With two football and three basketball games crammed within a span of seven days, there was plenty to talk about at the Thanksgiving table.
Fans had ample material regarding Razorback athletics to discuss: how much blame Bret Bielema deserves for the 2013 season (some); whether or not Brandon Allen is going to be ”the answer” at quarterback going forward (can we get an honest answer on his injury impact?); what to make of the basketball team winning a game outside of Arkansas against a respectable opponent (fantastic!); and whether or not the NCAA Tournament is a realistic expectation for this squad (I think so). And just after leftovers, whether or not nearly knocking off LSU is actually a sign of positive momentum going forward (pleasepleaseplease); and if Gus Malzahn has a spot reserved on the upcoming Mount Rushmore of Razorback Oopses along with Jimmy Johnson and Bill Self (if he’d have brought his luck with him).
Personally, I enjoyed the “Korliss Marshall: safety or running back?” conversation. Is there a more intriguing player on the team right now? Obviously, the Razorbacks desperately need some help in the secondary, but Marshall seems so naturally suited to running back. Since the theme this year has been to look to history to make sense of where the Razorbacks are, I can’t help but to think of 2005, when the Hogs didn’t necessarily need a third running back to compliment returning star Peyton Hillis and highly-touted freshman Felix Jones, but speedy athlete Darren McFadden was too electric to keep on defense. Of course it’s totally unfair to compare anybody to McFadden, but the situations are similar. What the team does with Marshall in spring practice will be an important topic to follow.
However, all of that wasn’t enough. Right smack dab in the middle of the week, the same day the basketball team beat Minnesota in Hawaii, the athletic department announced the next phase in its relationship with War Memorial Stadium. In other words, pushed forward the Great Stadium Debate.
It was a Thanksgiving miracle.
I gave my opinions on the topic at the beginning of the season, and still largely feel the same way.
But there’s one angle to this discussion I feel is important to make that has largely been left out. As always, there’s been a ton of talk about the importance of playing games in Little Rock to exposing the Razorbacks to Arkansans in the central, southern, and eastern parts of the state. The part that’s largely left out, is that playing games in Little Rock also was important to expose the program to Little Rock media, which for decades, controlled the bulk of the information going through the state.
You may not have noticed, but the Razorbacks, the SEC, and college football as a whole don’t really struggle for exposure anymore. So if potential recruits or fans grow up wanting to be a part of a relevant, exciting brand of football, where games are played doesn’t matter as much as winning games and getting attention on ESPN, and not for being a joke.
Arkansas doesn’t have to worry about kids in the state growing up to be Arkansas State, UALR, or UCA fans. Kids aren’t going to ditch the SEC for the Sun Belt. They need to prevent people in the state growing up to be LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama or Auburn fans. Arkansas can play all 12 of their games in Little Rock, but if they only win three or four a year, it really doesn’t matter. UALR has played basketball in Little Rock for decades, but they’ve hardly cut into the Razorbacks’ popularity.
There will always people in Arkansas growing up to be loyal to the biggest program in the state, and the Razorbacks will by and large always have success recruiting them or relying on them to be donors or ticket buyers. But there are also people who grow up being attracted to the hot, winning programs wherever they may be, and what state they happen to live in isn’t as important as associating themselves with those winners or big stories or big excitement. These are the Josh Fraziers of the world. See his recent tweet:
It’s crazy to think that I’m gonna be apart of the biggest rivalry in college football history tho. #rolltideroll
— L.Joshua Frazier (@JoshuaFrazier99) November 29, 2013
Somehow, Arkansas’ upcoming forced rivalry with Missouri didn’t quite hold the same type of appeal.
Surely the endless media exposure in college sports has diluted the importance of playing a special game in a certain geographic location. The same argument goes for playing games in Arlington. Arkansas has committed to playing games in Texas every year starting in 2014, sometimes multiple games per year when the Hogs play at Texas Tech and at TCU, yet only two of Arkansas’ 17 commitments in the current recruiting class are from the Dallas area. Only one is from central Arkansas. If getting prospects to campus is so vital in Arkansas recruiting, is it really worth it to spend any games, especially conference games, off campus? Or is Arkansas so stuck in its lot in recruiting that the program should just do whatever is the most fun for its fans?
I grew up not caring about Razorback football even though I attended some games at War Memorial. I grew up caring about Razorback basketball because in those years it was an amazing, nationally elite program that everyone I knew was excited about and I wanted to be included. Football didn’t begin to become relevant to me until they won the SEC West in 1995. It wasn’t where in Arkansas the Razorbacks played that made a difference, it was how they performed.
If Bret Bielema is truly rebuilding the football program in a way that eventually results in consistent winning, people will want to be a part of the program, whether as recruits, donors, or just fans. But as long as Arkansas is fielding losing teams and young impressionable people have equal media access to out-of-state winners, Arkansas will probably lose some people, but those people probably wouldn’t think differently just because they got to go see the Hogs in Little Rock a few times a year.