What Happened to Alan Bannister, the 7-4, 300-pound Arkansas State center?

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Big Al’s back in England, and the young people love him.

When it came to sports fandom in the late 1980s, I was but an unformed lump of clay.

A mere elementary school child then, I don’t remember hearing much about Arkansas State basketball. I certainly never heard about the biggest athlete to ever play for an in-state team.

And so it was with great interest that I fell on mention of a 7-4, 300-pound British center who played in Jonesboro in 1988-90 while researching for my most recent Arkansas Sports Anniversaries piece.

Who was this behemoth, this Anglican land leviathan who once stalked the courts of Crowley’s Ridge?

I asked my go-to ASU expert friend Jeff Reed, and he told me: Alan Bannister, who he confirmed was absolutely HUGE. Not very good, mind you, but most definitely GIANT.

Bannister, it turns out, was sort of effective and not horrible in his first season after arriving in the United States to play for Oklahoma State. “When Big Al arrived here from England, it was sad,” his former roommate Grant Buster told Sports Illustrated. “He couldn’t even catch the ball.” Bannister had only one move to the net, an incipient sky hook. Still, as a 245-pound freshman in 1985-86, Bannister started 19 of the Cowboys‘ 27 games, averaged 7.6 points and 4.5 rebounds and blocked 49 shots.

That was pretty much the apex of his career, though. He sat out his sophomore season with multiple stress fractures in his left foot, but he showed good cheer through it all. When SI asked how he got so tall considering his mom was 5’7″ and his dad 5’11” Bannister retorted with this classic: “We had a tall mailman.”

In reality, it was a benign tumor in his pituitary gland.

Bannister soon transferred to ASU, where one of his OSU assistant coaches had been hired,  according to this 1991 article. Bannister was eligible to play there for three semesters. I can’t find his individual statistics, but I think it’s safe to say he did not light northeast Arkansas on fire. Apparently, he did hit a game-winning shot in Jonesboro. Based on message board recollections, it was in a 66-65 win against Cincinnati in January, 1990.

Later, Bannister did not fondly recall his time in Jonesboro. “It didn’t work out very well,” he said in 1991. “An Arkansas State coach told me I couldn’t play in the NBA. He made me feel like I wasn’t a very good player but it made me more determined. I knew I could do it. I just quit listening to the negative and focused on what I wanted to achieve.”

Bannister’s body, unfortunately, didn’t follow suit. It just kept breaking down on him, even when he did make it on to the Utah Jazz as that team’s first foreign-born player (sidenote: also on that team was 7-5 Mark Eaton, which would have made for a helluva twin tower lineup).

Bannister was invited to Utah’s training camp in October 1990, but was still very slow, still had bad hands and couldn’t jump. He played for three weeks before requiring knee surgery and going on to the injured list. He never logged a regular season minute.

The Jazz released Bannister in August, 1991, and he spent the rest of his playing days abroad in places like Austria and England, where in this photo he looks like a very, very relaxed dead ringer for Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

Bannister stayed in England, where in recent years he has coached basketball clinics.

Curious as to who would be the second-tallest student-athlete to play for an Arkansas team?

Try former Razorback Shaheed Ali, who was also a transfer.

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The Big What If

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.

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For First Time, Arkansas State Beats an Opponent That Had Beaten Arkansas

What would happen if the best QB in ASU history had a crack at the state’s top program? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

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:

2001

UA @ Georgia L 23-34
ASU @ Georgia L 17-45
UA @ Ole Miss W 58-56
ASU – Mississippi L 17-35

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