Twenty Years Later … Crowe Returns To Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE — Jack Crowe wouldn’t recognize many of the faces working in the Arkansas athletic department these days.

The football facilities and Razorback Stadium probably look much different to him, too, the spoils of the program’s growth in the Southeastern Conference.

So when Crowe stands on the visitor’s sideline Saturday night, preparing to lead his Jacksonville State team into its season opener against the 10th-ranked Razorbacks, he isn’t expecting the emotions to well up inside as kickoff looms.

Except, perhaps, when he hears the Arkansas fight song.

“I think that’s the only thing that hasn’t changed tremendously since I’ve been there,” Crowe said earlier this week. “I don’t think I’m going back to the Arkansas I left, and that’s really a compliment.”

Nearly 20 years have passed since Crowe was on the sideline for one of the Arkansas football program’s darkest days – the 10-3 loss to The Citadel on Sept. 5, 1992. The coach, who was beginning his third season with the Hogs, paid the ultimate price for the embarrassment the next day when he being fired by former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles with 10 games remaining in the season.

So Crowe’s first chance to coach in Razorback Stadium since his departure has stirred some nostalgia this week. But the 65-year-old – at least publicly – won’t feed into the notion he is seeking redemption for 1992. Crowe said he is simply looking forward to kicking off his 13th season as Jacksonville State’s head coach Saturday.

“I know there’s going to be some personal to this and that may raise questions, but I’m the head coach at Jacksonville State University,” said Crowe, who didn’t even use the phrase ‘The Citadel’ in a teleconference earlier week. “That’s what it’s about.”

It’s hard to forget the past, though. That is clear when talking to former coaches and players who were members of the 1992 team. They’d love nothing more than to erase what is most commonly described as a “weird” game against The Citadel.

Arkansas, which was coming off a 6-6 season that included a win against bitter rival Texas and an Independence Bowl berth, harbored plenty of excitement as it entered a new world. The Razorbacks and South Carolina had been welcomed into the SEC for the 1992 season and Fitz Hill, who was a young assistant on Crowe’s staff at the time, said Arkansas was eager to prove it belonged in the conference.

The season began with the nonconference game and Hill, who was then defensive backs/linebackers coach, said no one thought it would pose a problem.

“It’s human nature that if you look at the schedule, you chop that off and say, ‘We’ll go into South Carolina 1-0,” said Hill, who is now president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. “Then we’ll set up a big deal with Alabama to say, ‘Hey, we’re here in the SEC and roll like that. It was going to be a showdown type of game.

“But you never, in your wildest imagination, thought you’d start off 0-1.”

It happened, though, thanks to an offense that struggled to produce. And a fumble, which The Citadel scooped up and returned for the game’s only touchdown.

Quarterback Barry Lunney Jr., who was a freshman on the 1992 team, summed up his disbelief best. Lunney Jr., who entered the season backing up quarterback Jason Allen, had been prepared for playing time and figured he would be on the field at some point to make his Arkansas debut. The playing time never came.

“The game just didn’t unfold like we thought it was going to, where we score a few times early and have a little bit of a cushion,” said Lunney Jr., who is now the offensive coordinator at Bentonville High. “I was kind of wrapped up in was I going in now? Is this my series? I kept thinking about that before the game.

“But before I knew it, the game was over.”

It didn’t take long for Arkansas’ stunning loss to make national news. In fact, Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton, who played for the Razorbacks in 1989 when Crowe was the team’s offensive coordinator, was in Raleigh, N.C., when he heard about the loss. He was a young assistant coach at the time, working for Appalachian State as it opened the season against North Carolina State.

His reaction?

“That’s not good for the Hogs,” Horton said. “That ain’t good for the home team.”

Said Hill: “That was just a great disappointment for the program. But nobody thought a sudden change was getting ready to happen and we were getting ready to have a leadership change. That caught everybody off guard.”

Arkansas’ assistants were on campus the next day, preparing for the next game against South Carolina when they were rounded up by an athletic department employee and told to wait in the coaching staff’s locker room. Campbell said Crowe wasn’t with them, giving the staff an idea of what was to come.

