When All the Stars Aligned

This story is about the single year in my college sports career in which everything fell into place. I was blessed enough to be a member of the 1989 Arkansas Razorbacks Southwest Conference championship baseball and football teams, which, in my opinion looking back over the nearly 30 years since, are two of the best Razorback sports teams ever. The group of coaches and players on those teams were the finest assemblage of character, talent, and teamwork I was ever associated with. And my two head coaches — Norm Debriyn and Ken Hatfield — were outstanding role models. It was an honor to play for them.

1989. Fayetteville, Arkansas. I had transferred there from Rice University in August of 1988 to play baseball. At Rice, I had played both baseball and football. All four campaigns were losing seasons. In football in 1986, we won 4 and lost 7, and in 1987 we won 2 and lost 9. The football program was heading in the wrong direction. In baseball, it wasn’t much better. These were the days before Rice became a perennial baseball power under Coach Wayne Graham, eventually winning the College World Series in 2003. When I was there, we had an overall winning record, but in Southwest Conference play we lost over half our games. Two years of this got quite old, and I tired of constantly being on losing teams.

So when I arrived on campus in Fayetteville, I looked forward to changing the past. Arkansas was always one of the top baseball programs in the Southwest Conference under Coach Norm Debriyn, having by that time made College World Series appearances in 1979, 1985, and 1987. They made the NCAA tournament almost every year. The level of talent on what would become the 1989 team was richer than any baseball team I had ever played on.

Our 1989 Razorback baseball team was deep and gifted. We had what I thought was the best set of starting pitchers in the SWC, perhaps in the nation. All-SWC selection Mike Oquist would go on to a solid major league career with the Baltimore Orioles. All conference pitcher Mark Swope, senior Dennis Fletcher, and true freshman Doug Bennett rounded out our core rotation. We also had maybe the nation’s best closer in all-conference reliever Phil Stidham. Our other occasional starters and relievers included Cole Hyson, Chris Bryan, and Brent Birch.

Our outfield was anchored by all-American and all-SWC left fielder Troy Eklund, all-SWC selection Scott Pose in center, and a platoon of strong hitting guys in right, including Don Thomas and Haden Etheridge. On the infield we had all-SWC third baseman Greg D’Alexander, shortstop Rod Stillwell, second baseman Tim Thomas, all-SWC first baseman Bubba Carpenter, and outstanding catchers Tony Gilmore and Kirk Piskor. And the depth on our roster was epitomized by a number of players who could play any number of roles and positions, including infielders Greyson Liles, Jim Calhoon, Scott Epps, and outfielder Ron Moore. Indeed, throughout the season these players would be called on in many situations to pinch hit, steal a base, lay down an important bunt, or go into the game late as defensive specialist to help protect a slim lead. That was the nature of the 1989 Razorback baseball team; you had to be ready at any moment to play a role, and when that time came, most people delivered.

We entered Southwest Conference play with a strong 20 and 4 record. The momentum we had built in the non-conference games continued as we won or first four series, sweeping Houston, Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor to go 12 and 0. We split the next series with Rice, two games to one to go 14 and 1.

Then, Texas came to Fayetteville for what would prove a dramatic three game series in late April. The Longhorns, behind eventual major league pitcher Kirk Dressendorfer, took a hard-fought Friday night game 5 to 4, but we came back on Saturday to take both games of the double header, 8 to 4 and 14 to 7. There was a memorable moment in the second game when Texas, clearly frustrated by being down big late in the game and facing losing the series, plunked one of our hitters, seemingly on purpose. The benches emptied for a few minutes, some hard looks and words were offered, but no blows were exchanged as our coaches gathered everyone up and calmed things down. It was big series victory over our most hated rivals, who were and still remain one of the all-time powerhouses in college baseball.

Our final conference series was against Texas A&M in College Station. We entered it with a record of 16 and 2, needing one win to clinch a share of the conference title and two wins to claim the title outright. We took the Friday night game 11 to 9, but struggled to score any runs in both games on Saturday, losing 3 to 2 and 9 to 0. As a result, we ended our Southwest Conference schedule with a 17 and 4 record. Although Texas A&M took that last series from us two games to one, we had tied for the Southwest Conference championship. It was the first ever Southwest Conference championship for Arkansas in baseball.

