Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
UA dives early into SEC play
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema watches during practice Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Today’s game at Auburn marks the third time Arkansas has opened a football season with a conference opponent.
That’s going back to 1915, when Arkansas became a charter member of the Southwest Conference and 76 years before the Razorbacks moved to the SEC.
Arkansas’ first opener against a conference team was Frank Broyles’ debut as coach, on Sept. 20, 1958, when Baylor beat the Razorbacks 12-0 in Little Rock.
The next time the Razorbacks opened the season with a conference game, Arkansas and Texas had the national stage to themselves.
It was Sept. 1, 1980, when No. 6 Arkansas played at No. 10 Texas. The nationally televised matchup by ABC was the only college game that Labor Day weekend.
Arkansas and Texas typically played in October, but at ABC’s request they agreed to move their 1980 game to Monday night to kick off the 1980s.
“It was like the original Kickoff Classic,” said Dean Weber, Arkansas’ longtime trainer who now works for the Razorback Foundation. “The first game of a new decade on Monday night with the whole country watching.
“Nobody was going to turn that game down. It was exciting.”
The game, which Texas won 23-17, proved to be deflating for the Razorbacks and Longhorns. Each team finished 7-5. “I think playing such a big game so early in the season affected both teams,” said Ken Turner, Arkansas’ tight ends and kicking coach in 1980. “You put so much into it, and maybe you run out of gas before you get to the end.
“The one thing that probably hurt us more than anything was that back then if you didn’t beat Texas, you felt they weren’t going to win the championship. So you felt like you were almost out of the conference race before you got started.”
The Arkansas-Texas game was so early, the Razorbacks’ didn’t play again until Sept. 20 against Oklahoma State, so they had three weeks of practice after losing to the Longhorns.
“It was a long August, and an even longer September,” Weber said. “We basically practiced for seven weeks and only played one game.”
The Razorbacks beat Oklahoma State, Tulsa, TCU and Wichita State to start 4-1. But then they lost four of their next five games, including a 17-16 loss to Rice in Little Rock after leading 16-0.
Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz taped his weekly television show after the Rice game.
“Welcome to the Lou Holtz Show,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m Lou Holtz.”
The Texas game started well for the Razorbacks, who took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter when Gary Anderson ran 39 yards for a touchdown on a fake reverse as the Longhorns bit and followed Gary Stiggers, who they believed had the ball.
Texas was ahead 17-7 by halftime and hung on to win as A.J. “Jam” Jones rushed 29 times for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns. Anderson rushed 9 times for 103 yards and quarterback Tom Jones, in his first start for the Razorbacks, completed 12 of 18 passes for 177 yards.
“Any time you played Texas in those days, you knew you were outmanned and you had to play your fanny off to beat them,” said Jesse Branch, who coached Arkansas’ defensive backs in 1980. “We played them right to the wire.”
Texas clinched the victory when quarterback Donnie Little ran for 17 yards on thirdand-15 from the Longhorns’ 32. The first down allowed Texas to run out the clock.
“That was a tough game,” Branch said. “Then it turned into a tough, tough year.”
Branch and Turner said the coaches didn’t like the idea of opening against Texas, but that made the players extra focused for the game.
“You really start preparing for a game like that in spring practice,” Turner said. “The players know it’s going to be a big game, and they practice that way.”
This season’s Razorbacks likely have practiced with the same focus for today’s game, but they’re picked to finish last in the SEC West after going 0-8 in conference games last season. Auburn is the defending SEC champion, ranked No. 6 and a 19 1/2-point favorite according to oddsmakers.
“It’s a lot different than when we played Texas in 1980, because we were supposed to be about as good as Texas,” Turner said. “I don’t think hardly anybody is saying Arkansas is going to beat Auburn.
“So if Arkansas plays Auburn close, I think it’s a plus for us. And if Arkansas could beat Auburn? Upsets can happen, especially in the first game.”
Branch said he believes today’s game is a great opportunity for the Razorbacks and Coach Bret Bielema.
“I think Arkansas has got the perfect deal with everything to gain and nothing to lose,” Branch said. “All the pressure is on Auburn.
“Hey, if we can win this game, Coach Bielema will be the king. I mean, you’d have the whole state of Arkansas in the palm of your hand.”
Turner said he hopes the Razorbacks can enjoy a better result today than the 1980 team did.
“Arkansas is still a young team, and this is a chance for us to go out and prove ourselves against the best, that we’re making progress and we’re going to be competitive in the SEC,” Turner said. “I just have a feeling Arkansas is going to be pretty good — a lot better than people think.”