Arkansas fans still sore over 1969 defeat
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 1:17 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK - College football's 1969 Game of the Century was, as one Razorback fan recalls, supposed to be Arkansas' turn to have the spotlight to itself.
The team held a No. 2 national ranking, the nation's eyes were on Fayetteville for a game likely to determine a national championship, the Rev. Billy Graham came in to give the invocation and President Nixon held court in the stands.
And on the field as presumptive victim: Arkansas' archrival, top-ranked Texas. The game was so anticipated that it was rescheduled from October to December at ABC's request.
The Longhorns pulled off a stunning last-minute 15-14 win, taking the spotlight with them as they left the Ozarks and stamping out the embers of what many Arkansas faithful prayed would become a glowing dynasty in the mountains.
That was 35 years ago this season, and the pain remains so fresh that many Arkansans cannot forgive, much less forget - as they showed this past week.
"Sometimes suffering will bring people together more than celebration will. I think the whole state mourned, and some people still haven't gotten over it," said Rick Schaeffer, a former Arkansas sports information director.
An expected commemoration of "The Big Shootout," as the 1969 game is known, was originally scheduled to take place when the teams meet in Fayetteville again on Sept. 11. But Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles canceled those plans, saying they had become too controversial.
Instead, he said, a halftime ceremony will be held to honor the undefeated 1964 Arkansas team that claims a disputed national championship.
Broyles' decision apparently was made based on complaints from Razorback fans, many of whom vitriolically voiced opposition to the 1969 Longhorns being recognized on the field where they beat Arkansas on their way to a national championship.
"I agree with the decision, because I don't think we should honor them for beating us in one of the best games of all time," said fan Seth Cobb of Fayetteville.
Others feel differently.
Terry Frei, who wrote "Horns, Hogs & Nixon Coming - Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie's Last Stand" about the 1969 season and "The Big Shootout," said it was an event worth commemorating.
"Both teams deserve to be honored, and to not do so because of some sense of chagrin that one team did not win fails to recognize the diverse values of the athletic experience - for all concerned," he said via e-mail. "This decision, if made because of the score of the game, confirms that we have lost sight of the true value of sports. Valor does not come only with winning."
Bruce James of Little Rock, who played defensive end for the Razorbacks in the shootout, agrees.
"I call it Texasphobia. It's an obsession. It's a phobia. It's been 35 years," he said. "I enjoyed playing against the University of Texas, because they were the best. I don't think the players hate the University of Texas. A lot of them are from there.
"The players have gotten over it. Why can't the fans get over it?"
Schaeffer believes that it's because the stage was perfectly set, but the curtain came down early.
The nation's attention was on Fayetteville and the matchup of who many consider to be that year's two best teams. Competition between Broyles' Razorbacks and Darrell Royal's Longhorns had been blistering throughout the 1960s.
The game was so anticipated, even in the preseason, that ABC asked that it be rescheduled for the end of the season - one of the first times a game was moved to accommodate television. Numerous national dignitaries were in attendance.
And it was Arkansas' chance to win a national title outright. The 1964 team had been declared champions by some organizations after a bowl win, but that year the wire services declared champions at the end of the regular season and had anointed Alabama.
Everything in "The Big Shootout" went according to script for the Razorbacks through three quarters, with Arkansas outplaying Texas and leading 14-0 going into the fourth. Then hopes began crumbling.
Texas quarterback James Street made it 14-8 with a 42-yard touchdown run and a 2-point conversion. Later in the quarter, on fourth-and-3, Royal called a seldom-used pass play and Street hit tight end Randy Peschel for 44 yards to set up Jim Bertlesen's winning touchdown.
"It was a humongous letdown," Schaeffer said.
Ronnie Hammers of Marshall, Texas, who played right guard for Arkansas that day, still believes the Razorbacks should have won. And he understands why some fans are still so hurt.
"There was so much built up about it and the way everything went down with it being on national television and Nixon coming. It's hard for people to get over it. It was the most exciting week of my life.
"I still wake up in the middle of the night and think about it."
Aside from everything at stake in 1969, Arkansas-Texas was still one of the nation's premier rivalries. But the teams quit playing each other regularly when Arkansas defected from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference after the 1991 season.
The schools have played twice since, with Arkansas winning both games - 27-6 in the 2000 Cotton Bowl and 38-28 last year in Austin, Texas. No regular-season games are scheduled after this year's.
All the emotion wrapped up in the 1969 game seems to have infused the decision about whether or not to officially recognize the anniversary this year. Razorback Foundation president Chuck Dicus, another 1969 Arkansas player, is so upset over the situation he's refused to discuss it since the day the cancellation was announced.
Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said he's heard no complaints from his boosters. The school was not coordinating with Arkansas on commemoration festivities and does not plan its own anniversary celebration, he said.
"Our folks are saying, 'Get your mind out of the past and win this game this year,"' he said.
Dodds does acknowledge that "The Big Shootout" remains a source of pride for Longhorns.
"It was a great game at a great time with two terrific coaches. It was a wonderful happening and people won't forget it," he said. "But I think people are more concerned about what we're doing today."
Schaeffer said every time a replay of the game runs on ESPN Classic, which it does about five times a year, he can watch the first three quarters but agony over the loss remains so intense he has to turn it off in the fourth.
Broyles goes a step farther.
"I've never looked at the film, never intend to, won't read the book and don't want to talk about it," he said. "I haven't forgotten about it and won't until I go to my grave."
Associated Press writer Rainer Sabin contributed to this report from Fayetteville.
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