There was an eerie quiet in the Texas A & M locker room last Saturday afternoon in Fayetteville, Ark., as the Aggies dressed for their game with Arkansas, a showdown that would determine the best team in the Southwest Conference. Coach Jackie Sherrill tried to get his troops fired up by writing PARTY TIME on the chalkboard. No reaction. He talked about ruining the Razorbacks' homecoming; he told his charges, "We're bringing a skunk to their party." No one stirred. Finally, he shouted in exasperation, "You guys act like you're going to your own funeral." From the back of the room, a player responded. "Naw, we're going to theirs."
But, as sometimes happens, the coach was right and the player was wrong. Texas A & M, less than three months ago a hot prospect for the national championship but now a disappointing 5-4, went out and stank up Razorback Stadium. There was no question that man-for-man the Aggies were better than the Hogs. But Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles had it right when he said the day before the game, "I learned a long time ago that the best players don't make the best team, but the best team always wins."
In front of 53,818 people, the largest crowd ever to watch a game in Fayetteville and the first sellout there since 1985, Arkansas, the best team, won 25-20. The victory margin could easily have been much greater; twice the Hogs advanced to the Aggie 12-yard line and once to the one, only to settle for a field goal each time.
Entering Saturday's game Arkansas was 6-0 and Texas A & M 4-1 in Southwest Conference play, and the game would have decided the league championship except that the Aggies had been placed on NCAA probation in September for recruiting violations and were ineligible for the title and the Cotton Bowl trip. Maybe that's why A & M looked so flat. In any case, the Razorbacks' win meant that their conference crown will go into the record book without an asterisk. It also meant that the Hogs were now 10-0 and one of only four undefeated Division I-A teams. Still, they received no respect: They haven't been on national TV this season, and going in against the Aggies, they were ranked behind several teams that had lost, including Florida State, UCLA and Auburn.
November 21, 1988
The widespread reluctance to take Arkansas seriously has something to do with the generally dismal state of affairs in the Southwest Conference (see box, page 35). But it's also attributable to the fact that since Ken Hatfield took over as coach five years ago, the Razorbacks have played boring, grind-it-out football. Normally about 10% of Arkansas's season-ticket holders fail to renew for the following year; before this season about 30% sent regrets. Despite the Hogs' success this season, Razorback fans—or nonfans—have left $500,000 worth of seats empty.
On Saturday the Hogs' performance was about as pretty to look at as the snarling wild pig emblem that decorates gas stations and convenience stores all across Arkansas. "We kind of muddled around there," Hatfield allowed afterward. "We're not very smooth, and it was pretty ugly." One reason was that the Razorbacks lost their starting quarterback, sophomore Quinn Grovey, with 1:26 left in the first quarter, when he was crumpled by Aggie free safety Gary Jones and suffered a mild concussion and a severely sprained shoulder. So senior backup quarterback John Bland was called into action.
Although Arkansas was ahead 14-0 when Grovey departed, a sense of impending doom came over the stadium. As recently as last season, Bland had been deemed so expendable as a quarterback that he was switched to defensive back—substitute defensive back. Bland, whose father, Dan, led the nation in kickoff returns at Mississippi State in 1964, the same year that Hatfield led the nation in punt returns for the Hogs, had played well as Grovey's backup this season against Texas, Houston and Rice. Still, he was nobody's idea of a savior for the Razorback offense.
Bland didn't come out throwing—he would complete four of eight passes for 88 yards—yet he found a way to win. He held himself and his team together. Bland was a hero for what he didn't do, which is to say he didn't screw up. True, the Hogs' offense failed to produce a touchdown and was about as thrilling to watch as a pig race. But four times Bland guided Arkansas deep into Aggie territory, allowing the game's other hero, Razorback senior Kendall Trainor, to add three field goals to the two he had booted in the first quarter (a fumble killed the other drive on the seven-yard line). Trainor's five three-pointers tied the school single-game record he had set on Oct. 1 against TCU. The 5-for-5 performance—he connected at distances ranging from 18 to 49 yards—gave him 22 consecutive successful field goal attempts, a conference mark. With the Hogs facing a game against Miami on Nov. 26 and a Cotton Bowl matchup with either Florida State or the Pac-10 runner-up, Trainor has a shot at the NCAA season record of 25 straight set by Washington's Chuck Nelson in 1982.
