Ravine time

Those who know me well know that my favorite day of the year is the Saturday of the Battle of the Ravine.

There have been four Great American Conference championship trophies awarded in football since the GAC came into existence, and all four trophies reside in Arkadelphia — two at Ouachita Baptist University and two at Henderson State University.

Because both football programs have been good in recent years, this unique rivalry has received increased national attention.

Last month, Champion, the official magazine of the NCAA, featured the Battle of the Ravine in a story titled “The short walk.”

Jared Thompson wrote: “One college’s water turned purple. Across the road, red marshmallows rained from the sky. A future state governor set the other school’s party ablaze. One time, a homecoming queen was kidnapped. And no one recalls where the drag queens buried the tiger’s tail.

“This fall marks the 89th edition of the Battle of the Ravine. The pranks defining Division II’s oldest football series have been legendary. The football games have been extraordinary, too. The rivalry pits two schools separated by two lanes of U.S. Highway 67, over which the visiting team walks to its opponent’s field on game day in the shortest road trip in football. The ancestries supporting either side are entwined tighter than the kudzu that suffocates the nearby ravine from which the rivalry’s namesake was found. In Arkadelphia, you grow up cheering either for red or for purple. Yet credits transfer freely between the two schools, and students from one often take classes at the other. Where else might you see the starting quarterback sit next to an opposing lineman in biology class?”

When the writer called me for a quote, I told him that this is the small college version of Alabama-Auburn, a rivalry that divides families. As an Arkadelphia native, I also pointed out that it’s Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one for that town.

“Tiger fans still express zeal about the 1975 matchup,” Thompson wrote. “Ouachita converted a fourth-and-25 play by one inch and scored on its final drive to upset a previously undefeated Henderson team, 21-20. Reddies, meanwhile, point to as recently as 2013, when they emerged victorious after a triple-overtime affair to complete a second consecutive undefeated season. Henderson leads the series 42-40-6. The first game was played in 1895; the matchup was resurrected in 1907 and interrupted for World Wars I and II. Then the pranks and vandalism escalated, and officials suspended the game for 12 years after the 1951 contest. Nowadays, when game week arrives, school signs are wrapped in protective plastic, garbage bags or tarps.”

In the late 1940s, the game was promoted as the Biggest Little Football Game in America, a moniker initially used on the East Coast for the NCAA Division III rivalry between Williams College and Amherst College, who first played in 1884. The Nov. 10, 2007, game between Williams and Amherst in Williamstown, Mass., was selected as the location for ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” program. One of these days, the folks at ESPN will make the wise decision to bring that program to Arkadelphia and show the only time in college football in which the visiting team walks to a road game.

Yes, early on the afternoon of Nov. 14, state troopers will stop traffic on Highway 67, and the Reddies will walk across to play at Ouachita’s Cliff Harris Stadium after having put on their uniforms in their own dressing room. Shortly after 4 p.m., the troopers will stop traffic again, and the Reddies will trudge back across the highway. Of the 88 battles between the two schools, the game has been decided by a touchdown or less 39 times with Ouachita holding a 19-14-6 advantage in those games. Last year’s game was a bit of an anomaly in that there was a 21-point final margin. Ouachita won 41-20 in 39-degree weather at Henderson’s Carpenter-Haygood Stadium en route to an undefeated regular season.

Some of the best national publicity ever received by the Battle of the Ravine came two years ago, a few days before that triple-overtime game. Gregg Doyel, then of CBSSports.com, wrote a lengthy piece titled “Battle of Ravine: Can’t sum up D-II’s oldest rivalry in a football game.”

Doyel wrote: “It’s not easy to make a mark with a prank because the best ones have been done. So have the worst. There’s the tiger on campus at Ouachita, for example. For years it was missing a tail because kids at Henderson would sneak over and clip it off and bury it somewhere. Ouachita would replace it. The kids at Henderson would clip the new tail and bury it somewhere else. Ouachita eventually built a fence around its signature statue, but it had a smaller one at the school library. A young man dressed in drag — everyone swears that’s what happened — talked the Ouachita security officer into giving him the tiger for its ‘regular cleaning.’ The statue came back clean. And without a tail.”

Doyel went on to tell the famous (famous in Arkadelphia at least) story of Ann Strickland, the Ouachita homecoming queen: “Ann Strickland grew up in the shadow of both schools. She attended Ouachita but knew lots of kids at Henderson, which is why she got in the car with a few of them in late November 1946, shortly after being named the Ouachita homecoming queen. The Battle of the Ravine was in two days. Ouachita’s homecoming queen had just been kidnapped by Henderson.

“The kidnapped Ouachita homecoming queen was dating Ouachita star defensive back Bill Vining, so it wasn’t just the town that was looking for Ann Strickland — it was the team, too. Vining and teammate Ike Sharp got word that Strickland was being held in Arkadelphia at the Caddo Hotel, and they pounded on doors looking for her. Good thing they didn’t find her. According to legend, Ike Sharp was wearing overalls. According to legend, he was hiding a shotgun under his clothes.”

The “friendly” kidnapping had seen Strickland entertained at a house on Lake Hamilton. She was returned before the game, which Ouachita won, 26-16.

Following a scoreless tie in 1947, Ouachita won again in 1948. In 1949, Henderson led 14-0 in the fourth quarter.

Doyel wrote: “Enter Ike Sharp. The guy with the overalls and the shotgun. Sharp successfully booted three onside kicks — the last one just for spite — as the Tigers scored three times in the final 10 minutes to win, 17-14.

