For the record, Bobby Jones ain’t confessin’ to nothin’.

 

Asked what part he may or may not have played in any shenanigans surrounding the Battle of the Ravine, the annual donnybrook between Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, the congenial Henderson ex-chancellor and former Reddie linebacker stops being chatty and chooses his words judiciously.

 

“I think I was in the car when the guys got the tiger’s tail,” he said, referring to one of the many times Henderson State commandos snipped the tail off a tiger statue on the Ouachita Baptist University campus, burying it somewhere in the Clark County dirt. “It’s one of those things where you just hush up about it and go on.”

 

Rex Nelson, the broadcast voice of OBU, decorated newspaper columnist and recognized oral historian of Arkansas, hoots at the story. He knows Jones and can read between the lines of his tale of the tail. It is just one of the many pranks over the years that have contributed to the lore of the game, elevating the series to fabled status.

 

As for any malfeasance on his part as an OBU student, Nelson’s response is even more cagey.

 

“Well,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve got to tell you one of the funniest is after I had graduated. I had gone to Washington for the Arkansas Democrat newspaper. I came back here on kind of a fall break, and I wanted to see the game. The Democrat back then had this Sunday magazine, and occasionally I’d do magazine pieces, so I decided to do a piece on the Battle of the Ravine.

 

I knew some Ouachita students because I was still in my 20s, and I wasn’t that much older than them. I thought I’d cover it by going over and going with them to do some painting and so forth. I could write kind of firsthand things, but they got caught by Henderson security. I’m just in the car as a newspaper writer like, ‘I’m just covering this crime, officer.’”

It is impossible to say how many people have “just been in the car” for such hijinks over the past almost-century of the game’s existence, but given the fervor with which the Battle of the Ravine is contested every year, it likely dwarfs the 10,000 or so souls that comprise the population of Arkadelphia itself. Some are the stuff of legend, some merely dastardly, and many more aborted or averted. Time has burnished the tales, no doubt, but the best ones need no exaggeration, just like the game itself.

 

“You’ve got to be one or the other in Arkadelphia,” said Nelson, who grew up there. “I can tell you, after that game, if your team won, you woke up early that following Monday morning, and you couldn’t wait to get to school. If your team lost, you told your mom you were sick and tried to get out of it and weren’t allowed, of course — had to go to school and listen to the barbs from your Henderson friends, in my case.”

 

“I used to think there was only one thing better than beating Ouachita, and that’s just really beating them bad,” Jones said. “I’ve reached the point where I’ve got a lot of good friends at Ouachita that I played against. We have good fun with this thing.”

 

Perhaps more than any other sport at any other level, the soul of college football exists in its rivalries. Nowhere else does the sports world capture the true spirit of competition than in playing year after year against a team worth beating more than any other. Some — like Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn and Ole Miss-Mississippi State — exist to this day, binding generations of players and weaving threads into the fabric of fan families on both sides. Others, like Nebraska-Oklahoma and Cincinnati-Louisville, are incomprehensibly extinct with other bad-blood games soon to be on the trash heap as conferences disintegrate on the fault lines of big-time college sports.

 

The essence of every good rivalry varies, but the best ones hold one or more things in common. There is proximity, where each school is close enough that high school teammates are split and prep rivals are carried forward. Longevity is another hallmark since nothing ripens rancor as well as time. Parity is a must; Notre Dame and Navy have met since 1927 but most fans don’t care because the Fighting Irish have held serve to the tune of 81-13-1, during which time the Midshipmen went 0-for in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Finally, there is the tasty seasoning of consequence in which each side has something riding on the outcome, either in advancing its cause or damaging the opposition’s season.

Battle of the Ravine, 1922 and 1989 (Photos provided)

Very few, if any, current rivalry games check all four of these boxes as boldly, especially in Division II, as the Battle of the Ravine. First played in 1895 and almost uninterrupted since 1907, the 2023 contest finds Ouachita narrowly leading the series 46-43-6. On numerous occasions, the game has determined the outcome for conference honors and/or entry into the postseason for one team or the other. Both the Reddies and the Tigers have had their runs — Henderson won seven straight between 1989 and 1998, and OBU has won six straight twice, from 1915 to 1922 and 2016 through last year.

By far the most distinguishing characteristic of the game is proximity. The two schools sit separated from one another by a kudzu-clogged ravine, which gives the contest its name, at one spot and just a two-lane highway’s width at another stretch. This has given rise to one of gameday’s most hallowed traditions in which the visitors walk- dressed for battle from their locker room across the street to the home team’s stadium through a phalanx of bands and fans both friendly and foe.

 

“There are very few things in this country that you can really say are unique,” Nelson said. “A college football game where the road team walks to a road game, that’s unique. It doesn’t occur anywhere else in America, and to be a part of that and have it happen in my hometown is just a very neat experience.”

