Excerpt: How America’s Most Violent Game May Be Saving Liberal Arts Colleges

BuckBuchan-WC-JD
Head football coach Buck Buchanan’s young Warriors are 2-2 and appear to be rolling. Courtesy: Hendrix sports information

For the last few months, I’ve been working on a piece for SB Nation Longform on the new Hendrix football program and how it reflects a larger nationwide trend. It published this week. Here’s a man-sized excerpt:

In recent years, more and smaller colleges and universities are starting football programs or restarting those shuttered long ago. In an era when many major colleges are grappling with increasingly bloated athletic budgets, between 2008 and 2012, 29 smaller colleges started lower-level football programs. And in 2013, despite the fact that mounting medical evidence concerning brain damage has placed the future of an entire sport at risk, 12 more colleges started football programs this fall. In Division III alone, 10 schools have started football programs in the past five years.

Why?

To understand the reason so many small college administrators find football to be a lucrative proposition, take a visit to Hendrix’s season opener on Sept. 7 against Westminster University. Pay no mind to the “Undefeated since 1960” orange T-shirts worn by Warrior fans filling the metal bleachers of the brand new Young-Wise Memorial Stadium, or the concession table covered by Hendrix Warrior seat cushions, pennants, umbrellas and replica jerseys. Note that not a single ticket stub litters the ground. At Hendrix, all games are free. Ticket sales and merchandising are insignificant to the financial benefits of fielding a football team.

Instead, look to the alumni in the stands, and the players in their brand new uniforms. In the stadium are about 30 representatives of the old guard – players from the 1950s and the 1960 team who have come to cheer on the torchbearers they never expected to see. During a pregame ceremony, an announcer said, “After a 53-year timeout, we’ll now start the clock over on Hendrix football,” and the captains of Hendrix’s 1960 team took the field and handed a ball used in their last game to Caton and Hunter Lawler – captains of the 2013 edition. Many from the 1960 team are on the Hendrix booster club, which recently raised more than $50,000 for athletic facilities and equipment.

But the real money is on the field. Focus on the 6’2 Caton, who strides onto the field for the first game with authority, one of only a handful of Warriors who have actually played in a college game before. Then look at his 53 teammates, mostly true freshmen, as they take the field on this blistering hot afternoon.

Only a couple hundred feet to the north sits a glistening new field house, including a locker room with 93 player lockers. Long before they were stuffed with mouth guards and sweaty helmets, each of these climate-controlled spaces held a promise. Every new player gives future Hendrix teams the depth to one day be a serious contender on the field. At the same time, each of those players also provides Hendrix College an influx of the cash it needs to remain relevant in a world where pure liberal arts education is increasingly becoming an endangered species.

Continue reading Excerpt: How America’s Most Violent Game May Be Saving Liberal Arts Colleges

Hendrix Football: Ole Miss Romping, Booster Gifts & Other Trivia

As you can tell by these T-shirts, the Hendrix football program is embracing its history.
As you can tell by these T-shirts, the Hendrix football program is embracing its history.

I’ve had a couple recent pieces out on the Hendrix football program, which will have its first game this Saturday since 1960. One is an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the other is a Q&A with Karen Tricot-Steward of KUAR 89.1 FM.

Here’s an expanded version of my article’s beginning:

In cinema, this has been the summer of the rehash: Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Man of Steel, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6. A glance down the list of top-grossing movies of 2013 makes no bones about it—when there’s money to be made, nothing more dependably does the job than going with the tried and true. Turns out, this line of thinking also applies to the world of higher education. Many small liberal-arts colleges across the nation shuttered their football programs in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, in part to save money.

But in the last couple of decades, many of those same colleges have developed long-term growth plans that depend on a significant increase in student population and the attendant boost in revenue their tuition and board payments would bring. A new football team typically means an immediate infusion of 80-100 new students. Which can mean something in the vicinity of $3 million after those new football players’ tuition and board payments are totaled. 