Yet even Trainor's emergence this season has been ugly. At halftime in Arkansas's game with Ole Miss on Sept. 17, he was one miss away from never kicking again for the Razorbacks. He had just missed a 25-yarder against the Rebels, which left him 1 for 4 on the season, and he had blown a conversion.
Kicking coach Ken Turner came up to Trainor in the locker room during intermission, looked him in the eye and said, "You choked." When Trainor returned to the field, he walked up to teammates Jim Mabry and Rick Apolskis and announced, "That's the last kick I'm going to miss in my career." With that, he jerked off his right shoe and hurled it into a trash can. Actually, he missed. Trainor put on another shoe and kicked second-half field goals of 31, 38 and 43 yards, and the Hogs won the game 21-13. Trainor hasn't missed another field goal or PAT since. "I either had to come through or not kick anymore," he says. "Now I hope every week it will come down to me."
Every week it seems to, which is another reason the undefeated Razorbacks have so many detractors. A field goal kicker with prodigious numbers is a nice guy to have around, but his stats also reveal the offense's inability to score touchdowns. Arkansas's only touchdown against A & M came on a 47-yard interception return by rover-back Patrick Williams in the first quarter. "If I had just thrown it two feet lower, it would have been a 20-yard completion," said Aggie quarterback Bucky Richardson afterward. Yes, football is a game of feet. The Hogs added two points on a safety with 9:19 left in the third quarter when linebacker Kerry Owens dumped A & M running back Darren Lewis in the end zone.
While the Arkansas faithful are dismayed by their Hogs' woeful offense, they're equally chagrined by the bad feelings between Broyles and Hatfield. Both men deny that there's a rift, but trouble began last year, during a season punctuated by a 51-7 mugging of the Hogs by Miami and a 16-14 loss to Texas, which won on an 18-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the game. Broyles met with Hatfield after the season and, he says, "listed areas where fans had unrest. After all, we had had some disastrous things happen to us. I told him it was the fans' perception that his scheme of offense and defense would prevent him from winning major games."
In other words, the offense was putting people to sleep, and Broyles wanted Hatfield to throw the ball more. Broyles also told Hatfield that the pass defense had to be strengthened. Broyles charitably says that Hatfield was planning to make those changes anyway. This year the Razorbacks' offense has moved away from its reliance on the wishbone to a flexbone that allows for more passing. And Arkansas has gone from a three-back defense to a four. But the Hogs still lack the big-play capability that would endear them to the fans.
Broyles also confronted Hatfield on a more sensitive issue. "I told him that his emphasis on religion was divisive," says Broyles. The message was clear: Hatfield, a devout fundamentalist, was to stop wearing his religion so publicly. Among other things, he is to refrain from opening his Sunday-afternoon TV show with a verse from the Scriptures ("Jesus wept," Hatfield had intoned the day after the Miami massacre).
Broyles also wants Hatfield to replace several of his assistants. On that issue Hatfield has dug in his heels, and this may be one reason that the annual renegotiation of his salary, which at $71,531 ranks 63rd among college football coaches (income from his TV show and fringe benefits increase his earnings to around $150,000 a year), has run into a snag. Broyles says it's preposterous to think that Hatfield might not be back, but coaches who feel unappreciated often have their bags packed. The Tennessee job, for example, could be offered to Hatfield if the 3-6 Vols decide to show Johnny Majors the door.
Razorback defensive tackle Wayne Martin said last week, "It's kind of a disappointment that people don't think we're good, but if we keep winning, maybe that will make believers out of them." It might. But should the Hogs lose to Miami and then in the Cotton Bowl—it will be their first trip to Dallas since 1976—the spectacle could unfold of a 10-2 mark not being good enough. And that could get real ugly.