When Razorback athletic director Hunter Yurachek announced in 2019 his plans to lift the longstanding policy against playing in-state schools, a policy implemented and executed wisely by John Barnhill and Frank Broyles, and begin scheduling teams from within the UA system, it sure seemed like a precursor to the inevitable.
Turns out, it was.
Sounds like the deal to play Arkansas State in football had been made not long after Yurachek arrived on the Hill in December 2017. “Ease ‘em into the idea,” was likely a part of his thought process.
When I attempted to engage Yurachek, as a fan, on the subject at an August 2019 preseason event at War Memorial, he was nice but didn’t seem eager to discuss it. Thinking back on his reaction, it’s obvious the deal was done even then.
Jeff Long’s sins included Pepsi, Bielema’s buyout, the almost-hire of Tommy Bowden and Jim Grobe, and did I mention Pepsi? But I have a hard time believing Long would’ve even entertained the notion of playing in-state teams.
Ironically, the August ’19 issue of Arkansas Money & Politics (my first book on the job) included a piece from freelance sports journalist/historian Evin Demirel breaking the news that Yurachek had been visiting with his personal friend and counterpart, ASU’s Terry Mojahir, about the possibility of the Hogs one day scheduling the Red Wolves. Inevitable, perhaps, but way down the road, I figured. Then dominoes started falling.
Soon after came Yurachek’s revelation that the Hogs would schedule teams from within the UA system, then UCA was added to the Hogs’ 2020-21 hoops slate and of course, this past week Yurachek dropped his “bomb.”
And thus, the mystical UA-ASU football matchup that Arkansas media so wants to believe is a rivalry begging to be born has actually been scheduled. That COVID necessitated more regional contests in all sports starting in 2020 provided cover for Yurachek, allowing him to fast-track his plans.
But what really blew me away were the details of the Hogs’ latest scheduling gift, er, shift — opening the season in 2025 with ASU in Little Rock, allotting them 10,000 tickets (essentially twice the normal amount for visiting teams in Little Rock) and worst of all, paying A-State $750,000 to play the game? My initial reaction was, “Are you [insert bad word here] kidding me?”
Playing in-state schools — and in particular ASU in Little Rock — is a bad idea for the Hogs, one the program ultimately may regret long after Yurachek has moved on, and I’ll attempt to outline why. But if it had to be done, I had assumed any such games would be played on campus … in Fayetteville.
The logic behind artificially elevating a matchup with ASU into what will appear, beyond our borders, to be a neutral site, Iowa-Iowa State type game is, frankly, beyond my capacity to comprehend. Yes, ASU is No. 2 in the state pecking order. But not like Oklahoma State is No. 2 in Oklahoma, not like Auburn is second fiddle in Alabama… Arkansas is different than those states, different even than Mississippi, which already had two prominent universities in the early 20th century when what would become the SEC was being formulated.
UA-ASU isn’t a battle of peer schools, of in-state, Power 5 programs from different conferences. This is the SEC and the Sun Belt. Why would an SEC school elevate a matchup against a Sun Belt school in such a way? It wouldn’t, and it’s never been done. Until now, that is. And worse yet, one sportswriter recently suggested the Hogs and Arkansas State should become a trophy game … after complaining that the Hogs’ SEC rivals are forced. Wrap your brain around that for a moment. What would a “rivalry” between the UA and ASU be, other than forced? There is no rivalry involving the UA and Arkansas State outside of those who want to see A-State benefit from such a matchup.
The 1987 NIT game between the Hogs and the old ASU Indians was intense, sure. I was there. But a rivalry? The only time anything resembling clamor for a UA-ASU game is heard, outside of the small but intense Never Hog contingent of ASU fans, seems to be when sportswriters stir it up.
If the talk around the water cooler, rice field or playground has ever centered around Arkansas playing Arkansas State, I’ve sure missed it. One writer complained of always hearing, “But the UA has nothing to gain and everything to lose.” And proceeded to illustrate the very point. In scheduling ASU in Little Rock (and my assumption is that it will be made an annual thing), the Hogs quite literally have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Rotate in-state teams into Fayetteville every couple of years, if you must. But Arkansas State in Little Rock blows my mind.
Aside from Yurachek and/or the powers-that-be behind this move patting themselves on the back over how magnanimous they are, the Razorback program has nothing to gain by playing ASU in Little Rock, or really, in-state teams at all, and potentially, everything to lose.
Arguments for the ASU game always center around keeping the money in-state — the Hogs play other Sun Belt and FCS schools; why not play ASU, UCA and UAPB too (and UALR in basketball)? That question represents an evergreen argument for proponents of in-state matchups. And on the surface, it’s hard to counter, assuming all such competition, at least in football, would take place at the mother ship on the Hill. But remember that the money UAPB and ASU will make from playing the Hogs would’ve come from other Power 5 programs if Yurachek hadn’t scheduled them. Almost all Group of Five and FCS schools have to schedule “money games” to help pay the bills. If not the Hogs, then ASU would’ve scheduled OU or Georgia or another Power 5 school, probably for a bigger check.
It is hard to argue against scheduling in-state teams when the Hogs regularly play other Sun Belt or FCS teams. Well, hard to argue, aside from the fact a loss in an annual “rivalry” game to ASU in Little Rock is not the same thing by a long shot. A loss in Little Rock to a UL-Monroe is bad (people forget that ‘Bama lost at home to Monroe in Saban’s first year) but doesn’t entail long-reaching repercussions.
