Tennessee players carry coach Bill Battle on their shoulders as they celebrate their 14-13 Liberty Bowl victory over Arkansas on Dec. 20, 1971.
When Tennessee and Arkansas squared off in the 1971 Liberty Bowl in Memphis, the 13th game in the bowl's history, on Monday night, Dec. 20, the teams had not met in 64 years and shared little in common other than state borders defined by the Mississippi River.
Tennessee and Arkansas had first met on the gridiron in 1907, with Tennessee taking a 14-2 decision in Little Rock. There didn't seem to be a great deal of clamor for the two teams to meet again.
The No. 9 Vols were 9-2, coming off a surprising 31-11 win on Dec. 5 over No. 5 Penn State. No. 17 Arkansas was 8-2-1, coming off a 15-0 win over Texas Tech, also on that day.
The game was deadlocked 7-7 entering the fourth quarter.
In that final 15 minutes, Arkansas kicker Bill McClard booted two field goals, covering 19 and 30 yards, each set up by a Vol turnover. Arkansas defenders had put the clamps on the Vols since a first quarter touchdown scored by Bill Rudder. Happiness was winging its way westward to Fayetteville.
The final result was Tennessee 14, Arkansas 13. Joe Ferguson and Louis Campbell, both from Arkansas, took home the MVP and offensive and defensive game awards, but Tennessee, a one-point favorite, somehow won . . . by one.
That left Arkansas supporters reaching mightily for any number of conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy Theory No. 1: How many times do you see holding on a field-goal attempt that if it had counted, would have put the game out of reach?
Arkansas had taken an apparent 16-7 lead with 5:45 to play on McClard's 48-yard field goal, booted as a flag flew. Tight end Bobby Nichols was adjudged holding, according to an unbylined article in the Northeast Arkansas Times.
"It's very rare that you get a holding call on a field-goal protection," said Frank Broyles, Arkansas' head coach from 1958-1976. "It's probably the only one I ever had in my coaching career."
Nichols later told reporters a Tennessee player grabbed him and pulled him to the ground.
Conspiracy Theory No. 2: A few minutes later, there was a fumble awarded to Tennessee that still irks Arkansas fans nearly 40 years later.
"The timely fumble that changed the game occurred in the late minutes, when Conrad Graham walloped Jon Richardson after a screen pass." Marvin West said Wednesday. "The loose ball attracted a considerable crowd. Bodies were stacked on top of bodies. No telling what all went on down near the ground."
The fumble recovery actually was a con job, according to Tennessee defensive end Carl Johnson.
"Arkansas had played a very good game," he said. "It's obvious the Arkansas guy fell right on the ball."
Johnson explained that every Vol not involved in the pile, including those on the bench, pointed toward the Arkansas goal and said "our ball." It's one of the oldest football tricks in the book, and this night it worked in the Vols' favor. Carl Witherspoon is credited with the recovery.
According to the Northwest Arkansas Times article, Arkansas partisans blamed SEC official Preston Watts for all the turmoil. (There were three SEC officials in the game, two from the Southwest Conference.)
The legend goes that Arkansas guard Tom Reed came out of the pile with the ball and handed it to Watts, who then awarded possession to Tennessee at the Razorbacks 37.
"I got the ball and cradled it in my chest," Reed said after the game. "Three Tennessee players jumped on top of me, but I still had it.
"Finally, the official came up and put his hands on the ball, so I gave it to him, and he signaled Tennessee's ball."
The Vols took over at the Razorback 36-yard line and were in the end zone in a flash.
Vol quarterback Jim Maxwell, undaunted by three earlier interceptions, hit tight end Gary Theiler for 19 yards to the 17. Then came the game's decisive moment.
Curt Watson, out with a rib injury since the Vanderbilt game and wearing a set of jimmy-rigged pads that dated to 1938, made his last carry as a Vol a memorable one.
The "Crossville Comet" hit right end and found a path to the goal line. He made a nifty move to get there, freezing a Razorback defender in his tracks. The clock showed 1:56 left in the game. George Hunt kicked the go-ahead extra point. Eddie Brown's interception sealed the deal.
It took 19 years for the Vols and Razorbacks to tee it up again. It was the 1990 Cotton Bowl this time, with the Vols winning, 31-27, in a game with considerably less controversy.
When divisional play hit the SEC in 1992, the Vols and Razorbacks ended up playing from 1992-2002 and again in 2006 and 2007.
The first game in the "modern series," the nail-biter in Memphis, set the standard (and the stage) for what was to come.
Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.