Battle of the Ravine: The 90th edition

We became spoiled in recent years.

During the first five years of the Great American Conference, the GAC football championship resided in Arkadelphia.

It was won three times by the Reddies of Henderson State University.

It was won two times by the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University.

That means that a conference title was either on the line or already secured for at least one of the Arkadelphia teams each year from 2011 through 2015 going into the Battle of the Ravine.

The past five years have seen record crowds and unprecedented media coverage for the most unusual college football rivalry in America.

This year, the GAC title is headed to Searcy. Harding University is 10-0 and is playing Arkansas Tech on Saturday in an attempt to ensure it hosts its first game in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Henderson is 8-2 and still has an outside shot at a playoff slot. Most likely, though, the Reddies will head to a Division II bowl game with a victory Saturday.

Ouachita has been decimated by injuries this fall — the Tigers have lost their quarterback, best running back, best receiver, best kick returner and more — and enters the game with a 6-4 record. So this IS the bowl game for Ouachita.

Still, these are two good football teams.

Henderson has the best record among all college football programs in the state since 2010 at 62-16.

Ouachita, meanwhile, has secured its ninth consecutive winning season, the most of any college football program in Arkansas.

You have to understand that having a conference title on the line really isn’t essential to this rivalry. It’s always the biggest game of the year for both teams. Always.

It’s one of the most intense rivalries in college football, regardless of the division. The neighboring schools have played 89 times. Henderson has won 43 times, Ouachita has won 40 times and there have been six ties.

The Battle of the Ravine might not receive the recognition of an Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma or Michigan-Ohio State series. But those who have played in these games, coached in them, covered them as journalists or simply watched from the stands understand.

There are few things in American sports that can be compared to a rivalry between four-year schools — both with quality football programs — whose stadiums are within walking distance of each other. It’s the only college football game in America in which the visiting team doesn’t fly or bus to a game. It walks.

In Arkadelphia, the town in which I was raised, it’s a battle that divides families. It’s Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one. The local chamber of commerce once promoted it as the Biggest Little Football Game in America, a moniker originally used by two New England schools, Amherst and Williams. Those two schools began playing in 1884. Ouachita and Henderson began playing in 1895.

The game has had an off-and-on quality through the years.

After that first contest on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 (Ouachita defeated what was then Arkadelphia Methodist College by a score of 8-0), the two schools did not play again until 1907. Henderson won that game.

In 1914, perhaps the best Ouachita team ever defeated both the University of Arkansas and Ole Miss but was forced to settle for a scoreless tie in the Battle of the Ravine.

The game usually was played on Thanksgiving. The series was suspended from 1941-44 due to World War II.

Following the 1951 contest, the presidents of the two schools decided that the pranks and vandalism the week prior to the game had gotten out of hand. So they called an end to the series, and it didn’t resume until 1963. After three more Thanksgiving games, the contests were moved to the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Another bump in the road came after the 1992 season when Henderson decided to leave the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference for the Gulf South Conference, which is based in Birmingham, Ala. There was no Battle of the Ravine from 1993-95. The AIC disintegrated, Ouachita played a year as an independent and then joined the Lone Star Conference. The Battle of the Ravine resumed in 1996 as a nonconference game and was played as the first game of the season through 2001.

Ouachita and Harding eventually were allowed to join the other former AIC schools in the Gulf South Conference. But the folks in Birmingham never really understood this rivalry. Even though it was a conference game again, it wasn’t played as the final game of the season. For some reason, the GSC had Ouachita finishing against Harding and Henderson finishing against Southern Arkansas as “rivalry games.” Even worse, Ouachita “rotated off” Henderson’s schedule for two years and there was no Battle of the Ravine in 2004 or 2005.

Thank goodness for the GAC, an Arkansas-based conference that includes six schools from Arkansas and six schools from Oklahoma. The game is always played, and it’s always the final Saturday of the regular season, just as it should be.

The pranks leading up to the game are just as much a part of the rivalry as the game itself.

Ouachita students (including my youngest son; he’s a Ouachita sophomore) guard the Tiger statue in the middle of campus to keep it from being painted red.

Henderson turns off its fountain at the entrance to the school to keep it from being filled with purple suds.

