NOW that Arkansas has won its first national basketball
championship, maybe the rest of the country will finally realize what
has been clear within the state for years -- namely that basketball
and football are equals in the hearts and minds of Arkansans. It's
even possible that basketball has edged ahead now, considering how
Razorback football has slipped since the glory days of the 1960s and
'70s, when Frank Broyles was at the Hogs' helm, and the team was
competing for national titles. ''The growth of basketball staggers my
mind,'' says Broyles, who gave up coaching in 1976 and has been the
Arkansas athletic director since 1974.
It's widely assumed, even by current hoops coach Nolan Richardson,
that Arkansas basketball didn't begin its staggering growth until
Broyles hired Eddie Sutton as coach in 1974. Indeed, Sutton deserves
credit for reviving what had become a stagnant program by recruiting
such players as Ron Brewer, Marvin Delph, Joe Kleine, Sidney
Moncrief, U.S. Reed, Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker. To be fair,
though, it must be noted that even before the arrival of Sutton,
Razorback basketball had a rich legacy full of successful seasons and
All-Americas. That history also includes one of the more bizarre
twists of fate in the annals of college basketball.
The Razorback basketball team was a winner from the get-go. Under
coach Francis Schmidt, the Hogs finished 17-11 in their first season,
1923-24. Just two years later they won the first of their 22
Southwest Conference crowns, including five straight from 1926 to
'30. The 1928-29 team was captained by Wear Schoonover, who was the
Hogs' first football All-America.
In 1933 Glen Rose, who had been a three-year starter for the
Razorbacks in the late '20s, took over for Charles Bassett as coach,
and the success continued. The 1935-36 team went 24-3 and came within
two games of representing the U.S. in the Berlin Olympics. In those
days, before Dream Teams or Olympic tryout camps, a tournament made
up of existing clubs and college teams was held to determine the
U.S. entry. The Hogs were invited but lost 40-29 to Hollywood
Universal, an all-star team from California, in the semifinals.
Arkansas qualified for another tournament in 1941 -- the NCAAs.
That team, which was led by All-America Johnny Adams, finished 20-3
and won the SWC. The NCAA tournament was in its third year, and only
eight teams were invited. The winners of two four-team regionals met
for the title. At the West Regional, in Kansas City, Arkansas
defeated Wyoming 52-40 but then lost 64-53 to Washington State.
After one more season Rose was replaced by Eugene Lambert, who
guided the Hogs to a 19-7 record in 1942-43. Although the team's
record dipped to 16-8 the next season, the Razorbacks received the
school's second NCAA invitation.
Then came the accident.
It is not even mentioned in the Arkansas media guide. In the
records section of the guide, the 1943-44 season ends with a 58-42
loss to Camp Chaffee. No journalist had thought to revisit those
affected by the tragedy until Charles Chandler of The Charlotte
Observer did so a few months ago, 50 years after it happened.
< On the drizzly, foggy night of March 18, 1944, six days before
Arkansas was to play Missouri in the NCAA West Regional in Kansas
City, the Razorbacks' five starters -- George Kok, Ben Jones, Deno
Nichols, Mike Schumchyk and Red Wheeler -- were riding together in a
maroon station wagon on U.S. 71, a two- lane highway twisting through
the Ozark Mountains in the northwest corner of the state. They were
on their way home from Fort Smith, where they had lost to a team of
GIs from Camp Chaffee in a tune-up game.
Around 10 p.m. the group was about 20 miles outside Fayetteville,
Ark., when the station wagon's left rear tire went flat. The driver,
Eugene Norris, a physical education teacher who had volunteered to
help Lambert with the team, had to stop on the road because the
shoulder was too narrow. While Nichols, Jones and Wheeler helped
Norris change the tire, Kok stood in the road waving a flashlight to
warn approaching cars that a car was stalled in their path.
Several cars slowed and passed. Finally, when the tire had been
changed and the flat was being put on the back of the wagon, a car
approached from behind, over the top of a hill. Kok waved his
flashlight, but the car kept coming. Standing behind the wagon
Nichols, Norris and Jones were frozen in the oncoming car's
headlights. Wheeler, who was helping to change the tire, was about to
get back in the car. Inside Schumchyk braced himself.
