Has it been 10 years already? Time flies when you’re winning championships I suppose.
Though the Red Wolves are a household name in the Sun Belt, that has not always been the case. In fact, not too long ago, the Red Wolves didn’t even exist.
In 1931, Arkansas State University (then named “First District Agricultural and Mechanical College”, a year before adopting “Arkansas State College”) changed their mascot to the Indians. The name lasted for 77 years, then everything changed.
Why the Name Change?
In 2005, the NCAA issued a self-evaluation to all members to examine their “uses of potentially offensive imagery with their mascot choices.”
Arkansas State, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, McMurry University, Midwestern State, Newberry College and Louisiana Monroe all decided it was time to change their “Indians” nickname to avoid conflict with the NCAA.
Arkansas State set up a “Mascot Committee” to function as a think-tank of ideas and also to act as a middleman between the University and the fans. Though many ideas for names surfaced (one of the most memorable being the Mosquitos), “Wolves” was the favorite of both fans and the mascot committee alike.
The committee eventually decided on “Red Wolves” since the name isn’t used by any other 4-year university. They also thought the fighting spirit and pack mentality of the once-native Red Wolf was a good representation of the athletics program on campus. Perhaps that was just a clever ploy to win fans over, but I digress.
Starting with a Bang
With the start of the 2008 football season, the Red Wolf made its official debut.
The Red Wolves didn’t hesitate to make noise on a national level. In the first-ever contest under the new moniker, A-State had a tall task; travel to Kyle Field to face the Texas A&M Aggies in front of 78,000+ fans.
The game was supposed to be an easy win for the Aggies. A Sun Belt team had no business winning in College Station, or at any other Big 12 school for that matter. Texas A&M held a 14-3 lead going into the halftime locker room. Then, some magic happened.
Thanks to four second-half turnovers by the Aggies, three of which the Red Wolves turned into scoring drives, A-State was able to take control of the game. In fact, the Red Wolves shut out the turnover-ridden Aggies in the second half, outscoring A&M 15-0 to secure an 18-14 win and an undefeated record under their new nickname.
The Transition Years
The rest of the 2008 campaign was less than memorable, as the Red Wolves finished with a 6-6 record (4-3 Sun Belt) and missed the postseason.
Coach Steve Roberts could feel his seat slowly warming up.
Over the next two seasons, the Red Wolves doubled down on a 4-8 record, winning three and four conference games, respectively. It was time for a change.
After going 14-22 (11-12 Sun Belt) in their first three seasons as Red Wolves, Coach Roberts was relieved of his coaching duties.
Sun Belt Dominance and the Revolving Door
The new era of Red Wolf football began with the hiring of Hugh Freeze as Head Coach.
A-State had their most successful season to date in 2011. Having failed to ever notch 7 or more wins in a season as an FBS program, the Red Wolves won an astonishing 10 games in the regular season. They were Sun Belt Champions. A GoDaddy.com Bowl loss was a less-than-ideal conclusion to what was otherwise a dream season (10-3, 8-0 Sun Belt), but redemption was just around the corner.
Gus Malzahn took over as head coach in 2012 as Freeze departed for Ole Miss. His Red Wolves followed up their 10-win season with a 9-3 regular season (7-1 Sun Belt), a second Sun Belt Championship in as many years, and the first bowl win in program history as they defeated Kent State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, 17-14.
Again, the Red Wolves had a head coach leave for an SEC job. Malzahn took over the Auburn Tigers and led them all the way to the BCS National Title game in his first season, where the Tigers fell 34-31 to Florida State.
This time, Bryan Harsin took over. He led the Red Wolves to a third-consecutive Sun Belt title, this time a co-championship, behind a 7-5 (5-2 Sun Belt) regular season campaign. A-State made yet another trip to Mobile, AL for the GoDaddy Bowl, and took home another trophy with a 23-20 win over Ball State.
Could they extend their streak to five coaches in five years? You bet.
Harsin left for Boise State and Blake Anderson took over, ushering in the current era of Red Wolf football.
The Anderson Era, So Far
Coach Anderson is entering his fifth season as head coach of the Red Wolves, and his resume is rather impressive. In his four seasons, he has an outright Sun Belt Championship and a Co-Sun Belt Championship, along with four bowl appearances (1-3 record). The Red Wolves are 26-6 in conference play under Anderson, including a 15-game Sun Belt winning streak from 2014 to 2016 and a perfect 8-0 conference season in 2015.
Anderson can become the winningest coach in A-State’s FBS history as early as Sep. 29 if he can pull off a miracle in Tuscaloosa. Even if the record has to wait, it seems inevitable that he will earn it at some point this season. The current record is 35 wins by Steve Roberts. Technically, Roberts won 45 on the field, but 10 were vacated by the NCAA. Anderson is 31-20 in his four seasons.
Indians vs Red Wolves
Let’s face it. The Indians weren’t that good.
As the Indians, Arkansas State went 48-123-1 from 1992 (FBS debut) to 2007. That record does not include 10 wins that were vacated by the NCAA between 2005 (four of six wins) and 2006 (all six wins).
The Red Wolves, on the other hand, boast a 73-53 record in 10 seasons, going 59-31 since the firing of Roberts.
The Indians had one Sun Belt Co-Championship in 2005, and one bowl appearance, a 31-19 loss in the New Orleans Bowl to Southern Miss that same season. The Red Wolves have won five Sun Belt titles and gone bowling for the past seven seasons with a 3-4 record, notably including a 31-13 win over UCF in the 2016 Cure Bowl, the last loss the Golden Knights have suffered as of the writing of this article.
It’s not even close.
Note: I am aware this is ignoring the great historical achievements of the Indians pre-FBS. Arkansas State is a storied university in the ranks of what is now known as the FCS, but for the sake of this article, we are looking strictly at the University’s run as an FBS school.
The Red Wolf logo itself seems to be exponentially more marketable than the Indian logo ever was.
If you’re ever in Jonesboro, you literally cannot avoid the gaze of the soulless white eyes of the Red Wolf. It’s everywhere you look. License plates, billboards, cups at restaurants, paintings on buildings, t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.
Howl instantly became a fan-favorite, and the addition of the female mascot (I don’t believe mascots have a biological indication of this sort, but she wears a bow in her hair), Scarlet, was a home run. Kids all across Northeast Arkansas cherish any chance to get a high-five or hug or to snap a picture with either member of the A-State Spirit Squad.
With the new mascot also came the end of the Seminole Chant and the rise of the stadium-wide “Wolves Up, Let ‘Em Hear Ya Howl.” Legend has it that if you’re ever in Jonesboro on a clear, moonlit night during football season, and you listen close enough, you can hear 30,000+ wolves howling at the moon, no matter where you are in town.
On top of all of that, there are also the facility upgrades that have taken place in the name of the Red Wolves. I’ve got an entire article over that topic.
Though many fans strongly opposed the mascot change while it was happening, it’s hard to look back and say it wasn’t one of the greatest moves the University has ever made.
Was the nickname directly responsible for the successes of the Athletics programs? Well, of course not. Personnel (especially Athletics Director Terry Mohajir), recruiting, charitable donations, fan support, and the athletes themselves are the driving forces behind the achievements of the past decade.
Has the new nickname helped with recruiting, marketing, and general brand recognition? Without a doubt. Perhaps it is just a piece of the puzzle, neither overly-important nor insignificant, but simply a move in the right direction.
The long history of the Indians will live on forever, but the future is now. The Red Wolves will live on as Champions for generations to come.