The 1977 Arkansas football season was the start of a new era in Razorback history. Frank Broyles retired after 19 program-defining seasons and moved upstairs to be the full-time athletic director and part-time ABC analyst, alongside Keith Jackson. Broyles’ replacement was Lou Holtz, a winner at N.C. State, and just off a less-than-successful fling with the NFL’s New York Jets. The ’77 Hogs had a big year and their dramatic Orange Bowl victory profoundly impacted the national championship race.
Arkansas was led by a defense that was third in the nation for points allowed. Jimmy Walker, an All-American defensive tackle, was the anchor. On the offensive side of the trenches was another All-American, guard Leotis Harris.
Harris led way for running back Ben Cowins, who rolled up nearly 1,200 yards. Quarterback Ron Calcagni ran for 546 yards himself. Calcagni didn’t throw a lot—only 137 passes on the season. But he was good for 8.4 yards-per-attempt, and he hit some big throws in big games before all was said and done. The Razorback offense ranked 13th nationally in points allowed.
Arkansas had gone a mediocre 5-5-1 in Broyles’ swan song, so expectations were muted. The Hogs were unranked to start the season. They tuned up with a 53-10 rout of New Mexico State.
Oklahoma State was ranked #15 and came in to provide what looked like a real test. Arkansas passed, with a decisive 28-6 win. In retrospect, the Cowboys would struggle to a four-win season. But in the moment, the win was impressive enough to launch the Razorbacks to the #16 spot in the polls. They quickly moved to #12 with a 37-3 blasting of Tulsa. And a 42-6 rout at lowly TCU to open Southwest Conference play got the Hogs into the national top 10.
Texas was ranked #2 in the nation and a home date with the Longhorns was next. Arkansas hung in there against a loaded team that included Heisman Trophy-winning running back Earl Campbell. But the Hogs took a 13-9 loss. The competitiveness of the game kept the Razorbacks in the top 10.
Houston was the defending SWC champs, although headed for a pedestrian 6-5 season this year. The Hogs blanked the Cougars 34-0. They blew out a bad Rice team 30-7, and then hammered mediocre Baylor 35-9. Even though Texas was cruising to the #1 ranking and the SWC’s automatic Cotton Bowl bid, Arkansas was squarely in the mix for a New Year’s Day invitation at 7-1.
A big road trip to College Station to play #11 Texas A&M was crucial to that goal. The Hogs and Aggies were tied 20-20 in the final two minutes. Calcagni rolled to his left. Throwing against his body, he found big-play target Robert Farrell down the left side line for a 58-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was blocked. That loomed large when A&M launched a last-ditch effort and got close enough to try a final pass into the end zone. But Patrick Martin came up with an interception and preserved Arkansas’ 26-20 win.
The Hogs came home and blew out a subpar SMU team 47-7 on November 19. There was a key game left at a pretty good Texas Tech team, but bowl bids had to be given out. At 9-1 and ranked #6, the Orange Bowl came calling and invited Arkansas.
Five days later, on Thanksgiving, the Hogs came out a little flat and trailed the Red Raiders 14-3 at halftime, scoring only on a 50-yard field goal by All-American kicker Steve Little. But in the second half, Calcagni again showed what he could do with his arm. He threw two touchdown passes, including a 59-yard strike to Bobby Duckworth with just over six minutes to play. Arkansas got out of Lubbock with a 17-14 triumph.
Oklahoma was the Orange Bowl opponent and ranked #2 in the nation. The Sooners were loaded and already favored by as many as 18 points. Then the suspensions came. Holtz suspended four offensive starters for the game. One of them was Cowins. Las Vegas responded by jumping the point spread to as high as 24 points.
The problems of Arkansas seemed even more pertinent by the events of early afternoon on January 1. Texas, with the national title in their grasp, was crushed by fifth-ranked Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Now, Oklahoma needed only take care of its business in Miami to claim the title for their own. No one gave the Hogs a chance.
But Holtz had his team ready. They capitalized on an early turnover and scored right away for a 7-0 lead. Roland Sales, given the opportunity to play in light of Cowins’ suspension, ran wild and piled up 205 yards on the ground. Oklahoma, even with a future Heisman Trophy winner in Billy Sims and another future NFL back in Kenny King, couldn’t get anything going. Or when they did, the ball ended up on the ground.
Arkansas was up 24-0 at halftime and coasted home in the second half to win 31-6. In a shocking development, OU couldn’t have covered that 24-point Vegas spread even if it had been reversed.
Given Holtz’s future coaching endeavors, it was no small coincidence that the ultimate result of the Orange Bowl win was to give Notre Dame the national championship. The Razorbacks would finish #3 in the final polls.
Holtz enjoyed a good seven-year run at Arkansas, including a trip to the Sugar Bowl in 1979. But 1977 was his best year as the Razorbacks’ boss. In fact, the Hogs have not matched that #3 finish since. 1977 was a special season in Arkansas football history.