Dead Horse A-twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 1

You probably don’t want to look.
That poor horse, dead as doornail, flat on its back in a fog of speculation.

It’s been lying there since 1946, you know – ever since John Barnhill arrived in Fayetteville as Arkansas’ coach and athletic director and instituted a policy of not playing in-state school in any sports.
At the time, the likes of LSU and Alabama were swooping into his state and snatching its best high school players. There was no way to compete with this if Arkansas was fractured into multiple programs of similar size.
Nope, there had to be one program dominating the market,he thought. Let’s cultivate fervent loyalty to stretch into future generations whose best players wouldn’t think twice about declining LSU or Alabama’s overtures to play for their home-state favorites.
Now, why shouldn’t that program be the Arkansas Razorbacks?

Look closely at the horse. It’s been there an awful long time, yet it’s hardly decayed.
Behold! On closer inspection, the damn thing appears to have twitched a time or two.
Impossible. It’s been dead so long, right?

Many Razorbacks fans prefer to roll their eyes when the question of whether Arkansas should play Arkansas State arises. This horse has been beaten a million times, they’ll say, and though plenty reasons have been thrown out as to why Barnhill’s policy has endured through the decades, there’s one common argument used most frequently:

“It’s as simple as this: Win, and no one is impressed because you were supposed to win to begin with”, Hogville poster JamesWParks wrote in 2007.
“Lose, and your [sic] a laughing stock.”

And so it has been for generations. First, longtime UA athletic director Frank Broyles upheld Barnhill’s decree. Since 2008, current UA atheletic director Jeff Long has done the same.

But while the major reasons for keeping the UA from sweating with its in-state brethren have remained the same for decades, reasons to reconsider that policy are evolving. That process, it appears, is speeding up.

In short, sure, that horse is as dead as ever. But only from one perspective. Look at the listless thing from another perspective, and there’s the slightest movement. Former UA lineman Bruce James has recently seen it. So has longtime ASU coach and SEC defensive guru Larry Lacewell.

Two forces have converged to spark talk about this issue with increasing frequency in the last few months:

1) With each passing year, Jeff Long’s vision and plan for UA football progressively, steadily emerging as a national power becomes better articulated, and more UA brass come to trust his vision because of the success he’s had in the last three years. Long came to the UA with a reputation for financial savvy, especially when it came to maximizing the value of his programs’ assets. If convinced playing ASU would make economic sense, Long’s not the type to let emotions override his business sense.

2) With a snazzy new passing offense and a sparkling record (6-2) to back it up, Arkansas State is off to its best start since 1986. While at a different scale from the Razorbacks, the Red Wolves faithful are still supporting their program at unprecedented levels through home attendance and the amount of local coverage given to its teams.

Not that UA cares a jot. On the surface, it may appear that a stronger Arkansas State program would make the UA less likely to play the Red Wolves so as to avoid embarrassing defeat. But, actually, historic levels Arkansas State success could actually benefit UA’s bottom line.

I’ll dive into specifics in an upcoming blog post, but for now I will lay out some common arguments why the UA shouldn’t consider playing ASU:

1. Arkansas owes nothing to Arkansas State. If those Red Wolves want to run with the big dogs, they need to earn it on their own. Playing Arkansas would help that program build cachet by proxy.

2. Most Arkansas State fans are also Arkansas fans. And the Razorbacks already have plenty exposure in northeast Arkansas. When Sun Belt teams such as Lousiana-Monroe, North Texas and Troy visit Arkansas to play the Razorbacks, they bring more than easy “W”. They also bring attention from football talent-rich areas of nearby states. Why sacrifice exposure that could sway a potential recruit in Louisiana, Alabama or Texas by instead playing an in-state opponent where the local high schoolers are mostly Razorback fans anyway?

3a. Go ahead and spew your economic talk in the “Pros” section to be published soon. But just know any extra revenue the UA could theoretically gain by playing ASU doesn’t outweigh the damage a fluke loss to an in-state program could inflict. The UA has a veritable death grip on its state loyalties. Why risk that, even in the slightest?

3b. The above argument applies to market share from a merchandise standpoint: whether, for instance, a northeast Arkansas resident decides to buy a Razorback or Red Wolves cap at Wal-Mart.
It also also applies to market share from a talent standpoint:
Look at Mississippi. That state consistently produces more D1 football players than Arkansas, in sheer numbers and per capita, yet it doesn’t have a football program as consistently successful as the Razorbacks in recent decades. A major reason is the state’s two largest programs, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, divvy up the state’s best players. It’s improbable a two or three-star Arkansas recruit would choose Arkansas State over Arkansas because of one fluke Red Wolves’ victory over the Hogs, but why even introduce that risk?

In the next post, I present the old and emerging new arguments for scheduling games between Arkansas and Arkansas State.

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