Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Blast From The Past

A couple of weeks ago, Hurricane Ike rearranged my football-viewing plans.

Of course, the fact is that the hurricane rearranged quite a few lives, and its effect on me was minimal.

Nevertheless, I had intended, on Sept. 13, to watch my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, play the University of Texas in a football game.

The hurricane forced the schools to postpone the game. It was re-scheduled for this Saturday. And, as I understand it, ABC will televise the game at 2:30 p.m. (Central).

If you didn't grow up in Arkansas, you have no idea what the Arkansas-Texas rivalry meant in the days when both schools were members of the old Southwest Conference and faced each other in every sport.

For that matter, as Wally Hall observes at, "[T]here is now an entire generation of people who were born and raised in Arkansas who don’t hate the Texas Longhorns."

That astonishes me.

As Hall writes, "Until the time Arkansas left for the SEC, the majority of the Razorbacks nation circled the Texas game as soon as the schedules were printed. Now, an entire generation has been deprived of the pure joy of hating the Longhorns, whose fan base generally bordered on arrogant."

When I was a little boy, the Razorbacks won a share of the mythical national championship in football in 1964. They shared the title with Alabama (coached by the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant), but they wouldn't have been in the position to share the national title at all if Ken Hatfield hadn't returned a punt for a touchdown against Texas.

Arkansas won, 14-13, and went on to beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl (back in the days when winning the Cotton Bowl really meant something).

Five years later, for college football's centennial season, ABC persuaded Arkansas and Texas to move their game from its normal schedule date in mid-October to the first weekend in December — when no one else was playing and the eyes of the nation would be focused on that game alone.

In hindsight, it seems preordained that the game — dubbed the "Game of the Century" at the time — would feature the #1- and #2-ranked teams in the nation — and, indeed, ABC made the offer to the schools anticipating that they would be the top two teams in the country when they met.

But only two weeks before the "Great Shootout," as the game also was known, Ohio State was the top-ranked team in the nation. When the Buckeyes lost to their rival, Michigan, it secured the #1 vs. #2 matchup between Texas and Arkansas that ABC had been hoping for.

President Nixon attended the game — the only time a sitting president came to a football game in Fayetteville — and gave the Longhorns a plaque naming them the national champions after they prevailed, 15-14. Future President George H.W. Bush (at the time, a Republican congressman from Texas) also attended the game, along with many political figures from both states.

I guess ABC wanted to catch some more lightning in a bottle the next year because, once again, the Arkansas-Texas game was moved to the first weekend in December.

But, whereas the 1969 game was a dramatic, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat experience for football fans, the 1970 game in Austin was a lopsided affair.

I was 11 years old at the time, and my most vivid memory from watching that game on TV was from the first half. Texas had already scored, and Arkansas had the ball near the Texas goal line. The Razorbacks made four attempts to score and failed on each attempt, turning the ball over on downs.

I recall one of the adults who had been watching the game with us standing up and observing that, if Arkansas couldn't score in four opportunities inside the 10-yard line, it was going to be a long afternoon. Indeed, it was. Texas won the game, 42-7, but failed to repeat as national champion.

For most of the next 10 years, Arkansas and Texas played their game in mid-October, as they had been doing for decades, although the schools were persuaded to move the game to December again in 1976, a year after Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M shared the SWC championship.

But 1976 proved to be a down year for both schools, and the only real significance of the game was the fact that it turned out to be the last in which Darrell Royal coached Texas and Frank Broyles coached Arkansas.

The networks persuaded the schools to move their game again for the 1980 season — although, this time, it was moved up on the calendar instead of down. The schools agreed to play each other on Labor Day — September 1.

It was Texas' turn to host so the game was played in Austin.

It's always hot in Texas at the end of August. But, if you're old enough to remember the summer of 1980, you know that it was a particularly brutal one. In Texas, which typically sees temperatures in the mid- to upper 90s in the summer, temperatures were well over 100 degrees for about six or seven weeks.

And, although temperatures had cooled off slightly by September 1, it was still an unbelievably hot atmosphere in which to play a football game — especially one as intense as the Arkansas-Texas game. While the game was played at night, the sun didn't go down until halftime and the temperatures never really cooled down. Some players on both sides appeared to be on the verge of giving in to heat exhaustion.

Texas won, 23-17, and Arkansas limped through the rest of the season.

I will never forget the game that was played the next season. I was a senior at Arkansas, and I went to the Arkansas-Texas game for the first time in my life. It was played in Fayetteville in mid-October.

I almost didn't attend that game. A couple of weeks earlier, Arkansas had lost to TCU for the first time in my lifetime. Texas, meanwhile, was ranked #1, and everyone thought Texas was going to administer a severe beating when the Longhorns came to town.

I had my ticket (purchased before the season started at the student discount rate), but I hadn't decided to go the morning of the game. At the last minute, I decided to go. I'm glad I did. Lou Holtz led the Razorbacks to an astonishing 42-11 victory that is still talked about among long-time Razorback fans 27 years later.

Even Hall mentions it in his pregame column.

And he points out that "Since Arkansas joined the SEC, no opponent has come close to creating the same burning desire" the rivalry with Texas did.

Not LSU. Not Alabama. Not even Ole Miss, which was something of a non-conference rival for a long time — and may become even more of a rival now that former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is the Rebels' coach.

I don't know if Saturday's game will recapture the old feeling. And, if it's a blowout, I may abandon it early.

But I'll be watching.

1 comment:

Sheila Yount said...

That was a special day in 1981. I am glad we shared that.

I fear our Hogs will have a tough time on Saturday. This is a difficult time for a Razorback fan, but we've been there before. So, who knows. Maybe some of that old magic will return.