“Move ahead to 1975, to a game many consider the greatest in series history. By then Bill Vining — boyfriend of the kindnapped homecoming queen — was the basketball coach at Ouachita, which now plays in Bill Vining Arena. Well, by 1975, Bill and Ann Vining’s son was the quarterback on the Ouachita football team. That year Henderson came in at 9-0, a game ahead of Ouachita at 8-1. In the final minute, Ouachita trailed 20-14 and faced fourth-and-25 when Bill Vining Jr. completed a 25-yard pass to Gary Reese. Two plays later, he threw a touchdown to Ken Stuckey, and Ouachita won 21-20 to take Henderson’s spot in the national playoffs.

“Ann Strickland Vining died in August 2009. Over the years the homecoming queen’s house up on a hill had become a hangout spot for kids in Arkadelphia. They learned to swim in the Vining pool. On snow days they trooped up the Vining hill with sleds. Some of those kids went to Ouachita. Some went to Henderson.”

I was one of those kids, having grown up a block from the Vining home in the neighborhood known as Ouachita Hills.

How deep are the family ties at these schools?

David Sharp, one of my closest friends and the Ouachita athletic director since 1999, is the son of the aforementioned Ike Sharp. Our fathers played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s. When my dad accepted the job of head football coach at Newport High School following his graduation from Ouachita in the spring of 1948, it was Ike Sharp who drove my parents to Jackson County since they didn’t own a car.

David and his older brother, Paul, played in the Battle of the Ravine and later coached in the series as Ouachita assistants. Each year when Ouachita and Southwestern Oklahoma meet on the gridiron, they’re playing for the Paul Sharp Trophy, named in honor of the late coach who led Southwestern Oklahoma to an NAIA national championship.

During his first year as athletic director in 1999, David had to deal with an incident that became known as Trashcam. A Henderson graduate assistant coach took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice fields. As he was taping the Tiger practice, the graduate assistant was seen by a Ouachita player. The cameraman, realizing he had been spotted, sped away in his car, leaving the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, David removed the tape and returned the camera to Henderson. It was the proper thing to do. Though the rivalry is intense, these folks have to live with each other all year. They sit in the same pews at church and find themselves next to each other in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

To illustrate how families are divided by this rivalry, I give you none other than Cliff Harris, the former Dallas Cowboy star for whom Ouachita’s new stadium is named. Both Cliff and his father played for Ouachita. But his mother was a graduate of Henderson.

Though the stands and press box are new, the field at Ouachita is where it has been since the early 1960s. Even though the team for which I broadcast lost both times, two of the finest football games I’ve ever seen were the previous two Battles of the Ravine on that field.

Two years ago was the aforementioned three-overtime game as Henderson went undefeated in the regular season and Ouachita finished 7-3. The Reddies came in ranked fourth nationally in NCAA Division II by the American Football Coaches Association. Ouachita was only three or four plays away from being undefeated after close losses to Harding and Southern Arkansas.

This was a battle between two teams that simply refused to lose. Ouachita had Henderson down to fourth down twice in the second overtime — one play from victory — and both times the talented Reddie quarterback Kevin Rodgers completed passes that few other players in Division II could have completed. Even in defeat, Ouachita quarterback Benson Jordan (the grandson of former Ouachita head coach and Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee Buddy Benson) played the best game of his career. It was a pleasure just to say you attended that game.

Four years ago, Ouachita had already wrapped up the first Great American Conference championship. The Reddies roared to a 41-17 lead in the third quarter behind the play of Rodgers, who was a freshman at the time. People began heading for the exits at that point.

Then, Ouachita quarterback Casey Cooper hit wide receiver Brett Reece for a six-yard touchdown. Next, Cooper found tight end Phillip Supernaw for an eight-yard touchdown. Finally, sophomore tailback Chris Rycraw scored on a 12-yard run with 3:47 left to make it a one-possession game, 41-36.

On the kickoff, Henderson fumbled, and Ouachita’s Ryan Newsom recovered at the Reddie 29. Henderson held on downs, and the Reddies got the ball back with 2:15 remaining. Henderson needed just one first down to be able to run out the clock. That first down never came. Christian Latoof’s punt carried 35 yards, and Ouachita took over at its 47 with 43 seconds on the A.U. Williams Field clock.

Cooper completed a 13-yard pass to Rycraw. Then, a 29-yard pass to Reece gave the Tigers the ball at the Henderson 11. On third-and-five from the Reddie six, Cooper completed a pass to Reece, who was pulled down a yard away from the end zone. A Cooper pass on first-and-goal was broken up by Chuck Obi.

The clock showed six-tenths of a second remaining. There was time for one play.

Rycraw got the ball on a dive up the middle. There was a huge pile at the goal line. None of the officials signaled touchdown, though fans on the home side thought Rycraw had scored. Henderson had held on, 41-36.

That played will be debated as long as anyone is still alive who attended the game. Henderson fans will tell you it rates among the greatest games in the history of the series. Ouachita fans will insist that Rycraw scored.

I’m a Ouachita man so, of course, I’ll tell you that the 1975 game was the best. In fact, it’s the best college football game I’ve ever seen, at any level.

I usually arrive at the stadium three hours in advance of a Battle of the Ravine to prepare for the broadcast. It was brutally cold as I got out of the car at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium last year, and the skies were cloudy. All I could think was: “It feels just like 1975.”

You see, the Battle of the Ravine and I go way back.

I was a high school student in 1975 and was on the Ouachita sideline that day.

I’m 56 now and still feel like a kid on Christmas morning when Battle of the Ravine day arrives.

It all started on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 as Ouachita defeated what was then known as Arkansas Methodist College by a final score of 8-0 on the Ouachita side of the ravine.

Long may it continue.

Post to Twitter