 

“We start getting ready for that game, and you try to keep your mind on what’s going on,” said Jones, who played in four of them. “You walk across the street to play each other, and you’ve got the band playing, and the state troopers have the traffic stopped on [U.S.] Highway 67. I’m 74 years old, and it’s still one of those things that means a lot.”

 

If Jones had any misconceptions about how much the game meant to their respective programs, the truth was ramrodded home to him as a coveted recruit out of Malvern High School.

“I was being recruited both at Ouachita and at Henderson my senior year in high school,” he said. “[Henderson] tuition back then was $100 a semester, and lo and behold, Henderson came up with a scholarship. Ouachita didn’t, and they were a little bit more expensive.

 

“I proceeded to call on Coach [Buddy] Benson, who was the head football coach at Ouachita. I went to his office and told him I was going to Henderson, and he told me to get up and get the hell out of his office.”

 

Nelson, by contrast, was dipped in the OBU-HSU font early in his formative years, and despite a momentary flirtation with the idea of attending Vanderbilt, he graduated from Ouachita in 1981.

 

“I grew up a block from the Ouachita football stadium. That rivalry has been a part of my life since I was born,” he said. “My mother went to Ouachita. My older sister went to Ouachita. My dad, Red, played football there. He played his freshman year in 1942 on a team that only lost one game to a really good team. Then he was a bombardier on a B-17 during World War II for two years, and he came back and played the ’45, ’46 and ’47 seasons and was starting quarterback in the Battle of the Ravine in 1947.”

 

One might think, due to the intensity of the rivalry, that neither the schools nor their students would have anything to do with each other, which might be true in a larger community. Such is not the case in a small town such as Arkadelphia, where limited options for entertainment, worship and socialization force students and fans to coexist side by side.

 

“There was a fast food place called the Minute Man,” Jones said. “It was on the Ouachita side of the street, and they had a poolroom in the back — nine-ball if you wanted to play pool. The guys would come in, and they’d have Ouachita jackets, and there’d be Henderson jackets, and nothing ever happened, any fights or anything like that.

 

“In high school, when I played quarterback, my center ended up playing at Ouachita, and we’ve stayed close all these years. He’s a retired pharmacist, lives in Pine Bluff. We have some good-natured back-and-forth with one another. After we play, it’s over. You have a bad taste for a while, and then you start talking about next year.”

 

The general congeniality has resulted in many houses, Jones’ included, cross-pollinated by red and purple. Arriving on campus, he soon met his future wife, Judy, a pretty Henderson cheerleader a year ahead of him. Irony being what it is, Judy would later become registrar at OBU, which is why Jones jokingly describes his 53 years of matrimony as “a mixed marriage.”

 

Both Jones and Nelson can list clearly the most memorable moments on the field witnessed from the sidelines, the chancellor’s box in Jones’ case and the broadcast booth in Nelson’s. On air, Nelson said he tries to remain as dispassionate as possible, to which Jones good-naturedly said Nelson is not fooling anybody.

battle ravine

A must-see experiece for any Arkansas college football fan is witnessing the visiting team’s walk across the highway.

“This is my 40th year to do play-by-play, and [Battle of the Ravine] is the hardest one to do just because it means too much,” he said. “I can remember many times over the years, silently telling myself, ‘Calm, breathe, breathe,’ because your obligation is to the listener, and if you’re a screaming maniac, they’re not going to know what’s going on. I have to tell myself that.”

 

“Rex Nelson, bless his heart, he’d die on a hill, purple and gold,” Jones said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Rex announce a football game, but he can announce it where a five-yard touchdown takes 30 minutes to get it out of his system. ‘He’s at the five. He’s at the four. He’s at the three. He’s in the Promised Land!’ We have a good time, and he’s a good friend.”

 

The pranks that have accompanied the annual contest are as memorable as the winning drives and overtime dramatics that have been part of the game’s lore, lauded for their daring and ingenuity on both side of the ravine. Picking the best prank in a series this long is difficult.

battle ravine

There’s the time Tiger students dyed the water in the Henderson campus fountain purple and added soap to create a sudsy mess. There was the year an underhanded Reddie agent tried filming OBU’s practice, only to be spooked and run off, leaving the video camera behind, equipment labeled “Property of Henderson State Athletics.” Multiple indignities have been heaped upon the OBU tiger statue, from being painted to enduring enough tail-ectomies that “it’s like a bobcat now,” Jones quipped.

 

The true Hall of Fame-worthy pranks defy belief. In 1950, OBU student and newly-minted homecoming queen Ann Strickland took a ride with some Reddie friends from high school a few days before the game. Those friends confined her to a nearby location, refusing to let her leave or communicate with the outside world for a couple of days. When news quickly spread that the coed had been kidnapped, Strickland’s future husband, defensive end Bill Vining Sr., mustered a posse of teammates and scoured the town for his beloved.

