by Evin Demirel | Photography courtesy of the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University
UA breaks tradition by scheduling in-state schools, but Arkansas State? In football? ADs already discussing such a game
Arkansas State Athletic Director Terry Mohajir knew better.
One of the coaches of A-State’s Olympic sports teams had approached him with an unusual situation. The coach’s counterpart at the University of Arkansas had sent a contract for a UA-Arkansas State competition in their sport. Turns out, Mohajir discovered, that coach was new and didn’t know how things worked ‘round these parts.
Mohajir didn’t want to get this UA coach in trouble. “I said, ‘I think their coach needs to go check with his supervisors,’” Mohajir recalls. “That coach went back and checked and said ‘Yeah, they don’t play.’”
No three words have better defined the relationship between the UA and Arkansas State through the decades since A-State became a Division I school. Since the mid-1900s, Razorback athletic administrators had unofficially forbidden its coaches from scheduling games against other Arkansas colleges. That policy was a result of former athletic director John Barnhill’s desire to turn the state of Arkansas into Razorback country.
Barnhill’s successor, Frank Broyles, carried Barnhill’s ban into the 21st century. Times, though, have a way of changing. Broyles passed away in 2017 and the last UA athletic director he personally influenced, Jeff Long, left a few months later.
That opened the door for the UA’s current athletic director, Hunter Yurachek, who had no problems scheduling intrastate competition during his previous stop at the University of Houston. There’s no avoiding it in a state as large as Texas. In the last year, in collaboration with UA Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz, Yurachek has worked swiftly to dissolve part of Arkansas’ long-standing policy.
Under Yurachek’s watch, the baseball Hogs this spring scheduled Little Rock and UAPB, sister-school programs in the UA system. Then, in early May, he made big waves by announcing the UA would play Pine Bluff in football. On top of that, the Razorback women’s basketball team is working on scheduling a game against the Trojans in Little Rock, Yurachek says.
Yurachek’s resume at places like Houston, Coastal Carolina, Western Carolina and Akron has given him a wider-lens view on college athletics than administrators who have spent their whole careers working with the big boys. This may be a reason he feels more comfortable thinking outside of the box at Arkansas. This spring, for instance, he hired Jordyn Wieber, a 23-year-old Olympic gold medalist, as the Hogs’ gymnastics coach.
When it comes to intrastate competition, “Let’s look at how we can benefit our own fellow system schools first and foremost,” he says. “Let’s start with our fellow system schools that can benefit directly within the system, whether it’s a cost savings by traveling here as opposed to schools outside of the state or the game guarantees flowing their way within our system.”
The elephant in the room is the question asking if (and when) the UA will play Arkansas colleges outside the system — namely, the state’s second-most prestigious football prgram in Arkansas State University.
Though the two colleges have never played in football, there’s little doubt their matchup would generate the most anticipation around a non-conference opponent in Razorback football history. Such a game isn’t the pipe dream it used to be.
The athletic directors already informally chat about it. They are friends who spent last fall traveling to a conference for athletic directors in Washington D.C., and touring the White House and the U.S. Capitol together. Mohajir is a “really a strong leader in our industry,” Yurachek says. “He’s the newest member to the College Football Playoff selection committee, and that doesn’t happen by chance.”
The two ADs text each other and keep in contact, occasionally discussing possible competition between the schools. On top of that, Mohajir says, “My coaches have talked to the Olympics sports [coaches in Fayetteville] and other sports about playing, and they seem to be amenable.”
The first regular-season game scheduled between the Razorback and Red Wolves likely will be in an Olympic sport (e.g. track and field, tennis) because those sports aren’t scheduled as far in advance as the more lucrative sports like football. If and when the UA allows competition with outside-the-system in-state schools, “We will open that up to all of our coaches, just like we did with the system schools and allow them to make their own decisions on scheduling,” Yurachek says.
When it comes to football, Mohajir proposed to Yurachek a couple of potential available dates for A-State in the early 2020s. He also proposed some monetary figures for what he would be comfortable with in terms of a game guarantee paid by the UA to A-State, Yurachek says. The UA, which has already finalized most of its schedule through the 2024 season (and is finalizing contracts with some opponents in the 2025, 2026 and 2027 seasons) hasn’t yet scheduled A-State in football.