Vance Strange, a former Hendrix football player and current booster, said that it’s projected a roster of 65-70 Hendrix football players (the roster is currently 54) would annually produce about $1.8 – $1.9 million revenue for the school.

An all-time high of 12 U.S. colleges are starting or restarting football programs this fall, and Hendrix kicks off its new era in Conway against Missouri’s Westminster College. Although its program sputtered in the 1950s, Hendrix had a highly successful program in previous decades. It twice tied the University of Arkansas and lost in a 14-7 contest in 1926 that attracted 6,000 people—said to be the most spectators to attend a sports event in Arkansas to that point. In 1913, the Hendrix Bulldogs beat Ole Miss 8-6…

You can read the rest of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article here. [paywall warning]

To me, one of the most unique aspects of early 20th century football was how openly boosters gave gifts to student-athletes. Back in the day, though, hooking a star player up with goodies was common. As I wrote:

Now: The National Collegiate Athletic Association forbids its student-athletes from receiving payments or gifts from boosters—supporters who donate to the player’s program. The college athlete is supposed to be an amateur, and such payments jeopardize what the NCAA defines as amateur status.

Then: The NCAA was in its infancy and Hendrix, like hundreds of other football-playing schools across the nation, wasn’t a member. Less bureaucracy surrounding the game meant fewer rules and less manpower to enforce them.

Case in point: In 1924, Hendrix football player Wright Salter received a knitted necktie from Keith’s Millinery Shop for blocking the first pass of an opponent during a Thanksgiving Day game, Lester wrote. Salter’s teammate Bill Meriwether won a fruitcake for his sterling play that same game.

I asked Bill Wilson, who played for Hendrix in 1959 and 1960, if he had ever heard about booster gift giving in the late 1950s. He said no, but did add that he heard it happened at what’s now Arkansas Tech University and Southern Arkansas University.

For more of my interviews with Wilson and Tricot-Steward, check out the KUAR 89.1 FM piece here.

Hendrix College Football Returns

Assistant head coach Johnny Burnett (left) and head coach Justin "Buck" Buchanan are leading the only Division III college football program in Arkansas. Courtesy: Sync
Assistant head coach Johnny Burnett (left) and head coach Justin “Buck” Buchanan are leading the only Division III college football program in Arkansas. Courtesy: Sync

On the whole, college football programs don’t scale down. Why would they? As their schools’ student populations grow year after year, the lists of potential alumni donors only get longer. And in the arms race that is Division I – and increasingly Division II – football, there are always more stadium seats to build and fill.

Hendrix College, meanwhile, is bucking the trend. Early in the 20th century, it had a 5,000-person stadium and played the likes of the University of Arkansas and Ole Miss with players who didn’t receive athletic scholarships or stipends. The state’s biggest schools, however, subsidized their players. And those players starting pulverizing Hendrix’s smaller players, which ultimately caused the program to fold in 1960.

Cue an ace-bandaged hand bursting through cemetery ground, slowly grasping at air.

After a 53-year long hiatus, football again lives on Hendrix’s Conway campus. It won’t, however, be the same caliber of ball your dad’s dad wrote home about. This iteration has the Warriors playing as Arkansas’ only football member of Division III, reserved for the NCAA’s smallest schools, in a new 1,500 stadium. Head Coach Buck Buchanan aims to fill 65 roster spots by a  September 7th season opener against Westminster College (Missouri). By 2017, he hopes to have more than 100 players  – all, of course, men. This is a major reason Hendrix is resurrecting football: In recent decades, the female-male ratio at liberal colleges nationwide has tilted in favor of women, and football helps straighten that imbalance.

Per NCAA rules for all DIII athletes, Hendrix football player won’t receive athletic scholarships.

