Lou Holtz didn’t have a lot of reason to be happy, at least if you were looking at his situation from the outside. The first-year Arkansas coach had inherited a program rich in tradition and expectations, but low on recent performance. Nonetheless, he led his team to a 10-1 record in his first year and on New Year’s Day was preparing to play in the 1978 Orange Bowl. But controversy marked the lead-up to this game and the nation expected his team to be wiped out in Miami.
Oklahoma was the opponent, and the Sooners had been as good as anybody in college football in recent years. Barry Switzer inherited a program operating at an elite level in 1973 and promptly went 10-0-1. He followed that up with a national title run in 1974, one achieved in spite of probation keeping them out of a bowl game.
In 1975, Oklahoma won it all again. The ’76 season was bit of a step back, but they still went 8-2-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl (albeit five years before the Fiesta would really become a signature bowl game). Now they were back for more, having gone 10-1 in 1977 and still having a shot at a national title when they woke up New Year’s morning in Miami.
The Sooners and Razorbacks had opened the season at opposite ends of the spectrum. OU was the preseason #1. Arkansas was unranked. Oklahoma had a narrow escape against Vanderbilt that dropped them to #5, but they made up for it by beating Ohio State in Columbus. The 29-28 win has its place in college football legend when Sooner kicker Uwe von Schamaan “orchestrated” along with the Buckeye band right before nailing a last-second field goal to win the game.
The win set up OU for a 1 vs. 2 showdown with archrival Texas. But the Longhorns had one of their best teams in several years and beat Oklahoma 13-6. Switzer’s team rebounded to win its remaining games and in the final two, they hammed Colorado and Nebraska—teams they’d shared the old Big Eight title with in 1976—by the combined score of 90-21. Switzer’s team ended the regular season ranked #2 in the nation.
Arkansas beat #15 Oklahoma State in September to get themselves into the national rankings, then moved into the Top 10 after consecutive wins over Tulsa & TCU. One week after OU lost to Texas, the Razorbacks got their own crack at the Longhorns, who were powered by the soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner and future NFL MVP in Earl Campbell. Arkansas had no better luck than OU, losing 13-9.
Like OU though, Holtz’s team kept its focus and after three easy wins, Arkansas got a big 26-20 win at Texas A&M that assured them of second place in the old Southwest Conference, behind Texas, and in line for a major bowl bid. The Orange Bowl called and Arkansas was ranked #6 when they came to Miami.
The talent disparity between the two programs was still substantial. Oklahoma was stacked with All-Americans, particularly on defense. George Cumby led the linebacking corps, and was Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year. Daryl Hunt was another All-American linebacker. Reggie Kinlaw anchored the defensive line, and Zach Henderson did the same in the secondary. By comparison, Arkansas was represented on the All-American list by guard Leotis Harris, and kicker/punter Steve Little.
Given the recent history of the programs—Arkansas had only one really big year in the last stages of the career of the great Frank Broyles—and the talent gap—it’s easy to see why Oklahoma was favored by as many as 18 points. Then the suspensions came.
Holtz suspended four offensive starters for the game. One of them was the leading rusher, Ben Cowins. The back might not have been on the All-American roll call, but he held school records for rushing that would still until Darren McFadden lit up Little Rock in 2006-07. It would be Roland Sales who replaced him, and Las Vegas responded by jumping the point spread to as high as 24 points. To put this in perspective, Super Bowl III—ironically played at the same Orange Bowl—where Joe Namath made his legendary guarantee of victory, had Namath’s Jets as “only” an 18-point underdog.
One thing did seem certain when college football fans woke up on New Year’s morning. The problems of Arkansas and the opportunity it gave Oklahoma weren’t going to decide a national title. Texas had rolled on to an undefeated season, was ranked #1 and was going to play Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, a venue that would be favorable to the Longhorns.
But something happened along Texas’ way to the national championship. Notre Dame, led by a still-mostly unknown quarterback named Joe Montana rolled them in the second quarter and stunned the country with a 38-10 thrashing. Since the Cotton Bowl took place early the day, while the Orange Bowl was in prime-time, Oklahoma took the field knowing the national title was now almost certainly theirs if they took care of business.
Oklahoma got the ball first with a chance to set the tone. It turns out they did, but not the tone they wanted. Billy Sims was a year away from his own Heisman Trophy as an Oklahoma running back. Tonight, he fumbled on the first possession. Arkansas took over inside the 10-yard line and quickly scored.
On OU’s next possession, they moved past midfield, but this time it was Kenny King’s turn to put the ball on the grass. Sims and King would each make their mark on the NFL—Sims as a future #1 overall pick that would temporarily transform the Detroit Lions into a contender until he tore up his knee. King would play on a Super Bowl winner for the Raiders and catch a long touchdown pass in the Super Bowl itself. But neither back had his best game on the first day of 1978.
Sales was the one running wild, piling up 205 yards on the ground, and Arkansas led 24-0 by halftime. Oklahoma showed no signs of life in the second half, and the game ended 31-6. In a shocking development, OU couldn’t have covered that 24-point Vegas spread even if it had been reversed.
The result sent the national title race into a tizzy. Notre Dame, who’d opened the day at #5, and Alabama who’d opened at #3 and blasted Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl were the favorites. Holtz made his own case for his team. Notre Dame would win the vote, with Alabama second and Arkansas third.
Notre Dame wouldn’t win another national title until 1988. Ironically the man coaching them by that point would be the one who set the Irish up in ’77. Lou Holtz’s star kept growing and it all started when he led an undermanned team to a shocking victory in the 1978 Orange Bowl.