Arkansas State Football's 'Next Level' Comes At A Cost

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 12:00 am  

Gus Malzahn isn’t shy when outlining his expectations for the Arkansas State University football program.

Malzahn believes Arkansas State can make last year’s 10-win season the norm rather than the exception. He envisions a day when the Red Wolves are a perennial Top 25 team.

“Buckle up,” Malzahn told the approximately 1,000 supporters who gathered for his introductory press conference in December. “We’re fixing to take this thing to the next level.”

Next-level success? It will undoubtedly come with next-level expenses.

Look no further than Malzahn’s salary for an example of how quickly things are changing in Craighead County. Malzahn will make four times the money of his immediate predecessor, Hugh Freeze, and his $850,000 salary is likely just the beginning of the increased financial commitment the Red Wolves will make in their football program.

Assistant football coaches under Malzahn are being paid from a salary pool larger than that from which Freeze and Steve Roberts before him paid their staffs. Still, those salaries leave plenty of room for growth.

ASU athletic department officials are evaluating facilities and meeting with campus leaders to put together a master plan for renovations and new construction. An early wish list includes an expanded pressbox with more luxury seating, an indoor practice facility and bigger office and meeting space.

Little Rock public relations firm Stone Ward has been enlisted to help with a statewide marketing push. Billboards have been posted on some of the state’s busiest roadways as ASU attempts to capitalize on buzz generated by a 10-win season and the hiring of Malzahn, one of the highest profile offensive coordinators in the nation.

“This movement that we’ve made was not just in a coaching hire, but in really changing the entire program and stepping it up on multiple levels,” ASU System President Chuck Welch said in an interview last month with “We feel very good about the possibilities before us.”

Those possibilities don’t come cheap.

Arkansas State will ask its ticket buyers, donors and corporate partners to increase financial support. Minimum Red Wolf Club donation requirements for parking and seating buy-ins have already increased. Season ticket prices are up for all levels outside of general admission.

Facility improvements and budget increases were already a discussion at Arkansas State before Malzahn took over in January. Freeze was making just over $200,000 when he left for Ole Miss and was in line for a raise that would have paid in the neighborhood of $500,000.

Hiring Malzahn, who left behind a $1.3 million salary at Auburn, only ramped up the desire to improve the program’s standing. Red Wolves Athletic Director Dean Lee, like his new coach and fans, envisions a day when Arkansas State is ranked among the nation’s Top 25 football programs. But there is ground to gain financially.

“Fans seem to understand the price of winning has gone up,” Lee said. “When Gus came in that took it to another level.”

(Also See: Arkansas State Looks to Boise State for Signs of Success)

Complete Buy-In

Few college football programs could boast being at the level of Arkansas State in 1975. In fact, only one other team in the country went undefeated that season.

Bill Davison guided his fifth squad to an 11-0 record to the delight of fans in northeast Arkansas.

Among those watching the Indians (as they were known until switching to the Red Wolves in 2008) that season was 8-year-old Rodney Hannah.

Choosing to become an Arkansas State fan was an easy decision for Hannah, a Jonesboro native. Little, however, has come easy for the program since. Arkansas State has had as many athletic directors (eight) and head football coaches (eight) as winning seasons (eight) in the years that followed.

Hannah, now 45 and owner of Rodney Hannah Insurance in Jonesboro, continued to pour his energy, emotion and earnings into the program even as the investment seemed to yield little return. What few highs that Red Wolves fans experienced were typically undercut by significant lows.

When Freeze left following a 10-win season and a Sun Belt Conference championship, it felt like more of the same for ASU. Then Malzahn, one of the most highly regarded assistant coaches in the country, was hired.

“For years even when we’d get the slightest bit of optimism, it felt like it was just setting you up to be disappointed,” Hannah said. “I’ve never seen this before. I never imagined ASU would get this much attention nationally. It’s been nice.”

Doug Doggett, director of the Red Wolf Club, and the rest of the administration of the ASU athletic department would like to see that buzz generate cash.

Doggett is excited about the possibilities. Arkansas State set a record for annual giving ($700,000) after going 4-8 in 2010. A new record seems within reach now that Malzahn, a former Arkansas high school coach and current darling of the national media, is at the helm. “Who knows what we can do now?” Doggett said.

ASU officials see an opportunity to grow the season ticket base, which was at 7,042 in 2011. Hitting 10,000 season ticket holders in 2012 seems like a reasonable goal to those within the department. A dream scenario would be growing the base to 14,000 fans.

Any growth will come as the school increases the price of getting into the games. General admission season ticket packages remain $75, but everything else has increased.

Platinum Suite seating is now $175 per ticket, up from $145. Even the price for children is up to $65, an increase of $10. Chair back seats have jumped from $145 to $175. Selling out the 3,000 chair back seats in ASU Stadium would create an influx of $90,000 into the $3.25 million football budget.

Typically, price and donation increases are not well received by fans. Red Wolves supporters seem to view it as a necessary step to improve the program’s fortunes and build on last year’s 10 wins and Bowl appearance.

“Anybody would take that tradeoff,” said Hannah, a 15-year season ticket holder.

Lee, the athletic director, knew there was a risk of backlash from fans, which is part of the reason general admission tickets remained $75, already one of the highest prices in the Sun Belt Conference. Only Louisiana-Lafayette ($96) and North Texas ($100) have higher general admission prices. “You can price yourself out of the market,” Lee said. “There’s a threshold for what people will accept and understand.”

Arkansas State will continue working to raise money through donations. A new level of giving has been added to the Red Wolf Club to reflect increased interest from fans. Previously, the Director Level for $5,000 or more was the top donation level. Now a Champion designation is possible for anybody who gives $10,000 or more in a year.

Getting one of the 300 best parking spots outside the venue will now require a $1,500 donation instead of the $1,250 it was last year. That move could generate an extra $75,000 for the coffers.

Corporate stadium naming rights are also available for the right amount.

“We need a complete buy-in from our fans and donors,” Doggett said. “That’s how we get to the next level.”



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