''Oh, my god,'' he said.
The car plowed into the station wagon at full speed. Kok later
told Chandler, ''It's something you never forget -- three men
groaning in agony and their legs dangling from their bodies.''
Nichols, Norris and Jones were pinned between the vehicles. No
telephone was nearby, so it was impossible to call for help.
The driver of the other car, Maurice Russell, an undertaker,
helped Kok, Schumchyk and Wheeler remove the backseat of the station
wagon so that they could place Nichols and Jones there. Norris was
placed on the front seat between Schumchyk and Russell, who drove to
the hospital while Kok and Wheeler stayed at the scene, waiting for
Lambert and the rest of their teammates, who were driving the same
route in another car.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital in Fayetteville, the
28-year-old Norris was pronounced dead of internal injuries.
Nichols's right leg had been broken in two places, and both of
Jones's legs had been broken and his back was fractured. ''Any
attempt to set the injured limbs has been postponed until the
victims improve,'' a doctor told a Fayetteville newspaper at the
The next day Lambert announced that Arkansas had withdrawn from
the NCAA tournament. ''What with our prevalent sorrow,'' he said,
''we haven't much time to think about sports.'' On March 22 the NCAA
tournament committee invited Utah, which had lost to Kentucky in the
NIT, to replace the Razorbacks. The Utah players voted unanimously to
accept the invitation, aware only that there had been some sort of
terrible accident in Arkansas.
Amazingly, Utah went on to win the NCAA title, at Madison Square
Garden, beating Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime. Utah center Arnie Ferrin
was named MVP of the tournament. The Utes, who were known as the
Blitz Kids, stayed in New York and beat NIT champion St. John's 46-36
two nights later in a Red Cross benefit game.
Back in Arkansas, Jones was recovering, although he would spend
the next two years in various casts and braces. Nichols's leg had
become gangrenous and had to be amputated. ''That's where his life
ended,'' his widow told the Observer. ''Right there. Maybe not
physically, but mentally.''
Led by Kok, the Razorbacks finished 17-9 the following season and
returned to the NCAA tournament. This time they beat Oregon 79-76 in
the first round but lost 68-41 to eventual national champion Oklahoma
A&M, which was led by 7- foot Bob (Foothills) Kurland, in the
For the next 29 years Razorback basketball wallowed in mediocrity,
relieved only by two undistinguished NCAA tournament appearances. The
1948-49 team fell 56-38 to Oregon State in the second round, and the
1957-58 team was eliminated by Oklahoma State 65-40 in the opening
round. The coach of that Cowboy team was the legendary Henry Iba, and
its point guard was a man who would more than make up for the
heartache he had caused Arkansas fans.
Sixteen years later, when that guard, Eddie Sutton, arrived in
Fayetteville to coach the Hogs, 4,745-seat Barnhill Fieldhouse was
little more than a drafty old barn. It had been built in 1956 so that
the football team would have a place to work out during the winter.
The court was set on a dirt floor, and the only seats were beat-up
bleachers. The average crowd for basketball games was 800, and ticket
receipts didn't even cover the football staff's phone bill. Once,
after slogging through the midwinter muck to the doors of Barnhill,
Abe Lemons, who was then the Texas coach, said, ''Arkansas is the &
only place in the world where you have to take a shower before the
''It was terrible,'' said Sutton in a 1978 interview. ''The
attitude about basketball was, Well, we've got to have it, so let's
go out and play the schedule and spend as little money as possible
and wait till spring football starts.''
No wonder Sutton, then Creighton coach, turned down the Arkansas
job when it was first offered to him, in 1971. ''It took me about 30
minutes to see that the timing wasn't right,'' he recalled.
After graduating from Oklahoma State, Sutton worked his way up the
coaching ranks, from Tulsa's Central High to Southern Idaho Junior
College to Creighton. He caught Broyles's eye when his 1974 Creighton
team nearly upset Kansas in the NCAA Midwest Regional. ''I was being
interviewed for the Duke job at the time,'' said Sutton. ''I met
Frank Broyles at the NCAA finals. I said, 'Frank, next to athletic
directors, I mistrust football coaches most, and you're in a dual
capacity, so where does that put you?' But he convinced me that they
were ready to make the necessary commitments.''
