Arkansas got ripped off in 1971 Liberty Bowl against Tennessee

Go to 21 minute mark to see video footage of Liberty Bowl between Arkansas and Tennessee

Was Arkansas ripped off in the 1971 Liberty Bowl against Tennessee? First off I want to make it clear that I was pulling for Arkansas and I am biased. Therefore, I am just going to use Tennessee sources to answer that question. I have provided a video clip narrated by Tennessee’s John Ward above that clearly shows Arkansas Razorback Tom Reed going in to get the fumble recovery.

Next I have provided an article by Tom Mattingly from Knoxville that admits it was a con job by the Tennessee players to get the ref to give them the ball. Phillip Fulmer was a speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club and he even admitted that he was standing near a ref and he also pointed towards the Tennessee goal in an effort to influence the ref!!!


In this gritty contest, scoring plays were at a premium. The No. 9-ranked Tennessee Volunteers edged their future conference partner, the No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks.

The Vols took the lead first with a 2-yard run by Bill Rudder, but the Razorbacks quickly answered with a long 36-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7 before halftime.

In the fourth quarter, it appeared that Arkansas’ pair of field goals would be good for the win, but a fumble recovered by Tennessee in Arkansas territory set up the game-winning touchdown just three plays later.

(An Arkansas fumble set up a game winning touchdown drive to win a big game… This seems to be a pattern in Tennessee football lore.)

Tom Mattingly: ’71 Liberty Bowl a conspiracy?

  • By Tom Mattingly
  • Posted December 18, 2010 at 7:21 p.m

Tennessee players carry coach Bill Battle on their shoulders as they celebrate their 14-13 Liberty Bowl victory over Arkansas on Dec. 20, 1971.

When Tennessee and Arkansas squared off in the 1971 Liberty Bowl in Memphis, the 13th game in the bowl’s history, on Monday night, Dec. 20, the teams had not met in 64 years and shared little in common other than state borders defined by the Mississippi River.

Tennessee and Arkansas had first met on the gridiron in 1907, with Tennessee taking a 14-2 decision in Little Rock. There didn’t seem to be a great deal of clamor for the two teams to meet again.

The No. 9 Vols were 9-2, coming off a surprising 31-11 win on Dec. 5 over No. 5 Penn State. No. 17 Arkansas was 8-2-1, coming off a 15-0 win over Texas Tech, also on that day.

The game was deadlocked 7-7 entering the fourth quarter.

In that final 15 minutes, Arkansas kicker Bill McClard booted two field goals, covering 19 and 30 yards, each set up by a Vol turnover. Arkansas defenders had put the clamps on the Vols since a first quarter touchdown scored by Bill Rudder. Happiness was winging its way westward to Fayetteville.

The final result was Tennessee 14, Arkansas 13. Joe Ferguson and Louis Campbell, both from Arkansas, took home the MVP and offensive and defensive game awards, but Tennessee, a one-point favorite, somehow won . . . by one.

That left Arkansas supporters reaching mightily for any number of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theory No. 1: How many times do you see holding on a field-goal attempt that if it had counted, would have put the game out of reach?

Arkansas had taken an apparent 16-7 lead with 5:45 to play on McClard’s 48-yard field goal, booted as a flag flew. Tight end Bobby Nichols was adjudged holding, according to an unbylined article in the Northeast Arkansas Times.

“It’s very rare that you get a holding call on a field-goal protection,” said Frank Broyles, Arkansas’ head coach from 1958-1976. “It’s probably the only one I ever had in my coaching career.”

Nichols later told reporters a Tennessee player grabbed him and pulled him to the ground.

Conspiracy Theory No. 2: A few minutes later, there was a fumble awarded to Tennessee that still irks Arkansas fans nearly 40 years later.

“The timely fumble that changed the game occurred in the late minutes, when Conrad Graham walloped Jon Richardson after a screen pass.” Marvin West said Wednesday. “The loose ball attracted a considerable crowd. Bodies were stacked on top of bodies. No telling what all went on down near the ground.”

The fumble recovery actually was a con job, according to Tennessee defensive end Carl Johnson.

“Arkansas had played a very good game,” he said. “It’s obvious the Arkansas guy fell right on the ball.”

Johnson explained that every Vol not involved in the pile, including those on the bench, pointed toward the Arkansas goal and said “our ball.” It’s one of the oldest football tricks in the book, and this night it worked in the Vols’ favor. Carl Witherspoon is credited with the recovery.

According to the Northwest Arkansas Times article, Arkansas partisans blamed SEC official Preston Watts for all the turmoil. (There were three SEC officials in the game, two from the Southwest Conference.)

The legend goes that Arkansas guard Tom Reed came out of the pile with the ball and handed it to Watts, who then awarded possession to Tennessee at the Razorbacks 37.

“I got the ball and cradled it in my chest,” Reed said after the game. “Three Tennessee players jumped on top of me, but I still had it.

“Finally, the official came up and put his hands on the ball, so I gave it to him, and he signaled Tennessee’s ball.”

The Vols took over at the Razorback 36-yard line and were in the end zone in a flash.

Vol quarterback Jim Maxwell, undaunted by three earlier interceptions, hit tight end Gary Theiler for 19 yards to the 17. Then came the game’s decisive moment.

Curt Watson, out with a rib injury since the Vanderbilt game and wearing a set of jimmy-rigged pads that dated to 1938, made his last carry as a Vol a memorable one.

The “Crossville Comet” hit right end and found a path to the goal line. He made a nifty move to get there, freezing a Razorback defender in his tracks. The clock showed 1:56 left in the game. George Hunt kicked the go-ahead extra point. Eddie Brown’s interception sealed the deal.

It took 19 years for the Vols and Razorbacks to tee it up again. It was the 1990 Cotton Bowl this time, with the Vols winning, 31-27, in a game with considerably less controversy.

When divisional play hit the SEC in 1992, the Vols and Razorbacks ended up playing from 1992-2002 and again in 2006 and 2007.

The first game in the “modern series,” the nail-biter in Memphis, set the standard (and the stage) for what was to come.

Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.

Get Copyright Permissions © 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co

Wikipedia reports:


1971 Liberty Bowl
Bowl Game
Arkansas Razorbacks Tennessee Volunteers
(8–2–1) (9–2)
13 14
Head coach: 
Frank Broyles
Head coach: 
Bill Battle
AP   Coaches  
18   20  
AP   Coaches  
9   9  
  1 2 3 4 Total
Arkansas 0 7 0 6 13
Tennessee 7 0 0 7 14
Date December 20, 1971
Season 1971
Stadium Memphis Memorial Stadium
Location Memphis, Tennessee
MVP Joe Ferguson, Arkansas[1]
Attendance 45,410
Liberty Bowl

 < 1970  1972 >
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  • Paul Prevallet  On December 15, 2015 at 8:20 am

    I was there that night with my Dad – I was 9 years old wearing all Razorback red – it was freezing cold – sitting in the endzone – I watched that final field goal come thru the uprights right in front of me – screaming my head off – thinking the score is now 16-7 – then “the flag” appeared after the kick. After the game, everyone was furious. Every Arkansas fan insisted, we (Arkansas) will never play in the Liberty Bowl ever again. Years later, my understanding was that it was amended to – we (Arkansas) will never play “Tennessee” in the Liberty Bowl ever again. About 10+ years ago, I read a small article somewhere (it may have been fabricated) where that official admitted many years later that he called the false holding penalty so Tennessee would have a chance to win.

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