Harris: From Holtz and Bear to Petrino and Tressel

by Jim Harris  on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 11:50 am  

Arkansas fans turned out in what some Sugar Bowl observers say was record numbers on Monday on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. (Photo by Jimmy Jones)

This story is from the archives of ArkansasSports360.com.

NEW ORLEANS - With a decided manpower advantage, Arkansas' fans won the party in the French Quarter on Monday, from an afternoon pep rally on Decatur Street to the march up and down Bourbon Street, with trinket tossing to the balcony turning into full-out war in some places, and Hog calls breaking out in many a bar. But don't think Ohio State's supporters didn't compete as hard as they could.

Now comes the reason everyone is down here in the Crescent City, and Arkansas can secure a win on the football field if it doesn't give the ball away.

The last two days leading up to the 77th Allstate Sugar Bowl between the Razorbacks and Buckeyes have brought back to this scribe memories of the last Arkansas trip here, playing Paul "Bear" Bryant's best Alabama team of his six national champions. That Crimson Tide outfit had Arkansas outmanned throughout the lines and probably at every position except wherever Billy Ray Smith lined up for the Hogs, which that year often was noseman. Crimson Tide fans dominated New Orleans that year the way Arkansas fans have this time, and Alabama appeared to have three-fifths of the Superdome.

Steadman Shealy wouldn't play beyond college, but he ran Bryant's wishbone with efficiency, and halfbacks Major Oglevie and Billy Jackson could take it wide or hit inside. Alabama sent a handful of linemen to the pros, including one of the greatest centers ever, Dwight Stephenson. 

Kevin Scanlon, whose one season as a starter ranks with the best quarterbacks in Hog history, kept Arkansas in the game with his scrambling and passing. Arkansas' veer option could not convert short-yardage situations against Bama's formidable defensive front led by Braxton Bragg. Arkansas receivers had to deal with the likes of future NFL star cornerback Don McNeil.

Alabama had an amazing assemblage of talent as Bryant's career was winding down. Arkansas was small and mostly young, not near the team Lou Holtz had started with in 1977. Holtz, on top of the world when his first Hogs destroyed Oklahoma 31-6 in the Orange Bowl, would leave that Sugar Bowl game frustrated at his program's inability to outmuscle the likes of Alabama in short yardage and vowed to switch to the power-I formation. Where the talent would come from to block for that type attack of that era was anyone's guess.

Up until Thanksgiving weekend, Arkansas wasn't destined for the Sugar Bowl and its first appearance in the Louisiana Superdome. The Hogs were headed to Holtz's first Cotton Bowl to likely face Big 8 runner-up Nebraska, as Arkansas, Texas and Houston all had just one loss and were locked in a three-way tie atop the Southwest Conference. But a talented but underachieving Texas A&M squad finally lived up to its ability and shocked the Longhorns, knocking Texas out of the tie. Houston held the tie-breaker over Arkansas and landed the Cotton Bowl.

Arkansas fans and players all felt like they had really won out, landing in New Orleans and a shot at No. 1. Fans stormed the Hilton at the base of Canal, just as they have this year. Needless to say, the town has changed a lot, and so has the game of college football and the coaches who command it.

Unlike Bobby Petrino or Jim Tressel on Monday, Bear Bryant didn't show for the final press conference the day before the 1980 Sugar Bowl. The "official" report was that Mary Harmon, his wife, had taken ill and Bryant had to stay at her side in their Fairmont Hotel room, but the Bama media speculated the 66-year-old Bear had enjoyed the town too much in previous days.

We missed all the usual platitudes Bear would have bestowed on an opponent he knew in his heart was outmanned. Before his 30 minutes were up, we would have been convinced that Holtz's third Arkansas team was his best, and Arkansas' best ever, Holtz himself was a coach with no peer, and the big and slow Crimson Tide would have a hard time dealing with those quick Hogs. That's how Bryant rolled. No Alabama team was any good in preseason, he assured his willing scribes, and in December they'd be prepping for another national title try.

Two nights before that Sugar Bowl, Monte Kiffin and Larry Beightol shared cocktails with a couple of new friends from Pine Bluff, longtime Razorback supporters Guy Gill Jr. and Leo Trulock, and a young cub reporter still in college on the five-year plan, much to his dad's dismay. Kiffin was guiding the Hog defense one last time before heading to his long-wished-for head coaching opportunity at North Carolina State, succeeding Bo Rein, who had taken over at LSU. Beightol was trying to get back on Holtz's staff as line coach after a disastrous one-year stint as a head coach at Louisiana Tech.

The stories and the toasts went well into the night; the cub reporter would pay the price the next morning, having to walk from the old Hyatt Regency to the Fairmont for that last press conference on a biting cold Dec. 31 morning. Beightol tried to tell Kiffin he had it better as a coordinator, and Kiffin would learn quickly in Raleigh. Both found great success through the next couple of decades in the NFL, working for head coaches. Meanwhile, in a few short weeks LSU would begin a coaching search again: Rein's short plane flight to recruit in Louisiana would mysteriously disappear over the Atlantic Ocean, never to be found.



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