JONESBORO — Strike up a conversation about Arkansas State University football these days, and you'll hear the name of another university often. It's not the one you think.
ASU fans and officials like to cite Boise State University, the Idaho institution whose rapid rise from football obscurity to national prominence ASU hopes to match.
At a press conference announcing the hiring of the new ASU coach, Gus Malzahn, ASU athletic director Dean Lee says, "We can be the Boise State of college football ... We want to be the Arkansas State of college football, which is going to be better than Boise State."
In a later interview, Malzahn, whose hiring is the main reason for the new excitement here, says that scheduling is one aspect of ASU football that will change. ASU now plays two "money" games every year. These are games against big-time opponents like Alabama and Oklahoma, games that are always played on the big team's home field, games for which ASU is well compensated but has little chance of winning. It's a common practice among lower-level college teams; they need the money. But Malzahn says ASU will cut back from two such games a year to one. That, he says, is what Boise did.
Be like Boise, by all means. But what about that other team whose name has always come up in any discussion of ASU football? The cross-state team, currently Arkansas's only big-time football program, the team that has always overshadowed and ignored ASU? The team that ASU has dreamed of playing against? That's the Arkansas Razorbacks, to end the suspense.
For years, ASU has fought to win a share of the love that goes to Fayetteville, and one way they hoped to do that was by playing UA, eventually developing an in-state rivalry like Auburn-Alabama, Oklahoma State-Oklahoma, Texas A&M-Texas. UA has resolutely declined. ASU, which is considered the "home" university for East Arkansas, took the fight to the state legislature on several occasions, but never quite persuaded the legislators to mandate an ASU-UA game. One of the ASU backers' most promising campaigns ended when a legislator from Russellville amended their bill, adding a requirement that ASU play Arkansas Tech, then a championship team at the small-college level.
Those days are past, ASU people say. Ask athletic director Lee about an ASU-Arkansas game, and he says "Our philosophy here is to try to control the things we can control. We'll play the people on our schedule. If that [UA] game happens, it happens. From the fan standpoint, there's been interest on both sides. That doesn't mean the game is going to be played."
Virtually the same words come from Malzahn's mouth. Does his attention-getting hire at ASU bring a UA game closer? "I don't know," he says. "I've got immediate things to take care of."
Jeff Hankins of Little Rock, an ASU alumnus and avid fan (and in his spare time publisher of Arkansas Business), says:
"Someday, it'll be a terrific game and I'll be there. But I'm tired of pushing for it. I think there's been too much talk about how the Malzahn hiring affects Arkansas [the Razorbacks]. I want to see UA, ASU, UCA [the University of Central Arkansas] all do well. But they're at different levels, in different conferences. The 'Who you for, Arkansas or ASU' debate does not have to be an either-or decision for football fans in the state.
"I think Razorback fans were just as surprised that Gus Malzahn landed at ASU as ASU fans were. I don't think there was a soul in this state who wasn't surprised by the Malzahn hiring. Or any sports fan in America, for crying out loud."