20 Years Ago, Hog Basketball Left Little Rock. Why Hog Football Will Soon Follow

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This past weekend a most quiet anniversary passed.

I didn’t expect any headlines or announcements to mark this 20-year event, and I didn’t see any. I suppose a commemoration simply wasn’t worth anybody’s time.

On Dec. 30, 1992, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team played its last game in Little Rock –  an 87-78 loss to Northeast Louisiana. It had played its last game in Pine Bluff – a 123-76 win against Jackson State – nine days before.

From 1977 through 1992, the Hogs played between two and five regular season games a year in central and southeast Arkansas. Overall, the team had a 61-6 record at Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum and The Pine Bluff Convention Center during this stretch.

The consensus highlight of these games was Arkansas’ 1984 65-64 upset win in Pine Bluff against a No.1 North Carolina team that included Michael Jordan.

These arenas – roughly 8,000 seats each – created a far more intense atmosphere than a typical Razorback basketball game today. Former Pine Bluff Commercial sportswriter Walter Woodie recalls the PB convention center as “better than Barton and certainly better than Verizon [Arena], though to be fair, Hog teams were better back in the day.” There may still be some nostalgia attached to such packed places – just as there still is for the old Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville –  but don’t expect any “Bring Back Barton” Razorback Facebook pages to pop up soon.

Most fans agree these structures’ time has passed. Hell, many believe that Barton Coliseum isn’t even fit to host the state’s high school basketball championships recently relocated from Hot Springs.

Change was for the better.

Bud Walton Arena opened in the fall of 1993 on the University of Arkansas’ campus, and fans never had reason to look back. The 19,000 people regularly screaming themselves hoarse in the “Basketball Palace of Mid-America” immediately made it one of the nation’s most hellish venues for visitors. As a young teen, I took sadistic pleasure in seeing the Hogs trounce directional programs by 50, 60 points and recall feeling slight mystification if guard Al Dillard failed to make less than, oh, eight three-pointers in such a rout.

Arkansas won a national title and finished as a runner-up in its first two seasons at Bud Walton. Fans from all parts of the state took equal pride in frequent wins and felt equal despair in the rare losses of that period. Hardly any central Arkansans lamented the loss of games in their own backyard.

In a few decades, I expect the same to be said of Arkansas football.

Historically, the Great Stadium Debate has been a hot button topic. Rex Nelson, who directed communications for Gov. Mike Huckabee, said the issue generated the most  comments from the public to the governor’s office during his time there.

In the last few decades, the number of Arkansas football games at War Memorial Stadium has steadily declined from four games a year to two games. In 2000, when UA brass dropped the number to three a year, there was plenty outcry. There was also public grumbling when Arkansas decided to move its all-important LSU game to Fayetteville.

Currently, the UA and War Memorial have a contract for two annual games – costing the UA $75,000 per game – through 2016. But the number of people who support keeping the LSU game in Little Rock – and really any games at all – is dwindling.

So are their reasons.

Whether basketball or football, the University of Arkansas doesn’t need to play games outside of Fayetteville to win and keep allegiances statewide, as it did decades ago. Today, the UA has every major media outlet in the state, along with ESPN and smartphone apps, to spread its gospel.

“It isn’t 1948 anymore,” an Arkansas Times commenter wrote. “WMS was build [sic] pre-television, pre-Interstate Highways, and in many cases some areas of AR were connected by gravel roads and ferry crossings. Like buggy whips, and outdoor privies, the time for “home” games in LR has passed as being practical.”

Practical not only for fans but also for the staff of top-notch recruiters being assembled under Bret Bielema. As Arkansas Business’ Chris Bahn pointed out before last season:

“Staying in Little Rock also means recruiting takes a hit. Arkansas can only host recruits at one off-campus game. Things are set up for LSU to be the biggest game on the schedule next season and November is when recruits and their families are interested in making official visits. That’s when decisions start getting made on college choices and bringing players to Little Rock where they can’t see the facilities, the campus, meet professors, academic advisors and other students isn’t ideal.”

Question: If you’re a 17-year-old five-star recruit from south Florida with pro football dreams, are you going to be more impressed seeing the inside of a Little Rock Residence Inn and the hordes of tailgaters outside of War Memorial or visiting a brand new $40 million, 80,000 SF football operations center in Fayetteville that screams “NFL incubator”?

Not to mention whatever visual gee-wizardry comes from a possible $98 million expansion of Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

The same vigorous financial support that has allowed Razorback athletics to thrive, and has loosened the purse strings to lure hotshot assistant coaches like Randy Shannon, is also slowly but surely making War Memorial Stadium obsolete.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I think there will always be a bone thrown central Arkansas’ way.

Basketball, after all, still has one annual game at North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena. And 20 years after this current UA football-War Memorial contract ends,  I expect there will still be Hog football on the field of what will then be an 88-year-old stadium.

In the 2030s,  a few thousand people will annually attend a fully three-dimensional holographic representation of a Hog football game being played in real time, by real players, in some state too inconvenient to reach even by bullet train.

There will still be plenty tailgating, still be plenty cheering. Everybody will have a grand time.

Nobody will care the game in front of the them is pure illusion.

Like a future in which UA leaders continue to lead Razorback football to the promised land without leaving Little Rock behind.

Should all Razorback football games be moved to Fayetteville?

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The author often blogs about the history of Arkansas sports (including this breakdown of games played in Pine Bluff and Barton Coliseum) at thesportsseer.com. Follow him at @evindemirel.

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