War Memorial Stadium, the historic facility in the middle of Little Rock, has been in the news this year. Tuesday will mark the 70th anniversary of the first game played at the stadium.
March saw the release of a study that said the stadium needed about $17 million in upgrades to remain viable in the years ahead. The report from Conventions, Sports & Leisure International was commissioned by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, which operates the stadium. Suggested upgrades included everything from replacing the artificial turf on the field to addressing what the report called "antiquated and significantly undersized" food-service facilities.
In May, it was announced that the University of Arkansas had reached an agreement with the Parks and Tourism Department to continue playing Razorback football games at War Memorial Stadium. This surprised many sports observers who had stated with confidence that the Razorbacks' Oct. 13 game against the University of Mississippi would end the long tradition of UA football in the capital city.
Had Jeff Long remained as UA athletic director, Little Rock games likely would have become a thing of the past. Long, now the athletic director at the University of Kansas, was fired last year and replaced by Hunter Yurachek from the University of Houston. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and members of the UA Board of Trustees made clear to UA officials that they felt playing in Little Rock was important, and those officials got the message.
The Razorbacks will play the University of Missouri in Southeastern Conference games at War Memorial Stadium in 2019, 2021 and 2023. Razorback teams have played at the stadium each season since in opened in 1948. Next month's game against Ole Miss will mark the 71st consecutive season of Razorback football at the stadium.
"For 70 years, University of Arkansas football games at War Memorial Stadium have been a part of our program's rich history and our state's heritage," Yurachek said at the time of the announcement. "We're pleased that through our partnership with the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, we will be able to continue this Razorback tradition while also ensuring our program is in a position to compete successfully in the SEC and nationally. Throughout this process, I sought and listened to many passionate Razorbacks from every corner of our state and beyond. While those conversations provided varying perspectives, they collectively reaffirmed my belief that this state is unified in our desire to see the Razorback program succeed."
In August, War Memorial was back in the news when more than 30,000 fans attending the annual Salt Bowl football game between Benton High School and Bryant High School began rushing out of the stadium, based on rumors that gunshots had been fired. There was no gun, but stadium personnel announced that they'll institute additional security procedures for future games.
That's a lot of news in 2018 for a 70-year-old facility. But it's nothing compared with the political wrangling that went on in the years leading up to the stadium's construction.
According to longtime Arkansas sportswriter Jim Bailey, the Razorbacks were "just kind of a once-a-year curiosity" in Little Rock's Quigley Stadium prior to completion of the new stadium.
The late Orville Henry, lead chronicler of UA athletics for decades as sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, said John Barnhill recognized the importance of playing more games in Little Rock after being hired to coach the Razorbacks in 1946. Barnhill, a Tennessee native, had been a star player in the 1920s for legendary Robert Neyland at the University of Tennessee. He was 27-3 in three seasons as a high school coach at Bristol in east Tennessee and was hired by Neyland as the freshman coach at his college alma mater in 1931. Barnhill became the head coach at Tennessee in 1941 when Neyland reported for military duty. Arkansas hired Barnhill after Neyland returned to Tennessee from military service at the end of World War II.
In a story for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly in 2016, four scholars from Louisiana State University (Chad Seifried, Carli Faulkner, Samantha Baker and James Piker) wrote that Barnhill "was dissatisfied with a schedule that annually situated available home games against Ole Miss and Tulsa in Memphis and Tulsa respectively because facilities in those cities could each seat 28,000. In November 1946, Arkansas beat Rice and earned an opportunity to play in the Cotton Bowl as the Southwest Conference champion. Barnhill and prominent businessmen such as Aetna general manager Gordon Campbell and First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. president Herbert L. Thomas used the leverage this gave the program to pressure the state Legislature to develop a 'real' football stadium.
"Secretary of State C.G. 'Crip' Hall had championed a 1-cent cigarette tax to help finance the construction of a facility in Little Rock because it was the main population center of Arkansas. However, support remained weak until Barnhill decided to move the 1947 Arkansas-Texas game to Crump Stadium in Memphis in hopes that greater gate receipts would save the university's athletic department financially. After irate constituents complained, the Legislature passed a series of bills that provided $750,000 in revenue bonds for the 31,000-seat structure. But this support came with conditions. The Razorbacks had to play three to four games a year in Little Rock."
