Q&A: Ken Hatfield, Part 1

Hatfield's punt return against Texas. Photo from hogdb.com


In the history of Razorback football, few figures loom larger than Ken Hatfield. Not only does he have the highest winning percentage of any head coach in the program's history, he also was a star punt returner and defensive back for the Razorbacks' one and only national championship team. After a six-year coaching tenure in Fayetteville, he left for Clemson in 1990 and was later the head coach at Rice for 12 seasons.

Now retired from football, Hatfield lives in northwest Arkansas, where he serves on the board of the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; is involved with Horses for Healing, non-profit therapeutic horseback riding center for individuals with special needs; and is state director for Arkansas Drug Card.com, which provides free discount prescription cards to uninsured and underinsured residents of Arkansas.

In the first part of a three-part Q&A, Hatfield discusses his unforgettable 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in an upset of Texas in 1964 and the start of his coaching career. (And before we started, a quick note of thanks to the invaluable Hogdb.com for several of the photos in today's installment.)

Expats: As far as your playing days, you're probably most well known for the long punt return for a touchdown against Texas in the national championship season of 1964. Could you take us back and put us in your shoes as you were getting ready to field the punt? Tell us how it all came together.

Hatfield: We were playing in Austin, and Ernie Koy was their starting halfback and also their punter. He was a great punter.

I remember the articles in the paper that morning were talking about how good a hangtime he had and how little yardage they'd had on the returns against them. I remember the last line in an article in the Austin-Statesman newspaper saying, "Well you can bet one thing: Arkansas will not run a punt back tonight."

Normally, he'd kick the ball extremely high, but on this particular kick in the second quarter, I thought he kicked it too far for their coverage. I knew we would have a chance to return it because it was just a little bit further than what he normally kicked.

When I caught the ball, immediately there were a couple of Texas guys there, and I think Jimmy Lindsey was the first one that knocked a guy down. And then I was able to get to where all of our teammates had set up "The Wall."

I think there were about six or seven key blocks on the play. I never really got touched as the play went on. I think Jerry Lamb had the last block on there.

I just ran until I wore out of energy, and I luckily I was in the end zone by that time, and we scored.


Expats: When you were getting ready to field the punt, did you have any minimum goal in mind - 10 yards, 15 yards or anything like that?

Hatfield: No. My goal was to catch the ball - period! (Laughs).

Most of the games in those days were really low scoring. Two years earlier at Austin, we'd lost 7 to 3. The next year, when Texas was the national champion in '63, they beat us in Little Rock 17 to 13.

All of the games were really close, and we knew that it would just come down to one or two mistakes in a game that would make the difference. Certainly you didn't want to turn the ball over after a punt, which is a great morale boost for the other team.

The main thing I was doing was focusing on catching the ball. But after that, I was trying to go where I was supposed to go. I didn't do anything really unusual on the play. I was trying to get to where our blockers were, and they were ready.

I remember scoring in the end zone and looking over toward our fans. The seats they had were all way behind the end zone on the other side, on the Texas side. They weren't the choicest seats in the stadium, I can tell you that.

But, I saw them standing up. They were excited, and we were excited, and I was out of energy and out of gas. It was a good feeling.

1964 championship T-shirt. Photo from Amazon.com

Expats: The football landscape was a little bit different then. In some ways, it was a more regional game. Going into that season, did you guys have a national championship in mind? Or were you just focused on the Southwest Conference?

Hatfield: We were focused on the next game. My sophomore year, we were 9-1 in the regular season. We lost to Texas, 7-3. That was the only game we lost during the regular season.

So much was expected of us in 1963, and it was Murphy's Law: Everything bad that could happen did happen. We lost of a lot of close games, and instead of having a great season like everybody thought, we were 5-5. We had to beat Texas Tech in the last game just to be .500.

There really was not much expected of us in 1964. We weren't picked very highly, and we struggled in the opening ball game against Oklahoma State. We won by four points.

Tulsa really had us beat. We were down 14-0 early in the game. We had to come from behind to beat them, 31 to 22.

There was not a lot of anticipation. We were just fighting to survive the very next game every week.

And of course the Texas game was so monumental because Texas was riding a 19-game winning streak. They were the defending national champions. They were 4-0.

Expats: What's your take on what that season and what that championship meant to the state of Arkansas?

Hatfield: I was born in Helena in 1943 and lived in England, Fort Smith, Texarkana and then Helena again. All that time, the Razorbacks were always a team that was an underdog. We were always a small state trying to have confidence.