We returned to College Station the following week for the Southwest Conference tournament, but we didn’t play well in the conference tournament, losing to Texas twice and beating only Houston. Since we didn’t win the conference tournament with its automatic bid, we would have to wait and see what kind of at-large seed we received for the NCAA baseball tournament.

Set up like March Madness, the baseball tournament was then made up of 48 teams who were invited to eight different regional sites to play a double-elimination mini-tournament between 6 teams. The winner of each regional earned one of the eight bids to the College World Series.

When the brackets were announced we had drawn the northeast regional in Waterbury, Connecticut, where we were grouped with Arizona State, Illinois, George Washington, Penn, and LeMoyne. I had never heard of tiny LeMoyne College, but we drew them in the first round and lost, 7–5. That sent us into the losers’ bracket where we had to win to stay alive. We worked our way back up by beating George Washington 8–2, defeating Illinois 9–2, and edging Arizona State 1–0. LeMoyne gave everyone else fits after losing to Illinois 7–0, by working their own way back into a winner-take all game against us in the regional final. Once again, LeMoyne was leading us late before a dramatic grand slam in the 7th inning by Troy Eklund gave us a 6–5 victory. We would be going to the College World Series.

But the College World Series would be a different story from our regular season and regional successes. We drew eventual national champion Wichita State in our first game, which we lost 3–1. We then went to the losers’ bracket and defeated North Carolina 7–3, but then Wichita State lost and came down to play us in our third game, which they won 8–4. We went 1 and 2 and finished 5th in the College World Series, with a final season record of 51 and 16.

— -

Over the summer, I realized I missed football. Because I had transferred within the Southwest Conference from Rice to Arkansas, NCAA rules required that I had to sit out the 1988 football season. And that team had been one of Arkansas’s best ever, winning their first ten games and suffering their only regular season loss in the season finale against Jimmy Johnson’s last Miami Hurricane team, a two-point heartbreaker in the Orange Bowl. It had been Arkansas’s first outright championship in football since 1965, and many of those players were returning for the 1989 season. I figured it might be my first chance to be on a very good football team in college, and I might get a chance to reach one of my childhood dreams of playing in the Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year’s Day. But I would have to walk-on and earn my position on the team; although I had been a scholarship player at Rice, that was old news now, and I like every other non-scholarship player would have to earn a spot on the roster.

I worked out hard over the summer to get back into kicking shape. By the time camp started in late summer, I was stronger than ever and kicking and punting the ball very well. I had a good camp and made the team as the primary kick-off man and backup punter to Allen Meacham, who returned as our solid and reliable starting punter. Todd Wright, a redshirt freshman from Stillwater, Oklahoma, who would go on to be one of the most accurate and poised Arkansas place kickers ever, would be the starting place kicker.

That Razorback team was, like the 1989 baseball team, very deep and talented. Our offense was led by quarterback Quinn Grovey, who engineered a group consisting of primary running backs Barry Foster and James Rouse, go-to tight end Billy Winston, receivers Derek Russell and Tim Horton (one of the toughest teammates I ever had), and all set up and bolstered by an outstanding offensive line anchored by All-American guard Jim Mabry, all-SWC center Elbert Crawford, guard Todd Gifford, and tackles Mark Henry and Rick Apolskis.

Our defense was no slouch either, with all conference tackle Michael Shepherd, Tony Ollison and Chad Rolen, linebackers Mick Thomas, Ty Mason, Bubba Barrow and Ken Benson, and an outstanding, but underrated secondary of all-conference cornerback Anthony Cooney, Patrick Williams, Michael James, Aaron Jackson, and Kirk Collins. Some of my other teammates, along with Tim Horton and me, were second-generation Razorbacks, like defensive tackle MacKenzie Phillips, linebacker Greg Switzer, and tight end Lindy Lindsey.

