A look back: State's culture worked against 1986 UALR Trojans' NCAA run

Copyright 2006 Maddie's Daddy Productions
Chapter II: Culture
   UALR was running against the wind from its start in Division I athletics, mostly because of the pro-Razorback culture in the state of Arkansas.
2011 marks the 25th
anniversary of UALR's
upset of Notre Dame in
the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Coach Mike Newell is being
inducted into the UALR
Athletics Hall of Fame on
January 29. BTH takes a look
back at 1986 with Jeffrey
Slatton's book, written in 2006.
   If you haven’t lived here, you have no idea. Children are taught from almost infancy to “Call the Hogs.” People put Razorback stickers on the license plates. It’s difficult to go anywhere without finding a red and white pig. It’s all Razorback all the time. And the media largely caters to it.
   It wasn’t always that way, but beginning in the 1950s the Razorback became king as the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville became the primary institution in the state as it pertained to athletics.
   A decision was made then that the Arkansas Razorbacks would no longer compete on the playing fields with other Arkansas schools. They took a holier-than-thou approach, publicly asking what was to be gained by such match ups. And the people, immersed in the Razorback culture, bought into it.
   Still today, the only UALR
   At the time of its institution, the policy made some sense. Arkansas was the only school in the state competing at the NCAA Division I level. But as others started to join the ranks of Division I, the policy was never altered.
   Newell and every UALR coach before or since would have scheduled a game with Arkansas for free. But with Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles’ following a policy established by his predecessor, the Razorbacks and their fans looked down on UALR and built a bigger chip on Newell’s shoulder day after day.
   “I’m confrontational,” he said. “I backed that school. I defended my players, the team. I didn’t do it downgrading anybody else. But I’m going to fight for my school and my program.”
   Football was the driving force behind the Razorback decision. Broyles, who was coach until the 1970s, didn’t want to lose out on the precious few in-state recruits. He enlisted the help of Arkansas Gazette sportswriter Orville Henry and the two had a long-term relationship, weaving incredible Razorback tales.
   And the Razorbacks became the most important thing in the state.
   Arkansas State joined Division I first, followed by UALR in 1979. UALR had been Little Rock Junior College in its infancy and Little Rock University for a while. As a junior college, the Trojans won the 1949 Little Rose Bowl over Santa Anna, which was considered the biggest athletic feat in school history.
   When it joined the University of Arkansas system, it did so with the understanding it would never field a football team that might compete with the beloved Razorbacks. It also did so with the understanding that it wouldn’t become a live-on campus, having only a restricted number of dormitory rooms available to students.
   Longtime basketball Coach Happy Malfouz became UALR’s athletic director in 1979 and Ron Kestenbaum was hired and charged with taking a program that hadn’t been all that successful in its history at any level.
   Kestenbaum was a success, nearly getting UALR to its first NCAA Tournament in 1983. But despite a winning record in his five years at UALR, Malfouz’s resignation as athletic director in 1984 was taken as an opportunity to oust Kestenbaum.
   Newell was brought in to take things in a different direction, regardless of whether or not Arkansas-Fayetteville going through a transition itself with Eddie Sutton leaving Nolan Richardson coming on board, worked out.
   At least publicly, Newell just wanted the programs to coexist.
   “Alabama and Auburn both grew as UAB [Alabama-Birmingham] went up. Oklahoma is another prime example. Their programs are all prospering,” Newell said. “I don’t think in order for us to succeed  Arkansas has to fall. I don’t believe that at all.”
   But Newell refused to take a back seat to King Frank and his Pigs.
   “Don’t give them something they don’t deserve. I hate people who get something they don’t deserve. If they don’t work for it, they don’t deserve to get it,” Newell said.
   The state of Arkansas is virtually like no other. There’s no professional sports. Those who don’t support the Razorbacks are looked upon like lepers.
   Alabama might be king in Alabama, but Auburn splits much of the attention.
    Missouri is king in Missouri, but there are plenty of professional sports to pacify the audience.
   This was different and basketball was an emerging force in the state. Sutton had turned Arkansas into a national power, advancing to a NCAA Final Four. But he was out after the 1984-1985 season and Richardson was hired. Most weren’t sure what to think. And there were a lot of Razorbacks fans jumping off the bandwagon.
    “In our case, it was 11 years when Sutton was there. So for 11 years, the people in this state didn’t have anything but the Razorbacks. Now, another baby is born and starting to grow, and we can give them the same satisfaction that the Razorbacks did. That’s the good thing about it. We don’t have to beat Arkansas or Arkansas State to get where we want to go -- and that’s the NCAA tournament -- because we all travel separate paths. So I can be for the Razorbacks, I can be for Arkansas State, and I can be for the Trojans. The thing I’m getting at, the people of Arkansas have the opportunity to be proud of their state through basketball. What we want is our fair share of the pot,” Newell said.
   While that was the perception he was trying to promote in public, his anti-Razorback mentality in other situations either made him loved or hated among the public.
   As UALR advanced to its first NCAA Tournament, bumper stickers were passed out. Seemingly every person Statehouse Convention Center had one. They said: “UALR Trojans: Arkansas’ NCAA Team.” It was as much a shot at the Razorbacks and their fans as anything.
   “That wasn’t my idea, but I loved it. That was fantastic,” Newell said. “I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t.”
   In 26 years of Division I basketball, no game better defines UALR’s history. And never were a group of fans more proud to be Trojan fans.
   Why? Maybe because Notre Dame was a national championship contender from Day 1 of the season. Or maybe because Notre Dame was just Notre Dame, the team everybody loves to hate. Or it might just have been that Little Rock was ready for something different than the status quo.

Tomorrow: Newell instantly provides hope for the future.