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Hatfield earns respect from Arkansas fans

by Bob Wisener | November 25, 2021 at 3:55 a.m.
Bob Wisener

It was good to see Ken Hatfield address the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday.

Although it didn't end nicely at Arkansas for Hatfield the head coach, his contributions to the Razorback program are worthy of remembrance. The nation's leading punt returner for the 1964 Razorbacks, he became the program's second head coach to make back-to-back Cotton Bowl appearances. Just because he had differences with Frank Broyles, his head coach and athletic director, is no reason to judge him harshly.

If Hatfield had a fault, it was that he was intensely stubborn. This applied to assistant coaches that Broyles, a master ivory hunter, found lacking and that Hatfield would not replace. After the 1988 season, he acquiesced somewhat and hired an offensive coordinator, Jack Crowe, who would become his successor.

That was some scene in a Dallas hotel lobby before the Cotton Bowl game against UCLA. No one seemed to recall that Arkansas was a dropped Steve Atwater interception against Miami from an 11-0 season. All anyone could talk about was whether Hatfield would be the next head coach at Georgia, where Vince Dooley was retiring. Dooley, as athletic director, took matters into his own hands with the promotion of assistant coach Ray Goff, an ex-Bulldog player.

Arkansas played flat against UCLA, whose Troy Aikman passed an audition as next quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, something the team's future owner, ex-Razorback Jerry Jones, would confirm that spring. The Bruins won 17-3 on a New Year's afternoon that Razorback fans returned home in a snit, bemoaning a 10-2 season that could have been better.

The atmosphere wasn't any rosier the next year after Tennessee beat Arkansas 31-27. In a day-after press conference, Hatfield assured reporters he would sign a contract extension. That never happened. A few weeks later, recruiting season in full swing, Hatfield took the Clemson job sight unseen. It did not mean much to Arkansas people that the man he was replacing, Danny Ford, would someday coach the Razorbacks.

Crowe was pulled off a plane bound for Clemson, where he would join Hatfield's staff, to stay at Arkansas as head coach. Crowe, who did not play college football, proved ill-equipped to handle all the nuances of that position. Worse, his first Arkansas team faced vengeful Southwest Conference opponents, some making an example of the Razorbacks after the school's announced switch to the Southeastern Conference. An early Little Rock loss to Ole Miss proved especially damaging in a 3-7-1 season.

Hatfield encountered a Clemson fan base that never warmed to the new man from Arkansas. Tiger fans said among themselves, "(Frank) Howard built it. Ford filled it. Hatfield killed it." Hatfield resigned after four seasons at Clemson, landing at Rice, where there is no job pressure, one reason he could last 12 years and have only three winning seasons. In the declining SWC, he led the Owls to a share of the conference title in 1984 and a victory over the Texas Longhorns on national TV.

Hatfield beat Texas twice while Arkansas head coach, both times at Austin, but his popularity with Razorback fans dropped severely after a 16-14 Little Rock loss in 1987. A frankly inferior Longhorn team scored on the game's last play, a Bret Stafford pass to supposedly weak-handed Tony Jones, after Razorback defensive coordinator Fred Goldsmith called a timeout late "to set my linebackers." Hatfield walked out of the ensuing press conference, claiming he had the hide of an alligator, but it was all downhill from there.

This story is similar to that of Houston Nutt, another son of Arkansas (Nutt is from Little Rock, Hatfield from Helena) who came home to coach the Razorbacks only to butt heads with Broyles. Razorback fans shrugged it off when Nutt left after the 2007 season, saying that he could no longer connect with the man in the street. No matter that in his last game, with a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up starring, the Razorbacks beat No. 1 (and future national champion) LSU in Baton Rouge.

If the past sorry decade of Razorback football can be explained, it might be that the football gods punished Arkansas fans for their treatment of Hatfield and Nutt. People who wondered what the 1950s were like under Otis Douglas found out when Chad Morris limped through parts of two seasons.

Arkansas has found, in Sam Pittman, a coach it treasures. Not many endure a 3-7 first season, like he did, with such goodwill. Not many escape the griddle when his team gives up 671 yards to Alabama in a game that the Razorbacks, three-touchdown underdogs, lost 42-35.

These are exceedingly great days for Razorback Nation, Arkansas winning big in most every sport. Many a Thanksgiving weekend on the Hill has gone well. A week before the holiday, on Nov. 23, 1963, a Razorback team with Hatfield playing launched a 22-game winning streak in a Fayetteville game with Texas Tech. At College Station in 1989, Hatfield secured his last SWC victory at the school in a 23-22 game with Texas A&M on Thanksgiving Friday.

It is good that Hatfield and Nutt are back in the Razorback family, Ken making commercials and Houston popping up on screen for CBS Sports Network. David Bazzel, one of Florida's greatest gifts to UA athletics, made both feel welcome before the Little Rock Touchdown Club. They are, as Razorback fans like to say, ours.

We shall see if "once a Razorback, always a Razorback" applies when Bobby Petrino brings a team to Fayetteville next year.

Print Headline: Hatfield earns respect from Arkansas fans

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