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

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Yesterday marked 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 braved the bitter cold to watch the game, which ABC broadcast to a national television audience, in person. To commemorate the occasion, we recently interviewed Terry Frei, author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," an outstanding chronicle not only of that game but of the many compelling events surrounding it. The book was published in 2002.

Below is the second and final part of our Q&A (here's part one), in which Terry discusses how the Razorback players feel about the game after all these years, why Nixon traveled to Fayetteville and how the two teams would have fared in a rematch. Many, many thanks to Terry for his time and insight.  

Photo from hogdb.com

Expats: What was the attitude of the Razorback players after all these years? Did they look back on the game bitterly?

Frei: Great pride. Regret at not winning the game, but exceeding pride that they had left so much on the field emotionally, physically.

One of the impressions that I've gotten is the combination of regret and pride that has made this game so memorable to the Arkansas players, the coaches, the people who saw it and the people who know about it years later. In my mind, this is somewhat the reason why the book has been more remarked upon in Arkansas than Texas.

Before the book came out, there was an editorial by Kane Webb in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He had gotten a copy of the galleys. The editorial was about how I was being like de Tocqueville. I was the outsider who came in and perhaps was able to be somewhat dispassionate yet recognize the passion involved in the game. People have both thanked me for having somewhat of a sympathetic view about it and with all good humor have excoriated me for reopening the wounds.

Clearly to me that was a day of great pride for everybody in Arkansas. Not blowing smoke, but I think there is a recognition that it was a proud moment in Arkansas football history rather than something to be sheepish about or to regret.

My only regret - and I'm sorry if this going to step on some people's toes - is that in 2004, the University of Arkansas Athletic Department withdrew support for the 35th anniversary reunion of the teams taking place in Fayetteville on the day of the Arkansas-Texas game. I don't understand that attitude of let's not salute Texas players on the Arkansas football field.

There were two teams on the field that day. It was a glorious day for college football, and it was very much in my mind a day in Arkansas football history to be proud of.

Expats: That was kind of petty.

Frei: I was part of the reunion that took place that weekend. If the people who thought that it would somehow be disrespectful to Arkansas football history to acknowledge and commemorate a game that Arkansas lost, if you had been there and seen those two teams interact - talking, laughing, hugging, telling jokes - I think most people would have agreed that it would have been appropriate to acknowledge them on the field that day.

Because that's what football can be - whether it's in one locker room or it's among two teams - it can be a bonding experience, and I think in this case it has remained so.

Expats: It seems like this game was in some ways the beginning of the modern era of college football. With all the hype, it was almost kind of a pre-BCS championship game. How would you say this game has impacted the business around college football? Do you see it as something of a trailblazing event?

Photo from hogdb.com


Frei: It became such a perfect storm of events aligning perfectly to produce a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in the first week of December. In my mind, no one could foresee that Ohio State was going to lose to Michigan that day in November and turn this game into No. 1 vs. No. 2.

I think it kind of was ahead of the real, real hype era of turning one game into a mega event, whether it's a BCS championship game or anything else. I do think it's clearly one of the most memorable because of the president attending it, No. 1 vs. No. 2. There have been many other memorable games, but this one, because of all the factors involved, I think is probably the most remembered.

Expats: You talk about it in the book, but what were Nixon's reasons for going to the game?

Frei: He was genuinely a big college football fan. That part was not political contrivance. He viewed football as a test of manhood and everything else. He bought into all of those metaphors about what football was and what it could be.

He viewed Arkansas and the Deep South as kind of an oasis from all the dissent in the country that both he and Lyndon Baines Johnson had received over Vietnam. This was the end of his first year in office. He clearly thought of Arkansas as a place that he could go without being subject to major protests, which the book shows he was incorrect in assuming. But he really genuinely loved football, and he genuinely loved the spectacle of being part of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game.

There were maneuverings and machinations that went back many months with [ABC broadcaster and Nixon friend] Bud Wilkinson essentially promising the television people that President Nixon would show up to this game. I think everybody assumed that if it had not been a significant confrontation, I don't think Richard Nixon would have come to the game. He would have cancelled his tentative, behind-the-scenes plans.

