Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Happy 75th Birthday to Razorback Stadium

Today is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the football stadium on the campus of my alma mater, and a season–long celebration is planned.

I am speaking of Razorback Stadium at the University of Arkansas. Actually, since 2001, it has been known as Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. (Reynolds was a philanthropist who studied journalism at the University of Missouri and went on to own newspapers in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Reynolds' newspapers launched the Donrey Media Group, which was active in both journalism scholarships and internships when I was in school.)

The Razorbacks only won twice in 1938, but one of those victories came in Razorback Stadium's opener. The victory came against Oklahoma State, 27–7.

It's been expanded twice since I was in school there. They've added all sorts of bells and whistles — as well as seats — since the last time I was there. When I was a student, the only lights in the stadium were designed to allow players to practice, not to illuminate a night game for television. But Razorback Stadium has lights now — along with one of those huge screens at one end of the field.

Even so, I'm sure it would feel much the same to be there — even after all these years.

There have been lots of changes starting with the conference affiliation. When I was growing up, the Hogs competed in the Southwest Conference, but they've been in the Southeastern Conference since 1992. And today, the Hogs are 3–1 to start a season for the eighth time in the last 25 years (they started 4–0 four other times).

This Saturday, they will come home to face Texas A&M, an old Southwest Conference nemesis.

Back in the summer, I saw an online contest to pick the most significant game ever played in Razorback Stadium. I didn't participate in the contest — I meant to, but I was short of time when I saw it, and I told myself I would go back and cast a vote, but I never did — but I've been thinking a lot about the question it posed.

If the question had been asked about War Memorial Stadium, the Hogs' home in central Arkansas (and much closer to the town — now small city — where I grew up), I think it would be pretty easy. In 1975, Texas A&M was ranked second in the nation when the Aggies came to Little Rock to face the Razorbacks in the season finale.

Teddy Barnes' TD reception just before halftime sparked Arkansas to a 31–6 victory over the previously unbeaten Aggies and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia.

But the question was not asked about War Memorial Stadium. It was asked about Razorback Stadium.

I went to some significant games at Razorback Stadium when I was a student there, and I know of some significant games that have been played there since I graduated, but only one game came to mind when I read that question. It was played long before I went to a game in Fayetteville.

It's "The Great Shootout" between top–ranked Texas and second–ranked Arkansas in 1969.

I have written of that game before. The Texas game was always the most important game on the schedule when I was growing up, no matter what the records were. The fans in Arkansas would have worked themselves into a frenzy even if both teams came into the game winless.

But the 1969 game was unique.

It was a rare meeting between the top two teams in the nation, and network folks were so certain that Arkansas and Texas would beat all of their other opponents that year — and be #1 and #2 in the polls — that they persuaded the schools to move their game from its traditional slot in mid–October to the first weekend in December, when no one else was scheduled to be in action, and the Hogs and the Longhorns could have the spotlight all to themselves.

In the days before conference championship games — and even national championship games — it was a fitting capper for college football's 100th season.

It may have been the greatest disappointment of my then–brief life when Texas edged Arkansas, 15–14, and was given a plaque proclaiming the Longhorns the national champions by President Nixon, who was, I believe, the first sitting president ever to visit Fayetteville. Texas coach Darrell Royal accepted the plaque from the president — even though he knew the Longhorns still had to overcome Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day.

And I watched it all on my parents' black–and–white TV. I don't remember how old I was when I first saw a Razorback game in color. All my early memories are in black and white.

Most of my memories of Razorback Stadium also involve Frank Broyles because he was Arkansas' coach when I was growing up. He was always there, always on the sideline, always doing his weekly TV show on Sundays (which, in those pre–cable days when teams were limited to one or two in–season telecasts per year, was usually the only way I could see footage of the Razorbacks in action).

Once, when I was a student at the University of Arkansas, I did a brief phone interview with Broyles. I must confess, I was a bit starstruck. I mean, here I was talking to the man I had watched roam sidelines since I was a child. I can't really say I idolized him. But he was a familiar figure to everyone in Arkansas, and I felt like one might if speaking to a movie star.

Broyles was no longer the coach by the time I interviewed him. He was the full–time athletic director, but he patiently answered my questions (which I realized, at the time, could have been more professional — but what the heck? I was a student), and I wrote up a story for the school newspaper.

Interestingly, while the stadium is known, officially, as Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the playing surface is known as Frank Broyles Field. That is something I have encountered at other schools, too — including the University of Oklahoma, where I taught journalism for four years. I never attended a football game at OU, but I was well aware of the fact that the football facility was known as Memorial Stadium at Owen Field.

It isn't new to me. It just seems kind of unnecessary, like hyphenated surnames.

But I guess both serve a purpose.

Anyway, it's been 75 years since Razorback Stadium opened its doors. I'm proud to have played my modest role in its development. I witnessed some great moments in Razorback history — and I saw a few Southwest Conference greats from other schools play there. Most of the people who read or hear of those games and players will not know I was there, but I was. I cherish the memories.

Happy birthday, Razorback Stadium — and many more.

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