Now, about extending the contract with Little Rock. The SEC essentially had forbidden future conference games at War Memorial beyond the previous contract that expired in 2024, unless tens of millions of dollars in upgrades were realized at the old, gray lady. And let’s face it, they will never be realized. Nor should they. A former diehard “Hogs in LR” guy, even I recognize that in an age where one can watch any game anywhere on a smartphone — in the bathtub, on the john — playing home games away from campus in an aging, undersized and vastly outdated facility makes no sense.
So, while Yurachek used in-state competition as a means of getting the Missouri game back on campus earlier than planned (a good thing, but he wasn’t going to be able to keep a conference game in Little Rock anyway), he also appears to have appeased those boosters who apparently continue to hold the program hostage. I can think of no other reason for the effort to stay in Little Rock other than backroom gubernatorial/legislative intervention (which, if true, is disturbing). And you’ve got to question the commitment of any fan whose allegiance hinges on whether the Hogs play in Little Rock.
Before the early 2000s, when Razorback Stadium had been expanded and upgraded and a four-lane interstate topped off to ferry visitors through the local relief of the Boston Mountains, it made perfect sense to play multiple home games each season in War Memorial. Those of us who grew up in the ‘70s remember that it was common for the Hogs to get seven home games in what were then 11-game regular seasons. And more often than not, four of those home games would be in Little Rock. The stadium held more, it was louder and cable TV had yet to explode onto the world. In other words, if you wanted to see the Hogs, you generally had to do so in person. Those fans who lived a day’s drive away from Northwest Arkansas deserved an alternate way to see the Hogs.
Indeed, it was necessary to play in Central Arkansas (even if the Hogs always had to pay rent and didn’t get to keep the take on concessions, which is still the case.) But times have changed. The program will always need the support of all four corners, but it doesn’t need to play in Little Rock anymore. “An Arkansas State game will fill up War Memorial,” they say. Yes, so would winning again. The attachment to War Memorial is almost as mind boggling, in this day and age, as is the idea of trying to make ASU a rivalry game.
I don’t blame Red Wolves fans for wanting to play the Hogs. I would too. An ASU fan — a UCA fan, a UAPB fan — would be crazy not to want it. Those programs have everything to gain and nothing to lose. But what the Hogs playing ASU, especially in Little Rock, does is open up the possibility of the UA losing its grip as the state’s team. As a Group of Five program, Arkansas State is the only state school currently in position to ever conceivably, remotely place pressure on the Razorbacks in terms of fan support. Now, I don’t imagine the Hogs’ status in this state will ever be challenged. But IT COULD be, especially if Yurachek invites such a scenario. Which is exactly what’s he’s doing.
For the UA program to be successful, the Razorbacks have to be synonymous with Arkansas itself. That is at the very core, the beating heart, of the program. Arkansas’ population and demographics can support just one major college program, and while playing the Hogs wouldn’t elevate ASU to that level, a Little Rock game would chip away, year after year, at the UA’s “one state, one team” aura.
What playing the Red Wolves in Little Rock does is create the illusion that Arkansas is a two-team state, which, of course, it’s not. Across the state, the talk of the break room, the rice field, the playground has always been the Hogs. But here’s the rub: Perhaps one day, it could be a two-team state. And in such a scenario, nobody wins.
The last year surely has taught us to expect the unexpected. My fear is that the new contract running through 2025 that brings UAPB to Little Rock twice and ASU to town in ’25 to play the Hogs will be extended based on fake momentum driven by media hype and novelty, and Yurachek will make ASU the annual season opener in Little Rock. A “trophy game,” no less. A rivalry game in which one team pays the other to play? Literally, there’s nothing more pathetic, and that’s not hyperbole.
Let’s look ahead 30 years. After a generation of season-opening “rivalry” games between the state’s “two teams,” would the Hogs still own Arkansas? Would kids born this year or the next year or the next presented with a choice between two teams really distinguish that one team plays in the SEC and the other the Sun Belt? If ASU grew organically, even to the point where it could play Colorado State to the UA’s Colorado, a game would be justified. But it hasn’t. (Ask yourself how many times A-State has actually filled its 30,000-seat stadium.) Shouldn’t ASU have to earn the right to force a “rivalry” game? A decade of moderate success in the Sun Belt does that?
Perhaps one of the more misleading headlines you’ll ever read ran in the statewide paper the weekend after the announcement. Coaching against Arkansas State part of Pittman’s plan. Readers will be forgiven for assuming Pittman’s plan has always included playing ASU. But watch the video from which the story was written and quotes pulled. When asked about playing Arkansas State, Pittman merely responded that he hoped he was still the coach in five years when the game is scheduled to take place.
ASUe being “something that needs to happen” for the Razorback program is fabricated. The Razorbacks remain the almost-singular obsession of what seems like 95 percent of the state including many in and around Jonesboro who support both programs. Barnhill and Broyles knew what they were doing, folks. The Razorbacks owe nothing to in-state programs.
If the Hogs are going to play in-state teams, rotate them through Fayetteville every few years. And if the main argument for the Hogs playing in-state teams, especially a made-up rivalry game with ASU, is because of how “neato” it would be for Arkansas to have two state teams who played each other every year in Little Rock… is that really fair to the Arkansas program? Every consideration seems to be getting made for Arkansas State and others. But not for the flagship.
The Hogs being forcibly tied to War Memorial and forced to play a fabricated in-state rivalry game is, well, pretty 2020, I suppose. In other words, it makes no sense.