While University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University athletic teams have rarely met, the two institutions have been competing against each other for many years. That, in fact, has fueled an unfulfilled rivalry.
The recent announcement that a football game between the Red Wolves and Razorbacks has been contracted for Sept. 6, 2025, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock came as a shock to many supporters on both sides.
That game is more than four years away, but the new-found collaboration between athletic departments certainly could lead to scheduled games in other sports, most notably basketball.
Longtime UA athletic directors John Barnhill and Frank Broyles maintained that the state could afford only one great athletic program, namely theirs.
For many years that was probably true as the Razorbacks, especially under Broyles, built championship-level teams in several sports. ASU had success on a lower level, not so much when moving up to the NCAA’s top level.
If only the Razorbacks would play us, many A-State fans reasoned, we would get over the hump and gain more attention. Razorback fans argued that their teams had nothing to gain from such match-ups.
That happened twice by chance on basketball courts – once when the two men’s teams met for a National Invitational Tournament game at Fayetteville in 1987 and once when the two women’s teams met in an NIT game at Jonesboro in 2005. I was at both games, covering the 1987 contest for the Batesville Guard, and as a fan in 2005.
Neither game, though, had long-lasting effects for the programs. A-State has had some good men’s and women’s basketball teams over the years, but not great ones.
The UA has had trouble competing in the Southeastern Conference. Its tradition of playing at least one football game each year in Little Rock has been a dilemma. Some Little Rock matchups – New Mexico, Alcorn State, Florida A&M, Samford and the like – draw only the most rabid fans. Thus, UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek has opened the door to in-state competition, and ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir walked right in.
But the UA vs. A-State rivalry started many years ago in a much different arena.
In the 1950s Arkansas State College was a growing institution, and its president, Dr. Carl R. Reng, plotted the next logical next step. A-State went to the Legislature in 1959 with a university status bill.
According to “The ASU Story” by Dr. Lee A. Dew, UA President John T. Caldwell led the opposition, arguing that “the state could not afford the financial burden of supporting two universities.”
The bill failed, but A-State supporters vowed to step up their fight. Over the next few years the focus was placed on building the campus infrastructure , growing the enrollment and expanding degree offerings.
They went back to the Legislature with a new bill in January 1967, my senior year at A-State, with a stronger case and broader political support.
The previous summer a UA student from Jonesboro, Bill Ebbert Jr., contacted me and arranged for a visit to our campus from Sylvia Spencer, a fellow student from Florida. I knew Bill because we were editors of the yearbook at our respective schools, and he had helped get Sylvia elected as editor of the UA student newspaper, The Traveler, for the coming year.
I squired both around campus, and Sylvia had no in-state prejudice. She went on to be a fine reporter for United Press International.
We must’ve made a positive impression because the same week the ASU bill was introduced in the General Assembly the following January, the Traveler came out with a full-page spread on A-State, and in an editorial Spencer chided the UA administration for protesting the development of its “little brother” institution.
When the bill reached the Senate Education Committee, the UA president, Dr. David O. Mullins, testified against it.
But Ebbert had arranged to have copies of the Traveler edition flown to Little Rock on the same plane that brought Mullins to Little Rock. They were then distributed on the House floor, and a historic picture of the debate shows Rep. John Miller of Melbourne looking at that paper. I’d like to think that helped.
As co-editor of the A-State student newspaper, I was part of a team that went to the Capitol on the day the bill was expected to get a final vote. By then, the only real question was whether Rockefeller would sign it.
He did and the rest, as they say, is history. Other state colleges later gained university status with little opposition, and eventually two university systems emerged – UA and ASU.
Many of us who witnessed that history will always remember that UA officials and supporters tried to hold A-State back. That spurred many of the calls over the years for athletic competition, including a popular bumper sticker featuring “Injun Joe,” the cartoonized version of ASU’s former Indian mascot, chasing a Razorback with the caption, “How long will the Hogs run?”
Joe never caught the Razorback, at least not on a football field, but it appears now that the Red Wolves will.
Roy Ockert is a former editor of The Jonesboro Sun, The Courier at Russellville and The Batesville Guard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.