Broyles promised Sutton he would renovate Barnhill. He even had a
blueprint on hand to show Sutton what the arena would look like.
Sutton took the job and went to work. He stumped the state, talking
and recruiting. Sometimes when he would call a prospect, the kid
would laugh out loud. Arkansas? To play basketball? You must be
Delph, however, didn't laugh. Neither did Jim Counce. In 1974 they
were outstanding high school prospects from Conway, Ark., and
Memphis, respectively. Both agreed to play ball at Arkansas.
''Marvin and Jimmy always will have a special place in my heart,''
said Sutton. ''They came on faith alone. I told him, 'Marvin, it's
going to change,' and he believed me. Because of Marvin and Jimmy, it
was easier to get Ron Brewer and Sidney Moncrief and others. It'll
never happen again, to find three players like Delph, Moncrief and
Brewer in a state the size of Arkansas at the same time.''
Delph, Brewer and Moncrief became known as the Three Basketeers or
the Triplets, and in 1977-78 they led the Razorbacks to a 31-3
record. That team reached the Final Four but lost 64-59 to eventual
champion Kentucky in the semis. The Razorbacks had a chance until,
with 1:59 remaining, the Wildcats' Kyle Macy threw a floor-length
pass to Jack Givens, who laid it in over Delph to give Kentucky a
four-point lead. ''I thought Givens walked,'' said Sutton later.
''Oh, well, I guess I just remember that one because it happened late
in the game.''
The next year an official did call traveling on a player, but this
time it helped prevent the Razorbacks from returning to the Final
Four. With 1:08 to go against undefeated Indiana State, which was
ranked No. 1 and led by Larry Bird, the score was 71-71. Sutton's
plan was for the Hogs to hold the ball until a few seconds remained
and then turn Moncrief loose. A wiry 6 ft. 4 in. senior guard,
Moncrief had made six of seven shots in the second half on his way to
a 24-point performance.
But Reed, Moncrief's backcourt mate, was under heavy pressure from
the Sycamores' Carl Nicks. Reed tripped, stumbled to the floor and
picked up his dribble. Reed was called for traveling, and Indiana
State won 73-71 on Bob Heaton's desperation shot with two seconds on
On March 14, 1981, Reed atoned for his blunder. In the second
round of the NCAA tournament, he sank a 49-foot Hail Mary at the
buzzer to give Arkansas a 74-73 victory over defending national
champion Louisville. Alas for the Razorbacks, LSU beat them 72-56 in
the regional semis.
When Sutton headed for Kentucky in 1985, he left Richardson with a
strong program that had been invited to the NCAA tournament for the
previous nine years and had sold out every home game since 1976-77.
However, Richardson's up-tempo game was diametrically opposed to
Sutton's walk-it-up style, and when Richardson's teams were not
immediately successful, he took a beating from the fans and the
media. The pivotal game came in the first round of the 1987 NIT, in
which the Hogs rallied from a 21-point second-half deficit to edge
Arkansas State 67-64 in overtime. If the Hogs had lost that game,
Richardson probably would have been fired.
The next season, with Richardson's recruits playing Richardson's
style, the Razorbacks won 21 games and returned to the NCAA
tournament. In 1990 future NBA players Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and
Oliver Miller took Arkansas to the Final Four for the first time
since 1978. The Hogs lost 97-83 to Duke in the semis.
The Blitz Kids of Utah held a 50th anniversary reunion this year.
The survivors of the 1943-44 Arkansas team -- Jones, Nichols and
Wheeler are dead, but Lambert and five players, including Kok and
Schumchyk, are alive -- did not. They have not stayed in touch; the
memories are too painful.
After his playing career Ferrin, the former Ute center, went on to
become athletic director at Utah, serving on the NCAA tournament
committee for six years during the 1980s. Recently he proposed that
the committee name one team each year to fill in if one of the other
teams cannot compete in the tournament. The team would be called the
65th team. It is Ferrin's hope that the adoption of this proposal
would help keep the tragedy of the 1943-44 Razorbacks from being