There is a saying from those of us who hail from Baylor University in central Texas — surrounded by Longhorns and Aggies — that plays to a larger point of athletic allegiance.
“I’m wearing my Baylor shirt because I graduated from Baylor. You’re wearing that Texas shirt because you went to Walmart.”
The joke is that we’re smaller — on our best day, we will pull 44,000 at a home football game while UT gets more than 90,000 — but also more dedicated, more connected with the school and the community because we actually spent time there. There are literally thousands of Texas fans who haven’t even stepped foot into Austin in their entire lives. We call them “Walmart fans” or “T-shirt fans.”
The same is true of Arkansas. For decades, the only game in town has been the Razorbacks, those on the hill in Fayetteville. They are the largest, the most recognizable, most branded university in the state, and it’s not even close. They have been the face of the state in all things athletic since they joined the Southwest Conference in 1914. When they made the leap to the Southeastern Conference in the mid-1990’s, they rode the success of that juggernaut to the present day, where even in failure (4-8 last year after being ranked in the top 10 pre-season), they have a loyal and rabid fan base, even by those who have never seen the campus in person.
There are those who cannot understand that type of loyalty to a school they didn’t even attend. There are those who point to other institutions in the state — namely one draped in purple — that have been more successful recently in football and other sports that demand more respect than they are given.
When a local eatery promoted the fact that they would be showing Arkansas Razorback football games on its television, one gentleman took umbrage and protested the restaurant’s loyalty to a school that was nearly three hours away over one located a few blocks.
“The restaurant is selling food, not Razorbacks,” he said. “People will come to eat no matter who is on the screen. How does it hurt to promote the team that is in your backyard?”
Razorback roots are deep, built on years of success and tradition. You are not going to change that overnight. In fact, you probably aren’t going to change that over 10 years. The Hogs are a brand. Their logo has been the same since long before I was born, and the Hog call can haunt any opponent’s dreams at night. It’s close to impossible to penetrate that. Especially when a local radio host and former Razorback quarterback declared recently that he assumed the University of Central Arkansas still played Ouachita Baptist and Harding.
UCA has moved far away from the NAIA days and is currently ranked fifth in the nation at the FCS level. Seven FCS schools defeated FBS schools (those who go to bowls) last Saturday, and UCA has more than a fighting chance against Pac-12 member Colorado this Saturday. If they continue their momentum, who’s to say how far they would go? They have the team and the reputation. What they don’t have are the fans.
“If you have 60,000 people in an area like Conway, and you have a student population of 12,000, why is it so hard to fill a 10,000 seat stadium?” this particular gentleman asked. And he’s right. UCA is winning conferences and competing in national playoffs. What else are they supposed to do?
The good people over in Jonesboro have a similar problem. The Red Wolves of Arkansas State are seeking their third bowl in a row (with their third coach no less), and managing 25,000 at a home game is sometimes a problem. But more and more, even with a large number of Razorback supporters in Northeast Arkansas, the town shows more shades of Red and Black than Red and White.
Although it is certain for some to root for both the U of A and UCA (they currently compete for different titles), there is an undercurrent to make sure people know that Conway is a purple town (and an orange and black town … and a blue and white town) more than another red dot littered throughout the state.
The excitement for football in Conway has been greater than ever before. With Hendrix back in the fold and with UCA fighting for another playoff berth, there is plenty to be pumped up about.
We just need to get everyone on board.
(Ricky Duke is the editor of the Log Cabin Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)