The Twitterverse is convulsing with this morning’s news that Bryan Harsin has left Jonesboro to take over the head coaching job at his alma mater Boise State. Harsin is only the latest of a series of one-year football coaches at Arkansas State. The constant turnover has been hard on the players, sure, but the good news for the program is that it will end up netting $1 million off the early buy-out clause Harsin had to sign last December. As Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky put it, “the Red Wolves job is like an unpaid internship. It’ll cost you money in the short term, but just think of it as an audition for the job you actually want.”
If you include interim coaches, Arkansas State will soon have its seventh head coach since December 2010. This kind of turnover may be unprecedented in college or pro football, but it’s not so unique in the world of iconic mockumentaries starring Christopher Guest:
H/T to Deadspin commentor Mittens Romney
Imagining a World Where the Big, Bad Wolves Take on the State’s Top Hogs: Image courtesy of Sync magazine
Rivalry week gripped the college football world last Saturday.
In states with populations or areas similar to Arkansas – Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina – longtime intrastate foes squared off for annual bragging rights.
The University of Arkansas doesn’t schedule in-state competition, so nothing like Ole Miss-Mississippi State or Clemson-South Carolina erupts here. It’s widely believed the state’s other FBS program, Arkansas State, couldn’t beat Arkansas often enough for an authentic rivalry to flourish. The numbers support this: since 2001, UA and ASU have played the same opponent 21 times within the same season. Only four times did ASU lose to that opponent by an equal or smaller margin.
And not until this season did ASU beat an opponent that had, or would, defeat Arkansas. In September, Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas 34-31 in Little Rock. In November, ULM lost to ASU 45-23 in Jonesboro.
Breathe easy, Hog fan. I won’t indulge in wonky transitive property logic. I know that with enough if-thens, even an insane argument like Arkansas Baptist College-Is-Better-Than- Texas A&M looks rational.
Besides, injuries affected both games. Arkansas lost quarterback Tyler Wilson for the second half of the ULM loss. Then, three of ULM’s defensive starters missed the ASU game, along with four offensive starters – including star quarterback Kolton Browning. “I’m not making excuses,” says ULM head coach Todd Berry. But “obviously that affected our game plan. We still threw the ball around decent and moved the ball, but there was that extra dimension they didn’t have to prepare for.”
ASU’s ULM win, along with ranking ahead of Arkansas in national polls, don’t necessarily prove ASU is better than Arkansas this season. Instead, these events simply make speculating about a hypothetical showdown all the more fun.
Especially if it happened at War Memorial Stadium. “I think it would be great for the state,” ASU head coach Gus Malzahn said last week. “I think it would create a lot of excitement.”
Below is a prediction of how the game would have transpired if these programs played last week, with staffs and injury statuses as they were at season’s end.
UA Offense vs. ASU Defense
Tyler Wilson picks apart the Red Wolves with pinpoint passing. His main target is Cobi Hamilton, who has a field day against smaller ASU defensive backs like Chaz Scales and Don Jones, who plays only half the game because of a suspension.
ASU starts off blitzing Wilson often but slows down after it is shredded a few times on short slants with Hamilton and wheel routes with Knile Davis. The Hogs’ offensive linemen, who average 303 pounds, consistently open holes against ASU defensive linemen who average about 280 pounds. Hog running back Dennis Johnson uses these to get to the defense’s second line, where the stout senior has a few epic collisions with ace linebacker Nathan Herrold.
As always, lack of consistent focus and turnovers plague Arkansas. RB Jonathan Williams makes a spectacular 36-yard run on a promising drive at the end of the first quarter, only to cough it up at the end. In the third quarter, Arkansas’ Mekale McKay catches a 40-yard pass and appears headed for the endzone when safety Sterling Young strips him on a blindside hit.
No doubt, decades will pass before Razorback fans forget Arkansas’ 34-31 home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in its second game this season. It was the first time a Sun Belt team had beaten the Hogs, which led some fans to wonder if the Red Wolves could have challenged the Razorbacks this season.
As the Red Wolves have heated up in the last month, while the Hogs have continued to struggle, the question has been burning for months. On Thursday, though, enough fuel was dumped on to this debate to turn it into a full-fledged fire.
Arkansas State blitzed ULM 45-23, just another ho-hum offensive explosion in the most successful era in the program history (as a Division I-A program, which ASU became in 1992). In the last two seasons, ASU has won 13 of 14 conference games, but none was more historic it terms of potential in-state bragging rights than its rout of ULM.
For the first time since at least 2001 – when ASU started playing in the Sun Belt – it beat an opponent that had beaten Arkansas that same season.
