Thawing out after 40 years

For decades, the result of The Big Shootout has been frozen in the minds of Arkansas players and fans, an icy memory for a bone-chilling event held in Fayetteville on Dec. 6, 1969

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, December 6, 2009
Arkansas football coach Frank Broyles, left, and Texas coach Darrell Royal greet on the field in Fayetteville, in this Dec. 6, 1969, file photo. No. 1 Texas defeated No. 2 Arkansas, 15-14.
Arkansas football coach Frank Broyles, left, and Texas coach Darrell Royal greet on the field in Fayetteville, in this Dec. 6, 1969, file photo. No. 1 Texas defeated No. 2 Arkansas, 15-14.

— Forty years beyond the Game of the Century, Frank Broyles still struggles to come to grips with his second-ranked Arkansas team’s 15-14 loss to No. 1 Texas.

“I don’t like to talk about it,” said Broyles, who still has not watched a replay of the game, nor read any of the numerous dramatic accounts of the day America’s sporting eyes turned to Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

There’s an element of Arkansas faithful who still hang their heads over the outcome on that cold, wet afternoon on Dec. 6, 1969.

“We played so good to lose,” said Harold Horton, Arkansas’ linebackers coach that day. “We lost, but we represented our team and our state in a manner that we’re all proud of, but knowing, too, we made the mistakes that cost us the game.”

A Q&A with "Hogs, Horns and Nixon Coming" author Terry Frei on the Slophouse blog.

There is no doubt Arkansas made errors, especially during Texas’ fourth-quarter comeback from a 14-0 deficit. So did the Longhorns, who were baffled by a brilliant wrinkle in Arkansas’ defensive scheme and wound up losing six turnovers that day.

“It still scares me when I watch it - and I know what happened,” Texas All-America tackle Bob McKay said. “You wonder how in the world we ever came out on top. It was a real, real neat deal.”

It was a real big deal too.

President Richard Nixon and an entourage of political dignitaries, which included future president George H.W. Bush, landed in helicopters on Arkansas’ practice field and got seated just as the Razorbacks were taking a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.

Nixon came brandishing a plaque that was to bestow national championship status on the winner.

The game was so grand it wound up with two nicknames: the Game of the Century and The Big Shootout, the latter dubbed by Texas Coach Darrell Royal.

In a stroke of genius, ABC had asked Broyles and Royal to move the game from its original Oct. 18 date, and both coaches readily agreed.

“I never thought we would have such a dramatic game,” said Beano Cook, ABC’s college football guru of the day. “It was a perfect game for us.”

The game would mark the regular-season finale to the 100th season of college football.

A nation was watching, and the Razorbacks and Longhorns kept them riveted.

NEW PERSPECTIVE

Many of the Razorbacks who took the fight to top-ranked Texas have made their peace with the outcome. Instead of wallowing in the numerous what-ifs, they have come to cherish what was.

“I would rather have played in that game and lost it than to never have played in a game of that magnitude,” said Bruce James, an Arkansas defensive end.

“With the passage of time, I look at it actually very fondly now,” said Bill Montgomery, Arkansas’ prostyle quarterback in 1969.

“You have to remember now that on that day, of the TV sets that were turned on ... over half of them were watching the Arkansas-Texas game.

“It was a megagame.

When the pain subsides, the hurt goes away, and you look at it from a historical perspective, it was the most important game Arkansas ever participated in and it’s the last time we’ve played for the national championship.”

Arkansas linebacker Cliff Powell, an All-American who had 24 tackles that day, said the game set up as if someone had written a script.

“I said a long time ago the effect of that game would fade through the years, but it’s still there,” Powell said. “It still hurts a little bit to be so close, but yet so far.”

Chuck Dicus, Arkansas’ All-America receiver, caught a third-quarter touchdown pass and had a second quarter score negated by a controversial offensive pass interference call away from the play.

“I don’t believe the ’69 team has gotten the credit it deserves,” Dicus said. “That game was played for the national championship. The Razorback football program has not been really even close to that since that day.

“The outcome of the game has kind of ceased to be the important thing over the years. The important thing was that game brought a lot of recognition to the state of Arkansas.”