To me the most remarkable thing is that he and his entourage - including future President Bush, John Paul Hammerschmidt, Gov. Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger - marched right in from the helicopter pad on the practice field and sat in the stands. That's rather remarkable to me in this era.

He brought his plaque with him to present to the winner as the national champion of college football, much to the chagrin of Penn State. But as I tried to point out in the book: everybody tends to forget now, but that was really kind of the dying days of the notion that bowl games were a tacked-on vacation, a reward for the college football season. One of the two polls still didn't have a poll after the bowl game.

His move to give the winner a national championship plaque was not as presumptuous and out of line as many have portrayed, particularly the Penn State fans. If Penn State had really wanted to settle it on the field, they could have done so by accepting a Cotton Bowl berth to face the winner.

Expats: What kind of reaction did you get from the sources? Anybody unhappy with the result?

Frei: I had a phone call from Darrell Royal, and he told me that he didn't know that his players were that scared of him. And then there was this long pause, and he says, "You know, but you got everything else right so I'm assuming you got that right too."
Nixon arrives at 1969 Ark/Texas game, photo from hogdb.com
The players for the most part were rather ecstatic about the treatment in the book. I'm not going to blown my own horn here, but being the son of a football coach enabled me to have a built-in understanding and sympathy for what college football is, what is was all about.

I was democratic, with a little "d." I've been criticized for this in some quarters - the one criticism I have gotten for the book was that it was too extensive, that I told the story of so many players. I told the background and story of virtually every starter in the game on both teams on both sides of the ball.

I felt that was important, and I'm proud to have done it. I think it contributed to a much larger and more comprehensive of what college football is and what that game was. Some thought it was too inclusive, particularly some Texas fans saying, "We didn't care about the Arkansas players." Or vice versa.

But there was a recognition from the players that "he cared about me too." I honestly don't feel as if anybody had any major gripes about the book I produced.

Expats: Back to the game itself, it came down to a few key plays. But Arkansas, as they have done since then and before probably did before, kind of found a way to lose it at the end. This is an impossible question to answer, but humor us for a second. Can you in any way objective way say that they should have won? How close was the line between victory and defeat?

Frei: It was minute. There was no doubt in my mind that Arkansas played better that day. And quote deserved unquote to win the game. There were some strategic - I don't want to say "blunders" - but clearly not settling for the field goal when they could have gone ahead 17 to 8 and gotten a little bit out of harm's way was a decision that haunted many of the players and caused them to second guess even their own coaches.

Bill Montgomery would like to have that one pass back, but everybody in the game recognizes that Bill Montgomery was heroic that day and was a great quarterback during his entire career at Arkansas. Other than that, I don't think there was anything that can be looked back upon with great regret because they were terrific that day.

Everybody tends to forget this too but the brilliant strategic move that day was when Texas went for two points after scoring to get within 14 to 6. Here's the alternative ending for you: in the era of overtime, that game probably would have ended up 14 to 14, gone into overtime and who knows what would have happened.
photo courtesy of razorbloggers.net
Expats: Probably a final score of 70 to 63 or something like that. That's an interesting alternative ending. Say those teams were going to play 100 times in those conditions - in Fayetteville, with all the hoopla and the president - how many times would Texas have won and how many times would Arkansas have won?

Frei: Texas probably had superior talent. Let's say they were rematched in a bowl game - I'm dodging the question here, aren't I? (Laughs).

Let's say they were rematched in a bowl game, I think clearly Arkansas would have gotten Texas' attention, and Texas probably was a more powerful, talent-laden team. Arkansas got everything out of what they had, and they had a lot of talent.

Let's put it this way ... I'm pausing for effect ...  Arkansas was the better team that day, but Texas was probably the better team overall. I think that's fair to say, and I think that emphasizes just how gutty and heroic and just how much of a near-miss it was for the Arkansas people that day.

Expats: We'll let you slide away with that answer.

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Be sure to read part one 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)