First-year Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman gave old-time Hog fans a blast from the past Wednesday afternoon on Twitter, announcing that the Razorbacks would hold their annual Red-White scrimmage at Barnhill Arena, the cradle of modern Razorback basketball.
The scrimmage is set for 3 p.m. Oct. 5, the football Razorbacks’ first open date, and will give Razorback fans their first peek at Musselman’ new-look Hogs. Admission is free, and seating will be on a first-come, first-serve basis.
While the venerable arena remains the home of the Razorback volleyball and gymnastics squads, the event will be the first time Barnhill has been used for a basketball game or scrimmage since the Red-White Game for the 1993-94 season, just before the Razorbacks made their debut in Bud Walton Arena with a 93-67 victory over Murray State.
Musselman caught fans’ attention quickly in his opening press conference as head coach by showing reverence for the storied history of Razorback basketball, and its two hall-of-fame coaches Eddie Sutton (1974-1985) and Nolan Richardson (1985-2002).
Sutton built the Arkansas program from a Southwest Conference also-ran into a national powerhouse in Barnhill, and while Nolan Richardson will always be linked to Bud Walton Arena and the magical first-year in the venue when the Hogs captured their lone basketball national title in 1994, Richardson coached eight of his 17 seasons at Arkansas in Barnhill Arena.
The venue was originally known as Arkansas Field House when it opened in 1957 and served as the basketball program’s home from 1957-93. Throughout the late 1950s,1960s and into the 1970s, it doubled as an off-season workout area for other Razorback sports when it was too cold and muddy to train outdoors.
It featured sawdust floors which were still there when Sutton arrived in 1974 and remained until 1977 and the first of two renovations that took the seating capacity from around 5,000 to 6,200 and then up to 9,000 in 1978.
More than a few old-time Razorback football players still have bad memories of running until they puked in Barnhill during the grueling Fourth Quarter, off-season training sessions administered by legendary Arkansas assistant coach and taskmaster Wilson Matthews.
Shortly after the 1973 death of John “Barnie” Barnhill, Arkansas’ athletics director 1946 to 1971, the facility was renamed in his honor, but it did not begin to build its storied reputation until newly minted athletics director Frank Broyles, who was still serving as head football coach, hired Sutton away from Creighton in 1974.
In a 1991 interview, Sutton described Arkansas’ basketball attendance when he arrived by saying he could have shot a shotgun into the stands and not hit a soul, but that sparse attendance wouldn’t last long.
To enhance the environment, Sutton not only recruited players but fans. He started with the Razorback football team asking them to come to the games and raise a little hell. That effort also extended to the frat houses and other clubs.
While Bud Walton Arena has been known as “The Basketball Palace of Mid-America” since its inception, Barnhill had a reputation of being a Ozark Slaughter House of sorts with rabid Razorback fans creating an uncomfortable environment for opposing teams.
The football players jumped feet first into supporting Sutton’s Hogs and tormenting their opponents, forming what came came to be known as the Mad Hatter and Overall Gang. Wearing crazy hats and overalls, the Razorback football players among other students would sit behind the opposing team and give them the business.
At the time, the arena was much more like a high school gym with the fans right on top of the team benches on the sideline. There are stories of opposing players getting their ears thumped and their ears assailed from behind while sitting on the bench.
Texas A&M coach Shelby Metcalf was the first coach I ever witnessed to move his timeout huddle from the sideline to the free-throw lane to escape fan harassment.
The Mad Hatters so frustrated 6-foot-9, Texas Tech center Rick Bullock that he shot Hog fans the double bird upon fouling out of a 1976 game.
While the unsavory antics by the Mad Hatters were cleaned up as Sutton’s marvelous teams drew more and more fans, the reputation for Barnhill was set and Hog fans lived up to it. Sutton had a hard time getting major programs to accept home-and-home series with the Razorbacks.
Legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith owed CBS a road game, and the network wanted to schedule his Tar Heels against the Razorbacks, but Smith would only accept the game if it were played at another venue.
That set up one of the Razorbacks’ biggest victories in school history at Pine Bluff when Charles Balentine sank a baseline jumper to defeat the No. 1 ranked and Michael Jordan-led Tar Heels, 65-64, in 1984.
Even with the renovations, the seating kept fans close to the action and the crowd noise for a big game was deafening. That may read like hyperbole today, but it is that absolute truth. There were times the crowd got so loud that you could not hear what the person sitting next to you was saying. Your ears would be ringing like you’d been to heavy metal rock concert after a good game.
Much credit for Barnhill’s raucous atmosphere should be credited to pep band leader Jim Robken, who renamed the group the Hogwild Band after taking charge of the group in the late 1970s and remaining until 1991.
Robken knew how to keep the energy going during timeouts by dramatically holding notes to orchestrate an explosion of fan noise at just the right moment. His signature move was running around the arena to the strains of “The William Tell Overture” to make sure all fans were on their feet. If he saw a fan sitting on the aisle, he would stand over them embarrassing them until they got to their feet.
Robken kept fans at that magic level of enthusiasm using props like the noise meter, which Texas coach Abe Lemons attempted to get banned to no avail. Robken also introduced the Razorback version of “Oh Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble” being sung following victories, which has extended from basketball to other sports.
It was also Robken who married the theme to “Superman: The Movie” to the introduction of Arkansas all-time great Sidney Moncrief during his senior season in 1979. It fit Super Sid to a “T.”
Speaking of Moncrief, who remains the school’s all-time leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, it was the magnificent players and teams that made Barnhill legendary.
Moncrief and fellow “Triplets” Marvin Delph, and Ron Brewer Sr. led the Hogs to their first modern Final Four in 1978, but Sutton had other stellar players like Scott Hastings, Darrell Walker, Alvin Robertson, and Joe Kleine that fans remember fondly.
Richardson kept the tradition rolling with stars such as Todd Day, the program’s all-time leading scorer; Lee Mayberry, Oliver Miller, Lenzie Howell, Corliss Williamson, Scottie Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel, and Dwight Stewart.
Yes, the nucleus of Arkansas’ 1994 national title team cut their tusks as freshmen and sophomores as Richardson’s Runts in 1993, the final season in Barnhill.
They played in the Razorbacks’ final game in Barnhill, on March 3, 1993, posting an 88-75 victory over LSU before finishing the season in the Sweet 16, falling, 80-74, to eventual national champion North Carolina.
After the Razorbacks despised of the Tigers in that final contest, a ceremony was held to capture the spirt of Barnhill Arena in a crystal bowl to transfer it to Bud Walton Arena. The bowl remains enshrined at Walton Arena now.
Maybe one more scrimmage in Barnhill is the perfect way to reignite the passion for Razorback basketball and to link Musselman’s burgeoning program to the greatness of the program’s storied past.