The time has come to play in-state schools

By: Dudley E. Dawson
Published: Friday, May 3, 2019
NWA Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Hunter Yurachek, vice chancellor and director of athletics at the University of Arkansas, speaks Wednesday, September 5, 2018, at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club at Mermaids Seafood Restaurant in Fayetteville.
NWA Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Hunter Yurachek, vice chancellor and director of athletics at the University of Arkansas, speaks Wednesday, September 5, 2018, at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club at Mermaids Seafood Restaurant in Fayetteville.

— With the fact that University of Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek is now scheduling in-state schools after the school’s 75-year hiatus of doing so, I can’t help but think back to my high school days in the late 1970s.

That was a time when Arkansas State fans had bumper stickers reading “How long will the Hogs run,” a reference to former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles’ stance on not playing in-state schools as he looked to make sure his school was viewed as the state’s team.

That was something that the late Broyles clearly accomplished.

Yurachek was on 103.7 The Buzz earlier this week and said his travels around the state this past year had him hearing fans wanting to maintain that stance and those willing to bend it.

“I probably don’t appreciate it as much as the people that have been born and raised around Razorback football and football across the state of Arkansas,” Yurachek said, “but I do appreciate from the feedback that it was important as I went around the state in my first year and a half in my tenure as director of athletics that we kinda open that door to start playing schools within the state of Arkansas.”

As someone who grew up far closer to Jonesboro than Fayetteville and thus attended far more Arkansas State football and basketball games as a youth, I have great respect and appreciation for the two schools that call those two cities home.

In fact, I really got it down to Arkansas and Arkansas State for my college choice during my senior year at Newport.

I was named the recipient of Arkansas State’s Tex Plunkett Award for high school journalists and was also invited to walk on to play football for the Indians.

I weighed that against football scholarship offers from Harding, Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State until I got a call from Fayetteville.

It was former Razorback basketball player and assistant coach and future and current heart surgeon Jim Counce on the phone, which had cords attached to them back in the day.

Arkansas had just missed out on West Memphis star Keith Lee and was really anxious to land Newport’s Charles Balentine, who just happened to be my best friend, a guy that had attended Razorback basketball camp with me for years and arguably the state’s second-best prospect in the 1981 class.

Counce relayed the fact from Razorback head coach Eddie Sutton that if I convinced Charles to sign with the Razorbacks that I could come along, too.

Now what went in my ear was that I was going to be a point guard for the Razorbacks, but it turned out to be as a manager, or undergraduate assistant as I liked to dub it at the time.

I convinced Charles to sign with Arkansas, came along for the ride and I still take some credit for his shot that took down No. 1 North Carolina and Michael Jordan since I delivered thousands of passes to him from the fourth grade on.

Easy choice for me at that point.

As a sports writer, I welcome the story lines that come along with playing in-state schools and look forward to chronicling the contests.

I was still with the Razorback basketball team when Arkansas State and Arkansas played in the NIT basketball tournament in March 1987.

The Indians led by 9 at halftime and by 21 points in the second half before the Razorbacks rallied to win 67-64 in overtime.

There was lots of speculation that Broyles would have fired Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson if his team had not rallied behind Ron Huery, Cannon Whitby and a few well-placed elbows by Stefan Moore.

It was an electric atmosphere at Barnhill Arena, one of the best that I can remember over the years.

Yurachek appears to be starting its new in-state policy with playing schools that are in the UA system.

They have played baseball games this season with both the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.

Arkansas has also scheduled upcoming football games in Fayetteville with UAPB in 2021 and 2024.

Will the scheduling eventually include Division I schools UCA and Arkansas State, whose football program has certainly had a standard of excellence under current head coach Blake Anderson and those before him?

I hope so. I just can’t see a negative in those games being spread around among the Division I schools in the state.

One certainly understands why some don’t feel that same way, but it just seems like it is time to me.

Yurachek broached the subject of playing ASU, but didn’t seem like it was going to happen soon.

“I’m not going to say that it’s never going to happen, but what I’m going to tell you right now is we’re just taking a step,” Yurachek said. “And that step is to open that up to schools within the system, and that’s what I felt comfortable with, that’s what the chancellor… You know we just weren’t ready to rip the bandaid off full bore.

“We’ve got some schools in our system that it’s important for us to support like Little Rock, like Pine Bluff, and that’s what we’re doing at this point."

UAPB head baseball coach Carlos James perhaps summed things up after his team lost 16-4 to Arkansas in Fayetteville on April 16.

“It is one of those things that you always want to play against your peers in state no matter what,” James said. “Just like I reiterated over the past few weeks, there is a definite pecking order in the state and we understand that, we as coaches get it.

“If I am out there recruiting and (Arkansas coach Dave) Van Horn shows up to see a kid that can play in the SEC, he is not going to choose UAPB over Arkansas. That is just not going to happen.

“The other part it kind of opens up is now Arkansas is not looked at as the villain. Everybody used to go, 'They don’t want to play anybody in-state, they want to keep all the money for themselves,' but now by playing everybody, I will root for them. There is now a mutual respect.”

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