In 1999, the sports staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette voted The Big Shootout as the event of the century in Arkansas sports, but it just barely edged out the Hogs’ 1994 NCAA basketball championship victory over Duke.

Said Montgomery, “If we were smart we would embrace this game. We would turn this into a positive instead of always having to act like it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

THE REUNION

The bitterness associated with the loss is understandable for Arkansas fans. There had never been an opportunity for Arkansas to vanquish rival Texas and clinch the national championship on the same day.

And the Razorbacks had come so close to pulling it off.

“The times we’ve been up there and visited, there’s some people who have had a hard time turning that thing loose,” McKay said. “They did the same thing to Texas in ’64.”

Royal, whose boldness in calling for the two-point conversion after Texas’ first score was a result of the Longhorns’ losing 14-13 to the Razorbacks five years earlier, admitted Arkansas made his team struggle.

“I’m just saying we were confused and didn’t play well and Arkansas played a heck of a game,” Royal told author Terry Frei for his book Horns, Hogs, & Nixon Coming. “It was really about three plays that we won the game on.”

A key event took place five years ago. At the request of Arkansas’ players, many of the Longhorns from The Big Shootout traveled to Fayetteville for a reunion as part of the 2004 Texas-Arkansas game.

There was talk about introducing both teams on the field during the game, but that idea was quashed when fans protested.

“They raised a bunch of stink about it, and Coach Broyles called it off,” Powell said.

“It’s hard to celebrate a loss,” Broyles said, before adding that embracing the game is something to consider. “They’re just brokenhearted about it, and things you’re brokenhearted about you put on the back burner.”

Not so with most of the players. The former bitter rivals, many of whom had never spoken to their counterparts since the game, had a banquet in 2004.

The group, 45 Arkansas players and 23 Texas players, celebrated their shared history and talked about how the game impacted their lives.

“We had lived with that game for, at the time, 35 years, and there were a lot of questions in our minds,” Dicus said. “I think this team came away from that game with real questions about just how good we were. Did we deserve it, and so on and so forth.

“When you’re outscored for the national championship by only one point and you hear about it for 35 years, it was good to be in the same room with the Texas team and shake hands, pat each other on the backs and tell stories. We needed it, and I think they needed it.”

Said Montgomery, “The Texas players got up and validated the greatness we felt about our team but had never been validated.

“They went on and on about the champions that we were and the champions we are. It wasn’t just winners being saps toward the losers. It was genuine, heartfelt and not just we beat you guys and we’re going to say something nice about you.”

James Street operated Texas’ Wishbone offense, which had been steamrolling defenses to the tune of 370 rushing yards per game.

Yet he and the Longhorns, befuddled by Arkansas’ wide-tackle 6 alignment on defense, had been shut out for three quarters and committed six turnovers that day.

Street broke free for a tackle-breaking 42-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter, on which ardent Razorbacks fans claim there was an uncalled clip on linebacker Mike Boschetti. Street dived across the goal line for the two-point conversion, Powell attached to his legs. Royal had told Street on the bus ride to the game that play would be the call when the ’Horns needed to go for two.

“It happened the way it happened, and you’ve got to appreciate that we had to have a lot of things bounce the right way for us to win that ballgame, but we did, so that ain’t all bad,” Street said. “Both teams thought they were going to win.”

Said Powell, “I told the Texas players it took a great team to beat us and we were a great team.”

THE EVENT

Cook studied the 1969 college football schedule diligently, searching for a game that could be showcased at season’s end.

He accurately predicted defending champion Ohio State would lose, though the No. 1 Buckeyes didn’t fall until Nov. 22, by a score of 24-12 at Michigan.

“I thought before the year began that Arkansas and Penn State would play for the national title and Texas would lose one game, with that coming to Arkansas,” Cook said.

Cook made the recommendation to target the Texas-Arkansas game, and Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports,made it happen.

Everything fell into place to produce No. 1 Texas at No. 2 Arkansas.

It would be the only game in the country, and the president was coming.

“There were a lot of things involved in that game that will probably never occur again,” James said.