Yurachek talked with 103.7 The Buzz’s David Bazzel about playing A-State in April: “I’m not going to say that it’s never going to happen, but what I’m going to say right now is we’re just taking a step. And that step is to open that up to schools within the system, and that’s what I felt comfortable with. You know we just weren’t ready to rip off the Band-Aid.”
Mohajir says A-State fans would love to see a game with the Hogs and believes some Razorback fans would as well.
“But at the end of the day, to be very candid with you, it doesn’t matter to me because we are really focused on big-brand programs,” he says. “We’ve been scheduling Top 15-type programs, Top-10 type programs. In order to really elevate our national relevance and national brand, we have to beat the teams that we are not supposed to beat.”
Mohajir is referring to high-profile non-conference games for the Red Wolves that include blowout losses at No. 1 Alabama in 2018 and at Auburn in 2016. Mohajir thinks, if anything, Arkansas should want to play Arkansas State to help its resume so the Razorbacks can further elevate their program and return to Top-15 type status.
“They should be begging us to play,” he says. Given Arkansas State’s rise to mid-major power — it’s No. 6 in total wins among Group of Five (mid-major Division 1) schools since 2011 — a non-conference win over the program could help Arkansas more than most other G5 wins. As Mohajir sees it, “If you’re going to play a Group of Five school, why wouldn’t you play one that’s going to help your brand?”
No doubt, Arkansas State is an attractive Sun Belt opponent. But Yurachek isn’t sure about the value of a win against A-State vs. other top foes from the same conference. “I don’t know whether they give you a better opportunity to get into the College Football Playoffs mix instead of one of their Sun Belt counterparts. Maybe Terry can give me some information on that after he serves a term on the CFP committee.”
Mohajir emphasizes that it’s Arkansas State, which in recent years has already played UAPB and UCA, he’s worried about. Not the U of A. “I’m not sitting by the phone waiting for Hunter to call, biting my fingernails,” he says. “We’ll continue to play in-state teams. We’ll continue to try to schedule the biggest brands in college football, and we’ll continue to knock on the door until we can kick it down and try to win the lottery by beating one of those teams.”
Although both athletic directors are vehement in defending their programs, it’s obvious Mohajir and Yurachek have high respect for each other. Their rapport is at the heart of more momentum toward scheduling a UA/ASU football game than at any point in the past.
Some Razorback fans believe the Red Wolves have everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing the Hogs. Arkansas State, after all, plays in a smaller conference and any win against an SEC team will help its brand. Beating the bigger in-state program could be a potential bonanza. Some fans feel the Hogs have little if anything to gain from such a game, while everything to lose. Theoretically, even a close loss to the Hogs could help boost the Red Wolves’ reputation.
But other states have football cultures that seem to be helped, not hurt, by in-state rivalries. Take South Carolina, which in the 1980s had a population the same as Arkansas now. Its biggest football programs, national champion Clemson and the University of South Carolina, have thrived in a state with a population smaller than that of its neighbors.
It’s likely the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry has helped create a passionate football culture that leads to better football and better recruits at the high school level. While the Tigers and Gamecocks represent Power 5, high-major programs (unlike UA and A-State), both programs regularly play smaller programs within South Carolina.
So, in essence, the recruiting pie gets bigger for both programs and for the smaller in-state programs that they play. In Arkansas, the same “rising tide lifts all boats” effect could transpire.
Supporters of a UA vs. A-State game may point out that when the UA has played in-state schools, the Razorbacks have not been hurt recruiting-wise. Take basketball, where Arkansas State played at Arkansas in the first round of the 1987 National Invitation Tournament. Arkansas pulled out a home win in an overtime squeaker. Apparently, Frank Broyles assured Hog Coach Nolan Richardson going into the game he would not fire him for a loss (though there are plenty who believe he would have).
Just a few months ago, the baseball Razorbacks were blown out in Fayetteville by the Little Rock Trojans. After that, the Razorbacks proved they were still one of the nation’s best programs, finishing as the SEC West co-champion and advancing to the College World Series in Omaha. It’s doubtful that the Hogs will lose any blue-chip prospects to Little Rock.
