August 6, 2006
by Scott Terrell
Is Arizona Football cursed?
The Wildcats have not won an outright conference championship since 1941. [Edit: It was later discovered the correct year is 1936.] Last week we asked the question. Now we're looking for some answers.
If a hex was placed on the UA it happened during the Border Conference years so that's where our search begins. And the league's biggest player at the time was a small school in Abilene, Texas by the name of Hardin-Simmons University.
The HSU Cowboys were the southwest's football power in the '30s and '40s. In the eight seasons wrapped around the Second World War Hardin-Simmons went 67-9 with two undefeated seasons. HSU won the Border Conference the two campaigns following Arizona's final title in 1941. The coach of those two teams? Hall of Famer Warren Brooks Woodson.
Coach Woodson was an offensive mastermind who invented the Wing-T formation. He produced the nation's leading rusher three times in a six-year span at Hardin-Simmons. He took the Cowboys to three bowls…in the same year. Now that's a good season.
After compiling a 5-2 record against Arizona, UA President Dr. Richard Harvill hired Woodson to coach the Cats. If you can't beat 'em, steal 'im.
Woodson was the coach during the record-breaking Art Luppino years and he went 3-1 against ASU his first four years including 35-0 and 54-14 victories. But that success came at a price. About $200 a month per player.
Unbeknownst to the UA administration, Woodson with the help of the Towncats booster club had been funneling money to players. These infractions led to Woodson's dismissal and Arizona landing on probation.
So the Wildcats suffered for taking Hardin-Simmons' coach and now all was well, right? Not exactly. There were more trespasses to be committed.
In 1958 Dick Clausen was hired to replace J.F. "Pop" McKale as Arizona athletic director. Clausen was a man of vision and action. In a 1998 interview he told the Arizona Daily Star, "We had Idaho on our schedule five years in a row and the crowds kept getting smaller. One day, my business manager came in and said we had to start playing somebody else. So we scheduled Ohio State and Michigan."
Clausen looked around at the competition in the Border Conference and knew changes had to be made. The Cats went 8-2 in 1937, 7-2 in 1940, and 7-3 in both 1941 and 1954. Arizona finished unranked each time.
Determined to at least give the UA a chance at better things, Clausen pulled the Wildcats out of the Border Conference after the 1960 season and began the recruiting that would result in the Western Athletic Conference.
From a national standpoint, Clausen's actions paid immediate dividends. Playing as an independent in 1961, the Wildcats took on a much tougher schedule including a tie at Nebraska and a win at Oregon. With an 8-1-1 record the UA finished in the AP poll (at #17) for the first time in school history. But the other side of the coin is that one of our best teams ever didn't win its league because it didn't have a league to win.
The Border Conference played just one season without Arizona before folding. Arizona State followed the UA into the WAC. (For those keeping score at home, this means the UA has dragged little brother into a better conference twice. If it weren't for the Wildcats, the Sun Devils may still be playing West Texas A&M.)
The remaining members of the old BC were left to find new homes. UTEP eventually found its way into the WAC. New Mexico State ended up in the Missouri Valley Conference. As for Hardin-Simmons? HSU dropped football completely in 1964. The Cowboys wouldn't field another team until 1990 when they reappeared as a Division-3 team.
So we stole the coach from their last undefeated season, then we tore apart their conference, which led to the dismantling of their football program. I believe this is called establishing a motive.
But how could a little school in West Texas put a curse on anybody? Founded as the Abilene Baptist University, the school was renamed in 1892 in honor of the Reverend Dr. James B. Simmons who supported the school throughout his life. Rev. Simmons willed his entire estate to the University at his death. Would he have been willing to pull some strings in the afterlife? Simmons is buried on campus, for crying out loud.
HSU has also produced some very influential people over the years. Fess Parker, the actor who was Disney's Davy Crockett, played football at Hardin-Simmons after serving in the Navy during World War II. That means Parker played for Warren Woodson on HSU's final undefeated team in 1946. You want tough? The man survived getting stabbed in the neck in real life and in fake life he kilt him a b'ar when he was only three.
As far as maintaining the curse today, alumnus Stedman Graham is the most likely candidate. Who is he? Only the boyfriend of the most powerful person in the world. That's right: Oprah.
So how can it be a coincidence that Abilene is only a couple hundred miles away from the program that John Mackovic ruined before he decimated ours? You don't think Mr. Oprah has the juice to plant a kamikaze mole at the institution that committed grievous sins against his beloved alma mater?
The good news is the Boston Red Sox exorcised their demons in 2004 (with a Wildcat as manager) and the Chicago White Sox ended their drought last year (with a Wildcat as lead cheerleader in the dugout). Maybe there's still hope for the Cardinal and Navy Sox.
The question now becomes: If there is a Hardin-Simmons Hex, how do we break it? I do not know at this time, but I plan on finding out. In the meantime, put on your coonskin cap, turn on Oprah, and if you run into any HSU alumni, please be extra polite.
Just in case.
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