For years, Paul Greenberg would write an annual ode to the Bradley County pink tomato. It’s a worthy subject, and I speak as a man who could eat his weight in Bradley County pinks. I decided that I needed a similar column that would come around at the same time each year, and what better subject than the Battle of the Ravine football game between Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University at Arkadelphia?
It’s the greatest small college football rivalry in the country, and it’s right here in Arkansas.
Those who know me know that it’s my favorite day of the year. I grew up in Arkadelphia with this small college version of Alabama-Auburn, a rivalry that divides families. My father played football at Ouachita in the 1940s, and in our family it was Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one. In the late 1940s, the rivalry was promoted by the Arkansas Jaycees as the Biggest Little Football Game in America, a moniker first used on the East Coast for the NCAA Division III rivalry between Williams College and Amherst College, who first played in 1884. Ouachita and Henderson first played on Thanksgiving Day 1895.
The Nov. 10, 2007, game between Williams and Amherst in Williamstown, Mass., was selected as the location for ESPN’s popular College GameDay program. One of these days, ESPN will bring that program to Arkadelphia and show the only game in college football in which the visitors walk to a road game. Yes, state troopers will stop traffic this Saturday on U.S. 67, and the Reddies of Henderson will walk across to play at Ouachita’s Cliff Harris Stadium after having put on their uniforms in their own dressing room. The game kicks off at 1 p.m. About 4 p.m., the troopers will stop traffic again, and the Reddies will trudge back across the highway.
Of the 90 battles between the two schools, the game has been decided by a touchdown or less 41 times, with Ouachita holding a 20-15-6 advantage in those games. Tradition runs deep when it comes to the Battle of the Ravine. Both schools, for instance, use gospel tunes for their fight songs. One school has Baptist roots and one has Methodist roots (the Baptists kept Ouachita, but the Methodists gave Henderson to the state). The series was suspended from 1951-63 due to excessive vandalism. When they started playing again in 1963, I was 4 years old. You can bet I was there.
The Battle of the Ravine (the actual ravine, filled with kudzu, is less than a mile north of the stadiums) should be on every Arkansan’s bucket list. I realize my hometown bias, but those from elsewhere who have experienced these games tell me it’s indeed among the fiercest rivalries in college football. It might not receive the attention of Texas-Oklahoma or Michigan-Ohio State, but the passion and intensity are no less real. Those who have played in these games, coached in them, covered them as journalists, or simply watched from the stands understand. They understand that there are few things in sports that can compare to a contest between four-year schools that are within walking distance of each other.
If you’re a Tiger, you call it the Ouachita-Henderson game. If you’re a Reddie, you refer to it as the Henderson-Ouachita game. If your team wins, you crow about it for the next year until it’s time to play again. If your team loses, you feel the pain for 12 months. The lights are on each night at both stadiums this week to discourage pranks. Signs on the campuses have been covered. Ouachita students guard the Tiger statue in the middle of the campus to keep it from being painted red. Henderson students keep a close eye on campus landmarks such as the fountain and the bell to keep them from turning purple.
Just how close are these two schools to each other? Consider the 1999 incident known in Arkadelphia as “Trashcam.” A Henderson graduate assistant coach took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice field. As he was taping the Tiger practice, the assistant was spotted by a Ouachita player. The graduate assistant, realizing he had been caught, sped away in his car, leaving the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, Ouachita athletic director David Sharp removed the video and then returned the camera to Henderson. It was the proper thing to do. The rivalry might be intense, but these folks have to live with each other all year.
One year, male Henderson students who were dressed in drag convinced a Ouachita librarian that they were there to take a Tiger statue in the library away for its annual cleaning. In the 1970s, the Henderson bonfire was ignited early by Ouachita students. One of the students reportedly involved in that prank was a religion major from Hope named Mike Huckabee. Also in the 1970s, students in Henderson’s aviation program flew low over the Ouachita campus and pelted OBU students with marshmallows. Yellville, you see, isn’t alone when it comes to dropping things out of airplanes.
Even though I’m in my 35th season of doing the play-by-play on radio of Ouachita football games, I can assure you that there will be butterflies in my stomach when we sign on the broadcast at noon Saturday. I hope that never changes – that sense of anticipation, the realization of just how much this series has been a part of the life of my family. There’s nothing else in America quite like it. As usual, I’m counting the days, the hours, the minutes.
Rex Nelson, a 1981 Ouachita graduate, is senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He also is in his 35th season as the radio voice of Ouachita football. This blog is reprinted with permission of Nelson and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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