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OPINION | REX NELSON: New Year's, Hog-style

by Rex Nelson | January 1, 2022 at 3:35 a.m.


It will be nice to start 2022 watching a Razorback football game. It has been far too long since the University of Arkansas played on New Year's Day.

I grew up in an era when New Year's Day marked the end of the college football season. In Arkansas, the goal was to win the Southwest Conference and earn a bid to the Cotton Bowl, played on the afternoon of Jan. 1 in Dallas.

Dallas on New Year's Day was Mecca, and all true Razorback followers wanted to be there, filling the downtown hotels and visiting with friends from across the state. It was one of the Big Four along with the Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl. People across the country would watch Lindsey Nelson call the Cotton Bowl for CBS before turning over to NBC for the Sugar, Rose and Orange bowls.

I was 6 when I attended my first Cotton Bowl. The Razorbacks had the nation's longest winning streak at 22 games. They had defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl a year earlier (a game my family watched on our black-and-white television at home in Arkadelphia) to win the Football Writers Association of America's Grantland Rice Trophy as national champion.

The Associated Press and United Press International awarded their national championships at the end of the regular season in those days, and the final wire-service polls had Alabama No. 1 and Arkansas No. 2. Arkansas' 10-7 victory over Nebraska on Jan. 1, 1965, combined with Alabama's loss to Texas in the Orange Bowl later that day, gave Arkansas a claim to what's still its only national title in football.

By late 1965, the AP had changed the way it did business (UPI wouldn't change until 1973). The final poll would come after the bowl games. All the 10-0 and No. 2 Razorbacks needed was a win over a 7-3 LSU squad coached by Arkansas native Charles McClendon, coupled with a loss by No. 1 Michigan State to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Michigan State lost to UCLA that day, but the Razorbacks couldn't hold up their end of the equation.

Razorback fever was at an all-time high, and I was caught up in the euphoria. My father, who sold athletic supplies across the region, knew McClendon and wanted me to meet him. I had no interest. I didn't care at age 6 that the LSU head coach hailed from Lewisville in my native southwest Arkansas. He was the enemy.

Home base was the Baker Hotel on the northeast corner of Commerce and Akard downtown. On the weekend of the annual Texas-Oklahoma game, the Baker was headquarters for Texas alumni while OU alums stayed at the Adolphus across the street.

Arkansas hadn't defeated LSU since 1929. The two schools battled to a scoreless tie in the 1947 Cotton Bowl. On this first day of 1966, though, Arkansas was a heavy favorite.

It appeared as if the game would go according to form when the Hogs drove 87 yards in 11 plays on their second possession to score. Jon Brittenum threw 19 yards to Bobby Crockett for the touchdown. Harry Jones and Bobby Burnett were having success running the ball.

Who could have guessed Arkansas wouldn't score again? Brittenum left the game with a shoulder injury. His replacement, Ronny South, fumbled on his first play at quarterback. LSU went 34 yards following the fumble recovery to take a 14-7 lead with 18 seconds left in the first half. Neither team scored in the second half. The game ended with Arkansas on the LSU 24.

It was a sad cab ride back to the Baker and a quiet ride home the next day. But I was hooked. I've attended 19 Cotton Bowls through the years.

My sister and I received Cotton Bowl tickets in our Christmas stockings for the Jan. 1, 1976, game between Arkansas and Georgia. I was in high school, and my sister was a college graduate who promised to drive us to Dallas.

We watched family friend Tommy Harris (the younger brother of Dallas Cowboy free safety Cliff Harris) break up a no-huddle, reverse pass to the Georgia quarterback. That caused a fumble on the so-called shoestring play, and Hal McAfee recovered at the Georgia 13 with 25 seconds left in the first half.

Scott Bull passed to Ike Forte for 12 yards on the first play after the fumble recovery. Forte covered the final yard, and the score was tied 10-10 at halftime. The Razorbacks wound up winning easily, 31-10. The four-hour drive east to Arkadelphia on Interstate 30 was a happy one with Razorback fans honking and waving to each other the entire way.

At the end of the 2001 season, my wife and I took our two sons (then ages 8 and 4) to their first Cotton Bowl. We stayed at a Fairfield Inn nestled between warehouses on Regal Row, the place where Tom Landry would house his Cowboys on nights before home games in the 1970s. It was a Holiday Inn back then. My family stayed there whenever we went to Dallas to watch Cliff Harris play.

Our boys joined their fellow Arkansans in calling the Hogs during dinner the night before an Arkansas loss to Oklahoma. I thought back to a meal my parents, my sister and I had at the Baker Hotel 36 years earlier when I called the Hogs.

Jan. 1, 2002, dawned with a chance of snow in the forecast. It was still dark outside--the Fox Network-dictated 10:30 a.m. kickoff meant an early wake-up call--as we put on multiple layers of clothes. The temperature never got out of the 30s that day.

The boys were disappointed with Arkansas' 10-3 loss, just as I had been disappointed at the end of my first Cotton Bowl.

On the ride home the next day, however, they talked about how much fun they had. Like thousands of Arkansans before them, they had begun a love affair with seeing the Hogs play on New Year's Day.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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