Of all the memorable games in the wide world of sports history, a college football match played 50 years ago this Friday embodies the saying — you can’t make this stuff up.
The University of Arkansas and the University of Texas at Austin game was originally scheduled for October, but one influential man singled out the contest for the national championship.
The man who made that choice was Beano Cook, the late college football guru who was then working for ABC. He thought the defending national champion Ohio State University would lose a regular-season game, and that Texas and Arkansas had a good chance to be undefeated if their game was pushed back.
The game was rescheduled for Dec. 6, 1969, and Cook turned out to be right. The Buckeyes lost to Michigan, and ABC had its dream matchup.
ABC executive Roone Arledge wanted to celebrate the centennial of college football with this game and invited former President Richard Nixon to present a trophy to the winning team. But Nixon arrived late to the stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas, missing the kickoff. The president sat in the stands just like a regular fan and went up to the ABC broadcast booth for an interview at half time.
“I’m 70. I was 20 watching the game on TV in Lubbock, [Texas], and no one can know what it felt like unless you were watching it,” says Mike Looney, author of “The Big Shootout: The Untold Story of the Game of the Century,” and also producer of a documentary film about it.
“You didn’t know about the racial stuff, and you didn’t know about the politics," he says. "That TV was about to explode.”
Henry Kissinger joined Nixon to watch the contest. The future president, George H.W. Bush, then a Texas congressman, was also there, along with Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who staunchly opposed Nixon’s Vietnam War policy.
An Arkansas student and Vietnam veteran organized a protest. He and other demonstrators placed a huge peace sign on a hillside above the stadium. President Nixon saw it, but Looney says ABC didn’t show it.
The war was not an abstract concept in 1969. Five days before the game, the first draft lottery drawing was held. And Bobby Mitchell, one of the Texas players, had lost his brother in Vietnam.
This was the deep South in 1969, so racial tensions were also high. Looney says this was the last national championship game with all-white teams. There were black players, but they weren’t eligible for the varsity squads. Some of them participated in a protest against the Arkansas band’s tradition of playing “Dixie,” the Confederate national anthem.
Looney says the band director, Doc Worthington, made the decision not to play the song at the pep rally before the game, and it wasn’t played during the game either. But when Arkansas played Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl a few weeks later, the Ole Miss band played "Dixie."
All of this context makes the game historically important but what actually happened on the field on that gray December day makes it a game for the ages, Looney says.
Arkansas fans were thrilled to see their Razorbacks take a 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter. But Texas quarterback James Street broke off a long touchdown run and dove into the end zone for a two-point conversion to make it 14-8.
With the clock ticking down and Arkansas fans holding their collective breath, the Longhorns completed a long fourth-down pass deep into Arkansas territory. That led to the tying touchdown and the extra point made it 15-14 Texas.
The Longhorns were national champions.
President Nixon presented a plaque to the Texas team in a jubilant locker room. He also visited the Arkansas players where he told them he knew what they felt like, having suffered some political defeats of his own. Nixon, of course, would be forced to resign from the presidency in 1974 because of Watergate.
The loss was crushing for Arkansas. Arkansas coach Frank Broyles sauntered off the field holding his daughters' hands. He never really talked about it until he was interviewed for the documentary.
More than 30 years later, some players from both teams reunited. The years, Looney says, blurred the line of scrimmage.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Big Shootout’
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.