It was ten years ago, but it feels like a thousand. Everything was different. Arkansas State was without an indoor practice facility. The stadium was without naming rights. There were no end zone fountains, no swank club section, no glitzy press box, no End Zone club bearing a decent selection of adult beverages. There was a scoreboard bearing a black line right down the middle of the display. Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky were still months away from announcing the defection to CUSA. The Transfer Portal was the stuff of science fiction, and even the idea of NIL might have been deemed a Communist ploy.
But there was also Gus Malzahn, who understood the value of mythos. On National Signing Day (which was still a day), Malzahn appeared on ESPN – not ESPN 2, Plus, or U – to discuss his impressive signing class. That’s Arkansas State’s head coach! On the ESPN! Included on the new look Red Wolves, Michael Dyer, a high school legend running back from Arkansas who was transferring in from Auburn. Never had we seen such a superstar in Jonesboro. Malzahn!
In the weeks leading to the April 14th’s Spring Game, Malzahn demanded to see 10,000 fans. Unheard of! Before Malzahn, an A-State Spring Game was mostly a beefy practice attended by a handful of diehards. Malzahn turned it into spectacle – must see gridiron.
That was my first Spring Game, 2012. Before then, I barely paid attention to spring ball. But there was a sizzle to Malzahn – but not a sizzle that crackled from him in person. When I met Malzhan, he was a quiet, almost introverted man. But he had inside him a vision for Arkansas State football – one that was entertaining and gripping. He breathed a wild confidence into Red Wolves fans already boosted by a successful season under Hugh Freeze. Malzahn didn’t promise a national championship, but man, it felt like we were building toward that, you know? I purchased an enormous Red Wolves decal and slapped it onto the back window of my brand new Dodge Challenger.*
I recall it a very pretty day in Jonesboro – one of those spring days that starts with long sleeves and ends with you wishing you’d worn shorts. The crowd was beefy – but it wasn’t 10,000. Some say 6K, and others say it was more like 5,000. But it was a lot. More than any Spring Game in Jonesboro has a right to be.
I remember being especially interested in Michael Dyer. Nothing less than 2,000 yards was expected of him – not for the season, but for the Spring Game! It was implied that a man of his talents was so far above anyone on a Group of Five field that he’d likely score on the first play from scrimmage every single possession. I’m telling you, we were hyped.
As it happened, Dyer** racked up about 80 hard-fought yards that Spring Game. It was just a Spring Game, after all, and Spring Games generally reveal nothing about the team. Still, everybody left the someday-to-be-named Centennial Bank Stadium pleased with what they had witnessed – a new dawn of pigskin.
The Spring Games that followed never really managed to capture that same frenetic energy that was summoned in 2012. Blake Anderson often tried to inject circus stunts into the event – like having basketball coach Mike Balado fielding punts – but there was something simply and glaringly absent.
There was no Malzahn.
PHOTO CREDIT: some old FB photo I grabbed off my memory feed
*After a crushing season opener to Oregon, I was so distraught that I ripped that decal right off. The next morning, I put it back on. Football is dumb.
** Dyer would never play an actual down for Arkansas State after he was pulled over by police and found to have marijuana and a firearm in his vehicle