When I was a kid, back in the waning Southwest Conference days of Arkansas sports, the only religion in our house was hating on Texas.
One of the few cultural advantages of growing up in a state like Arkansas, a land without big pro sports, and only one big-time college program, is knowing that gospel was statewide, undiluted. The SWC was, except for Arkansas, full of schools from Texas, a state whose self-regard outpaces even its ample waistline. It made being a hater so straightforward, in a sense. There were Texas schools, and then there was us.
Every one of Arkansas’ most detested rivals could fit inside that single word, and indeed, the spiritual core of Arkansas sportsdom — the forever sense of being an outsider, of getting a raw shake from the in-club, and of regarding every victory as a blow for underdogs everywhere — grew out of that unshakable geographical fact.
Hogs fans made T-shirts featuring football refs all wearing sunglasses, and one being led by a seeing-eye dog also wearing sunglasses, captioned, “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon Us.”
You hear the same echoes when Arkansas fans complain that SEC refs don’t give them the calls, or that ESPN, with its East Coast bias, doesn’t like pumping the tires of a school smack-middle of the Central Time Zone. Still, it seems, there are SEC schools, and then there is us.
Oklahoma and Texas Football Programs Skedaddle
But the news of a defection from points even further west is ricocheting this week. Turns out the Big 12, the Uber Pool of a conference leftover from the Big 8 and SWC’s salad days, is about to lose its remaining marquee football powers — the University of Oklahoma Sooners, and the University of Texas Longhorns.
For the Big 12, already down to 10 full members after earlier defections, the numbers don’t lie: Texas and Oklahoma have put in their equivalent of two weeks’ notice, bound for the richer pastures of the SEC. They’re going to join former Big 12 rivals Texas A&M and Missouri in the western half of what will be the biggest, richest conference in the history of college sports.
More and more it looks like a done deal (you can’t spell “out” without OU-UT), and for Arkansas fans, a moment of identity crisis is upon us. The prospect of potentially sharing not just a conference but a division with two more of the 10 richest athletics departments in the country, both perennial football juggernauts, is daunting.
The Sooners and the Horns are following the path that the Hogs blazed nearly 30 years ago now, making Arkansas decidedly part of the new establishment in a way that they, clearly, aspire to be. They’re also two more incredibly tough football dates each fall.
And there’s the matter of that old, bad blood. Because there are Texas schools. And then there is the University of Texas.
Texas is the Texas-est. A state long brain-poisoned on the economics and politics and ethics of oil money has, as its flagship university, a school nearly as rich as Harvard, funded by hydrocarbons, surrounded (especially after Arkansas’ departure from the SWC) by opponents it never quite regards as peers.
Texas Football Fans Embrace Delusions of Grandeur
If Texas football fans had their way, the school would feast on regional cupcakes like A&M, LSU, and maybe the Saints, before a campaign of mercy-rule shutouts of Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, and possibly the 1972 Dolphins.
As Arkansas fans debate the pros and cons of this seismic shift, I just want to roll this bocce ball across the floor. This is a good thing for you. Why? Because every year brings the promise that you get to put Texas in its place. And Arkansas, forever the new kid in the SEC, will feel more like home with that pole-star rival on the calendar every year.
A true rival is a helluva drug. Years ago, when I was a sports intern at the Dispatch, the big daily paper in Columbus, Ohio, editors told me of a poll that had asked Ohio State fans to pick: Would they rather go 10-1 with a loss to Michigan? Or go 1-10 with a win against Michigan?
Fans were split right down the middle, 50/50. And as crazy as that must sound to anyone who didn’t grow up with a blood rival, I have to say, I get it. (Also, “blood rival” isn’t overstating it. Time was in Fayetteville, the week of the Texas game, Dickson Street would host a huge cookout in which the town put our opponents’ animal totem over fire and then devoured it. Bring back the Steer Roast!)
There are rivalries, and then there are deep, abiding, generational antipathies. Duke-North Carolina. Auburn-Alabama. Bears-Packers. Red Sox-Yankees. Cal-Stanford. The best rivalries have a mirror-image sort of quality to them, the way that fighting with your siblings will always be the most ferocious. You don’t just loathe your fiercest rival: You loathe how much they remind you of yourself.
Arkansas arrived in the SEC three decades ago without that natural rival to greet it. At the time, conference realignment was a relatively rare occurrence, and when Arkansas arrived in the SEC along with South Carolina, some 900 miles to the east, the Hogs were thrust into a nest of old feuds, in a part of the country that loves nothing better than to lean into the past.