We opened the 1989 campaign by beating Tulsa 26–7 at home in extreme early September heat. It was a solid win. The following week we traveled to play Ole-Miss in Jackson’s venerable, old Veterans Memorial Stadium. This was back in a time where many programs played their home games at two different stadiums, some on campus and some at a more centralized location, so that fans from all over the state could more easily attend. For instance, Alabama played some of its home games at Legion Field in Birmingham, and we even played half our home games at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, which I thought was actually a more exciting place to play than Fayetteville.

In those days, Ole-Miss was a competitive program, but they were not what they are today and were not viewed as being on the same level as Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M, or Houston. If they had been in the Southwest Conference, I would have put them alongside Texas Tech or Baylor; a tough, competitive team year in and year out that you could never look past or they would upset you and ruin your season. This had actually happened in recent years when Baylor ruined Arkansas’s possible march toward a national championship in 1982, upsetting a 5th-ranked Arkansas team late in the season and doing it again during the Hogs’ run toward a potential Southwest Conference title in 1986. In early 1987, Texas Tech had come into Fayetteville and derailed a promising 1987 season. As it happened, this would come dangerously close to occurring again on that unseasonably cold and wet late September night in Jackson, Mississippi.

The teams exchanged touchdowns back and forth, and the game stood tied at 14–14 late in the first half. On the final play of the first half, I witnessed all I needed to see to know that my fellow kicker and teammate, true freshman Todd Wright from Oklahoma, had what it took to be successful at the D-1 level. Our offense hit a few quick gains into Ole Miss territory, and with seconds to go in the half Wright went out to attempt a tough 46 yard field goal. It had begun to rain and it was already a cold night for September. The kicking conditions were not favorable, with a brisk wind swirling through the stadium, especially down in the bowl-shaped, enclosed end of the stadium he would be kicking toward. He was kicking into the wind with a steady rain falling. The snap and hold were good and he hit the ball solidly. Since he was kicking from the hash marks nearest to our sideline, from where I was standing I could see the ball’s line of flight from directly behind. As happens on kicks into the wind, the ball starting moving back and forth, right to left, then sliding back to the right. But it held its line and was good.

That kind of kick in those conditions and under that type of pressure was strong evidence that Todd Wright was the real deal at this level. His kick put us up 17 to 14 at the half, and gave us much-needed momentum. Todd would later go on to have one of the finest placekicking days in Arkansas history when in his final season in 1992, he kicked four field goals in extremely hostile conditions against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium, the last one of 41 yards as time expired to give Arkansas an upset 24–22 victory over the then 5th-ranked Volunteers. It was Arkansas’s first big win after moving to the Southeastern Conference.

Conditions only worsened in the second half, with us outscoring Ole Miss 7 to 3 and eventually holding them off with a defensive stand inside our own red-zone near the end of the game, winning 24–17 in a tough, hard fought contest. We were all relieved to escape Jackson with a victory.

After the Ole-Miss game we seemed to hit our stride, rolling over UTEP in Little Rock 39 to 7, and then going on the road and crushing TCU 41 to 19 in Fort Worth and ruining Texas Tech’s homecoming game in Lubbock the week after they had upset Texas A&M, 45 to 13. After the win over Texas Tech, we rose to number 7 in the polls, with a record of 5 and 0.

As happens with so many teams, there can be a letdown when you least expect it. The week after our thrashing of Texas Tech, the Texas Longhorns came into Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. They were not having a great season, but were certainly no one to overlook, having won 4 and lost 2, but they had barely beaten Rice by a point at home and were blown out on the road against Colorado. We felt confident that we were the better team. But from the beginning of the game, it seemed we couldn’t find the easy consistency we had on offense in the three previous games, and we struggled all day, turning the ball over three times. Texas hit a few big plays, including a 61 yard touchdown pass, and we found ourselves working from behind, a situation we hadn’t been in all year. Late in the game we were down 24–14 and were able to narrow the score to 24 to 20, but frustratingly, we couldn’t score again. That’s how the game ended with Texas upsetting us 24 to 20. It was a stinging, bitter defeat. I wondered if this was that one upset game that would derail our season, as had happened to Arkansas many times in the past. Many in the media wrote us off as being unable to repeat as champions.

