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."
There was indeed a certain shock and awe connected with ASU's getting Malzahn, an event that brought more media coverage than ASU football had ever known. This will be Malzahn's first college head-coaching job, but he was probably the best-known assistant coach in the country, famed for running a wide-open, fan-pleasing offense. And he was earning far more as an assistant at Auburn, somewhere around $1.2 million, than any head coach at ASU had ever received.
ASU won't say how much the head football coach is paid, and it can get away with this secrecy because most of the salary comes from private supporters rather than public funds. It's been widely reported that Malzahn's predecessor, Hugh Freeze, was the lowest-paid coach in major-college football, at somewhere around $200,000, and that Malzahn will make at least four times that much, around $850,000. ASU President Charles Welch has confirmed that figure is in the ballpark. Lee confirms that Malzahn will be the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt Conference.
Whatever the exact number, ASU will strain to meet it. State law will prohibit more than about $160,000 of public money being spent on Malzahn's salary. The state Division of Legislative Audit and the state Department of Higher Education check annually to see that state universities don't exceed their statutory limits for transferring education funds to athletics. Unlike UA, ASU does not make a profit from football, so there'll be no help from that source in the foreseeable future, especially if Malzahn carries through with his plan to play one less money game. The onus is on private donors.
Members of the Red Wolf Club, a private organization of ASU fans, are contributing more generously than ever before, Lee says. He'd first approached them for more money while Freeze was still on board, and they responded, Lee says. They dug even deeper when the identity of the new coach was revealed.
(A sizeable raise was being planned for Freeze, who was quite successful in his one season as head coach at ASU, winning the conference championship and sending ASU to a bowl game, a rare occurrence for the Red Wolves. But, as successful Sun Belt coaches do, Freeze moved on to a bigger football program, Ole Miss, that could pay more.)
Lee, now in his 10th year as AD at ASU, first met Gus Malzahn in 1989 at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, while Malzahn was a student and Lee, who has a Ph.D. in education, was teaching summer school. He's followed Malzahn's career since — "He's been pretty legendary" — and encountered him occasionally. Before the 2010 football season, "I called Gus about getting a reference for Coach Freeze because they knew each other," Lee said, "and I asked him if he'd be interested in coming back to Arkansas. He said no at that time, but he recommended Coach Freeze very highly. This time, when the search came on, he was on our wish list. He was on everybody's wish list. I was going to call and see if he was interested — you always have to ask — but he gave me a call first. He said 'Hey Dean, this is Gus.' I said 'Are you ready to come back to Arkansas?' He hesitated. When he did that, I started talking about who we are and what we do. We talked again on succeeding days. Then I drove to Auburn to meet him and his wife. And everything came through. The impact was immediate and unbelievable."
Not only did the hiring bring national attention to ASU, "Our recruiting this year has been totally awesome, the best in the history of our school," Lee said. "Gus got into living rooms that we've never been able to get into before." No coach or AD ever admits to a bad recruiting year, but this one does look above average for ASU, especially in regard to competition against those teams at ASU's level that it competes directly against — the Louisiana Techs, the Memphises, the Tulsas.
Malzahn's reasons for coming to ASU, when he could have made more money staying at Auburn or going to another major-conference school, have been the subject of considerable speculation. Some have said the Auburn head coach, Gene Chizik, became less enchanted with, maybe jealous of, his famous assistant. Some note that Auburn's offensive statistics weren't as impressive in 2011 as they were in 2010, when Auburn won a national championship and their Malzahn-coached quarterback, Cam Newton, won a Heisman Trophy. (The offense was not as good without Newton as with him? Who would have guessed?) Alabama fans say Malzahn's reason for leaving Auburn is obvious — he's fleeing a sinking ship. A supplemental thesis is that Auburn will be short of talent next year, by SEC standards, and ASU will be long, by Sun Belt standards, and that one impressive season at ASU would put Malzahn in line for the most desirable of head-coaching vacancies.
There's also mention of an unusual interview — a little strange, but not scandalous — that was posted online that Malzahn's wife gave among friends in Northwest Arkansas. The interview might have made Malzahn less attractive to employers, the story goes.
Malzahn himself says he left Auburn for ASU because "It was a chance to take over a program that's on the rise and take it to the next level. That's always interested me. Also, Arkansas is home. And I know I can recruit this area." He was involved in ASU recruiting for the first time this year. "We felt we had a very good year. We beat some big schools on some kids."
