With just three days left until the first game of the 2018 football season for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Wednesday at the new Simmons Bank Field after major renovations over the summer.
Representatives from Simmons Bank, the UAPB administration and the city of Pine Bluff helped welcome a new beginning for Golden Lions football. Simmons gifted $2.5 million to the university for the football stadium renovations, which included a new scoreboard and turf field, as well as for improvements to the Torii Hunter Baseball and Softball Complex.
With the band in attendance, the cheer squad, the entire football team and a crowd of Golden Lions faithful fans, UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander began the ceremony with opening remarks.
After the ceremony, Alexander said that the gift from Simmons allows UAPB athletics to take a big step forward.
"First of all I'd like to thank everybody who came out to the ceremony," Alexander said. "It was a good celebration of the upgrades and changes. It has brought our stadium up to a new level. It's an outstanding gift that we have from Simmons. It's a real step up for our football team to have an environment like that to play in. It's great for coach Thomas and his staff in terms of their ability to recruit top talent. It will really enhance the game-day experience for the fans and students. It's great for the Pine Bluff community, and it's really a great addition all around."
Alexander also spoke on their long-lasting relationship with Simmons Bank and how it's built on the trust factor.
"The university has had a long and great relationship with Simmons Bank that goes back more than 50 years," Alexander said. "In that time Simmons has sponsored a number events that the university puts on throughout the year. This is a very special opportunity in which we want to capitalize on. I think it has to do with the trust relationship that's there. This major gift to the University is another expression of that."
Followed by Alexander, Simmons Chairman and Chief Executive Officer George Markis Jr. spoke on what this means for Simmons Bank and UAPB athletics going forward.
First-year Head Coach Cedric Thomas said he couldn't be happier with what's going on throughout the program. He said the groundbreaking was emotional, uplifting and inspiring for him as he can remember playing over at Pumphrey Stadium during his time as a student-athlete at UAPB.
"We came from Pumphrey, and it was more like a high school field," Thomas said. "I still put tears on my back as we talk about it. Just to look in the crowd and see the familiar faces. I also remember the feeling after the games when we lost, so that's what we're saying inside that building. Yes this time is great and we're very appreciative of it, but at the end of the day, you're still going to get the same amount of points for touchdowns, field goals and extra points. We can't get caught up in the moment and forget we have a football game."
Thomas said he believes this is just the beginning of getting the community to fully support the team after a number of down years.
"It's huge, and I talked about it in my initial press conference," Thomas said. "We have to get the community involved, and we have to give them access to these things. To have events where the community is invited so that they can put names with the faces, and not only the players seeing the people who are rooting for them."
As far as the new artificial turf field, the new scoreboard, and other upgrades, Thomas believes this puts UAPB a step ahead of the other schools in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
UAPB interim Athletic Director Elbert Bennett shares those same beliefs. Recruiting is expected to take a major upswing for UAPB as there are certain components that their opponents can't use against them.
"It speaks volumes for UAPB and Golden Lions nation," Bennett said. "It puts us on the same level as our competitors in the SWAC. We feel like we're on par with some of the schools in our conference and with some not in our conference that we recruit against."
The economy in Pine Bluff will benefit from these upgrades as well. According to Bennett, attendance at games is expected to increase, which will bring in more traffic for local businesses.
"This is going to bring revenue into Pine Bluff," Bennett said. "The more people who come to UAPB football games, they'll stay here, shop, eat, and we expect that. We have five home games, and we would love for all of those home games to generate anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million dollars. This will pump revenue into the Pine Bluff economy."
UAPB will play it's home opener against Morehouse College at Simmons Bank Field at 6 p.m. on Saturday.