Unlike in the 1950s, the private school’s leaders think this time around the lack of subsidies actually helps the program. “It’s not gonna be the Arkansas Razorbacks, or really the University of Central Arkansas,” says athletic director Amy Weaver. “That’s not really what we’re about. Division III lends itself to the true student-athlete. These guys are playing because they love to play the game not because they’re getting paid to play.”

  This article originally ran in Arkansas Life magazine as part of a “Twenty To Watch” feature in the January, 2013 issue.

The Big What If

Imagining a World Where the Big, Bad Wolves Take on the State’s Top Hogs: Image courtesy of Sync magazine

Rivalry week gripped the college football world last Saturday.

In states with populations or areas similar to Arkansas – Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina – longtime intrastate foes squared off for annual bragging rights.

The University of Arkansas doesn’t schedule in-state competition, so nothing like Ole Miss-Mississippi State or Clemson-South Carolina erupts here. It’s widely believed the state’s other FBS program, Arkansas State, couldn’t beat Arkansas often enough for an authentic rivalry to flourish. The numbers support this: since 2001, UA and ASU have played the same opponent 21 times within the same season. Only four times did ASU lose to that opponent by an equal or smaller margin.

And not until this season did ASU beat an opponent that had, or would, defeat Arkansas. In September, Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas 34-31 in Little Rock. In November, ULM lost to ASU 45-23 in Jonesboro.

Breathe easy, Hog fan. I won’t indulge in wonky transitive property logic. I know that with enough if-thens, even an insane argument like Arkansas Baptist College-Is-Better-Than- Texas A&M looks rational.

Besides, injuries affected both games. Arkansas lost quarterback Tyler Wilson for the second half of the ULM loss. Then, three of ULM’s defensive starters missed the ASU game, along with four offensive starters – including star quarterback Kolton Browning. “I’m not making excuses,” says ULM head coach Todd Berry. But “obviously that affected our game plan. We still threw the ball around decent and moved the ball, but there was that extra dimension they didn’t have to prepare for.”

ASU’s ULM win, along with ranking ahead of Arkansas in national polls, don’t necessarily prove ASU is better than Arkansas this season. Instead, these events simply make speculating about a hypothetical showdown all the more fun.

Especially if it happened at War Memorial Stadium. “I think it would be great for the state,” ASU head coach Gus Malzahn said last week. “I think it would create a lot of excitement.”

Below is a prediction of how the game would have transpired if these programs played last week, with staffs and injury statuses as they were at season’s end.

UA Offense vs. ASU Defense

Tyler Wilson picks apart the Red Wolves with pinpoint passing. His main target is Cobi Hamilton, who has a field day against smaller ASU defensive backs like Chaz Scales and Don Jones, who plays only half the game because of a suspension.

ASU starts off blitzing Wilson often but slows down after it is shredded a few times on short slants with Hamilton and wheel routes with Knile Davis. The Hogs’ offensive linemen, who average 303 pounds, consistently open holes against ASU defensive linemen who average about 280 pounds. Hog running back Dennis Johnson uses these to get to the defense’s second line, where the stout senior has a few epic collisions with ace linebacker Nathan Herrold.

As always, lack of consistent focus and turnovers plague Arkansas. RB Jonathan Williams makes a spectacular 36-yard run on a promising drive at the end of the first quarter, only to cough it up at the end. In the third quarter, Arkansas’ Mekale McKay catches a 40-yard pass and appears headed for the endzone when safety Sterling Young strips him on a blindside hit.

Continue reading The Big What If

For First Time, Arkansas State Beats an Opponent That Had Beaten Arkansas

What would happen if the best QB in ASU history had a crack at the state’s top program? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

No doubt, decades will pass before Razorback fans forget Arkansas’ 34-31 home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in its second game this season. It was the first time a Sun Belt team had beaten the Hogs, which led some fans to wonder if the Red Wolves could have challenged the Razorbacks this season.

As the Red Wolves have heated up in the last month, while the Hogs have continued to struggle, the question has been burning for months. On Thursday, though, enough fuel was dumped on to this debate to turn it into a full-fledged fire.

