Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Swan Song for Two Legends

When I was a boy in Arkansas, as I have written here before, I was a fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks — like nearly everyone else.

Many of my earliest memories are of Saturday afternoons at my friends' houses — where, more often than not, the Razorback play–by–play could be heard on the radio in the kitchen or the living room.

I'm still a Razorback fan, but many things are different for me now. Yet, sometimes, when the breeze blows just so or I catch the scent of honeysuckle in the evening air or I feel a slight chill after an autumn rain shower, my memory bank conjures up, however briefly, a snippet from my childhood.

Most of the time, I don't remember the game or the circumstances — or the names of people whose faces I can see in my mind's eye for a second or two.

I only know that it is a link to a time that was early in my life, when things seemed more reliable, more stable.

Maybe that was one of the things that I always liked about the Razorbacks. They were reassuringly constant. They almost always had competitive teams, and I always got excited when Arkansas and Texas were about to play.

I guess you could say there were three things that I felt I could count on in those days:
  • Frank Broyles was the coach of the Razorbacks. There had never been any other head coach at Arkansas in my lifetime.

  • Darrell Royal was the coach of the Longhorns. There had never been any other head coach at Texas in my lifetime.

  • The Arkansas–Texas football game was always televised. (That wasn't as routine as it might seem to 21st century football fans, who are used to the idea that most of their favorite team's games will be televised. There was no cable in those days, and there were restrictions on the number of regular–season TV appearances a team could have.)
Probably the most memorable of the Arkansas–Texas games in my childhood was the one played in December 1969. It is remembered as the "Great Shootout," and it was so big it brought the president of the United States to tiny Fayetteville, Ark.

I may be wrong, but I believe that, until native Arkansan Bill Clinton came to dedicate a statue on the UA campus, it was the only time a sitting president ever came to Fayetteville.

That game, I must say, was not an example of stability — and not only because it drew higher–profile attendees than usual.

Ordinarily, Arkansas and Texas met in mid–October — but, because everyone figured they were the two best teams in the country, they were persuaded to move their 1969 game to the first week in December, when no other games would be played (this was a couple of decades before conferences started holding championship games), and the attention of the nation would be on that game alone.

And, in fact, the gamble paid off. It turned out that Texas was ranked #1 in the nation and Arkansas was ranked #2 when they met in Fayetteville on that December day. The winner would go to the Cotton Bowl to play Notre Dame for the national title, but the president was on hand to prematurely proclaim the winner the national champion.

When the game was over, I remember watching President Nixon gush about the Longhorns as he presented them with a national championship plaque that he said would be engraved with the winning school's name — and I noted bitterly that he hadn't said anything about the Razorbacks, who had shut out the Longhorns for the first three quarters.

If Texas was the best team in the nation, I reasoned, Arkansas was nearly as good. The Longhorns beat the Razorbacks by a single point that day.

I didn't dream that, nearly seven years later to the day, in another Arkansas–Texas game that had been moved to December, Broyles and Royal would leave the sidelines together for the last time.

I'm not sure if I ever knew the reasons why Arkansas and Texas agreed to move their 1976 game to early December. They had shared the Southwest Conference championship with Texas A&M the year before, and perhaps the ABC executives were gambling that, as in 1969, the two would be the best teams in the conference — if not the nation.

If that was the gamble, though, it came up way short of expectations. Arkansas and Texas tumbled out of contention early that season. Newcomer Houston won the conference title and went to the Cotton Bowl. Neither Arkansas nor Texas played in a bowl game that season so 35 years ago last weekend, the coaching careers of Broyles and Royal came to an end.

I don't know when or why those two men decided to retire from coaching. It just always seemed right that they did so at the same time. I couldn't imagine watching another Arkansas–Texas game and seeing one but not both on the sidelines.

Both continued to influence athletics as the athletic directors at the schools where they had built their coaching reputations.

And Broyles, at least, continued to wield the kind of power that successful football coaches in small states tend to wield. During his coaching days — and afterward, as athletic director — Broyles was, arguably, the most influential individual in Arkansas — more powerful than governors or senators, more revered than ministers (and, in devoutly religious Arkansas, that truly is saying something).

Broyles retired a few years ago. He's still living — he'll be 87 the day after Christmas — and, while he may still be an influential figure within Arkansas, outside the state one hears little about him anymore.

Royal marked his 87th birthday last summer. One hears even less of him. After he stopped coaching, he continued, as Broyles did, to serve as the school's athletic director, but only for a few years. Texas re–named its football stadium in his honor, and you hear his name mentioned whenever the Longhorns play in big games, but he has mostly remained out of the spotlight for the last three decades.

He now serves as a special assistant to the UT president — which sounds a lot like professor emeritus. If that is, indeed, what it is, he earned the honor, winning nearly three–quarters of the college games in which he coached.

Likewise, Broyles enjoyed a successful coaching career. He won more than two–thirds of his games, and he remains the only Arkansas football coach to win 100 or more games.

Current coach Bobby Petrino would have to win every regular season game, every conference championship game and every postseason bowl game from now until the end of this decade to match Broyles — and, since Broyles' 1964 team was the last Arkansas team to go through an entire season without losing, it seems likely that Petrino would have to remain at Arkansas well beyond 2019.

Even at his present pace (10 wins in each of the last two seasons), it would take Petrino until the year 2023.

Of course, if he manages to do that, he is sure to replace Broyles as the most powerful man in Arkansas — by which time, Broyles is likely to be deceased or far too old to care. In the immediate future, though, Broyles' status is secure.

Royal is also the winningest coach in Texas history, but the current coach, 60–year–old Mack Brown, needs only 35 wins to pass him.

In 2005, Brown became the second Texas coach to win a national championship. Royal was the first, and he went on to win three of them. Brown needs two more to match him.

No matter how you slice it, Broyles and Royal are living legends, and, for many long–time fans of both schools, their legacies are intertwined, like the epic boxing duels between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier or the tennis matches between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova or the Triple Crown races between Affirmed and Alydar.

It was fitting that they ended their coaching careers together.

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