Yes, the Red Wolves beat a ULM squad without an injured Kolton Browning, the dual-threat quarterback who’d shredded Arkansas for 481 total yards in Little Rock. With a 22-point margin of victory, however, it’s unlikely Browning would have made up the difference to topple ASU in Jonesboro. His backup still passed for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, after all.
Since 2001, Arkansas State has shared an opponent with Arkansas during the same season 21 times. Although Arkansas State has been more impressive against shared opponents the last two seasons, Arkansas still dominates any comparisons between schedules.
Of the 21 times, only four times has ASU lost to a shared opponent by an equal or smaller margin. Those instances are highlighted in red below:
|UA @ Georgia||L 23-34|
|ASU @ Georgia||L 17-45|
|UA @ Ole Miss||W 58-56|
|ASU – Mississippi||L 17-35|
As a freshman all those years ago, Mitch Mustain went 8-0 at Arkansas and was one of the key figures in some of the controversy that enveloped first-year college coach Gus Malzahn and head coach Houston Nutt as the 2006 season wore on.
We know the aftermath: Malzahn to Tulsa, Nutt out, Petrino in and Mustain gone to USC. Mustain had thrived in high school, then in college, under Malzahn but he never really worked out in SoCal. Aside from a start against Notre Dame, Mitch had pretty much faded into shades-wearin’ obscurity by last December.
Well, Mustain’s back. Not in the flesh, but in bullet form. His UA success – however fleeting – forms the base of a national recruiting pitch new ASU coach Gus Malzahn unleashed on ESPNU on signing day:
In this next video, you’ll notice in the following analysis that Mustain’s inclusion trips up ESPNU analyst David Pollack some, but it’s interesting to note that while Mustain’s playing days in the state of Arkansas are long over, he could still play a role in Malzahn’s ability to recruit future recruits.
Of course, ASU hopes to end up with QBs who pan out more in line with Malzahn’s latest star college quarterback, Cam Newton, rather than his first.
Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.
But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.
It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.
At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure, Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.
So, to shake things up, I’ve imagined delving into the future to find some of the most provocative stories of the year 2020, and I examined what 2011 events led to them.
In brief, I found what in nine years will turn out to be the biggest stories of 2011.
Gus Malzahn. Chris Paul.
The two names shall not, it is safe to say, be forever linked in the annals of history.
But last week, these two accomplished team leaders – one a college football coach, the other a pro basketball player – shared headlines across national news outlets as they changed teams.
On closer examination, they actually share much more.
1) Both specialize in quarterbacking teams to outstanding offensive success.
Malzahn, a former high school quarterback, developed into a high school head coach and offensive coordinator who specialized in turning quarterbacks into record-book smashing Godzillas. At each level – whether Springdale High, Tulsa University or Auburn – he helped that program’s offense set numerous records.
Paul plays point guard, the hardcourt’s quarterback equivalent, and he’s done it at extremely well.Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul averaged nearly 31 points and 10 assists a game. In five NBA seasons, Paul has put up numbers as impressive as any point guard in league history. Sure, he scores 20+ points but consider that his 9.9 assists per game average is third-highest all-time. Or that he’s the only player to lead the NBA in steals and assists in two consecutive seasons.
2) Their abilities burst into the national spotlight at Baptist schools.
Malzahn’s second head coaching job (1996-2000) was at the private Shiloh Christian School, which is closely tied to the First Baptist Church of Springdale. In 1998, the Saints set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and would win 1998 and 1999 state titles.
Paul attended the private Wake Forest University, which was originally founded by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. The school opened in 1834, with a focus on teaching Baptist ministers and laymen. In 2005, Paul left Winston-Salem, N.C. after a sophomore year in which he had earned first team All-America honors.
In December 2009, a Virgina sports radio talk show host reminded his state’s governor of a popular in-state basketball competition from decades ago. Basketball fans in Virginia had told the host they wanted to see that tournament return, and he passed their message on to Governor Bob McDonnell.
The message, evidentally, was well received.
In August 2011, the governor announced the creation of a December doubleheader between four in-state Division I basketball programs. Not only will the event, scheduled for two years, benefit sports fans in that state, but it will help a good cause. Proceeds go to Virginia’s Food Banks, which are especially in need around Christmas.
Virginians saw an opportunity to capitalize on the recent NCAA Tournament successes of some of their D1 programs, and help the hungry while at it, and they struck.
So should Arkansans.
