FAYETTEVILLE — Jeff Long described the future of Arkansas football games in Little Rock as a “complicated, difficult question” Wednesday.
But Arkansas athletic director also believes it isn’t the right time to dive into the topic with four years remaining on the contract between the program and the War Memorial Commission, which is scheduled to run through the 2016 season.
“There will be many people besides myself involved in that decision,” Long said Wednesday. “We’ll make it when the time is appropriate. But we’ve still got, what, (2013), ‘14, ‘15 and ‘16 to play in Little Rock for sure.”
Long was quizzed about the stadium debate during and after a guest-speaking appearance at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club meeting on Wednesday.
The topic resurfaced earlier this week when coach Arkansas Bret Bielema said his team had to treat his first trip to War Memorial Stadium as a “road game.” Arkansas (1-0) will play Samford (1-0) in Little Rock on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“I know that it’s a home game on our schedule, but we as coaches and players have to treat it as a road game,” Bielema said Monday. “One of the things that I first discovered when I came here – and I knew we played in Little Rock – these two games in reality become two of the longest trips of the entire season because it is a three- to three-and-a-half whatever bus ride there.”
It was one of several Little Rock challenges Bielema mentioned during his weekly press conference previewing Arkansas’ game against Samford. The coach said he’s looking forward to his first trip to play in Central Arkansas, but weighed in on the complications from the travel schedule to recruiting.
Long said he didn’t “have thoughts” about Bielema’s comments when asked to reflect on them Wednesday. But he said there’s no question Little Rock serves as one of the team’s lengthy road trips every season. Bielema raised concerns about his players’ ability to recover after sitting on the bus after the game, which led to Arkansas’ decision to charter a flight home from Little Rock for the first time.
“I never thought of it that way,” said Long, who didn’t have the difference in cost between flying and busing available Wednesday. “So that’s one of the reasons we’re going to fly back on the return simply because you imagine a student-athlete who competes and plays in a game and then — there are 300-plus pounders, most of them — trying to cram yourself on a bus and ride for 3 ½ hours back.
“It’s not best for their recovery from the game. So I get that. It makes sense to me and it’s something Bret brought to me that no one had ever suggested. Hey, can we fly back from the game because it will help our recovery for the next game?”
It should help solve one dilemma, but the bigger question remains: What is Arkansas’ plan for Little Rock as the contract inches closer to the end?
The Razorbacks are under contract to play two games in War Memorial Stadium each season (one nonconference, one conference game of Arkansas’ choice). It means Arkansas has five home games in Fayetteville’s Razorback Stadium (with a capacity of 72,000) and two in War Memorial Stadium (53,955 capacity) most years.
But the number could be trimmed in 2015 with the Razorbacks projected to play four Fayetteville games, two Little Rock games and a “home” game against Texas A&M in Cowboys Stadium. It would mean only two conference games would be played in Fayetteville as well. Long acknowledged it would generate some financial repercussions, but they wouldn’t be “overwhelming.”
“We have a little bit more challenging scheduling puzzle than most programs,” Long said. “Again, it’s been here for awhile. We do have some new variables with getting the game back in Texas A&M in Dallas and some of those things. And you know what, it could change again and present different challenges if the conference goes to nine conference games. … It is always going to be interesting here.”
Long stressed there haven’t been discussions about the future of Little Rock games for 2017 and beyond at this point. He said there are no immediate plans, adding the chancellor and university’s system president would be involved in the decision, too.
We’re going to play in Little Rock. We love playing in Little Rock,” Long said. “You can’t deny that there is a financial piece to this and there is a travel piece to it. But those facts have been around for a long time.”
So, for now, the topic remains an intriguing debate. Long was asked if he was concerned Bielema’s comments about the drawbacks to playing in Little Rock would fuel the debate and alienate some Little Rock support. He said it didn’t concern him.
“Bret Bielema, he’s sincere,” Long said. “He loves the fanbase. He’ll get to experience Little Rock for the first time this weekend and he’ll be as impressed with it as all of us are — anybody that’s new that comes here and sees that environment.”
It’s one Arkansas’ players said they’re looking forward to this week.
“We treat it like a road game in our preparation for it and traveling there and going to a different stadium,” said quarterback Brandon Allen, who added the trip doesn’t bother him. “The real thing about it being a home game is the crowd there and the noise they bring for us. That’s a home field advantage part for us right there.”