunday shows some of the primo seats still going for up to $2,025, but you can get in the lower bowl for a bit less than $500. Some of the upper-bowl seats were going for as low as just under $200.
No. 20 Arkansas’ clout has dropped just a bit since the prices skyrocketed just before Halloween. The hope was that both teams would be ranked in the top 10 going into this, but that status applies only to No. 9 Duke now. The Hogs are 4-3 and likely won’t stay in the Top 25 after a stunning home loss to UNC-Greensboro and defeats to Memphis and Duke’s chief nemesis, North Carolina, at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
Still, it’s Duke, one of college basketball’s storied programs, and the 1994 connection will never be lost with Arkansas basketball fans. It may be the biggest non-conference game in the history of Bud Walton Arena, which opened during the 1993-94 season and holds 10,000 more fans than the cozy, 9,000-seat Barnill did.
“For Duke to come here is a big deal with playing them in the national championship game, but UNLV was No. 1 and Arkansas was No. 2,” said Rick Schaeffer, who was the UA sports information director in 1991. “That doesn’t compare.”
Schaeffer, now a longtime co-host of the popular statewide radio call-in show Drive Time Sports, recalls ticket demand for most games back then. Arkansas played in the Final Four in 1990, and he thinks the 1991 team may be the Hogs’ most talented with first-round NBA picks Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller in the starting lineup.
After starting his tenure off poorly in his first season, Richardson’s second year was better with an NIT appearance, but Schaeffer said some dumped their season tickets. There was a long waiting list, so those tickets were quickly accounted for but by the 1989-90 season those that didn’t have their tickets wanted them back so most home games found fans scrambling, he said.
Remembering Arkansas vs UNLV
Central Arkansas businessman Andrew ‘A.B.’ Meadors didn’t need a ticket to the game. At 28, he had a dream gig of freelancing for CBS Sports working as a stage manager and helping with statistics and other duties for the broadcasts. Indeed, at the 1990 national title game between UNLV and Duke, in the tunnel lead to the court, Meadors recalled “legendary CBS broadcaster James Brown put his arm around UNLV star Larry Johnson and convinced him not to retaliate against Duke fans who were being verbally abusive,” he told Arkansas Money & Politics‘ Mark Carter.
Brown talked him down, and UNLV went on to crush Duke by a record-setting 30 points. A year later, he worked the Final Four in Indianapolis. This time around, No. 1 seed UNLV was upset by No. 2 seed Duke in the semi-finals.
Just a few months before, at Arkansas vs UNLV, Meadors had been courtside seated next to CBS broadcast team Jim Nantz and Billy Packer. He said what he marveled at was how many of Arkansas’ key business players and politicians were at the game and where they were sitting. “It was like a gala ball. It was the who’s who of Arkansas that was there,” Meadors recalls.
Among the celebrities at the game was Chicago Bears great Walter Payton. Then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who went on to become U.S. President, was also in attendance and had an encounter with Nantz, Schaeffer said.
“Jim is a great guy, but the night before he said he didn’t sleep much because there was a bunch of yelling and screaming at the hotel,” Schaeffer recalled. “Well, he was doing his stand-up introduction for the game that they tape before the game, and a guy in jeans came heading right for him. After what happened the night before, was wondering what would happen, but the guy said, ‘Hi, I am Bill Clinton, welcome to Arkansas.’”
Arkansas went on to lose 112-105 and Meadors clearly heard Rebels star Larry Johnson tell Richardson, he “better go get some men,” as the Rebels’ strength and athleticism began to wear down the Hogs in the second half.
Even in a loss, the game was memorable. Schaeffer touched on how loud the venerable arena, which still hosts UA women’s volleyball and gymnastics, became. Springdale native Randy Hutchinson, a longtime insurance agent, remembers standing in line for the first-come-first-serve student ticket spot he was able to purchase with his old student ID that shouldn’t have been valid due to his graduation. He attended with his good friend and now-wife [Cynthia]. He’s been to many Arkansas games of different sports since, but feels fortunate to have been at that one even though the outcome was not what many had hoped.
Looking Ahead to Arkansas vs Duke
It’s a good bet that ‘The Bud’ will be rocking on Wednesday night for Arkansas vs Duke. Arkansas’ new team needs that energy. While no one will expect them to beat Duke considering this four-game stretch, Eric Musselman’s teams don’t hit their stride until the second semester. But a home win over a team such as Duke could snap them into shape quicker.
Just like in February of 1991, no matter the outcome, there will be memories made and it will go down in Arkansas history simply because of the opponent. And who knows, a close win may very well turn it into the most memorable non-conference game in school history that it promised to be when it was announced this summer.
Regardless, hopefully it’s worth the inflated price.
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