Wrestling legend Ric Flair often said that, "To be the man, you gotta beat the man." Jordan's Bulls had to go through the Bad Boy Pistons, Peyton's Colts had to beat the Patriots, the Red Sox had to comeback against the Yankees. Just the same, Arkansas State needed to finally win in Murfreesboro.
Everything was going wrong. The Red Wolves had been cruising until seemingly falling apart before halftime at Middle Tennessee. All the confidence we had was gone. Things would be the same as they always were.
Except that for once, all of our fears were unfounded.
MTSU didn't score a single point in the second half as A-State cruised to a 45-19 victory. After years of misery in at Middle Tennessee, we had finally won and clinched a share of the Sun Belt Championship.
Years of losing in Murfreesboro, years of losing when it mattered most. But not this year. We celebrated a conference title in enemy territory. Hugh Freeze, our conquering hero promised to beat some MAC team in the bowl game. We couldn't be stopped and before the team left the locker room we had a bid to the GoDaddy Bowl.
For once, I watched Arkansas State football with confidence. I knew our time had come. Sure, our final game of the year was against Troy, winners of the last five Sun Belt Championships. But we had just won in Murfreesboro and Troy was 3-8. Arkansas State crushed the defending champions 45-14.
Even in the midst of having just gone unbeaten in conference, a dark cloud hung over the program. The rumors started circulating that Freeze would leave for Ole Miss. We hoped it wasn't true. Sure enough, Freeze was gone. We were back where we started. It was going to be the same old same old.
Then we landed the big one: Gus Malzahn. An Arkansas coaching legend, coming home to lead us to the promised land. We all gathered at the Convocation Center for the press conference announcing his hiring. The excitement was through the roof. So many people were there we had to watch in a separate room on a screen. Malzahn promised us he wasn't a one and done coach. He was here to take us to the "next level."
After a rocky start to the season the Red Wolves ran all over the conference. We were unstoppable. The game at ULL was the perfect example of how much better we really were. "Run it again" was the theme of the night, as Gus just kept running the same play down the field and there wasn't anything the Cajuns could do about it.
In front of a sell-out crowd on a Thursday night, the Red Wolves dominated ULM. This was the next level. I had to wait outside the stadium for my father because traffic was so crowded and well, he had the tickets. We always complained about not being able to draw crowds on weeknights, yet here we were. I had seen what A-State football could be.
2012 was the first year I felt confident throughout a season. The final game of the season was for the conference title against our old tormentors from Middle Tennessee. They had beaten Georgia Tech in Atlanta. They were potentially the best team in the conference. That didn't matter, I knew we could take them. In hindsight, I wasn't confident enough as I could not have predicted the 45-0 thrashing we gave them as their going away present to Conference USA.
Then, yet again, we lost our coach and Aplin was graduating.
We hired Bryan Harsin, architect of Boise State's famous upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. It seemed like a good hire, but hardly had the same sort of impact as the Malzahn hire.
The Harsin season was much more grueling. So much so, we booed Harsin towards the end of the ULL loss that season. Perhaps we had been spoiled by two whole seasons of success. Or perhaps we simply expected more. Despite our troubles, we still ended up winning a share of the conference title.
The boos returned at the end of the first half on Senior Day. Then it happened... Terry Mohajir took the microphone to thank people for coming out on a cold dreary day and turned into TMo. The players had to be stunned by the cheers as they came back out and everyone was stunned by scoring 14 points before the offense touched the ball.
Then, we continued our newest tradition, the coaching search as Harsin headed off to Boise State. For once, there wasn't that sense of dread in finding a new coach. Unlike when we fired Roberts, there wasn't talk about how we couldn't find anybody to come coach us.
We followed the same blueprint as before, hiring an offensive guru in Blake Anderson. We were promised "fast, physical, violent" football (later cleaned up to be fast, physical, fun) and a massive buyout to keep him here. Finally, we had a coach that there was no way we could lose after one year.
Then again, after some of the games in 2014, I kind of wished somebody would try and take our staff away. After watching the defense get gashed over and over by a play I call Run it Up The Middle, Because Screw You, by ULL, Texas State and FCS call-up Appalachian State, I suddenly saw the dark times returning. No conference title and we even got smashed in the bowl game.
2015 has in many ways been a tale of two teams at Arkansas State: The first half Red Wolves and the second half version. The first half of the season was filled with frustration. We got blown out at USC but that was to be expected. We missed out on a golden opportunity to beat Mizzou in our house. And we got dominated by Toledo (again). Frustration was starting to set in. The sky was falling, we hired the wrong coach, etc.
We were all frustrated watching the Idaho game, especially the seemingly endless and penalty-filled fourth quarter. Then we went to South Alabama and became the second half team. Down 11 in the fourth, it was all doom and gloom. When out of nowhere the Red Wolves scored 29 unanswered to win 49-31. We were back! Conference title or bust!
After beating up on UL-Lafayette we hosted Georgia State and for the first half looked terrible. Down 27-20 to a team that had won fewer games against the FBS than we had won conference titles in the past four years was about to beat us, I just knew it. Fortunately, I'm an idiot, because the Red Wolves outscored GSU 28-7 in the second half to win.
The next game was out in some weird mountain town against Appalachian State. They had just made mince meat of the defending champs, Georgia Southern. App State lead 21-17 at the half. Then the Red Wolves came out for the second half and outscored them 26-6 to win handily. I learned yet again to believe in Arkansas State and that my fears are often unfounded.
I knew we would crush ULM. I knew we would crush New Mexico State. I had finally let go of the fear that we would fail. Just the same, I know we will beat Texas State to take sole possession of the Sun Belt Championship.
If ever there was a time to believe in Arkansas State, it is now. Despite the doubters and the critics and naysayers (too many of them being us) we're on the verge of an undefeated conference title. We've built brand-new facilities with more to come. Fans are starting to figure out how we can seize victory rather than stumble to defeat.
Our time has finally arrived. Embrace it.