This weekend, members of the University of Arkansas 1964 football team will return to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the school’s only football national championship. A celebratory weekend surrounding Arkansas’ home game against Alabama will be capped with a ceremony honoring these extraordinary Razorbacks. It won’t be the first team these two proud programs from the South have been involved in some spirited discussion about that 1964 season.
It is appropriate that a half century after the University of Arkansas football national championship, college football would be at the dawn of a significant change in determining the best team in the country. Come January 2015, the newly formulated College Football Playoff will crown a national champion after a four-team bracket designed to settle the arguments of various teams staking claim to the right to play for the title. Coincidentally, University of Arkansas Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long is the chairman of the inaugural College Football Playoff committee.
But in 1964, the national championship was historic not so much for who won but for when the title was awarded. Before the 1964 national championship debate could begin, though, the Razorbacks had plenty of work to do. After all, the Razorbacks were coming off a disappointing 5-5 season for legendary Coach Frank Broyles, a season that was probably most known for the 27-20 season-ending win over Texas Tech in Fayetteville just a day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
A seemingly hollow victory in the face of national mourning served as the first of a remarkable 22 straight victories for the Razorbacks. It was a streak that would not only result in an undefeated season and national title, but also define the University of Arkansas as one of the dominant programs of the 1960s.
Shortly after the 1963 season, the 1964 seniors gathered to discuss the future. They knew they had the talent to win and so they dedicated themselves to doing whatever it required to earn success on the field. Their decision shaped the course of Razorback Football history.
The 1964 season certainly didn’t open with the dominance that Arkansas wanted. The Razorbacks opened in Little Rock against neighboring rival Oklahoma State. Arkansas racked up 235 yards rushing including touchdown runs from Jim Lindsey and Bobby Burnett to secure a 14-10 victory. In game two, Arkansas fell behind Tulsa 14-0, before rallying for 31 straight points to earn a 31-22 win in Fayetteville.
The stifling Razorback defense, a hallmark of the 1964 team, began to show its mettle in games three and four. Arkansas defensive back Bill Gray snared two of the Razorbacks’ six interceptions to easily dispatch TCU 29-6 in Fort Worth. The next week it was a combination of three interceptions and two fumble recoveries that enabled the Razorbacks to bypass the Baylor Bears 17-6, setting up an undefeated showdown with arch rival Texas.
No. 8 Arkansas took its 4-0 record to Austin to battle the No. 1 Texas Longhorns. Arkansas returner Ken Hatfield provided the first spark racing 81 yards after a Longhorns’ punt to provide the first touchdown of the game in the second quarter. After the Longhorns tied the game early in the fourth quarter, Razorback quarterback Fred Marshall found Bobby Crockett on a pass for 34 yards and a score to make it 14-7 Arkansas. But the Longhorns were not done and with 1:27 to play Ernie Koy plowed in from one yard to make it a one-point game. Texas coach Darrell Royal gambled and decided to go for two points and the probable win. But once again, the Razorback defense came up big stopping the two-point pass preserving the 14-13 win. Razorback All-American Ronnie Caveness made 25 tackles in the victory.
Arkansas skyrocketed in the polls and now a national championship was in reach. The Razorback defense made sure it would not slip out of its grips. The Razorbacks followed the Texas win with identical 17-0 shutout wins over Wichita State and Texas A&M. Arkansas blanked Rice 21-0 before downing SMU 44-0.
In the season finale at Texas Tech, Arkansas was looking for an undefeated regular season and a fifth straight shutout. The Red Raiders threatened both, but when defensive end Bobby Roper blocked, not one, but two, field goal attempts and recovered a fumble, the Razorbacks had their 10-0 regular season record and their shutout streak intact.
Despite, the undefeated season and a win over then No. 1 Texas, Arkansas was not named national champion by several well-known outlets. In 1964, seven different entities named a mythical national champion. The two most notable polls to fans at the time — The Associated Press and the United Press International — did not wait until after the bowl games to award their champion. Because of that, Alabama was named the national champ by the AP, UPI and Litkenhous groups.
So when Arkansas faced Nebraska in the 1965 Cotton Bowl, all that was apparently at stake was a perfect 11-0 season and a Cotton Bowl championship. The Razorbacks jumped to a 3-0 first quarter lead, but Nebraska responded with a touchdown in the second quarter, breaking Arkansas’ five-game shutout streak. The score remained the same until the fourth quarter, when Arkansas mounted an 80-yard drive that culminated with Bobby Burnett’s three-yard touchdown run. The extra point gave the Razorbacks the 10-7 victory and an unblemished record.
Later that night, the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide lost, 21-17, to Texas in the Orange Bowl and finished the season 10-1. Arkansas remained the only undefeated team in the country at 11-0 with its victory over Nebraska. Two groups who waited until after the bowl games to name their champion — The Football Writers Association of America and the Helms Athletic Foundation — named Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks as national champs. Notre Dame and Michigan also were honored by lesser known polls.
Based on the clear inequity of the poll system, both the AP (1965) and UPI (1974) eventually changed their procedure, choosing to wait until after the bowls to announce their final polls. Ironically, it was the change in the AP poll in 1965 that cost the Razorbacks a potential second national title. Arkansas finished the 1965 regular season undefeated at 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. But the Razorbacks fell to LSU on the same Cotton Bowl field that had delivered the unexpected national crown the year before.
So later this weekend when this group of remarkable Razorbacks takes a bow in front of an adoring crowd of more than 70,000 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, it will be a fitting 50th anniversary celebration of a deserved national title. It will also be a reminder of the integral part the 1964 Razorbacks played in changing the national championship landscape of college football forever.