An Arkansan’s Cotton Bowl memories

I chuckled Sunday night when I heard someone ask whether players at the University of Arkansas were disappointed by being invited to the Cotton Bowl.

Disappointed?

There was a time when making the Cotton Bowl was the goal for the Razorbacks and their fans.

I was 6 years old 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 together on our black-and-white television set at home) to win the Football Writers Association of America’s Grantland Rice Trophy as the 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, 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 Associated Press had changed the way it did business (UPI would not change until 1973). All the 10-0 and No. 2 Razorbacks needed was a win over a 7-3 LSU squad coached by Arkansas native Charles McClendon, along with a loss by No. 1 Michigan State to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State did lose to UCLA that day, but the Razorbacks couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Razorback fever was at an all-time high across our state, and I was caught up in the euphoria. My father, who was in the sporting goods business, knew Coach McClendon and wanted me to meet him. I had no interest. I just didn’t care at age 6 that the LSU head coach hailed from Lewisville in my native southwest Arkansas.

Home base in Dallas for my mother, my father, my older sister and I would be the Baker Hotel on the northeast corner of Commerce and Akard downtown. On the weekend of the Texas-Oklahoma football game, the Baker was headquarters for Texas alumni. Oklahoma alums would be at the Adolphus across the street.

In my old family home at Arkadelphia, there are still a couple of wooden hangers from the Baker. I’m not sure we were supposed to have taken those, but we did.

We ate dinner that first night in Dallas at one of the hotel’s restaurants, the Baker’s Dozen, surrounded by folks dressed in red. We attended the Cotton Bowl parade downtown.

Arkansas hadn’t defeated LSU since 1929. The two schools had 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 play out according to form as the Razorbacks 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 running well.

Who could have guessed that Arkansas would not score again?

Brittenum left the game with a shoulder injury and 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 would score 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 sad ride home to Arkadelphia the next day.

Still, I was hooked. I’ve been to 19 Cotton Bowls now.

For eight consecutive seasons (I “retired” after the game two years ago), I would leave on the day after Christmas and spend a week in Dallas assisting native Arkansan Charlie Fiss. Charlie is the Cotton Bowl’s vice president of communications. I had gone to lunch with him on March 23, 2002, when he was in Little Rock for the memorial service for sportswriting legend Orville Henry.

Following the service at Little Rock Central High School, Charlie asked, “Why don’t you be one of our media volunteers at the Cotton Bowl?”

I agreed on the spot.

For decades, reaching the Cotton Bowl was the goal of every Arkansas fan. A Cotton Bowl trip meant the Razorbacks had won the Southwest Conference championship. Dallas on New Year’s Day was Mecca, and all true Razorback followers wanted to be there. It was one of the Big Four on New Year’s Day along with the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. People across the country would watch Lindsey Nelson call the Cotton Bowl on CBS and then turn over to NBC for the Sugar, Rose and Orange bowls.

Having been left out of the BCS due in part to an aging stadium and uncertain weather in north Texas at the first of January, the Cotton Bowl no longer enjoys the status it once did, though the move to Cowboys Stadium has things looking up. For Arkansans my age and older, the Cotton Bowl remains special.

In our Christmas stockings, my sister and I were given tickets to the Jan. 1, 1971, game between Notre Dame and Texas. The Longhorns had a 30-game winning streak and were looking to win a second consecutive national championship. The Irish won, 24-11, as we sat in the upper deck with my two male cousins from Austin experiencing the same pain of watching a national title slip away that I had experienced five years earlier when LSU upset Arkansas. Ironically, the second half of the Notre Dame-Texas game was scorelesss, just as had been the case in the Arkansas-LSU game.

The next surprise Christmas stocking tickets were for Arkansas’ game against Georgia on Jan. 1, 1976. I was in high school by then, and my sister was a college graduate who could drive us to Dallas. We watched family friend Tommy Harris (the younger brother of then-Dallas Cowboy free safety Cliff Harris) break up a no-huddle, reverse pass to the Georgia quarterback. Harris 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 of those yards on the first play after the fumble recovery. Forte covered the final yard, and Arkansas tied the game at the half, 10-10. The Razorbacks ended up winning easily, 31-10.

In college, I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper. Choosing New Orleans over Dallas, I saw Arkansas lose to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following the 1979 season.

After having covered Arkansas in the Hall of Fame Bowl at Birmingham against Tulane on a cold, dreary night in December 1980 , I decided to spend another New Year’s Day with the Crimson Tide, this time at the Cotton Bowl.

The highlight of that trip came at a luncheon the day before the game when I found myself seated with Bill Whitmore, the veteran sports information director at Rice University, and the famed Texas journalist Mickey Herskowitz, the only sportwswriter to have actually covered Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Texas A&M preseason camp in Junction, Texas, in 1954.

At the end of the luncheon, Bryant came over to our table and began sharing stories with Herskowitz and Whitmore. As a 21-year-old, small-town sports editor who had grown up in awe of Bryant, all I could do was sit there and listen.

More memorable than the 30-2 Alabama victory over Baylor was when a reporter asked Bryant this question after the game: “Coach, in your wildest dreams did you ever think you would so competely shut down this Baylor offense?”

Bryant replied, “Son, at my age, I don’t have wild dreams.”

I made it to the Cotton Bowl four more times in the 1980s. As the editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper, I obtained passes to watch Pittsburgh beat SMU on Jan. 1, 1983. Two years later, I was in the stands on a cold day to see Boston College play Houston. Boston College’s Doug Flutie was the seventh Heisman Trophy winner to make a New Year’s Day appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Just weeks earlier, Flutie had made the play of the year in college football, his last-second pass to beat the defending national champion from Miami. Flutie led his team to a 45-28 win over Houston.

I was living in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s but made it back to see Texas A&M beat Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1988, and UCLA beat Arkansas a year later. On Jan. 1, 1990, I joined my wife of less than three months in watching Arkansas lose to Tennessee.

At the end of the 2001 season, we took our two sons (then ages 8 and 4) to their first Cotton Bowl. We stayed at a Fairfield Inn nestled between the warehouses on Regal Row, the place where Tom Landry used to house the Dallas Cowboys on the nights before home games in the 1970s. It was a Holiday Inn in those days.

My family would stay at that hotel with the team whenever we went down to watch Cliff Harris play during the 1970s. My father and Cliff’s father had been roommates at Ouachita in the 1940s.

As my boys joined their fellow Arkansans in calling the Hogs during dinner at Pappadeaux on the night before an Arkansas loss to Oklahoma, I thought back to that meal with my parents and sister at the Baker’s Dozen 36 years earlier.

Jan. 1, 2002, dawned cloudy. It was 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 would not get 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, though, they talked about how much fun they had. Like thousands of Arkansans before them, they had begun their own love affair with the Cotton Bowl.

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