LITTLE ROCK — Taken in context, an outlandish conspiracy theory can be an entertaining sidebar to the truth. Like the one jokingly suggested during a popular afternoon drive-time sports talk show.

LITTLE ROCK — Taken in context, an outlandish conspiracy theory can be an entertaining sidebar to the truth. Like the one jokingly suggested during a popular afternoon drive-time sports talk show.

Put out there, the caller said, was that the Razorback Foundation helped Arkansas State University get together the money to pay the salary of new football coach Gus Malzahn. The clandestine supposition was that the hundreds of thousands of dollars was a down payment on the Razorback coach of the future.

Pretty funny stuff and only one of the wide-ranging takes on ASU’s hire of the well-known former high school coach. Some suggested that Malzahn would be off the radar in a week or so; others worried about his effect on Arkansas’ recruiting; many Razorback fans appropriately wished the Red Wolves well.

Success by Arkansas does not preclude ASU from achieving the same.

For now, the buzz about ASU is genuine and natural. At a wedding reception in Little Rock, where the guests were probably 90-10 UA-ASU, the Malzahn hire was the first topic broached by at least two dozen in conversations with Gov. Mike Beebe. Normally, one or two people would talk Red Wolves football with the ASU alum.

For ASU, the trick is to sustain the interest.

The Red Wolves followed up the Malzahn announcement with an e-mail to boosters, including links to national articles about the hire. The headline from CoachingSearch.com says, “Attention UCLA: Take notes from Arkansas State,” and the one from a Business Insider college sports columnist says, “This Is The Feel-Good Story Of The Year In College Football.”

Television will provide bumps when Malzahn is calling plays for Auburn against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A bowl and eight days later when he is at ASU’s bowl game vs. Northern Illinois.

After that, progress will be incremental. Malzahn already has ties with Arkansas high school coaches and a recruiting victory or two — some kids who have made commitments to other programs have said they will listen to what Malzahn has to say — would help.

Ultimately, ASU must win.

Building on the foundation crafted by Hugh Freeze and his defensive coordinator, Dave Wommack, does not mean improving on the 10-2 record. It means winning eight or nine games each year, no easy feat considering the schedule.

This year, it was Illinois and Virginia Tech; next year, it is Oregon and Nebraska. For now, ASU starts with two losses.

Conference realignment is so fluid that ASU cannot count on an invite to another league to improve its standing. The best route is for ASU to put itself in a position of being wanted, something that can be accomplished by enhancing the reputation of the Sun Belt Conference. Tools to that end include winning, going to bowls, and being ranked in the top 25.

Malzahn’s compensation of about $850,000 per year made him the highest paid coach in the Sun Belt and is a clear signal that ASU is committed. Facility upgrades, including new stadiums at Florida Atlantic and North Texas, and the average attendance of 30,000 per game at Louisiana-Lafayette say the same thing about other conference schools.

ASU was second in the Sun Belt in attendance, averaging a record 21,257. There are about 14,000 diehards and about that many more who show up when the weather is nice or the opponent is attractive, or both. A solid 25,000 for every game would be another measurable step forward.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.