The most famous prank occurred in the late 1940s when Ouachita’s homecoming queen, Ann Strickland, was taken by Henderson cheerleaders the week before the game to a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs. She later would become Ann Vining, the wife of legendary Ouachita basketball coach Bill Vining. At the time of the friendly kidnapping, Bill Vining was a Ouachita athlete. He led search parties through the Caddo Hotel in downtown Arkadelphia, looking for his girlfriend. She was released after two days when it was learned that Ouachita officials had reported the incident to police as an actual kidnapping.

Diesel fuel has been used through the years to burn OBU into the Henderson turf and HSU into the Ouachita turf.

One year, male Henderson students who were dressed in drag convinced a Ouachita librarian that they were there to take a Tiger statue in the library away for its annual cleaning.

In the 1970s, the Henderson bonfire was ignited early by Ouachita students. One of the Ouachita students reportedly involved in the prank was a religion major from Hope named Mike Huckabee.

In 1999, the incident that became known as Trashcam occurred. A Henderson graduate assistant took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice field. As he was taping practice, the graduate assistant was spotted by a member of the Ouachita football team. The graduate assistant sped away but left the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, Ouachita athletic director David Sharp returned the camera to Henderson. It was the proper thing to do. The rivalry might be intense, but these folks have to live with each other 52 weeks a year. They sit in the same pews at church and find themselves next to each other in the waiting room at the dentist’s office.

In 1949, Ike Sharp (the father of David Sharp) performed one of the most talked-about feats in Battle of the Ravine lore. Henderson led 14-0 with seven minutes remaining in the game. Ouachita scored to make it 14-7, and then Ike Sharp successfully executed an onside kick. Ouachita then scored to tie the game. Sharp executed a second onside kick. Otis Turner, known by Ouachita fans as the Magic Toe, kicked a field goal to give Ouachita a 17-14 lead. Sharp then executed a third onside kick, allowing Ouachita to run out the clock.

The most memorable college football game of my childhood occurred in 1975 when both teams were ranked in the top five of the NAIA. Henderson was 9-0, and Ouachita was 8-1. On a bitterly cold day at Haygood Stadium on the Henderson side of the ravine, Ouachita converted a fourth-and-25 with time running out as Bill Vining Jr. completed a pass to Gary Reese that forced a measurement. Ouachita retained possession by the nose of the football and scored moments later to win 21-20. The two teams shared the AIC title. Ouachita advanced to the NAIA playoffs, and Henderson had to settle for a slot in the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

The lights will be on in both stadiums each night this week to discourage pranks.

The signs on both campuses have been covered to keep off the paint.

As for me, I’ll look at the clock and count the hours until Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium. The rivalry is an important part of who I am.

In my family, the day Ouachita played Henderson in football was as big as Christmas. We lived in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, and we could walk to both stadiums from our house.

When they started playing again in 1963, I was 4 years old. You can bet I was there. So it has been 53 years since my first Battle of the Ravine.

Even though I’m in my 34th season of doing the play-by-play on radio of Ouachita games, I can assure you that there will be butterflies in my stomach when we sign on the broadcast at noon Saturday. I hope that never changes — that sense of anticipation, that realization of just how much this series has been a part of the life of my family (my father played quarterback for Ouachita in the 1947 Battle of the Ravine and my mother had been proclaimed the Ouachitonian beauty).

I lived in Washington, D.C., during the late 1980s, where I covered Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. I missed the 1985, 1986 and 1987 games. I flew back to Arkansas for the 1988 game, which was called off with the score tied at the half because the field was flooding.

I broadcast my first Battle of the Ravine in 1978 and did the games through 1984. I’ve broadcast all of the games since 1990.

One of my goals is to get ESPN to do its “College GameDay” show from Arkadelphia on the day of a Battle of the Ravine.

After all, ESPN took the show to Williamstown, Mass., on Nov. 10, 2007, for the Amherst-Williams game. That’s an NCAA Division III contest.

ESPN has never done the show from the site of a Division II game.

Can you imagine a national audience getting to watch as the visiting team walks to a road game?

At about 11:30 a.m. this Saturday, state troopers will stop traffic on U.S. Highway 67 and the members of the Ouachita football team will walk across, making the trek from their own dressing room to a visiting stadium.

At about 4 p.m. Saturday, the troopers will stop the traffic again, and the Tigers will walk back home.

There’s nothing else in America quite like it.

I’m counting the days, the hours, the minutes.

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