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Q&A: Terry Frei on The Big Shootout, Part One

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Today marks the 40th anniversary of The Big Shootout, the 1969 regular-season finale between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas in Fayetteville. Both teams were undefeated, and the match-up was compelling enough that then-President Richard Nixon decided to brave the bitter cold to see the game in person, rather than watch ABC's national broadcast (then-Congressman and future President George H.W. Bush was one of several prominent politicians who attended the game with Nixon).

Of course, the Razorbacks lost that contest in typically heartbreaking fashion, but the game still looms large in the history of the state. To commemorate the anniversary, we recently interviewed Terry Frei, a Denver-based sportswriter who wrote "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," an outstanding book about the game and the many compelling events surrounding it. Part two of our conversation will be published tomorrow.

Photo from TerryFrei.com

Expats: What compelled you to write the book? Was the game something that had always interested you, or did something happen in the subsequent years to draw your attention to it?

Frei: My father, Jerry Frei, was the head coach at the University of Oregon in 1969. He was a contemporary of Darrell Royal's and Frank Broyles', and I certainly was attuned to and very much a fan of everything going on in college football. So I watched the game. I remember that distinctly. I was 14.

A little over two years later, my father left the University of Oregon to become an assistant coach with the Denver Broncos and we moved to Denver. On my very first day at Wheat Ridge High School in February of 1972, I was walking through the hall and saw a picture of Freddie Steinmark in the hallway outside the gym.

That rang a bell. Freddie Steinmark, as you know, is the Texas safety who played that 1969 game on a leg being eaten up by cancer, and the leg was amputated six days after the game. I was aware of his legend before that, but in the "small world" area, I ended up going to the high school that he had attended along with Texas guard Bobby Mitchell. They were two of the three Texas starters who didn't go to high school in Texas.

Within six months I had read Freddie Steinmark's autobiography "I Play to Win," in which he mentions Wheat Ridge and this game rather prominently. So that all whetted my appetite about this game, and made me somewhat of a student of it.

To flash forward a lot of years, in 1994 I was working at The Sporting News, and we annually submitted story ideas. I suggested writing about the Texas-Arkansas game on its 25th anniversary.

I did all kinds of what I recognize now was surface research. I did go down to Fayetteville and speak to many of the principles involved, and I talked to some of the guys from Texas on the telephone and ended up doing a magazine story on the 25th anniversary of the game.

That was obviously rather abbreviated and not very good (laughs). I was trying to think of a better word for that. But I was proud of it. I think on the surface level it did at least a decent job of rekindling interest in it and being a time marker for people.

Several years later, in 2000, I got a call from a literary agent, Randy Voorhees, who asked me if I'd ever thought about expanding that article into a book. I said, "Not really." But he said he thought it would sell. It sold to Simon & Schuster before I'd written a word, and I set about trying to find out just how inadequate my magazine story was. So that was the genesis of the book.

Expats: One of the really interesting things about the book is how you weave in various things that were going on in the nation and in Fayetteville at the time of the game - the controversy over the Arkansas band playing "Dixie" after touchdowns, the Vietnam War protests. At what point did you decide to include that kind of stuff in the book? Was that something that you knew about before you really started reporting the book?

Photo courtesy of hogdb.com


Frei:
I grew up, literally, in the shadow of a college campus in Eugene, Ore., in the tumultuous 1960s, so I was aware first-hand of the academic atmosphere of protest of that time. I knew that Arkansas and Texas were not immune to that, and I certainly had been aware that President Nixon had attended the game.

In the course of researching the book, though, I realized just how many more layers were involved. One reviewer mentioned that there were a lot of dots out there that I connected. Also, there was so much texture to this story that had gone previously unreported.

I had a sense that this book was going to be a lot more than just a football game, but I did not realize how extensive that non-football material would be. When I did the Sporting News story, one thing I had done was track down Don Donner, who led the anti-Vietnam War protests on the hill at the game. So I knew that element.

The element that I really was not aware of until I did the book research was the subplot of the potential of a sit-in on the field, an occupation of the field, by the black students and their sympathizers if the song "Dixie" was played. I was aware of the protests going on that week, but I was not aware of the potential for there being a sit-down protest on the field in front of President Nixon, involving some tactics that would not have enabled the protestors to be cleared off the field during a commercial break.

I'm proud that I did voluminous archival research. I talked to virtually everybody in the starting lineup on both teams. I talked to all kinds of ancillary figures, and as I kept asking questions, I realized how often my mouth was dropping at the answers. One question would lead to another. One area of inquiry would lead into several offshoots.