The Razorbacks were a central unifying factor that everybody in Arkansas could take pride in. Once we won the national championship, I think from then on people knew that we're not taking a back seat to anybody.
1964 team members. Photo from hogdb.com
Expats: What led you into coaching after college? Was that something that you had always wanted to do, or did something happen to point you in that direction?

Hatfield: I majored in business and accounting. I wanted to do something in business when I got out. I worked in a bank in Helena in the summer. I talked one of the ladies at the bank into letting me work as a teller.

The first thing I did was cash a lady's check and gave her her money and also her check back. She drove around the parking lot, came back and said, "Here, I think you may need this check later on."

The other lady about fired me on the spot. I thought maybe banking wasn't my business.

That fall of 1965, our school, Helena-Central, was short two coaches on the varsity. So, I just volunteered to go out there and coach until I went into the Army in late November.

I had an eye-opening experience out there. We lost the first eight games we played. We weren't very big. We weren't fast. And we weren't very good.

That was my first taste, but we finally won the last game against Wynne before I went into the Army.

I was in artillery school in El Paso for three months getting ready to go to Korea. About a week before I went, George Terry, one of the assistant coaches at West Point under head coach Paul Dietzel, called and said, "Ken, we have an opening. How would you like to come to West Point and coach football?"

I said, "Well, let me see: my options are Korea or West Point - I think I like West Point better." I said, "I'll be there." That's really how I started coaching.

The great thing about it: We had 120 boys on the freshman team. We played a nine-game schedule. I got to be the defensive coordinator for the team.

I got a chance to recruit seven states: North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, California and Nevada. I also got to scout Navy. I scouted them nine straight weeks before we played them in the annual Army/Navy game.

I really threw myself into football: the coaching, the recruiting, everything about it. The biggest thing I learned at West Point is the mission of football is the mission of the academy - and that's to train leaders for our country through the game of football.

In the two and half years I was there, I really felt God was leading me into coaching and into trying to train leaders through the game of football. And then God opened up a great opportunity when I got out of the Army to go with Doug Dickey at the University of Tennessee. A tremendous opportunity - they were the best program in America at that time.

It just opened everything for me. God opened up the doors and opened the path all the way for 40 years of college coaching after that.
1965 Cotton Bowl. Photo by hogdb.com
Expats: Did you ever envision yourself coaching the Razorbacks one day? Was that a goal of yours?

Hatfield: No, it really wasn't. I was at Tennessee as an assistant, and then I was at Florida as an assistant. And then I had a good friend - Bill Parcells - who took over as head coach at Air Force. I went there to be the offensive coordinator.

I envisioned being a head coach. I wanted to be a head coach somewhere, but I didn't know where. When Bill offered me the job, we weren't very good out there at Air Force. We won three games the first year with Bill, and then he left and went to the pros. I didn't want the job at Air Force, but I ended up getting it.

I didn't think we were going to be around too long, because we only won two games my first year. Then we won two and tied one the second year, won four the third year, eight the fourth year and 10 the fifth year. Every year, we did better than the year before.

Working at both service academies certainly was a great opportunity for me, and I was very blessed to do it.

Expats: You mentioned what your mindset as a coach out at Air Force. At the other stops along the way - Arkansas, Clemson and Rice - how did you see your role as coach?

Hatfield: It did not change for the 27 years that I was a head coach. At each program, I only had three foundations that I wanted every young man to learn from our program.

One, I wanted them to be thankful to God that they had the opportunity to play college football. Most kids don't have that chance, and they would love to have it. With the opportunity to play comes the responsibility to be a good role model with the way you live, to give something back to young people.

The second thing: I asked our players to give their best one play at a time in practice. If they practiced hard and focused and concentrated on one play at a time in practice, I knew that we would play good on Saturday.

And the third thing - we only had one rule on the whole team for 27 years - and that's the team comes first. Whatever you do away from this football field or on it, ask yourself if what you are getting ready to do, if our whole team was watching you, would it draw us closer together? If it would, do it. If it won't, don't.

If they took those three things from us, I thought the victories would take care of themselves - and they did. We had good kids. We had good young people who were team-oriented. They loved playing for the University of Arkansas.

I was so fortunate to have played here and enjoyed the thrill and excitement of being a Razorback. I wanted them to experience the same things that I had experienced. I wanted them to appreciate the fans, appreciate the effort. We were playing for something bigger than just our team. We were playing for the whole state.

If they bought into that, then I thought the victories would come, and I think they did. With six years at Arkansas, I was totally blessed. We had some tough times - there wasn't any doubt about it - and we had some great times.

Anywhere you go, I think you're going to have some good times and some bad times. You take it all in totality, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

(Here's Part 2 of the Q&A)

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