The Hogs have trophy games now against LSU and Missouri, but … y’all, it just ain’t the same. Doesn’t matter how good a year Georgia or Mississippi State is having in football. Beating Florida or Kentucky in hoops is delectable, absolutely. Still gotta check the exchange rate for a season-spoiling win over Texas, though. That’s the gold standard.
Welcoming Oklahoma and Texas into the SEC would bring two multisport juggernauts into a conference where Arkansas has just finished, by one measure, its best overall year in school history. The Directors’ Cup, awarded each year since 1993 on the basis of an athletics program’s finishes across all its sports, has gone to Stanford in all but three seasons since its inception.
In 2020-21, Arkansas finished 8th in the cup standings, its best finish ever, alongside SEC rivals Florida, Alabama, and Georgia in the top 10. The overall winner, breaking Stanford’s generation-long reign of terror: Texas. The landscape is bigger than just football, fortunately.
There are better metrics than “odds to win a national title in football” for how you, a regular fan, should weigh conference realignment. Right now, for Arkansas, those odds start each year at around 1-to-LOL. Exactly three times since joining the SEC have the Hogs fielded a team that put up a fighting chance to win a championship.
There was the 1998 team, which as a Top 10 team came one fluky rain-soaked fumble away from beating eventual national champ Tennessee. There was the 2006 team that lost four games, all to top-six teams, and would’ve likely beaten eventual national champion Florida in the SEC title game if not for another ill-timed fumble (sorry, Reggie Fish). Then Bobby Petrino’s 2011 squad that was only outclassed by the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country.
Aside from those years, what are we really playing for, usually, but to blow up other teams’ dreams, try to scratch into the top 10, and do it all again the next season.
A Real Rival Returns: Arkansas vs Texas
No, the reason to embrace this merger of Texas and the SEC is strictly on the basis of fun.
Truly, now till the heat death of the Earth’s core, no team’s tears will be sweeter than Texas tears. That will be true in track, on the diamond, in hoops, in golf. And when Arkansas thumps the Horns in football — doubly so when the Hogs are ‘dogs.
Texas upsets become lore in this state. I’ll give you just one example, from when I was a baby. My parents lived a few miles outside of Fayetteville, and ran a small typing business on Dickson Street. Even a normal game day had the potential to clog traffic around campus, and my dad, a new father with weekend work waiting at the office, listened to the game intently: No. 1 Texas was in town, playing unranked Arkansas, October 17, 1981. Pretty soon he realized if he wanted to get to work he needed to go immediately, because Dickson was going to be Mardi Gras.
The Hogs throttled the Horns 42-11, a score so ludicrous it’s the second-largest margin ever by an unranked team over a No. 1.
The Longhorns didn’t lose again, beat an excellent Bear Bryant Alabama team in the Cotton Bowl, and finished at No. 2. Arkansas shot up to No. 12 in the country that Monday, immediately lost to Houston, and eventually fell out of the polls by the season’s end.
Yet for years afterward, my dad would cackle when talking about that game. And at the Campus Bookstore, you could buy postcards of the scoreboard from that day.
Who had the better year, I ask you? The team that finished No. 2 in the country? Or the unranked team that enjoyed a nationally televised, echo-through-the-ages, national-title-hopes-dashing W over No. 1 Texas?
I suspect if you asked both fan bases, the responses would be split 50/50. Same in 2021, same as in 1981.
Watch highlights of this all-time Arkansas vs Texas steer roasting:
More Arkansas vs Texas 1981
Here’s a great story from 247Sports member “Nixahog,” as told to Arkansas sportswriter Andrew Hutchinson:
“The morning of the game we went the UA Swine Research unit and borrowed a baby Durock (red) pig. We knew the unit manager so he loaned her to us.”
“We wrapped the baby pig in a blanket and took her into the stadium. At the gate the ticket taker just looked in the blanket at the baby pig and laughed.”
“When the first hog call went up we thought the pig was going into shock, but she pretty soon got used to the noise. Like you said it was a rout from the start. After halftime we made our way down to the sideline behind the Texas bench to see if we could get on TV. Steve Davis, the former OU quarterback was the sideline guy for ABC then.”
“He spotted us and got a camera crew on us. People I knew from all over the country called me the next couple of days and said they saw us on TV. None of this would even be slightly possible these days. Our picture, me in my Hog Hat with my future wife and the baby pig on the sideline was also included in the 1982 UA Yearbook.”
Go here to check out that picture and read a Hutchinson’s great historical recap of that Arkansas vs Texas game.