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Back in the game

Hendrix College’s gridiron past enlightens its future by EVIN DEMIREL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | September 1, 2013 at 3:23 a.m.

The Hendrix College football team has 54 players. Hendrix started fall camp with 56 players, but two players left the team. Also, Vance Strange, a former Hendrix football player and current booster, said that it's projected that a roster of 65-70 Hendrix football players would annually produce about $1.8 million to $1.9 million revenue for the school.

In cinema, this has been the summer of the rehash: Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Man of Steel, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6. A glance down the list of top-grossing movies of 2013 makes no bones about it-when there’s money to be made, nothing more dependably does the job than going with the tried and true.

Turns out, this line of thinking also applies to the world of higher education.

Many small liberal-arts colleges across the nation shuttered their football programs in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, in part to save money. But in the last couple of decades, many of those same colleges have developed long-term growth plans that depend on a significant increase in student population and the attendant boost in revenue their tuition and board payments would bring.

A new football team typically means an immediate infusion of 80-100 new students. Which can mean something in the vicinity of $3 million after those new football players’ tuition and board payments are totaled.

An all-time high of 12 U.S. colleges are starting or restarting football programs this fall. That number includes Hendrix College, which resuscitates its program after 53 years of dormancy. The Warriors kick off their new era Saturday in Conway against Missouri’s Westminster College.

Although its program sputtered in the 1950s, Hendrix had a highly successful program in previous decades. It twice tied the University of Arkansas and lost in a 14-7 contest in 1926 that attracted 6,000 people-said to be the most spectators to attend a sports event in Arkansas to that point. In 1913, the Hendrix Bulldogs beat Ole Miss 8-6.

Hendrix no longer competes against Southeastern Conference teams. Playing in a separate classification with a roster of 56 student-athletes, it will compete against the likes of Rhodes College and Sewanee, one of the SEC’s 13 original members.

In today’s world, none of these schools could seriously hope to beat an SEC football program. They would do well to lose by less than 100 points. But strange things happened in the collegiate sports landscape of a century ago. A look at Hendrix football history proves it.

This isn’t news to history buffs, but there are quite a few surprises for the rest of us.

For instance …

Now: Increasing concern over long-term effects of concussions has become a major issue at every level of football. Mounting scientific evidence indicates the accumulated neural damage left by sub-concussive hits, an integral part of a violent sport like football, may pose a serious threat to the popularity of the game among future generations. It’s conceivable incessant rule changes will, in coming decades, turn the game into a less violent sport not recognizable as football by today’s fans.

Then: In the 1890s, football was much more brutal. There was no forward pass, and much of the game resembled a rugby scrum. Nationwide, a few players died each year. Like other critics across the nation, the editor of the Hendrix student newspaper sought a drastic solution. “It is now time for all colleges to abolish football and establish a game which has more of the humane in it,” he wrote in an 1894 issue of the Mirror.

His call wasn’t heeded; soon the sport became a national craze.

Now: Concussion prevention and treatment is important to today’s Hendrix coaches, trainers and administrators. “It’s clearly high on our priority list of doing everything we can to minimize” concussion effects, Hendrix acting President Ellis Arnold said. “I think it’s a matter of ways in which we can monitor closely” developments in technology and cognitive testing that potentially reduce neural damage from the sport.

Then: In the early 1900s, many football coaches had a narrow definition of “injury.”

Evidence comes from 1927, during the freshman season of former Hendrix football star Elmer Smith. In his autobiography, Smith recalled playing through a practice with a broken left hand. After the scrimmage, he saw a bone sticking through his skin and tried to grit it out. But as the pain and swelling got worse, he decided to head to the training room. There he saw head coach Ivan Grove.

“Coach, I think I have a broken hand,” he said. Grove replied: “Get the hell out of here, we don’t pay attention to anything but broken arms and legs.”

Smith said that reaction taught him to be tougher and more prepared to meet future challenges. “There was a vast difference between pain and disabling injury, and the quicker one learned, the more adjusted he would be,” Smith wrote in his autobiography This Really Happened.

Grove proved in other ways, too, he was more old-school than a Will Ferrell-Vince Vaughn collaboration. When he felt his players had lost focus in practice, he unleashed a drill in which the backs (the position which primarily carried the ball) lined up across from the linemen (those who blocked for the backs).

“On his command we would bend at the waist looking down at the line and run full speed toward each other until we collided head-on,” Smith wrote. “The back had to hold on to the ball at least as long as he was conscious.”

