Historic Football Matchup Provides Economic Benefits, Opportunities for UAPB

The U of A will pay a game guarantee that could support athletic scholarships at the HBCU.

UAPB football players passing the ball
Photos courtesy of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Alumni from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the University of Arkansas are headed to Little Rock this weekend for a historic first meeting between the schools’ football teams. The game marks the first time since 1944 the Razorbacks have played an in-state school on the football field. 

Because of the pandemic, former Golden Lions quarterback Connie Hathorn will watch the game from his home in Akron, Ohio. The Mississippi native came to Pine Bluff on a football scholarship in 1969 and played on the team for four years. He later served as a defensive coach from 1976 to 1979. Hathorn had “a great experience going to an HBCU” and coaching was a way to take what he learned and share it with others.

“Football, it taught me a lot,” he says. “It taught me discipline, it taught me about endurance, it taught me teamwork.”

The college football world was much different back then. Predominately white institutions weren’t recruiting Black players, so the Southwestern Athletic Conference and UAPB were home to some great athletes, Hathorn says. Over the years, the SWAC has continued to produce talented players like Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, but HBCUs eventually found themselves competing against bigger universities in their recruitment efforts.

“Integration really killed the SWAC when it came to getting the best football players,” he says.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Golden Lions could have given the Razorbacks “a run for their money,” Hathorn says, but things are different now. Large Division I schools in the Southeastern Conference like the U of A have access to more funding and support than HBCUs in the SWAC. Although it may feel like an unequal playing field, Hathorn says the Golden Lions can’t just give up because they’re playing the Hogs.

“You have 11 people on each side of the ball and once the ball’s snapped, you go from there,” he says. “This probably will be an experience they’ll never forget, playing the University of Arkansas while being at UAPB. That’s great.”

While a victory may be an uphill battle for the Golden Lions, the game still offers a lot of potential for students and the university. For starters, the match gives UAPB players the opportunity to prove they’re just as good as athletes they competed against in high school who went to a larger school, alum Calvin Booker, Sr., says. Booker was UAPB’s quarterback from 1975-1979 before coaching players in the same position for four years in the 1980s. 

“Games like this give me a chance to show that I could have played on that level or that I can play on that level,” he says.

The matchup can also help with player recruitment and provide the chance for UAPB athletes to be seen by professional scouts who may be at the game observing Razorback players. That’s another reason for players to prepare and play the best they can, Booker says.

UAPB football players tackling an opponentThe historic matchup will also have an economic impact, not only on the city of Little Rock who will host thousands of fans, but on UAPB itself. It’s customary for schools to pay a game guarantee to teams in exchange for playing a non-conference football game. The U of A does not release the amounts of game guarantees for each of its opponents; however, these payments generally run between $200,000 and $1 million, Razorback Athletics spokesman Kevin Trainor says. 

The U of A also agreed to provide additional tickets at no cost, outside of the UAPB allotment, in order to allow the UAPB band to perform during Saturday’s game. Because the game guarantee is going to help a school within the U of A system, UAPB can use the money as they see fit, Trainor said. 

Booker serves on the UAPB Foundation Fund Board as well as the UA System Foundation Board and says he brought up the idea for an in-state game after the U of A played Florida A&M University in 2017. Arkansas had a matchup against Alcorn State University the year prior. Both teams are HBCUs in the SWAC who compete against UAPB.

“Why would we play Florida A&M and give them a million dollars for a game when you got a sister school here that need money,” Booker says.

In 2019, the U of A announced the two teams would meet on Oct. 23, 2021 and Aug. 31, 2024 in Fayetteville. In February 2021, university officials signed an amendment to an existing agreement with the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism that resulted in the games moving to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The funding UAPB receives for the games could be used to support scholarships which could help secure more football players in the future, Booker says. Having those scholarship players helped UAPB make it to the SWAC championship game last season, he says.

“Now you get the quality player, better player and then at least it puts you equal to everybody,” Booker says. “Doesn’t make you better than them, but at least it puts you on the same footing.”

Heading into Saturday’s game, both teams are looking to snap their losing streaks. After losing in the championship game this spring, the Golden Lions won their 2021 season opener. However, that was their last victory and they’re now 1-5 for the year. The Arkansas Razorbacks are 4-3 for the season after dropping their last three games. Both teams are going to be fired up and it’ll be exciting to see what happens, Hathorn says. 

“I just hope it’s a good game. I just hope it’s not a blowout one way or the other,” he says. “Playing football you never know what could happen. You never know.”

Booker knows not to give up on the Golden Lions, but he’s not quite confident enough to place a bet on the historic game.

“I’m praying and hoping that we can win the football game,” he says. “I wouldn’t bet my money that we’ll win the game, but I would bet all of my money that we win the halftime show.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at War Memorial Stadium and includes a pregame flyover. Marching bands from both UAPB and the U of A will perform at halftime. Tickets are still available and information about stadium regulations is available here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.