Photographs by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, left, and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema are shown during these 2014 file photos.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Representatives of the Arkansas Razorbacks and Arkansas State Red Wolves were nearly 150 miles apart when they spoke Monday, but their statements illustrated the programs are even further apart on philosophies of intrastate play.
It was about noon in Jonesboro when Arkansas State University Coach Blake Anderson said in the team’s weekly news conference that he’s happy ASU is playing the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on Saturday
“We always want to try and create an opportunity to play an in-state opponent,” he said
At the same hour, Jeff Long — the athletic director at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville — fielded a question as the guest speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club about whether the Razorbacks would ever play ASU.
“No,” Long simply said. “There are no plans, no discussions to play ASU. We’ve had the long-standing policy about not playing in-state schools because we feel like it divides people within the state.
“That is not new. That is something that Coach [Frank] Broyles thought about, and I’ve embraced it when I came here.”
Long’s answer received applause. Anderson’s answer prompted more questions.
The state’s three NCAA Division I football programs other than Arkansas have questions regarding the Razorbacks’ philosophy, which has kept the team from playing an in-state opponent since its 41-0 victory over Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello) on Dec. 2, 1944.
Alabama is the only member of the SEC to have as long of a streak with in-state schools that are out of conference, as the Crimson Tide beat Samford 63-7 in 1944. Ole Miss lost to Southern Miss 13-10 in 1984, but the remaining 11 conference members have all played such in-state opponents since 2014.
Both Alabama and Ole Miss annually play in-state SEC opponents Auburn and Mississippi State.
“The notion that playing an in-state team is going to divide our fan base, I don’t agree with that,” said ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir, whose football program lost to FCS-level Central Arkansas 28-23 last season. “We lost to UCA, and I don’t think we lost a single fan.”
Mohajir and University of Central Arkansas Athletic Director Brad Teague have scheduled another game for 2021, and Teague said “ASU is our first pick for an FBS opponent.” He also said the in-state game is valuable, win or lose, because it “galvanizes our fan base,” “opens their eyes that two D-I schools are playing each other” and that “it receives good attention” from the media.
Anderson said the loss to UCA did not factor into a drop in the Red Wolves’ recruiting class ranking, which dipped in the Sun Belt rankings from third in 2016 to seventh in 2017, according to 247Sports.
“I think people realize one game doesn’t define your team or your program — other than just having to listen to it, and having to live with it, because it’s a game we should have won,” he said. “Beyond that, bigger scope, we still had a great recruiting class, we still found a way to win a conference championship and a bowl game. So it didn’t dismantle our program in one game. That’s never going to happen.”
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reached out to Long and was referred to a recording of his Touchdown Club appearance Monday.
Mohajir said the idea that every Arkansan can be a fan for only one school is “probably not accurate,” and a football program’s overall success is a larger concern than losing to an in-state opponent.
“If you want to increase your market share in the state, you have to increase your level of production,” he said. “You don’t lose fan bases by playing other schools in the state. You lose your fan base because your level of production goes down.”
Mohajir, who was an assistant football coach at Kansas from 1993-1996, said the Jayhawks basketball team gained its large following because “they raised themselves to an elite level” — a level he says the Red Wolves can reach without a game against the Razorbacks.
“Really, for us to achieve that national brand, we have to play the Alabamas and beat the Nebraskas — the teams we haven’t yet done that against,” said Mohajir, whose program plays a 2019 game at Georgia. “That’s why we’re playing those. Playing a team in-state will not help us as much. It will be a big game inside the state. But as far as the rest of the nation, not really.”
Mohajir, Teague and UAPB Coach Monte Coleman each said playing in-state games has a symbiotic financial benefit.
ASU will pay UAPB $300,000 for the programs’ game Saturday — money Mohajir said he would rather keep in-state.
The Golden Lions had to fly to last Saturday’s game against Akron in Ohio, and Coleman said at UAPB’s weekly news conference Tuesday that the ASU game is preferable.
“To play an in-state school is beneficial all around,” said Coleman, whose team last played ASU in 2013 in a 62-11 loss. “We’ll have our band with us. We’ll have our cheerleaders. Hopefully, we’ll have some fans up in the stands.”
UCA was paid $425,000 for its 55-19 loss at Kansas State on Sept. 2, and ASU was paid $1.65 million for its 43-36 loss at Nebraska on the same date.
Arkansas will pay Coastal Carolina, which will become an FBS program next season, $1.5 million for its Nov. 4 game in Fayetteville.
“We’re hoping for that payday one day to be able to go up to Fayetteville and play Arkansas,” Coleman said. “We don’t know. Keeping our fingers crossed.”
“It’s well-known they’re not going to play anybody instate, so why try?” Teague said. “We know they won’t.”
Last time SEC schools played in-state opponents in out-of-conference play
Arkansas;1944;Arkansas A&M;W, 41-0
Auburn;2016;Alabama A&M;W, 55-0
Florida;2015;Florida Atlantic;W, 20-14
Georgia;2016;Georgia Tech;L, 28-27
Kentucky;2017;Eastern Kentucky;W, 27-16
Mississippi State;2015;Southern Miss;W, 34-16
Missouri;2017;Missouri State;W, 72-43
Ole Miss;1984;Southern Miss;L, 13-10
South Carolina;2016;Clemson;L, 56-7
Tennessee;2016;Tennessee Tech;W, 55-0
Texas A&M;2016;UT-San Antonio;W, 23-10
Vanderbilt;2017;Middle Tennessee State;W, 28-6
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