“There’s like 15 things that tumbled down,” Montgomery said. “There are numerous points along the way that had to occur to allow this game to be what this game became.”

Arkansas led 14-8 midway through the fourth quarter when it reached the Texas 7 before Montgomery’s third down pass for Dicus was intercepted by Texas’ Danny Lester. More than any other play in the game, the decision to pass instead of setting up All-America kicker Bill McClard for a field goal has been second guessed by the Hogs.

“We had no business throwing the ball there,” Montgomery said. “We should have kicked the field goal.”

Texas converted a fourthand-3 on its game-winning drive, when Street feathered a pass to tight end Randy Peschel for a 43-yard gain against double coverage.

“If you go back and look at three quarters, Arkansas could have been ahead more than they were,” Street said.

“Over time, people forget a lot of the little details.

Randy Peschel is wellcovered. He goes up in the air and comes down with the ball.”

40 YEARS GONE

The Razorbacks have come to embrace what the game represented, the outcome be damned.

“I’m very proud of the fact we got within one point of winning the national championship and played well enough to win the game,” James said.

“We’ve too long had an attitude about that game that it’s painful and we don’t want to talk about it,” Montgomery said. “It was a very positive experience for our state and for our school.

“We have undercapitlized on the national goodwill that was extended to us by competing in that game and the way in which we competed. I think it’s a game that should be celebrated instead of one that ought to be under some cover.

“I hope some day Coach Broyles will realize he coached a phenomenally great team and that there’s nothing about this team he needs to be ashamed of and feel bad about.”

Remembering the memories

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports department has requested, received and printed hundreds of responses over the years when asking fans to recount their memories of the Big Shootout. Here are a few of the most passionate ones, printed in a special edition in 2002, that still resonate today:

Apart of me died that day.

And it was a part that never had a chance to grow up. I was only 12.

As soon as Texas scored the second time, I plunged crying into the gloomy mist that was Searcy. I began to run. When I stopped, I surprisingly found myself more than 2 miles from home. In the dark and cold, I realized I had no coat on.

Later, as a grown man in my 30s, my 90-year-old grandmother and I discussed our lives. I told her if I could only change one thing in my life, Randy Peschel would drop the ball.

Fred Whistle, Paradise Valley, Ariz.

In those days when the Horns and Hogs played, the whole state stopped. Traffic came to a standstill, business ceased and the entire state held its breath.

You knew in the back of your mind that we could lose, but this team was good. So good, in fact, that we had to win this game, would win this game. Good against evil, light compared to dark, it was meant to be.

Texas had everything - better facilities, players - and you knew they looked down their noses at little ol’ Arkansas trying to get to the next step in college football.

But by God, we were there, playing in the last game of the year for all the marbles. No. 1 against No. 2, everything on the line, all out, for a national title.

To lose a game with those kinds of stakes on the line took the heart and soul out of an entire state for a long, long time.

I, for one, will never completely get over that game.

To put so much into a simple ‘game’ sounds silly, but as we all know, it was more than a game that day in [Fayetteville]. It was us against them, good over evil, right against wrong, and it hurts till this day. It will always hurt.

George Burks, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

As an Arkansan in medical school in Galveston, Texas, the Arkansas-Texas rivalry had always been great fun, and I was always able to give at least as much grief as I had to take.

Six months after graduation, Dec. 5, 1969, my firstborn child was delivered at 12:52 a.m. in El Paso, Texas.

I was an intern in the hospital where she was delivered and I was able to attend the delivery, but I was up the rest of the night in the operating room because I was on call for the surgery service.

I then had to work all day Friday (the usual for interns in that era). That evening, I stayed with my wife until late and then stumbled home and caught a few hours of sleep before THE GAME. When the game was over, I went to the hospital to see my wife and new daughter.

My wife took one look at my face when I walked into her room and cried out, “Is something wrong with Michelle?” I replied, “No, but it’s almost that bad. We lost to Texas.”

At least that always made it easy to remember the exact date of the Big Shootout.

Ray Kaemmerlin, Little Rock

Sports, Pages 36 on 12/06/2009

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