Retrospectin’: When the Hogs Played in Northeast Arkansas

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Arkansas will play Ole Miss on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. with a chance to make a major statement by at last winning on the road.

It won’t be easy – Ole Miss has started the season 14-2 – and it’s anybody’s guess which Razorback squad shows up in Oxford, Miss.

While much about this pivotal early-season SEC showdown is up in the air, location will not be one of them. The game will be played at Tad Smith Coliseum, as most Ole Miss basketball home games have been since 1966.

This wasn’t always the case.

The Hogs played in Northeast Arkansas twice vs. the Ole Miss Rebels in the new Blytheville High School gym in the 60′s.

In the 1950s, Arkansas (then in the Southwest Conference) and Ole Miss regularly played in Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum. The plan in the fall of 1960 was for Ole Miss to have a “home” game in Memphis – likely at Ellis Auditorium – but this fell through because of a scheduling conflict.

As an alternative site, the schools agreed on the new Blytheville High School gym about 55 miles to the north. The gym, which opened in 1957, sat 3,200 people and had  already had an NBA exhibition game played in it.

As the The Blytheville Courier put it in 1960:

Inside The Blytheville Gym

Inside The Blytheville Gym As It Stands Today.

 

Blytheville was picked as the site over several other mid-South cities because of its superior facilities, plus the fact that the city lured the world champion Hawks for a game three years ago and staged last year’s record-shattering AA-AAA state tournament.

“It was basically the Taj Mahal from Memphis to St. Louis,” says David Hixson, the athletic director of Blytheville School District.

Exterior Of The Blytheville Gym

Exterior Of The Blytheville Gym As It Stands Today.

 

And so, a day before the scheduled Dec. 10, 1960 game in Blytheville, the Razorback basketball team started their journey from Fayetteville. They headed by bus across the Ozarks, through towns like Mountain Home, Hardy and Cherokee Village. At one point, several teammates recall, the Hogs had to wait for a ferry to take their bus across a river.

Here are synopses of those two games:

Dec. 10, 1960


Heading into the game, both teams were 2-1 in preseason. Ole Miss’ only loss had come to Arkansas State in Jonesboro. The headliner for Ole Miss, coached by Country Graham, was All-SEC Jack Waters. The Courier described the Rebels’ 6-2 guard/forward Larry Wagster as a “court cutey” who “makes all the good plays, is extremely accurate from long range. He landed 46 per cent of his field goals a year ago.” Ole Miss’ center was 6-6 ½ Sterling Ainsworth.

For Arkansas, this game marked the official start of the Tommy Boyer era. Boyer, a sophomore, had shone the season before on the all-freshmen team, setting the UA freshman scoring record. Much was expected of him in his first varsity season, and the Ole Miss game would provide his first start.

Boyer also had the advantage of being the only player on either side who had already played on the court. As a senior at what is now Fort Smith Northside, he’d led the Grizzlies to a Big Nine title and state championship.

Arkansas beat Ole Miss 77-71, with guard Jerry Carlton leading the way with 23 points. Carlton recalls the gym “as pretty full.”

 

The game’s pivotal 22-7 run came after the Hogs had snared a 37-36 lead. In that stretch, Ronnie Garner, a quick guard from Hot Springs, scored two hook shots and Boyer scored eight points.

As the Courier puts it, “Boyer did his pitching from beyond the keyhole, with picturesque follow-throughs. His arty hand motions would’ve made Liberace envious.”

Former Razorback basketball player Bob Anderson, who played 1960-62, said Boyer “would usually shoot from what today is your three point range. He led the nation in free throw shooting.” Which is all the more amazing because Boyer had hurt one of his eyes before college, said Anderson, who didn’t recall details about the injury.

Dec. 16, 1962


Both teams entered this game with a 2-2 record. “Glen Rose’s Fayetteville fellers,” as the Courier called the Hogs, had already beaten Kansas and Missouri but lost to Oklahoma State and Tulsa. Ole Miss had beaten Arkansas A&M and Sewanee before losing to Louisiana Tech and Centenary.

All Hog starters were natives: 6-6 Tommy Boyer, 6-6 Jim Wilson of Cherry Valley; 6-6 Larry Hogue of North Little Rock; 6-6 Jim Magness of Hot Springs and 6-1 Skippy Coffman of Little Rock. Arkansas coach Glen Rose, a North Little Rock native, entered with the game with a career record of 352-194.

Much of the pregame hype surrounded the teams’ best players. Boyer had already established himself as Arkansas’ centerpiece, and guard Donnie Kessinger – a future MLB star – was fulfilling a similar role for Ole Miss.

Kessinger, a Forrest City native, had become an east Arkansas prep legend in March 1960 at the state tournament in Blytheville when he set records for most points in a tournament game (42) and overall points in a state tourney (125 points in 4 games). Coincidentally, he’d broken Boyer’s records – set just the year before – along the way.

Donnie Kessinger was hobbled for the game after hurting his knee during practice. He didn’t start and was rendered fairly ineffective in limited minutes.

Advance tickets were sold for $2 apiece at Herb’s Men’s Store on Chicksawba. Arkansas won 90-60 in front of roughly 1,800 fans, with center Jim Magness scoring 20 points.

Aftermath

In hindsight, it’s not so strange the Hogs and Rebels played in the extreme northeast corner of Arkansas. Given the area’s proximity to Oxford, Miss., there are nearly as many Rebel fans in Blytheville as Razorbacks fans, says Blytheville athletic director David Hixson. Until the last couple years, there were more Ole Miss than Arkansas State fans, he added.

This variety of loyalties surprised Hixson when he moved to the area 28 years ago. “Me coming from northwest Arkansas, I just thought anybody that lived in Arkansas was a Razorback fan and that was it. No, I found out differently here. It’s divided here.”

The gym is still being used and functioning “very well,” Hixson says. Still, improvements are needed as much of its interior piping dates to the late 1950s. The gym still lacks air conditioning and retains its original heaters.

All the same, it’s remains “quite the place to play. It’s just got so much tradition.”

Part of that tradition is hosting a 1960 game that marked a number of firsts for the Razorbacks: 1) likely only time to play in northeast Arkansas, 2) only time to employ a river ferry to reach a game and 3) likely only time to play in an Arkansas county (Mississippi County) that shared a name with the university it was competing against.

Then again, is even this a surprise?  It was a home game for Ole Miss, after all.

The author blogs regularly about Arkansas basketball at thesportsseer.com. Follow him here.

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4 Responses to “Retrospectin’: When the Hogs Played in Northeast Arkansas”

  1. strick
    January 19, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    I made the trip many times from Fayetteville to Blytheville, the ferry the author writes about is more than likely the ferry over Lake Norfork, which was replaced by a bridge on Hwy 412 just east of Mtn Home.

  2. Evin
    January 19, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    The players I interviewed definitely recalled crossing at Mountain Home, Strick. Thanks for adding that detail.

  3. Linda
    January 19, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    loved cheerleading for our high school basketball team in the 60s. Those were the best of years. Little did I know I’d marry a Mississippi guy so when Ole Miss and Arkansas play basketball or football, I’m a winner either way!

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