And the wife's interview didn't force a move? "I could have stayed at Auburn a long time. That has nothing to do with me leaving." Yes, he says, he could have made more money by staying at Auburn or taking a big-time coaching job somewhere else. "But they pay me very well here."
Malzahn, 46, grew up in Fort Smith. He was a walk-on football player at UA under Coach Ken Hatfield, but graduated from Henderson. "Coaching was the only thing I ever wanted to do," he says. He was an Arkansas high school coach, a successful one, for 15 years, first at Hughes, then at Shiloh Christian, then Springdale High, before he joined the UA staff under Coach Houston Nutt. This was a troubled period in Arkansas football history, and some of the controversy touched on Malzahn and players who'd followed him from Springdale to Fayetteville. He says he still hears from them. "I get very close to my players."
The situation at Fayetteville was complex, he says, "but it allowed me to get into college football. I learned a lot in that time." He went from Fayetteville to Tulsa University, then Auburn.
Malzahn wants to upgrade the facilities at ASU, even spice up the uniforms. "We're evaluating everything right now." Malzahn's high-powered offense should appeal to fans and donors, but, Malzahn says, "Winning is what ultimately brings fans into the stadium."
Considering that ASU hasn't done a lot of winning over the 20 years since it moved into the highest classification of college football, big crowds at ASU games would be a welcome and dramatic change. A powerful East Arkansas legislative delegation got the state to pay for construction of a 30,000-seat stadium in the '70s, when ASU was winning games but in a lower classification. ASU has seldom come close to filling it. The two times it was full were for games against Memphis, a nearby team from a conference that's considered a cut above the Sun Belt.
Malzahn is, of course, optimistic about attendance, and everything else. "It's a really good time to be a Red Wolf fan. We'll definitely play an exciting kind of football." Somebody who'll help make it exciting is Michael Dyer of Little Rock, once the most-recruited player in Arkansas high school football. Malzahn recruited him to Auburn, where he quickly became an all-conference running back and was on his way to setting Auburn records for rushing. But Dyer and the head coach had a falling-out and now he's transferring to ASU, where, per NCAA rules, he'll be forced to remain on the sidelines for a year.
University presidents get almost as excited as coaches over the prospect of winning football teams, especially presidents of public universities in the South. ASU President Welch says the whole university had benefitted from the increased visibility in the state and nation that Malzahn's hiring has brought. Enrollment at the Jonesboro campus was 14,000 last fall and Welch expects it to increase. (UA's enrollment was 23,000.) "Our recruiters [for students, not just football players] say that interest has heightened." Welch says. "We've also seen an increase in donations by alumni for athletics and for other causes since Gus Malzahn was hired." Jeff Hankins recalls a former ASU president, Eugene Smith, saying "Why does Harvard have an athletic program if there's no value to it?"
When Freeze left, ASU fans were disappointed, Welch says, but some of the more affluent fans urged the administration to keep the winning momentum going, to try harder to move up in the football world. They said they'd help.
"When we brought in Guz Malzahn, his reputation exhilarated them," Welch says. Before the hiring, Welch received a call from a man who was upset that ASU had been unable to keep Freeze. "Shortly after we named Malzahn, he e-mailed me. He said his contribution to the Red Wolf Club was going up from $2,500 a year to $10,000 a year."
Fans are one thing, faculty is another. Professors often question the value of college football, and object to the amount of money spent on it. That's happened in the past at ASU. But Welch says he hasn't heard much from the ASU faculty so far about Malzahn's hiring, and what he has heard has been favorable, the faculty members cognizant that the increased funds for football are coming from private donors, and that "This is just one phase of taking the whole university to the next level."
John Zibluk, a journalism professor and president of the faculty senate, generally backs up what Welch said. "Most of the faculty I've talked to are hopeful and supportive," Zibluk said. "This has helped our visibility, and we've had a visibility problem. There's a hope that if we're committed to take this step up, there'll be a willingness to take a step up in the classroom too."
But Zibluk departs from the official line de-emphasizing the importance of a game between UA and ASU. "We hope this gives us justification to be on the field at Fayetteville," he said. "That's been the number one thing on campus in the 18 years I've been here. That's the priority for the community and the students."