The other problem was our job wasn’t going to get any easier. The same day we were getting beaten by Texas, our next opponent, the Houston Cougars, lit up the SMU Mustangs in the Astrodome 95 to 21. Their quarterback, Andre Ware, had passed for 517 yards and 6 touchdowns, and their offense had rolled up a ridiculous 1,021 yards of total offense. Indeed, Ware was pulled at the half with the Cougars up 59 to 14, but that didn’t stop their “run and shoot” system from putting up another 36 points with their second team players and walk-ons in the second half. This was what we were up against the week after a heart-breaking loss to Texas. One thing in our favor was we would be playing in Little Rock, our home away from home.

The week of the Houston game, practice proceeded pretty normally, until one afternoon when something very memorable happened. In the middle of practice someone was rolling something out onto the field. It was a coffin. As everyone started to gather around for what was clearly some type of stunt cooked up by the coaches, Coach Hatfield said, “Some people think we’re dead.” Right on cue, the lid of the coffin popped open and up jumped one of our offensive line coaches, J.B. Grimes. “We a’int dead!” Cheers erupted. The point was, although everyone, the media and even some of our fans thought we were dead in the SWC race, we could and would return from the dead. Playing that role was something typical of Grimes, who was a gregarious, fun-loving and irresistibly charismatic coach. He worked with the kickers and long-snappers, and we all loved him. Unlike many who look at kickers as second class-athletes and not even real football players, every time someone would needle us, Grimes would say things like, “You know what kickers do? They win championships for you, that’s what.” What I will call the “Coffin Incident” is a little-known part of the 1989 team’s lore, but it diffused the tension that was permeating our week up to that point and galvanized our team as we prepared for Houston.

The Houston Cougars were on probation, but they were led by eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Andre Ware. They came into the game averaging a preposterous 663 yards and 57 points per game on offense. We were playing the game in Little Rock, which was a good thing. I for one liked playing in Little Rock more than playing in Fayetteville. In Fayetteville, it seemed our crowd at times was made up of fair weather fans, including a huge contingent of students who appeared more concerned with partying and leaving early than the outcome of the game. War Memorial Stadium, on the other hand, was located on the edge of War Memorial Park in the middle of Little Rock, the state’s centrally located capitol city. Fans would park their vehicles on the grounds of the park’s golf course and tail-gate all day long in the build-up to night games. This day would be no different.

In my mind, there were two things that made War Memorial a better place to play if you needed the crowd to provide an edge. First, the stadium was a completely enclosed bowl, meaning all sound generated by the fans had no place to go and just bounced around and stayed inside, making the place much louder than Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, which when I played was open in both endzones. The second reason was fans from all over the state could get to Little Rock in a reasonable time, meaning Little Rock crowds had a different feel than the campus crowds; they were made up of rabid, crazy people who would scream their lungs out and stay until the last second had ticked off the clock. And the bleachers in WMS were right on top of you down on the field and it made for a unique and exhilarating experience.

As a brief aside, I think it’s a shame Arkansas now only plays one game a year in Little Rock. To be certain, the stadium is very old and in need of repair, but playing nearly all home games in Fayetteville is just not fair to the loyal people in southern and eastern Arkansas, who have to drive all the way to the northwest corner of the state to see their beloved Hogs. And the Hogs historically have a better record in Little Rock than on campus (The 2015 media guide states the winning percentage in War Memorial Stadium is .712 in 212 games as opposed to .668 in 268 games in Fayetteville). What happened against Houston in 1989 is some evidence of why that Little Rock record is better, in my humble and biased opinion.

The game was an offensive shootout, with the teams constantly going up and down the field. At the half, Houston led us only 21–17. Our defense had thus far succeeded at bending but not breaking. We had kept it close and had a chance to win, but we had to keep Houston from getting too far ahead.