The Associated Press described that day’s conversation between Broyles and Crowe as a “fiery” meeting. Crowe would not speak about the details surrounding the loss and its aftermath during this week’s teleconference, but told The Associated Press earlier this summer Broyles was “mad, but it was out of emotion.” Broyles, when contacted, earlier this week, said he didn’t recall the details of the conversation.

Meanwhile, Louis Campbell, who was the defensive back’s coach on Crowe’s staff, said the long wait for the assistants “felt like a week, but was more like an hour.”

Eventually, the staff was informed Crowe had been fired and the coach addressed them before defensive coordinator Joe Kines was appointed interim coach.

“You go from Friday night pregame to saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting ready to do something special,’ as we move into the SEC coming off ‘91 and beating Texas under coach Crowe’s leadership, to 48 hours before the game Friday to Sunday night not having him run the program,” Hill said. “That was a whirlwind.”

Arkansas went on to salvage its season, somewhat, despite the debacle. The Razorbacks won the next week, beating South Carolina 45-7 to secure their first SEC win. Arkansas, led by Lunney Jr., also upset Tennessee 25-24 a month later.

The Razorbacks finished 3-7-1, 3-4-1 in the SEC before the program was turned over to new coach Danny Ford. He led Arkansas to its first SEC Championship Game appearance in 1995, but was fired after consecutive 4-7 seasons in 1997.

“When you’re a kid you don’t really think about the repercussions of your head coach being fired the first game,” Lunney Jr. said. “You think we’ll be all right. We’ll go on and just play. And we probably did to a certain degree that year, but I think it had a lingering effect for a few years.”

Crowe, meanwhile, moved on to Baylor where he worked as an offensive coordinator for three years before deciding to get out of football. He spent much of the next five years working for Stephens, Inc., in Little Rock. Then Crowe was called back into coaching in 2000, accepting the position at Jacksonville State.

Crowe has built Jacksonville State into a competitor at the Football Championship Subdivision level, winning conference titles in 2003, 2004 and 2011.

“He had a great career as an offensive coordinator,” said Campbell, who is now the head coach at Sheridan High. “I think his skill as a head coach, to some degree, was a victim of the times with The Citadel. But I think since then, he has proven he is a head coach and can be a head coach.

“I’m happy for him and his family. When you go through something like that, it takes a toll on you and your family. You can’t help it. It affects your self-esteem and how you approach things, what your outlook is. But he didn’t give in. He overcame it.”

Crowe’s biggest moment with the Gamecocks came in the 2010 opener, when he pulled a Citadel-like stunner on Ole Miss and his former assistant Houston Nutt.

The 49-48 overtime win was Jacksonville State’s first against an SEC team. It put Crowe back in the national spotlight – for good reasons. But even now, Crowe said he doesn’t classify the Ole Miss win as retribution for The Citadel loss.

“Ole Miss wasn’t about what happened in some other period of time,” Crowe said.

“There was some history there, personal history, with Houston. Otherwise it was just about what it was about. Which was about Jacksonville State advancing their brand in football. There was no similarities whatsoever between that and any other kind of scenario that I had been in. None whatsoever.”

But Lunney Jr., believes it was “great vindication” for Crowe as he continues to win at Jacksonville State. Broyles, who said he has maintained a good relationship with Crowe since 1992, is happy the coach has enjoyed success.

“If I need him, I’ll call. If he needs me, he’ll call me,” Broyles said. “And when we are at functions together we have a nice time. …

“He’s bounced back and done well and I’m proud of him.”

It leads Crowe back to Arkansas now, where he’ll face his former program.

Horton, who said he remains in regular contact with his former offensive coordinator, said Crowe still has “a lot of respect” for the Arkansas program and the people associated with it. His admiration for the program’s recent success was evident this week, when he lofted high praise on the Razorbacks.

“I think, it’s got to be special for him to come back because this was the first place that gave him a real shot to be a head coach,” Horton said.

Crowe maintained, again, his goal is leading Jacksonville State into one of its biggest tests of the season. It just so happens he has a history with the Razorbacks.

“I do know the words to the fight song,” Crowe said. “I promise you when they play it, I’ll be having the words in my head. … I just hope they don’t play it that much.”