So the book ended up being far more extensive than I honestly had foreseen. When they originally wanted to expand that magazine story into a book, I of course said, "Sure" - thinking in the back of my head, "You know, I don't know if there's going to be enough there for an entire book." And then I ended up cutting about a third of the material just to make it manageable.

I was originally going to bring in other teams and issues involved in the centennial year of college football, which was that season, 1969. But I found that I didn't need to do that.

Expats:
We weren't born at the time of game, and we really started following the Hogs in the 80s. We know Frank Broyles as a legendary athletic director. But we'd love to hear your take on him as a coach. What was his presence like? What was his relationship with the players and other coaches like?

Frei: He was viewed as an imperial figure looming above the program, both literally and figuratively. He often watched practice on a tower, with the sunlight or the darkness gathering behind him.

He delegated power to the assistant coaches. This is not particularly unique at all in college football. I don't think Frank was particularly close personally to his players. He was much respected. Very much respected and very much in charge of the program. But close personal relationships with the players, those are few and far between.

Expats: Many Razorback fans probably view the 1960s as the heyday of the football program. As we said before, we weren't around at that time. Therefore, we were curious as to what the national view of the program was. Was Arkansas viewed as a real national powerhouse, or did they have the reputation of being a scrappy band of underdogs going against eight teams from Texas? Do you remember how they were known on a national level?
Photo courtesy of hogdb.com
Frei: I was in my mid-teens at the time, so I probably was not as sophisticated as I may have thought I was, despite my football background. But I've always looked at it - and my head was nodding many times when talking to the Arkansas players - that there was this kind of "us against the world" mentality from being the only team in the state going against all of those Texas schools.

It was a strength both within the state and also a strength in the sense of national identification - it is this plucky school in northwest Arkansas holding its own and sometimes doing far more than that in competition with the Texas schools.

I think from afar, growing up 2,000 miles away, my feeling about Arkansas was that it was the outsider in the Southwest Conference that sometimes took the Texas schools to the woodshed and beat the heck out of them.

Expats: In the grand scheme of college football history, where does this game stand in terms of what happened on the field and what it meant off the field?

Frei: Taking into account the entire scope involved of having the president in the stands, having No. 1 versus No. 2, the passing of an era of segregated football in the South - tying all of those things together including the turmoil of the Vietnam War protests - I think it ranks No. 1 in many ways on the list of college football's notable games.

Now, was it the best game? No, it was not. It was a flawed masterpiece. Texas did not play particularly well, and Arkansas had opportunities to win and put the game away and didn't take advantage of them.

To this day, and this somewhat surprised me, the perception even among the Texas players is that they were fortunate to win. I was both pleasantly surprised by and greatly respectful of the Texas players' willingness to acknowledge that they were outplayed that day and to express admiration for the Arkansas players. I'm not preaching to the choir here, but that was really heartfelt and genuine on their part. I was very much impressed with the respect that the players on both teams had for each other, both that day and in the years since.

Expats: It was interesting that James Street, the Texas quarterback who had grown up with [Razorback defensive tackle] Terry Don Phillips, said he had an odd feeling in the aftermath of that game. It wasn't exhilaration. He felt a lot of sympathy for the Razorback players.

Frei: They were more relieved than exhilarated by what happened. I think that's true to this day. There was that recognition that they were outplayed. There was that recognition that they played a very plucky team that had in fact shown how to stop the wishbone.

I think that's maybe one aspect of this game that has been underplayed in the years since and perhaps even in my book - that this was the beginning of the end for the wishbone as the thriving, up-and-coming offense of college football. The Razorbacks that day showed how to shut it down strategically.

The Texas players recognized that they were lucky to be getting out of dodge with a win, that they were fortunate to still be in the running for the national championship. They were very respectful of the team that had put them on the ropes.

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Be sure to visit us tomorrow for part two of our interview. For more information about Terry, whose other football books include "Third Down and a War to Go," "'77" and "The Witch's Season," visit www.terryfrei.com.

And for more on the 40th anniversary of The Big Shootout, check out these links:

"Memories of 'The Big Shootout'" (The Razorbloggers Network)

"After 40 Years, Still the Game of the Century" (FanHouse)

"The Game of the Century: A Q&A with Terry Frei" (The Slophouse)

"Thawing Out After 40 Years" (WholeHogsSports) Note: subscription required

"40th Anniversary of 'The Big Shootout'" (Terry Frei's blog on DenverPost.com)