So, hypothetically, let’s say the UA agrees to playing A-State at some point in the coming years.
Where would this showdown take place?
“It all depends on what the agreement would be,” Mohajir says. “If they gotta play a game every year at War Memorial Stadium, why wouldn’t they play that game there rather than an SEC game?”
Mohajir is open to playing all the games in Fayetteville as well. It depends on what his Arkansas State people want. “If we wanted to play five years in a row at their place, I’d be fine with that.”
Yurachek says such games would probably be played at home because the revenue potential of Reynolds Razorback Stadium (about 76,000 seats) is much larger than that of Jonesboro’s Centennial Bank Stadium (about 31,000). Plus, War Memorial Stadium games are already scheduled with Missouri through the 2024 season. “We’re not going to play two games in Little Rock in any one season again so, if a [Hogs-Red Wolves] game was ever going to be played, most likely it’s going to be played here in Fayetteville.”
In the end, Mohajir thinks there is plenty of room for both programs to thrive regardless of whether they ever compete. “We’ve got a lot of Razorback fans who are supportive of our program, too. We’ve got a lot of awesome young people from this community who go to school there and have great families in Jonesboro, so there’s no animosity or anything.”
Yurachek and Steinmetz aren’t ready to take the extra step of opening up competition against non-system Arkansas schools. But Yurachek is open to exploring the idea with other athletic directors and has even discussed scheduling Arkansas State in football with the school’s AD.
And that, just by itself, is a huge step in the evolution of Arkansas sports.
Freelance writer Evin Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour and Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories. He regularly blogs at BestOfArkansasSports.com.
Hog Sports & the In-State Ban
The last time the Hogs played an in-state school in football was 1944, when they defeated what’s now the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
In the following years, the Razorbacks’ statewide popularity skyrocketed with the arrival of megastar Clyde Scott, the opening of War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and the development of a regional radio network broadcasting Arkansas games. As Razorback excitement and loyalty grew, former UA athletic director John Barnhill stopped scheduling in-state games.
Barnhill, and his successor Frank Broyles, reasoned that in-state competition could jeopardize the Hogs’ statewide affections. This is a sentiment many fans adopted. “There was a philosophy that playing other in-state schools in a state as small as Arkansas could potentially divide the state and force fans to pick sides and alliances,” Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek says.
Yurachek, who came to Arkansas in December 2017, sees things differently. He’s worked in states such as South Carolina where in-state competition between the biggest football programs is common. Yurachek doesn’t think intra-Arkansas competition would “initially create varying allegiances or divide the state” as others feared.
His belief was tested when the Razorback baseball team lost to Little Rock 17-7 at home this spring. “Obviously, the outcome of the game was not to our liking, it was not a great outcome for our fans. But I don’t think it divided the state in any way, shape or form.”
A timeline of the Hogs’ policy
The Razorbacks defeat Arkansas A&M (now UAM) in football.
The Razorbacks are sewn further into the cultural fabric of the state with the help of Clyde “Smackover” Scott, the state’s first collegiate superstar. He guided the Hogs to the 1946 Southwest Conference title and a season later to the school’s first-ever bowl win. His No. 12 remains one of just two jerseys retired by Razorback football along with Brandon Burlsworth’s No. 77.
War Memorial Stadium opens with a capacity of roughly 31,000, constructed to accommodate surging interest in Razorback football. Arkansas AD John Barnhill stops scheduling in-state teams in any sport to solidify statewide support for the Hogs, the state’s only major-college team and until 1992 its only full-fledged Division I football program. This policy is adopted by successors Frank Broyles and Jeff Long.
In Nolan Richardson’s second season on the Hill, the basketball Hogs are paired with Arkansas State in the postseason NIT. Arkansas comes from 21 points down and survives an OT scare in Barnhill Arena.
The Arkansas women’s basketball team loses a WNIT matchup with Arkansas State in Jonesboro.
Newly hired Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek announces that the school’s policy of not playing in-state schools will be amended to allow Razorback programs to schedule sister schools within the UA system in sports other than football and basketball. Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn schedules a fall scrimmage with Little Rock and adds the Trojans and UAPB to the Hogs’ 2019 regular-season schedule.