Early in the second half came what I believe was the turning point in the game. With first and goal at our seven yard line and looking to go ahead by 28–17, Ware rolled out to his left, but he didn’t see our safety, Kirk Collins, blitzing from his right. Collins arrived just as Ware was about to deliver a pass and stripped the ball out of Ware’s hands. The ball went tumbling to the turf and seemed to just sit there in the backfield for an eternity before Collins himself scrambled on top of it. The sound that erupted was deafening. The stadium exploded. We had the ball deep in our own territory, but most importantly, our defense had stopped Houston from increasing their lead, which it looked very much like they were going to do. If they had scored a touchdown they would’ve gone up by 11 points, and we might never have recovered. Looking back almost 30 years later, I think it was the biggest play of the game. It was a sudden and irreversible change. It stifled Houston’s momentum and encouraged us. It seemed we dictated everything that happened after that play. Before, Houston was having their way with us. We turned right around and went on a 78-yard scoring drive to take the lead back, 24–21.

Houston scored again and led us 28–24 going into the fourth quarter, but we scored 21 points to stretch out to a 45–31 lead. At the very end of the game we allowed one last touchdown and two-point conversion, but time ran out on Houston. We won 45–39. Our teams combined for 1,228 yards of total offense, at the time the second highest total ever in a SWC game. One of the most glaring stats from that game is the time of possession, which we won almost two to one.

The crime of it to this very day is that because Houston was on probation in 1989, they were not allowed to have their games televised; this punished not only Houston but the teams they were playing. So if you were not at War Memorial Stadium that cool October night in 1989, you missed one of the greatest shootouts in SWC history, maybe NCAA history. Hyperbole you say? Just ask one of the people who played in the game or one of the fans who were there. They will agree with me, even if they played for Houston. It was by far the loudest game I ever played in or attended, to this day. There were times during that game where Todd Wright and I were trying to talk to each other on the sideline and couldn’t even hear the sound of our own voices, let alone what the other was saying.

When we pulled out of the War Memorial Stadium parking lot that night, it seemed like none of the fans had left. They were standing in huge throngs packed against the barriers. They were screaming and calling the Hogs, all the way out to Markham Street. “Look at these people!” somebody yelled from inside my bus. It was unbelievable. “The Greatest Game No One Ever Saw” (on television) was the turning point in our season that would propel us forward toward the conference championship.

After Houston, we went to Rice and won 38 to 17, then came home to Fayetteville to play the first ever night game in Razorback Stadium against a very tough Baylor Bear team. Under temporary lighting and in a game televised nationally by ESPN, we held off Baylor in a hard fought game, 19 to 10, with Todd Wright connecting on four field goals.

That left us with a much-needed week off before a showdown with Texas A&M in College Station, with the winner having the inside road to the conference championship and berth in the Cotton Bowl. Both teams were 5 and 1 in Southwest Conference play, and the Aggies were the only other team to have beaten Houston, holding them to only 13 points.

When we went to College Station the day after Thanksgiving, no conference opponent had won a game at Kyle Field since Baylor on October 20, 1984. The Aggies hadn’t lost a conference game at home in over five years, winning 19 consecutive. We knew we had our work cut out for us.

In another nationally televised game, this time on CBS, we played another hard fought battle against an equally talented football team. We took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards to go up 7–0. Then, only three plays into the Aggies’ first possession our linebacker Mick Thomas intercepted a pass that bounced off the receiver’s shoulder to give us a quick and stunning 14–0 lead. A&M then scored to make it 14–7, and Wright added a field goal to make it 17–7. The Aggies got a touchdown pass before the half to cut our lead to 17–14. In the second half, A&M’s defense shut us down and they got two field goals to take the lead 20–17. With time winding down, our offense then went on a long, time-consuming drive that finally ended when Barry Foster scored from 2 yards out with 2:52 remaining. The point after was blocked, making it a three-point game. We had to take a safety late, and punter Allen Meacham delivered a solid free kick under huge pressure to give our defense some breathing room. We held off the Aggies 23–22.

