Arkansas Fans, Get a Grip: War Memorial Stadium Tradition Not So Special

Arkansas will play one game per year in Little Rock through 2018.

Arkansas will play one game per year in Little Rock through 2018.

Arkansas fans are right to believe some of their traditions are truly unique. There are, after all, tens of college programs named after Wildcats or Tigers or some permutation of Bear, but there is only one named for the Razorback. And no group of fans, no matter how much they chomp, stomp or damn eagles, has thrown out anything that remotely resembles the Ozarkian eeriness that is the Hog Call. Suiiii generis, indeed.

But in all the recent commotion over Arkansas’ continuing pullout of War Memorial Stadium, I’ve noted a troublesome sentiment that what Arkansas has had all these years in its dual home arrangement has been so wonderfully precious and unique that losing it would present a blow the program may never fully recover from. Not so: plenty other programs split their home games between two stadia for decades. Plenty other fans made memories that lasted a lifetime in the stadium closer to their home. Yes, the other programs stopped doing this. But no, they did not fall apart.

To the contrary, many have thrived since quitting the practice.

These other programs – Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Virginia Tech et al – began dual home arrangements for the same, exact reason Arkansas started doing it in Little Rock in 1932: exposure, revenue and what today is called “brand building.” Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.*

Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium. This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in a recent New York Times article: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.'”

Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, you are right: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program that is still hanging on to this practice.

But is that something to be proud of?

It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But hanging on to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed through much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.

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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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