Compared to the problems that the 2017 football Razorbacks have their counterparts of 40 seasons ago have it made. But there is one thing that still sticks in the craw of most of the guys on Lou Holtz’ first team at Arkansas.
“We came from not being ranked all the way up to what we did,” Roland Sales said at a reunion get-together of the team in Fayetteville the night before the Arkansas-Auburn game. “We just barely missed out on beating Texas and slew the dragon and still got handed third place. We should have been national champions.”
A 13-9 loss to the Longhorns was the only blemish on Arkansas’ schedule that season. Texas was ranked number one in the nation going into the New Years Day bowl schedule but lost to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Arkansas, ranked 6th in the nation, destroyed number 2 Oklahoma, 31-6 that night in Miami.
“We didn’t get our just due,” Vaughn Lusby, a defensive back on the team lamented. “We should have been outright national champions with the Orange Bowl victory. No one thought we could win. All the odds were against us. We had lost three players but we had an outstanding defense and even with those offensive players suspended we still had a great offense. Me, being from Oklahoma, what we did was icing on the cake.”
Ron Calcagni, the Hogs quarterback that night, recalled that a delay in the start time of the game had a lot of the players anxious in the locker-room. Starting running back Ben Cowens was suspended and Roland Sales, his backup, had been sick the entire week before the game.
“We were waiting for the other (bowl) game to be over (on NBC) and coach (Lou) Holtz spoke,” Calcagni recalled. “He did some magic tricks. I was sitting back in the corner and I was exhausted emotionally because we were all ready to go and they were telling us to wait. Then Sales got up and he said, ‘Boys, I’m gonna play my heart out. I’m gonna to do all I can. I’m not gonna let you down.’ I was so excited to hear that. It really perked me up.”
Sales delivered on his promise, piling up an Orange Bowl record 205 yards rushing. Larry Beightol, who coached the offensive line for Arkansas, said some subtle blocking changes made prior to the game helped confuse the Sooners’ defensive line but Sales believes there was something else at work that night.
“I think they were a little bit overconfident,” Sales said of Oklahoma’s defense. “They had to adjust to us and they couldn’t so we kept doing what we were doing and our confidence grew.”
The story was the same on the defensive side of the ball where Arkansas shut down Barry Switzer’s vaunted triple-option attack.
Reggie Freeman, the Hogs’ backup nose guard, was moved to defensive tackle with a mission of bird-dogging Sooner quarterback Thomas Lott.
Horton was Arkansas’ defensive line coach. He said was an additional plan in place to limit Oklahoma’s fullback inside and its running backs on the corners.
“We overshifted the linemen in one direction and we overshifted the secondary in another directon,” Horton added. “We had nine people committed to the run.”
Defensive end Jim Howard appreciated the work his coaches put in in drawing up the game plan but, like Sales, he said the opposition worked against itself that night.
“There were some angry boys on that defense that day,” Howard chuckled. “They didn’t think we could play with ’em and I think we showed ’em a little different.”
In addition to an evening meal on Friday, the players were honored in the second quarter of the Auburn game. After 40 years some of them had to be reintroduced to each other.
“They didn’t recognize me,” Howard said with a laugh. “But its a great bunch of guys. Good hearted people. Seeing them forty years later you can see why it was such a good team. There’s a lot of character there.”
“I haven’t been back to Fayetteville in like 39 years,” Lusby admitted. “It’s changed around here a whole lot since I played. I’m looking at the Stadium. I’m looking at the renovations. I’m going to walk out of that field with a feeling of pride knowing that all of this is something I had a part in building.”
“So to come back and be a part of this weekend, to be a part of the comradery of the players, just to reminisce and talk about old times, it’s been fantastic,” Lusby concluded.