Our 38–24 season ending win over SMU in Little Rock was anticlimactic and now forgotten. And unfortunately, so was our Cotton Bowl loss to a Chuck Webb-led Tennessee team in the Cotton Bowl on New Years’ Day. The month-long layoff softened us up, and we turned the ball over three times, killing some promising offensive drives. We couldn’t stop Tennessee’s Chuck Webb, who ran for 250 yards. We out-gained the Vols on offense 568 to 470 and made 31 first downs to their 16, but we got too far behind and ran out of time. We cut their lead to 31–27 with 1:25 remaining, but Alvin Harper recovered my bouncing onside kick, and they ran out the clock.

Regardless, the Cotton Bowl experience was a dream come true for me, having grown up in Houston wanting to follow in my father’s footsteps and be a Razorback, and having followed the Southwest Conference all my life. My father played in two Cotton Bowls, and I got to play in one. I am very thankful for the experience. I am proud of the fact that after watching so many great Arkansas teams get locked out of the Cotton Bowl, like the 1977, 1979 and 1982 teams, I was on a team that earned a berth in that game. I just wish we had brought home a win for the great Razorback fans.

— -

What does any of this have to do with the stars aligning? Because 1990 would be different, almost completely. I gave up my final year of eligibility in baseball to focus on football in the spring. And our 1990 football season turned out, shockingly, to be one to forget. Perhaps someday it will be the subject of another story in the tradition of Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, about his senior year playing basketball at The Citadel. But in any event, in 1990 we had the worst Arkansas record in 38 years going all the way back to the 1952 season, and the program wouldn’t have one worse than that until 2013, 23 years later.

Never in my career did I ever experience such a sudden change from one year to the next. I went from being on one of the best Arkansas teams in 25 years in 1989 to being on what would eventually be one of the worst Arkansas teams in the preceding 50 years the following season. (The 1952 team went 2–8 and the 2013 team went 3–9).

I couldn’t see it then, but looking back all these years later, 1989 becomes more and more significant and isolated in my college sports career. It has become one shining moment in the unmerciful and traveling hands of time. I was on two football and baseball teams at Rice that were losing programs; the football teams went 4–7 and 2–9. And my last Arkansas team was 3–8. Those three losing seasons bookend the 1989 season when we went 10–2, beating Houston 45–39 and beating Texas A&M at Kyle Field 23–22 and giving A&M their first conference loss at home in five years. Our only losses that season were to Texas and Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl. For much of the season we were in the top ten in the rankings. And, in the end we won the Southwest Conference championship outright for the second season in a row, becoming the first Arkansas football team to go to back to back Cotton Bowl games since my father’s and Coach Hatfield’s teams of 1964 and 1965.

Coach Hatfield left for Clemson shortly after the season. The circumstances of his departure have been disputed by my teammates and me and by the media and fans for years, and it’s not important to delve into them here. But I will go on record to say I think he was taken for granted and unappreciated by many people outside our program. From a player’s perspective, you never had to guess where you stood with him; he was always a straight shooter who complimented you when you played well and held you accountable when you didn’t. In hindsight, I wish every coach I had during my four years had been like him, but he stands alone in these respects.

In any event, the proof is in the pudding; he has the highest winning percentage of any coach in Arkansas history, led his teams to bowl games every season he was there, and Arkansas hasn’t won a conference championship in football since he left. Sure, naysayers and detractors will point out that Arkansas left the Southwest Conference in 1992 to go the Southeastern Conference, the excuse being the SEC is much stronger than the SWC was. But that wasn’t as true in the early 90s as it is today. Regardless, after Coach Hatfield left, the program plunged into mediocrity for eight years until Coach Houston Nutt went 9–3 in his first season of 1998. Coach Hatfield went on to a successful stint at Clemson, then finished his coaching career at Rice, where in 1994 he guided the Owls to their first win over Texas in 28 years and their first share of a Southwest Conference title since 1957.

Now, when I consider those short four years in the late 80s when I played college baseball and football at two different schools, I realize how fortunate I was to have been in the right place at the right time. The 1986, 1987 and 1990 seasons were forgettable. But 1989 stands out brightly as the one year when all the stars aligned.

This story appears in my book “Document,” available on Amazon.com

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