Leader Blues

Saturday, November 14, 2009

SPORTS >> Six is no longer magic number for Red Wolves

Leader sports editor

Itís amazing, if you think about it, that Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts stuck around long enough to wind up on the hot seat.

Flash back to a late-summer evening in 2002, as Arkansas State arrived home from its first game at Virginia Tech and the players limped off the bus into the Jonesboro darkness.

Earlier that day the Indians, as they were known then, had made the program a lot of money the hard way, taking a 63-7 beating from the Hokies in a game that pretty much toilet-papered Robertsí debut.

On just one play during the long Sunday afternoon, Virginia Tech sacked Arkansas State quarterback Tommy Miller, handed Miller a season-ending knee injury in the process and returned the fumble Miller lost for a touchdown.

Arkansas State wasnít even supposed to play Virginia Tech at all, originally. Athletic director Paul Griffin used an NCAA loophole to negotiate the rare Sunday game, called the Hispanic College Fund Classic, to give Arkansas State 13 playing dates in just under 13 weeks and a six-figure payday.

But Griffin wasnít around to see the brutal results of his scheduling sleight of hand. At mid-summer, Griffin, apparently disturbed by the limited financial resources at Arkansas State, had bolted for Georgia Tech after roughly half a year on the job.

Itís a wonder Roberts didnít run screaming into the sultry night as soon as he stepped off the team bus following that first game.

Instead, Roberts took his players to the newly remodeled, three-story fieldhouse, undergoing its finishing touches, and showed them the spacious dressing room, training facilities and offices they would soon inhabit.

He told his team its future was as big as its plush, new building, and that Arkansas State wasnít to be defined by its 28-92-1 record in 10 seasons at the NCAA Division I-A level, nor, even, by that dayís beat-down by Virginia Tech.

And he was right. Arkansas State, now nicknamed the Red Wolves, rose to new heights under Roberts, only to be defined these days by a sense of mediocrity, which is still a vast improvement over the tragic opera the coach inherited.

Consider that Robertsí predecessor, Joe Hollis, went 13-43 in five seasons and was fired on Thanksgiving Day after it had been revealed Hollis had prostate cancer. Hollis was notified by a press release handed to him as he walked off the field just after the Indians had lost 28-22 to NCAA Division I-AA member Nicholls State.

Anything would be an improvement after that, but Roberts led the program to some of its best moments, starting with the 6-7 record against that torture rack of a schedule in his debut season.

Arkansas State went 6-5 and won the 2005 Sun Belt title and reached the New Orleans Bowl, the teamís first Division I-A bowl game, where it lost 30-19 to Southern Miss.

There was the near-upset at Texas in the 2007 opener and the true upset at Texas A&M in the opener the following year, and then there were consecutive, thrilling, comeback victories over long-time non-conference rival Memphis in 2006 and 2007.

Roberts seemed to be just what Arkansas State needed after failed experiments with the NFL veteran Ray Perkins and the former Ohio State offensive coordinator Hollis.

Roberts was young and enthusiastic. He was a state product, a graduate of Pulaski Robinson and Ouachita Baptist University.

He had won at Division II Southern Arkansas and at Northwestern (La.) State.

But Arkansas State finds itself in a Sun Belt Conference striving to be upwardly mobile, and on all sides, the program is being passed by newer league members with vast, or built-in recruiting bases and deep-pocket donors who are throwing together entire stadiums, not just adding a fieldhouse here or a fake playing surface there.

Thatís hard to keep up with. But the fact is, founding Sun Belt members North Texas and Arkansas State won the first five titles; latecomers Troy and Florida Atlantic have won the rest. Now here comes new Sun Belt member Western Kentucky, with South Alabama waiting in the wings.

It just seems the six victories Arkansas State earned in four different seasons under Roberts wonít cut it anymore. Six victories may be good enough to get the grid-Hogs of Arkansas into a bowl, but Arkansas State inhabits a different world where six, even with the Sun Beltís secondary ties to the Papajohns.com, St. Petersburg and Independence bowls, probably wonít be good enough.

Roberts himself has said heís tired of 6-6, but it looks like the Red Wolves (2-6, 1-3) will be hard pressed to manage that.

The Red Wolves were picked second in the Sun Belt behind Troy and could boast four-year starter Corey Leonard at quarterback and NFL prospect Alex Carrington at defensive end. But the year has collapsed in a series of close losses.

There was the nationally televised and baffling, 16-10 setback in the rain at Louisiana-Monroe that followed Arkansas Stateís heroic showing in a 24-21 loss at No. 4 Iowa, also on national TV. There was a 21-13 loss at Louisville, which used its third-string quarterback, and there was last weekís 21-18 Sun Belt loss at home to Louisiana-Lafayette, in which Roberts benched Leonard and the offense appeared to rally behind backup Ryan Aplin.

Roberts has never been seen to fire a coordinator to save face, and has kept his staff largely intact. It remains to be seen now if he will make a gesture along those lines to save his job, if it is indeed in jeopardy.

Remember, Arkansas State has a hands-on chancellor in Robert Potts, a guy not known to let problems fester for long. But also remember Roberts has two more years to go on his current contract extension, paying a $140,000 base per year, and Arkansas State may not want to buy him out.

That would be two more years to engineer just one or two more victories a season, and a bowl trip would do a lot to make grumbling fans forget the current malaise.

As long as Roberts can get past that sinister six.