TRUE CONFESSION: By January of 2006, my fandom with Arkansas State was on life support. The Indians (we were the Indians then) had recently earned a share of the Sun Belt in 2005 and received an invitation to its first bowl of the modern era. That would be the New Orleans Bowl, which in 2005 wasn't even played in New Orleans, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Instead, it was played in Lafayette, where the Southern Miss Golden Eagles unceremoniously defeated an overmatched Steve Roberts' led team 31-19.
Earning a bowl berth for the first time since the Pecan Bowl of 1970 should have been the coal to reignite my fire for A-State football. It didn't, though. All I saw was a 6-6 season that, in truth, wasn't much better than the 3-8 season turned in the year before. But 2006 turned out to be the year that reaffirmed my faith in Arkansas State football, even though the program would forfeit all six of its glorious victories.
The Major (and Minor) Cast o' Characters
Steve Roberts as "The Coach": In his fifth year of leading Arkansas State, Coach Roberts is the unheralded architect of today's championship Red Wolves.
Dean Lee, Athletic Director: Dr. Lee will be remembered more for his work transitioning the brand from Indians to Red Wolves than he will be for the lost 2006 season.
Corey Leonard, "The Rookie:" A happy-footed freshman who'd become an all-time A-State great, Leonard would deliver the most famous pass in Arkansas State history in 2006.
Reggie Arnold, Underrated Running Back: Arnold would post another 1,000 yard season in 2006.
Josh Arauco, "That Kicker": Arauco's all-Sun Belt legacy of consistently barely clearing the cross bar began in 2006, his freshman year.
A-State Defense, Not exactly monsters: Curtis Bonds led the team with all of two sacks. But the squad only surrendered 24 points per game.
A-State Offense was even worse: Leonard averaged 6 yards per toss, and the team was shut out twice, scoring 10 or fewer points five times.
The Notable Victories
Arkansas State 14, Army 6
The frustration of more than a decade of horrendous football boiled over during the season's opening night when Reggie Arnold pounded out 140 yards and a score, resulting in an Indians victory and the goal posts coming down. Yes. The posts came down for Army. Do not judge. DO NOT! Listen, we've had a hard history, okay? How would you like to be in a conference that awarded the championship to North Texas for four years in a row? Yeah, so back off, Butch.
Arkansas State 10, ULM 6
There is nothing truly noteworthy about this game except A-State QBs Corey Leonard and Travis Hewitt tag-teamed for three interceptions, and that the game was part of the annual Trail of Tears Classic. Can you imagine two teams today hosting a rivalry game under the moniker reserved for one of the United States' most horrible genocides? There would be riots in New York. Seriously, how did that even happen? Was The Great Potato Famine Classic already taken?
Arkansas State 26, Memphis 23 (The Bluff City Miracle)
This was the game that jumpstarted my passion for A-State football. I'll set up the scene: it was a mostly empty Liberty Bowl, the weather was mild, and two struggling programs bumbling on the gridiron. By the fourth quarter, the Tigers appeared to have sealed the victory. The clock had a handful of seconds remaining, and A-State had 3rd and 10 on its own 47 yard line. I was seated with a couple drunken Tiger fans who were already congratulating my team that "hung in there to the end!" Then THIS happened:
To say Leonard's Hail Mary is the most famous blind-chuck in Arkansas State history is too limiting. It actually changed the course of the program. Before the Music City Miracle (as it's also known), most A-State fans were resigned to spiritless 6-6 seasons and occasional Sun Belt success. Leonard's improbable completion showed us what's possible. Cold fusion. Hyperloops. Charlotte McKinney. I swear to God, it's true. I was there.
Arkansas State 33, Troy 26
By the time A-State arrived in Troy, the magic from the Bluff City Miracle had vanished beneath the weight of three straight losses, included soul-crushing shutouts from FIU and #6 Auburn. What the Indians needed was a last second win against the Sun Belt Sheriff, Troy, who was on course for a second consecutive Sun Belt championship. Also, the victory was broadcast on something called ESPN PLUS, so that was cool.
The Last Arkansas State Game at War Memorial
If the Bluff City Miracle ignited the imagination of Arkansas State fans, the Oklahoma State game at War Memorial in Little Rock did its best to squelch it. Before a disappointing crowd of 23,000 (I among them), Arkansas State started the game with an encouraging Pick 6 before celebrity 40-year-old Mike Gundy settled his team down and orchestrated 35 unanswered points. To this day, the attendance of this game is used as ammo by Arkansas State detractors. You couldn't even sell out War Memorial! Listen, punk, Joel Osteen couldn't sell out War Memorial with a defense that recorded 5 sacks for the entire year! Back off!
No Bowl For You
Upon the close of the season, Arkansas State joined 8 bowl-eligible teams unceremoniously denied a bowl game in 2006. Perhaps the snub was earned, considering what the NCAA knew.
"A Lack of Institutional Control"
Just as new head coach Hugh Freeze was starting his first A-State spring practice, the NCAA ended an investigation that nullified 10 Arkansas State football victories, including all six from 2006. Apparently, fielding academically ineligible players is some kind of crime or something. Whatever. We had torn down the goalposts against Army for nothing. The Bluff City Miracle didn't even happen. Even our victory against conference champion Troy was null-and-void. The 2006 season was officially lost to sanctions.
The Legacy of 2006
When the NCAA lowered the boom on Arkansas State in 2011, few raised an eyebrow. The newly dubbed Red Wolves had averaged 3.5 wins per season since 2006, leading to the unceremonious dismissal of head coach Steve Roberts. By the time Hugh Freeze delivered his undefeated, SBC Coach of the Year performance, the wonderful strangeness of 2006 had become wisps of vapor lost in the ether.
But we Red Wolves fans owe much to 2006, which gave us the Miracle on the Bluff, a solid win against Army, and origin stories of A-State legends Corey Leonard and Josh Arauco. Most of all, 2006 made a fan out of me once again.
This introspective into the 2006 Indians garnered some fascinating responses.
An earlier version of this column stated that the 2006 game played at War Memorial was a first for A-State. The Indians had, in fact, played at WMS during the 80s and the 70s. Underdog Dynasty takes full responsibility for this egregious error and has summarily beaten and fired everyone associated with it.