Arkansas State blitzed ULM 45-23, just another ho-hum offensive explosion in the most successful era in the program history (as a Division I-A program, which ASU became in 1992). In the last two seasons, ASU has won 13 of 14 conference games, but none was more historic it terms of potential in-state bragging rights than its rout of ULM.

For the first time since at least 2001 – when ASU started playing in the Sun Belt – it beat an opponent that had beaten Arkansas that same season.

Yes, the Red Wolves beat a ULM squad without an injured Kolton Browning, the  dual-threat quarterback who’d shredded Arkansas for 481 total yards in Little Rock. With a 22-point margin of victory, however, it’s unlikely Browning would have made up the difference to topple ASU in Jonesboro. His backup still passed for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, after all.

Since 2001, Arkansas State has shared an opponent with Arkansas during the same season 21 times. Although Arkansas State has been more impressive against shared opponents the last two seasons, Arkansas still dominates any comparisons between schedules.

Of the 21 times, only four times has ASU lost to a shared opponent by an equal or smaller margin. Those instances are highlighted in red below:

2001

UA @ Georgia L 23-34
ASU @ Georgia L 17-45
UA @ Ole Miss W 58-56
ASU – Mississippi L 17-35

Continue reading For First Time, Arkansas State Beats an Opponent That Had Beaten Arkansas

Who are the Best Running Backs in Arkansas History?

The good folks at Arkansas Sports 360 recently published my piece about the 10 best running backs in Arkansas history. There are a few no-brainers –  Darren McFadden, Basil Shabazz, DeAngelo Williams, Michael Dyer, Jerry Eckwood – but rounding out the list was tough. I settled on Cedric Cobbs, Jim Pace, Bruce Fullerton, Peyton Hillis and Jonathan Adams.

This meant I had to leave leave out all-timers like  Bobby Mitchell, Madre Hill, Dennis Johnson and Cedric Houston. If the focus is limited to high school careers, then guys like Keniko Logan, James Rouse, Broderick Green, Dederick Poole, Derek Lawson and Marcus Godfrey must be considered.

I want your input. If the Top 10 were expanded a Top 12, who then most deserves to make the cut?

Remember, we can only consider those players who played high school ball in Arkansas. Naturally, when many people think of great “Arkansas” running backs, they equate that to great “Razorback” running backs. In that case, I would say the best three Hog running backs from out of state are:

Ben Cowins [St. Louis, Miss.]
[1975-78]
[6-0, 192 pounds]

On the field, the hard-nosed Cowins was just about as steady as they came. Year in, year out, he was good for at least 1,000 yards – till at last he was the most prolific rusher in UA history. Today, his 3,570 career yards trail only McFadden.

Felix Jones [Tulsa, Okla.]
[2005-07]
[5-10, 210 pounds]

The lightning to D-Mac’s thunder, Jones’ most impressive ability was his balance and elusiveness. In 2007, he knocked out nearly nine yards a carry – in the SEC. Like “Felix the Cat” himself, that mark will be hard to topple.

Dickey Morton [Dallas, Texas]
[1971-73]
[5-10, 160 pounds]

Before Jones set the new Razorback standard for short and quick, it belonged to Morton. The Texan spurned the Aggies and Longhorns to join Arkansas, a move that paid dividends when the scatback was featured in Frank Broyles’ I-formation as a senior. He responded with a season that ranks as the sixth-best in school history, highlighted by a 200-yard half against Baylor.

Why if Fredi Knighten and Michael Dyer Risk It, They May Just Get that Biscuit for ASU

This guy was so good there's never not a good time to talk about him.

Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.

But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.

It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.

At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure,  Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.