The four writers added that momentum for building a stadium in central Arkansas had increased as "Little Rock boomed and rural areas stagnated. ... Faced with out-migration and disappearing agricultural jobs, state government spearheaded a campaign to invite large and small companies to establish factories in Arkansas. Similar to other states competing for such business, Arkansas was compelled to invest public money in the construction of buildings that would enhance its image. Sports facilities were identified as one way communities could suggest they were modern."
Barnhill would later say that the construction of War Memorial Stadium "enabled us to stay in the Southwest Conference. Other conference teams were getting tired of paying us fat sums for playing before big crowds in Texas and getting much less money for playing to our small crowds at Fayetteville."
Interest in the Arkansas football program increased due to the popularity of running back Clyde "Smackover" Scott. Bob Cheyne, the school's first sports information director, said Scott "meant to Arkansas football stadiums what Babe Ruth had meant to Yankee Stadium."
Barnhill said: "The ticket situation was out of hand. I just had to move the games where there were seats available."
According to the Arkansas Historical Quarterly article: "Barnhill got Scott to travel throughout the state with him as he formed the first Razorback Clubs and sold bonds to underwrite construction of War Memorial. The Razorback Clubs were the university's first attempt to create a group able to assist with fundraising for the athletic program."
Henry, who became Gazette sports editor in 1943, realized that "the only thing everybody in Arkansas agreed upon was the Razorbacks." By 1947, his game stories were appearing on the front page of the Sunday newspaper. His extensive coverage helped increase interest in the team.
The cost of War Memorial Stadium was $1.2 million. Architect Bruce Anderson designed the stadium to seat 31,075. The first event was a game between the Razorbacks and a team from Abilene Christian University in Texas on Sept. 18, 1948. A former Razorback and a Medal of Honor recipient named Maurice "Footsie" Britt, who would go on to serve as Arkansas' lieutenant governor from 1967-71, was the honored guest during the dedication ceremony.
"Dedicated as a tribute to Arkansas soldiers who sacrificed their lives during world wars, the facility was also promoted as the state's premier football stadium," the Arkansas Historical Quarterly article stated. "Its two large grandstand seating areas and various amenities including restrooms and concessions, when compared with other major sports facilities, conveyed a certain legitimacy on the state and its football program. ... By the end of the 1950s, more Razorback football games took place in War Memorial Stadium than Razorback Stadium at Fayetteville because it was bigger and could better accommodate television."
After the Razorbacks won several versions of the national championship in 1964 under head coach Frank Broyles, more than $150,000 in state funds were spent to build end zone bleachers that increased the capacity to 53,555. In 1965, at the behest of Gov. Orval Faubus, the Legislature appropriated $200,000 for a new press box and elevator. The Football Writers Association of America later listed War Memorial Stadium as having the best press box for college football in the country.
"Prior to June 30, 1966, the War Memorial Stadium Commission collected another $230,000 from the sale of press box seats, and $500,000 was made available from a fund controlled by Faubus, a huge fan of Razorback football," the LSU scholars wrote. "The sale of a limited number of press box seats served as a renewable source of revenue for the state and the university athletic department because of the various luxuries those accommodations provided, including air conditioning, privileged restroom access and special concession options."
What became known as the Great Stadium Debate took place in 2000 when Broyles, who was by then the UA's athletic director, announced that the school would start playing more of its home games at Fayetteville. Gov. Mike Huckabee sided with Little Rock business leaders in an attempt to keep three games a year in Little Rock. The UA Board of Trustees voted to play two games a year in Little Rock under a new contract. That later was reduced to one game a year.
Now, at age 70, War Memorial Stadium finds itself as the host of occasional college games and as the state's premier facility for high school football.
"It is clear that War Memorial Stadium played a significant role in the development of Razorback football, which, in turn, prompted the improvement of Razorback Stadium, ultimately to Little Rock's detriment," the Arkansas Historical Quarterly article stated.
"The state built War Memorial Stadium so that the University of Arkansas could play a portion of its home games in a more centralized location with a larger population and stronger economy. The movement of games to Little Rock produced significant financial gains for the university, meaning it could avoid relegation to a lower-status conference.
"But as the population and economy of northwest Arkansas boomed, improvements to the local road and airport infrastructure made hosting home contests in Fayetteville more appealing, necessitating greater investment in Razorback Stadium."
Editorial on 09/16/2018
Print Headline: A real football stadium: Razorbacks' tradition of playing in Little Rock started some 70 years ago with construction of War Memorial