by Chris Bahn
Posted 5/18/2012 04:45 pm
Updated 8 months ago
Nearly 20 minutes ahead of schedule the caravan that carried Arkansas State Coach Gus Malzahn on a statewide speaking tour pulled into the parking lot at the Fordyce Civic Center.
Athletic Director Dean Lee put the vehicle into park and with a hint of concern, turned toward Malzahn.
“Do you need to stop and catch your breath,” Lee asked.
Malzahn was entering the next-to-last appearance of a trip that would wind up including 15 stops in 14 different towns and covering approximately 1,100 miles. Only Fordyce and Hot Springs remained on the agenda Thursday when Lee did a welfare check on his coach.
“Nope. Let’s do this,” Malzahn responded, a cup of recently purchased convenience store coffee within reach.
As he did throughout the “Head of stAte Tour” Malzahn confidently strode into the venue to work the room. His first priority was often seeking out local high school coaches or parents who he recognized before turning his attention to meeting longtime fans and trying to win over new supporters.
ArkansasSports360.com was with Malzahn for the final day of the trip, which included stops in Bryant, Pine Bluff, El Dorado, Fordyce and Hot Springs. There were few signs of fatigue for the coach throughout Thursday’s final day of the trip.
There were stops for coffee in Hampton (2:30 p.m.) and Malvern (6:15).
During the hour ride between El Dorado and Fordyce he gave his right hand a rest, taking off the weighty (and gaudy) national championship ring he won as offensive coordinator at Auburn. Otherwise Malzahn seemed fresh, even as he delivered material that was well worn before his first day ended with a 7 p.m. appearance in Mountain Home.
Nearly 350 miles were covered Tuesday. Another 230 miles came Wednesday and a final 350 or so on Thursday.
None of it seemed to wear on Malzahn, the former Auburn staffer and 15-year veteran of the Arkansas high school ranks.
"We’re just trying to cover all the areas and be as visible as we can," Malzahn said. "It’s exciting to me.”
Malzahn’s passion seemed high at each venue. Even in Hot Springs, the 15th and final time he gave his speech, Malzahn actually spoke longer there than he did at any of Thursday’s stops.
That Hot Springs Convention Center employees needed to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd probably didn’t hurt Malzahn as he touched on themes that have been so common since the took over the program in January.
Each stop included talking points tailored for the city. He spoke in Little Rock about wanting to one day play at War Memorial Stadium. In El Dorado the coach praised Wildcats Coach Scott Reed for winning three consecutive state championships. In Fordyce, birthplace of Bear Bryant and former ASU coach Larry Lacewell, he worked the local slogan, “This is football country” into his address.
Director of football operations Jamie Croley made sure Malzahn was up to speed on each stop. It was reminiscent of how a campaign staffer would prepare a politician stumping at local festivals and Fourth of July picnics.
Essentially, that's exactly what the tour was: Malzahn campaigning. He was working to win over fans and recruits who might be interested in helping build on last year’s 10-win season at ASU, the best effort for the Red Wolves in decades.
Building on last year's success was the primary theme for Malzahn, hired in December. He noted the program needed just three-and-a-half weeks to sign 18 players ranked three stars or higher by recruiting services.
“A lot of SEC and Big 12 schools would like a recruiting class like that,” he said as fans in Red Wolves gear nodded their approval.
Malzahn transitioned from incoming players to current players and staff, noting the pieces were in place for more success. He spoke enthusiastically about the national attention the program would get because of Auburn transfer running back Michael Dyer, who could sit out this season to satisfy NCAA rules.
And each visit included mention of a “big-time program” needing a “big-time fan base.”
Red Wolves season ticket sales with Malzahn as coach are up nearly 60 percent from last season, but the appeal of ASU is still limited beyond northeast Arkansas. Changing that mindset is key to the program's success and, as Red Wolf Club Director Doug Doggett put it, getting ASU "off the island."
"We want to broaden our reach," Doggett said. "It's something we want to do. It's certainly something Coach Malzahn wants to do and he believed it was important to get out to the fans."
Raising the profile will take work as Malzahn saw on the tour. Wednesday’s trip to War Memorial Stadium – complete with a Red Wolves logo at midfield — was attended by 300 or so fans, but those furthest from home were lightly attended. El Dorado, located nearly 250 miles from Jonesboro, drew in the 30s.
It is a unique approach for a program that for years has little cache outside of Jonesboro and Craighead County. Arkansas State is clearly invested in making the push and the Malzahn tour was an extension of a statewide billboard campaign and a recruiting effort that saw Red Wolves' staff members visit all 215 football playing high schools in Arkansas.
Malzahn believes it can be done. It will just take time and effort like he put in on all those stops this week.
“We’re trying to make this a statewide program, not just northeast Arkansas and not just Jonesboro,” Malzahn said. “I believe we can make it happen.”