Continue reading Why if Fredi Knighten and Michael Dyer Risk It, They May Just Get that Biscuit for ASU

Salt Bowl: Higher Ed (ition) – UALR-Benton vs. UALR-Bryant

In a previous post, I looked at some 2011’s biggest sports stories … by imagining their implications in the year 2020.
Here are more predictions:
Just wait.
3. In 2011, the Benton campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced plans for its first four-year program. The school says it’s starting small by only allowing 30 students to initially pursue the new E-commerce degrees, but talk still surfaces of building a new UALR-Benton campus.In 2020 … UALR-Benton and the brand-new UALR-Bryant announce plans to start football programs.
Proceeds from the annual football game between the teams, dubbed the “Salt Bowl: Higher Ed(ition),” are expected to fund 90% of the nascent athletic departments. Boosters of UALR athletics lament this as the first documented case of satellite campuses starting football programs before the main campus. Boosters of UALR-Benton and UALR-Bryant begin seriously examining the possibility of preserving their rivalry through football if a University of Arkansas – Saline County is formed.

Why Gus Malzahn is the Chris Paul of college football coaches

They are closer than you think.

Gus Malzahn. Chris Paul.

The two names shall not, it is safe to say, be forever linked in the annals of history.

But last week, these two accomplished team leaders – one a college football coach, the other a pro basketball player – shared headlines across national news outlets as they changed teams.

On closer examination, they actually share much more.

Here’s why:

1) Both specialize in quarterbacking teams to outstanding offensive success.

Malzahn, a former high school quarterback, developed into a high school head coach and offensive coordinator who specialized in turning quarterbacks into record-book smashing Godzillas. At each level – whether Springdale High, Tulsa University or Auburn – he helped that program’s offense set numerous records.

Paul plays point guard, the hardcourt’s quarterback equivalent, and he’s done it at extremely well.Toward the end of his senior year in high school, Paul averaged nearly 31 points and 10 assists a game. In five NBA seasons, Paul has put up numbers as impressive as  any point guard in league history. Sure, he scores 20+ points but consider that his 9.9 assists per game average is third-highest all-time. Or that he’s the only player to lead the NBA in steals and assists in two consecutive seasons.

2) Their abilities burst into the national spotlight at Baptist schools.

Malzahn’s second head coaching job (1996-2000) was at the private Shiloh Christian School, which is closely tied to the First Baptist Church of Springdale. In 1998, the Saints set a national record with 66 passing touchdowns and would win 1998 and 1999 state titles.

Paul attended the private Wake Forest University, which was originally founded by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention. The school opened in 1834, with a focus on teaching Baptist ministers and laymen. In 2005, Paul left Winston-Salem, N.C. after a sophomore year in which he had earned first team All-America honors.

Continue reading Why Gus Malzahn is the Chris Paul of college football coaches

Sack Me If You Can

Early-season bonding between ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin and his offensive line is paying off

It was late in the third quarter of the ASU-Louisiana Lafayette game that I seriously wondered if Tampa, Fla. native Ryan Aplin had surfed through one too many wipe-outs in his younger years. The Red Wolves’ junior quarterback, the fifth-most prolific passer in Sun Belt history, was driving his team deep into ULL territory while trailing 21-20.

No less than a grip on the Sun Belt title was at stake.

And there was the 6-1, 200-pound Aplin, continually pulling the ball out on zone reads and scrambling through seams in the defense, sometimes sliding to the ground, but more often than not simply plowing into any Rajun Cajun trying to stop him.

At one point, I even saw the most instrumental player in ASU coach Hugh Freeze’s go-go gadget offense tuck the ball, dart through a crease, get low and ram his head into a wall of thick Cajun.

No injury occurred and a few plays later, it was all good – Aplin trotted in for a 4-yard TD to help clinch what became a 30-21 win in Jonesboro.

The win makes Arkansas State (8-2, 6-0) a veritable lock to win at least a share of the the Sun Belt title with two games left, and it gives the Red Wolves a stronger shot at playing in a non-sucky bowl.

It also confirmed Aplin’s emergence as a serious running threat in the latter part of the season.

Continue reading Sack Me If You Can