Rex Nelson: Arkansas Has Lost Something That Can Never Be Recaptured


Rex Nelson Archive PageSome thoughts following the University of Arkansas’ decision to cut in half the number of football games played at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium:

1.) Several years ago, I would have been mad. Today, I’m merely sad.

When I worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee, I joined the governor in the fight to preserve the tradition of Little Rock home games. That battle occurred during the original Great Stadium Debate of 1999 and 2000. After a time, though, it becomes tiring to constantly fight an entity in your home state when it’s clear that minds have been made up, public comments to the contrary. The university has an Illinois native as its head football coach who obviously has no intention of even trying to embrace this unique tradition. And it has an administration focused on per-game revenue. So be it. Most people think that there will be no more Little Rock games after 2018, and that’s probably correct if the current athletic director and head coach are still in place at that time.

Here are the cold, hard facts (which will be harder for some to digest than Thanksgiving leftovers): This is a state of fewer than 3 million people with a low per-capita income. At some point, you reach a ceiling of how many people will drive six or seven times each fall to Fayetteville and how much money they can afford to pay. Much has been said and written about the growth of northwest Arkansas, and that has indeed been a wonderful thing for our state. But the fact remains that the Little Rock metropolitan area has more than 200,000 more residents than the metropolitan area that covers northwest Arkansas. Filling a 72,000-seat stadium in Fayetteville (which rarely happens these days) requires support from all parts of the state, not just the Fayetteville-to-Bella-Vista corridor.

Given the small population base and the low number of wealthy Arkansans, the University of Arkansas is and will continue to be a middle-of-the-pack program in football in the SEC with occasional good seasons. That’s not going to change regardless of where home games are played. There are certain economic realities that simply must be faced. To give Jeff Long his due, please understand that he’s forced to play with a short deck financially compared with most institutions in the conference. As a native Arkansan, I would love to see the Razorbacks be a consistent powerhouse in football. It would make each fall fun. Guess what? It’s not going to happen.

As you face the harsh reality that the state will never have a football program that contends for national championships year in and year out, what are you left with when you abandon the very traditions that once made you unique and drew national attention?

What are you left with when you jettison the tradition of splitting home games between two stadiums and just play them all at home like most everyone else?

What are you left with when you replace red helmets with gray helmets and red jerseys with gray jerseys at home because you’re told that “kids are different these days?”

What are you left with when young people don’t even know how to call the Hogs, choosing instead to sound like a wounded coyote at the start of the Hog call?

What are you left with when young boys in south and east Arkansas no longer can easily make it to Razorback games with fathers, uncles, grandfathers or friends?

Who are you then? A northwest Arkansas version of Mississippi State?

You’ve given up your most cherished traditions – the very things that set you apart from the Fresno States and Iowa States of the college football world – in search of a little more per-game revenue while also chasing some anecdotal notions of what recruits want. And you still don’t win big unless a Nick Saban-style coach happens to fall into your lap and decides to stick around until retirement.

One request for those of you who have been yearning for this day: Spare me the gratuitous shots at Little Rock – old stadium, scary neighborhoods, poor parking, too many poor folks who “don’t look like me,” yada, yada, yada – in the comments section. We all know the drill by now. I could write your comment for you.

You’ve won. In the process, the state of Arkansas has lost something that can never be captured again.

2.) If the administration at Arkansas State University doesn’t hold a news conference before the end of the year to announce that the Red Wolf football team will play at least one and sometimes two games each season in Little Rock, those folks aren’t as smart as I think they are. With ASU assured of a third consecutive winning season – under three head coaches at that – the program’s profile has never been higher. A central Arkansas football presence is needed on an annual basis since Jonesboro is in a bit of a media no man’s land. By that, I mean that Little Rock television stations – which cover the majority of the state – won’t send crews there for games. And the folks in the nearest big media market – Memphis – don’t care.

After attending the Razorback game last Saturday, I tuned in the Little Rock radio station that carries ASU games, hoping to hear the Red Wolves’ contest against Georgia State. Instead of the football game, a Fox Sports program was airing. When I called the station, I was told that I was the first person to have pointed this out. That’s a problem for ASU. It shows that the school needs to build football support in central Arkansas.

If you have any doubt that ASU wants to be a statewide institution, please note that the president of the Arkansas State University System, Chuck Welch, doesn’t live in Jonesboro. He lives in Little Rock.

If the president lives in the state’s largest city, doesn’t it make sense to play a football game there every year?

3.) The time has come for a serious study on the feasibility of football at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Several years ago, one of the state’s prominent business leaders had this to say about UALR: “Little Rock needs a full-fledged university. In this part of the country, you’re not viewed by most people as a full-fledged university unless you have students living in dorms and a football team.”

Well, UALR has been adding dorms in recent years, moving away from its image as nothing more than an urban commuter school.

UALR is in the Sun Belt Conference, which is an FBS football conference and would be delighted to have another football team.

War Memorial Stadium, despite the criticism from those who know nothing about the workings of the facility, has seen vast improvement in the past decade due to the dynamic leadership of stadium commission chairmen Gary Smith and Kevin Crass. A UALR football program would add at least five college games to the stadium each year.

Consider these points:

  • With Razorback tickets more expensive than ever, there’s a market for other types of college games in the state’s largest metropolitan area.
  • Coverage of Sun Belt games on the ESPN family of networks and the higher profile that a football team gives a university would greatly benefit an institution whose campus is removed from the business, commercial and governmental heart of Little Rock.
  • There are wealthy Little Rock residents alienated by this most recent slap in the face from the University of Arkansas. They might be willing to provide a UALR program with financial support.
  • ASU would be a conference opponent, meaning a large crowd every other year at War Memorial Stadium.
  • UALR could ensure two additional decent crowds each season by playing nonconference games in the stadium against UCA and UAPB.
  • UALR’s Chris Peterson, one of the nation’s best athletic directors, is a football guy at heart. He’s the son of a football coach, was an All-American quarterback coming out of high school in Huron, S.D., and played college football at Kansas State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee before signing a free agent contract with the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL. He was a football coach on the college level for seven years. At Eastern Illinois, he coached current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Put all of this together, and Trojan football makes sense, doesn’t it? Colleges and universities across the country are adding football programs.

For better or worse, the Arkansas in which I was raised has changed. One major change was announced this week. Expect even more big announcements in the world of Arkansas sports during the next five years.

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