by Chris Bahn
Posted 12/16/2011 03:31 pm
Updated 3 years ago
JONESBORO — Ryan Aplin sat in a team meeting last year and heard Arkansas State’s newest head football coach talk about turning the program into a Sun Belt Conference winner. It’s fair to say the junior quarterback was skeptical at the time.
With the Sun Belt Conference champion Red Wolves headed to the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 8 looking for an 11th win, Aplin now knows what the program is capable of achieving. So, when new ASU coach Gus Malzahn — hired Wednesday to replace Hugh Freeze – began talking about turning the program into a consistent Top 25 program, the Red Wolves starting quarterback wasn’t caught off guard.
Malzahn’s vision for the program doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. In fact, the Red Wolves (10-2) are most likely a bowl victory away from cracking the Top 25 this season.
Expand the USA Today coaches poll by looking at teams receiving votes just outside the Top 25 and the Red Wolves are No. 30. Associated Press voters have ASU at No. 28 if you expand the poll.
Knowing that, players don’t doubt that it’s possible to reach the heights described at Wednesday’s press conference. Hearing Athletic Director Dean Lee talk about turning Arkansas State into a Mid-South version of Boise State isn’t as far fetched as it might sound on first mention.
“We don’t doubt it all,” Aplin said when asked if Malzahn’s goals seemed a little out of reach for next season. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d win the Sun Belt. We did. That’s what we’ve been working toward since the summer. We’ve been waiting for four or five years for this to happen.”
Red Wolves fans have been waiting on success much longer. Consider that the program has double-digit wins in the regular season for the first time since 1975 and has won the Sun Belt Conference outright for the first time since 1992.
National profile for ASU has been unheard of until now. Shoot, the Red Wolves haven’t been much of a player in their own conference in decades.
Freeze, now at Ole Miss, is responsible for pushing the program to historic heights this season. He worked in 2010 as offensive coordinator at the school and took over for Steve Roberts, who accumulated some talent in nine years, but had only a shared league title in 2005 and no season with a winning record to show for it.
Malzahn, offensive coordinator for the defending national champion Auburn Tigers, was complimentary of both of his predecessors Wednesday. He noted the foundation laid by Roberts and the work done by Freeze to expand the idea of a successful season in Jonesboro.
Maintaining the success, building beyond what both of those guys did is the task facing Malzahn. He did not shy away from the idea he could match or exceed this year’s achievements.
“I’m a dreamer,” Malzahn said. “I always liked setting the bar high. The only people that fail are people that don’t try to reach a big-time goal. That’s been my philosophy everywhere I’ve been. That’s been the fun part, the exciting part for me. I like to build things. I like the idea of building on what happened here in the past with Hugh Freeze and Steve Roberts.
“This job appeals to me.”
And, in talking with Aplin, it’s clear the players aren’t intimidated by the idea of improving the program’s standing nationally.
This weekend is a homecoming of sorts for Arizona point guard Shanita Arnold.
Arnold, a Fort Smith native, will lead the Wildcats into a Sunday game with UAPB. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m.
Arizona has improved significantly with Arnold, a transfer from Arkansas, running the point. In her first season, the Wildcats went from 12 to 14 wins and they won 21 in 2010-11.
Arnold averaged 31.6 minutes, 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game last season as one of the Pac-10’s top point guards. She enters the game averaging 9.8 points and 4.8 assists per game with starts in eight of nine games.
Arizona enters 8-1. UAPB is 0-8 entering its first home game of the season.
It's common practice for Wildcats Coach Niya Butts to schedule a game in the home state of senior players.