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Wisener: Hog fans left with rueful Little Rock memories
Arkansas kicks off to Missouri as fans cheer on the Hogs during the third quarter of the Razorbacks' 24-14 loss to Missouri on Friday, Nov. 29, 2019, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
The man sitting to my left in the press box worked for a Missouri newspaper and asked a question or two about War Memorial Stadium.
Such as, how long have the Razorbacks have played there and, if I did not misunderstand him, why?
The answer to the first question is easy and was flashed on the scoreboard at times on Thanksgiving Friday.
War Memorial Stadium has been the University of Arkansas football team’s home away from home since 1948, when Harry Truman was president and John Barnhill coached the Razorbacks. A surprise Southwest Conference title and Cotton Bowl appearance (scoreless tie against LSU) in 1946, Barnhill’s first season at UA, underscored the need for a Little Rock playing site larger than Quigley Stadium on the Central High campus.
Seeing the need for expansion, “the fans were growing up right along with the program,” Orville Henry, the Razorbacks’ most faithful historian, would write years later.
Razorback tickets, both in Little Rock and on the Fayetteville campus, “became awfully scarce,” in the words of my late mom, after a 6-0 victory over Ole Miss in 1954 set the state afire about UA football, then coached by Bowden Wyatt. In what remains one of the most famous plays in program history, Buddy Bob Benson passed to a wide-open Preston Carpenter in the fourth quarter to break a scoreless tie in a battle of unbeaten teams.
My football upbringing stems from afternoons and nights spent in Section 4 at War Memorial Stadium and old Section M at Razorback Stadium. My mom and dad, season-ticket holders when it did not require a bank loan to buy a seat, took me to games, and it wasn’t long before we visited every Southwest Conference stadium.
And, what moments to remember: Watching the Texas A&M cadet corps march into Kyle Field and hearing the drum roll before the Showband of the Southwest played “The Eyes of Texas” at Memorial Stadium in Austin. I remember sitting in the fog one day at Rice Stadium, and squirming in my seat at the Cotton Bowl on a November Saturday before President John F. Kennedy came to Dallas the following Friday.
Little Rock, because of its proximity to Glenwood, my hometown, proved a fun place for Razorback watching and general socializing. It was there as a tot that I detected the smell of cigar smoke and had an alcoholic beverage (it wasn’t beer) spilled on me by an enthusiastic fan. I remember the public-address announcer first coining the nickname “Light Horse” for one Harry Jones, a bolt of lightning from Oklahoma who in 1965 made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
And sitting in the rain in 1971 while Joe Ferguson passed Texas silly in a 31-7 Razorback victory, Arkansas’ first in the series since 12-7 at Austin in 1966. My best friend in high school was alongside and, something less of a football fanatic than myself, wanted to leave at halftime. Not a chance, he was told, rain intensifying: “I’ve waited a long time for this.”
My folks balked at the priority seating arrangements UA imposed in those days, hence I watched the 1972 Arkansas-USC game from the south end zone at War Memorial. Someone (it might have been Mike Reppond) dropped a home-run pass from Ferguson and a 31-10 Trojan rout ensued. I swear that the earth shook when the USC players got off buses in the east parking lot before kickoff.
On a happier occasion, Arkansas beat Texas A&M 31-6 for a share of the 1975 SWC title and a Cotton Bowl trip. Situated low on the west side near the south end zone, a ticket purchased outside the stadium, I observed “the immortal Teddy Barnes” (Broyles’ words) cradle the touchdown pass from fifth-year man Scott Bull that broke it open against the nation’s second-ranked team, which had just trounced Texas.
A&M beat Arkansas on the same site in 1976 — the SWC schedule was changed that year with the addition of Houston — and heading home, I vowed not to return unless the Razorbacks changed coaches. About to turn off Markham Street onto University Avenue, I heard the UA radio guy say that freshman quarterback Houston Dale Nutt, playing in his hometown, was “telling Coach Broyles that we can still pull this out.” (Little did we know.)
Lou Holtz, surely the quirkiest man ever to coach the Razorbacks, turned the state wild again in 1977, the first UA team in 20 years without Broyles on the sideline. An Ohio native who had coached in New York and was slow to grasp local customs, Lou wore a green sweater to a Little Rock game one night. He was inundated with red sweaters before the next game.
Holtz lost his first two games against Texas, the measuring stick for success, before breaking through in 1979 at Little Rock. Orville Henry’s game story in the next day’s Arkansas Gazette began, “Arkansas 17, Texas 14. Does anything else matter on this glorious day?”
It would be 1998 before I heard the stadium louder. On that night, Arkansas beat Kentucky when Clint Stoerner outdueled Tim Couch, and David Barrett collected what was not yet then called a pick-six interception off the otherwise flawless Couch. Coaching the Razorbacks then was a man who once played on the same field for Central High and briefly, under Holtz, at Arkansas. Chap named Houston Dale Nutt. (Little did we know.)
Carlos Hall blocked a field goal at the south end to preserve a 10-7 win over South Carolina in 2001 — Nutt over Holtz. Razorback Nation shook after the 2002 game against LSU — Nutt over Nick Saban – thanks to the most famous play ever at War Memorial. Like Benson to Carpenter against Ole Miss in ‘54, no one who saw Matt Jones pass to DeCori Birmingham, in the southwest corner of the stadium, can forget the “Miracle on Markham.”
A family member, seeing no hope for victory, went to town for a quart of milk. No sooner than he entered the grocery, someone said, “You’ll never believe how the Razorbacks pulled it out?”
The Arkansas-Missouri game Friday lacked the tension and quality associated with WMS classics. Missouri, winning 24-14 under a coach (Barry Odom) who would be fired the next day, and Arkansas, under interim coach Barry Lunney Jr., played out the string. A game, a season and a decade of Razorback football (in the most part) to forget.
It was my first Razorback game both in person and at the stadium since Georgia rolled in 2014. What I once called the madhouse on Markham has become a mausoleum. Someone else occupied my old seat in Section 4, I guess, and probably without squirming for room.
I was left with rueful memories from great games of yesteryear. Come to think of it, I never did answer the Missouri guy’s question about why the Razorbacks, with a larger on-campus stadium, still play there.
Then again, lots of things about the UA program no longer make sense.
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