Never before has Arkansas had a better opportunity to form an event between four Division I basketball programs. For many years, Arkansas’ only four D1 programs included its flagship university – UA-Fayetteville. Forget the Razorbacks scheduling in-state competition, however. That policy’s origins, and arguments for and against, have already gotten plenty of cyber-ink. No reason to spill more here, as this post focuses on the other programs]
But when the University of Central Arkansas became a full-fledged Division 1 member in 2010, UA-Fayetteville was no longer a necessary participant in a theoretical competition between the state’s top programs. And it’s UCA’s athletic director, Brad Teague, who strongly advocates scheduling such a competition: “I think it’s something certainly all the [local] basketball coaches talk about and think would be good for the state to do.”
It was late in the third quarter of the ASU-Louisiana Lafayette game that I seriously wondered if Tampa, Fla. native Ryan Aplin had surfed through one too many wipe-outs in his younger years. The Red Wolves’ junior quarterback, the fifth-most prolific passer in Sun Belt history, was driving his team deep into ULL territory while trailing 21-20.
No less than a grip on the Sun Belt title was at stake.
And there was the 6-1, 200-pound Aplin, continually pulling the ball out on zone reads and scrambling through seams in the defense, sometimes sliding to the ground, but more often than not simply plowing into any Rajun Cajun trying to stop him.
At one point, I even saw the most instrumental player in ASU coach Hugh Freeze’s go-go gadget offense tuck the ball, dart through a crease, get low and ram his head into a wall of thick Cajun.
No injury occurred and a few plays later, it was all good – Aplin trotted in for a 4-yard TD to help clinch what became a 30-21 win in Jonesboro.
The win makes Arkansas State (8-2, 6-0) a veritable lock to win at least a share of the the Sun Belt title with two games left, and it gives the Red Wolves a stronger shot at playing in a non-sucky bowl.
It also confirmed Aplin’s emergence as a serious running threat in the latter part of the season.
In Part 1, we rehashed some of the latest attacks on the University of Arkansas’ long-standing policy of not playing other in-state colleges. The main reasons for those seeking to maintain this policy haven’t changed much through the decades, but the lines of argument for changing the policy have evolved.
And Arkansas State’s football success this season adds new weight to some of these arguments.
To start with, let’s cast naivete aside: No way Arkansas plays Arkansas State simply because it would be fun for fans, or because playing in-state competition would theoretically pour more money into the state government’s coffers, which would benefit all public universities in Arkansas.
Nope, if Jeff Long’s gonna entertain even the slightest sliver of this possibility, he’d better believe the game would help the UA’s athletic program bottom line now and in the future. This fall, he unveiled plans for a shining football palace which is part of a $320 million plan. This project isn’t touted as a luxury, though. Taking a long view, Arkansas’ AD understands that keeping up with the Jones in the SEC means financing expensive stuff to attract the nation’s best coaches, trainers and players.
Without developing additional streams of revenue and fundraising, Arkansas can’t afford to keep up with far bigger SEC rivals like LSU and Alabama.
Arkansas leaves money on the table every time it plays any Sun Belt team not named Arkansas State. Here’s why:
1) Arkansas paid $900,000 to play a Sun Belt team, Troy, earlier this season in a “rent-a-win”, or guarantee game. Meanwhile, in a similar David vs. Goliath type setup, Illinois paid ASU $850,000. It stands to reason that UA would have the financial upper hand in multiple ways if negotiating a contract to play ASU, including the actual guarantee game fee. It’s likely UA possible could get away with paying ASU even less than what Illinois would pay them. Either way, UA could save $50,000 to $100,000 by playing ASU.
2) No matter how good Arkansas or Arkansas State are playing, an early-season match-up between the programs would sell out the 72,000 seats of Fayetteville’s Razorback Stadium, where the game would likely be played every time. If necessary, the stadium’s seating could be expanded to nearly 80,000 and this would be needed for at least the first time the game was played. A solid Sun Belt team like Troy usually brings around 70,000 people but another 10,000 helps the bottom line, especially if each of the tickets are sold for more than usual. Which, for this game, would make sense.
General admission tickets could be sold at an elevated price ($100, as suggested on a local sports talk show) and if UA fans hesitated to pay that amount, ASU fans would certainly make up the difference.
3) At least for the first couple of times the programs played, there would be a veritable trough-ful of licensing and merchandising opportunities for UA athletics to wallow in. Just conjure up a nice “Natural State Showdown” logo involving the helmets or mascots of both programs, then milk that sucker for all its worth through T-shirts, cakes, commemorative videos, calendars, key-chains – whatever you can stamp. There’s no doubt this stuff would fly off the racks for at least the first couple games.