Smith recalled once colliding with a teammate named Jep Evans and both falling the same way. Their heads, protected by only a thin piece of felt covered with leather, hit the ground. “When we opened our eyes we were within six inches of each others [sic] nose and he started singing, ‘tweet-tweet-tweet the birdies sing.’”

Now: Vanderbilt University is the only private school left in the SEC, the nation’s most powerful college football conference.

Then: Vanderbilt deeply influenced Hendrix athletics.

For starters, Hendrix adopted orange and black as its school colors from the Nashville, Tenn., school, according to James Lester’s Hendrix College: A Centennial History. It happened in the mid-1890s at the advice of football coach George Millar.

Millar got his graduate degree from Vanderbilt, where he played football and tennis. When he returned to his alma mater Hendrix, he recommended the school adopt Vanderbilt’s colors, which had apparently been taken from Princeton University and have since evolved to black and gold.

Millar, impressively, coached every Hendrix sport while teaching math, French and German, Lester wrote.

Hendrix’s first football stadium also had a Vanderbilt link.

Before Martin Roberts designed the 5,000-seat Young Memorial Stadium in the early 1920s, the Nashville, Tenn., native had designed the Vanderbilt Commodores’ athletic field. When Young Memorial Stadium was dedicated in October 1923, nearly every business in Conway closed at noon, and “Arkansas Governor Thomas McRae ordered all state Capitol offices to close early to enable officials to be in Conway for the one o’clock ceremony,” Lester wrote.

In 1924, coach Grove made his Hendrix debut at Young Memorial. His team beat what is now the University of Memphis 51-0.

Now: The National Collegiate Athletic Association forbids its student-athletes from receiving payments or gifts from boosters-supporters who donate to the player’s program. The college athlete is supposed to be an amateur, and such payments jeopardize what the NCAA defines as amateur status.

Then: The NCAA was in its infancy and Hendrix, like hundreds of other football-playing schools across the nation, wasn’t a member. Less bureaucracy surrounding the game meant fewer rules and less manpower to enforce them.

Case in point: In 1924, Hendrix football player Wright Salter received a knitted necktie from Keith’s Millinery Shop for blocking the first pass of an opponent during a Thanksgiving Day game, Lester wrote. Salter’s teammate Bill Meriwether won a fruitcake for his sterling play that same game.

Such gifts were a drop in the bucket compared to subsidies going to players at bigger schools. Those programs began subsidizing their student-athletes for room, board, tuition and sometimes spending money, Lester wrote. Meanwhile, Hendrix didn’t give athletic scholarships. To compensate, Elmer Smith worked a job that entailed waking up at 3:30 every morning.

The big school/small school disparity grew increasingly great in the 1930s. Hendrix lost its last game to the Razorbacks 63-0, and wins against rivals such as what are now Arkansas Tech University and Henderson State University became more rare.

By the 1950s, it became apparent Hendrix simply couldn’t hang with many of its opponents in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. In the late 1950s, while other AIC schools gave scholarships to 40 players, Hendrix was giving partial aid to 25 players, according to Lester. As win totals nose-dived, so did attendance.

According to one Hendrix faculty member’s account in A Centennial History, seven Hendrix students attended their team’s last game of the 1960 season against

Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia. Its football program was dropped that December.

In the next iteration of Hendrix football, the Warriors won’t have to worry about hanging with the big boys. Hendrix won’t play the University of Arkansas, which stands at the highest level of the NCAA’s Division I. It won’t play the University of Central Arkansas, which plays at a lower Division I level. It won’t even play its old AIC rivals, who now belong to Division II. Hendrix finds its home in Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships. Student-athletes pay most of their own way, which is why football is seen as a promising revenue generator at this level.

Hendrix leaders don’t expect the Warriors to compete with UA or UCA on the field, or off the field in terms of popularity.

But talk to President Arnold, or head coach Buck Buchanan, and it’s clear they expect these new Warriors will entice Conway residents with an exciting option among weekend entertainment choices. They believe that over the next few autumns, Hendrix football will provide a high-quality product on the field. Good enough, presumably, to cost the next installment of the Fast & Furious or Iron Man franchise a few Saturday matinee dollars.

Evin Demirel writes about local sports and society at Hear more about this story on KUAR, FM 89.1 and at in the coming week.

Freelancer Evin Demirel has written for Sync magazine, the New York Times, Arkansas Life magazine and Sporting Life Arkansas. He Tweets here and blogs about Arkansas sports at

Perspective, Pages 77 on 09/01/2013

Print Headline: Back in the game


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