 

“I say it’s a friendly kidnapping because it was some of her friends from Henderson, and they took her over to a lake house,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t that bad — they were in a lake house on Lake Hamilton — but nobody knew where she was. All the football players were searching hotels and everything else, trying to find her.”

 

Vining and his mates did not share Nelson’s benevolence. The incident was reported to local police, and one member of the team’s search party, Ike Sharp, father of current OBU Athletic Director David Sharp, was said to have been packing a shotgun in his overalls. In the end, it was the prank that blasted the Reddies; Strickland was released in time for the game, and a motivated Vining and Co. pummeled Henderson 26-14. Undeterred, Henderson revisited kidnapping as mental warfare in style several years later, when some male Reddies in drag convinced an OBU librarian they were there to pick up a smaller tiger statue for its annual cleaning and walked it right out the door.

 

Ouachita’s hands were not entirely clean through the years. In 1973, a passel of OBU students snuck on campus in the dead of night and lit ablaze a massive bonfire assembly that was to be the centerpiece of a campus pep rally the following evening. It is not known who lit the match, but the raiding party included none other than religion major and future Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, per the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. No doubt the future presidential candidate was only in the car when it happened.

 

Perhaps the prank to end all pranks was the aerial assault Henderson State launched on its rivals across the road.

batlle ravine

“My favorite was in ’75. I would have been in high school at the time,” Nelson said. “Henderson has a well-known aviation program, one of the few in the state. Some of their aviation students bombed the Ouachita campus with marshmallows. They had actually dyed some of the marshmallows red. They had painted ‘Beat OBU’ on some of them. They bombed the campus with thousands of marshmallows.

 

“In fact, I went over and picked a couple up. I’m a packrat. I think somewhere I probably have a couple of those marshmallows from 1975 because I know I kept them. I mean, well done.”

 

Jones admits time does a lot to mellow the passions one carries for the game in one’s 20s, when the losses smarted more and the wins bought a license to gloat for 12 months.

 

“My junior year, we won the conference. My senior year, Ouachita stomped us,” he said. “Well, we played basketball in the old armory, the old gym there on campus. Henderson sits on one side and Ouachita on the other. The Ouachita football players come marching in, and they’ve got this sign. Couple of guys went berserk on our team.”

 

“This would have been in the winter of ’71 at Henderson’s old gym, which was just a little tiny cracker box,” said Nelson who witnessed it. “That banner went all the way from one baseline to the other, and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was ‘Football, football 31-0,’ and then they started the chant, ‘Football, football.’ Two of the Henderson football players led the charge and ran full speed across the court and dived into the crowd to tear that sign up, tear it down, and it was on after that.”

 

Not everyone kept perspective, of course, which is what caused the series to be suspended between 1951 and 1963 due to vandalism, the only peacetime interruption in the series’ history. Today, protecting campus assets on both sides has become an operation of militaristic precision as signs are draped and landmarks are guarded by student organizations to prevent sabotage. Even someone as dyed-in-the-wool as a young Jones would have a hard time breaching the perimeter in 2023.

 

“Now if you go on the Ouachita campus, the tiger actually is surrounded by a steel fence and has cameras on it 24/7, 365 days a year, not just Battle of the Ravine week,” Nelson said. “It would be kind of hard to get to it now.”

 

In recent years, the game has received its just due in feature spots on CBS Sports and in the pages of Sports Illustrated, but as both Nelson and Jones quickly attest, the brass ring has thus far eluded it — having ESPN’s College Gameday broadcast live from Arkadelphia. Opinions are mixed if that will ever happen; if it does, it would be the fitting laurel to confer upon the game. If not, the Battle of the Ravine will lose none of its impact or importance for generations of Ouachita and Henderson families.

 

“I’m honest when I say this: in my family, it was such a big day. That was Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, all rolled into one,” Nelson said. “When I was four, they still played on Thanksgiving Day, and I have memories of that, of eating Thanksgiving dinner and then walking to the football game with my family. Later, especially if the game was at Ouachita, we were kind of the gathering place where parents of other players who had gone to school with my parents would all gather at our house. People would start arriving early in the morning and we would have so many at our house.

 

“From basically when I was old enough to walk, I was like a water boy. I would walk the Ouachita sideline. I would actually leave and go to the Ouachita fieldhouse very early in the morning, help the managers or just hang out and do whatever I needed to do. Then when I started, in high school, writing for the weekly paper, I moved from the high school to the press box, and then I started broadcasting as a student. I have been in the press box ever since.”

 

“It’s one of those things where it really means something to you as you get older,” Jones said. “I’ve got two sons, and both of them graduated from Ouachita. One played baseball, and the other played football. I have a grandson who is a graduate assistant at Ouachita this year. His younger brother is a trainer at Henderson for football. I’ve got two more grandsons; one’s a senior in Malvern, and one is a senior at Little Rock Christian Academy, and he’s already committed to go to Ouachita.

 

“Ended up, strangely enough, some of my best friends are the guys I played against in college at Henderson. Most of them, I played against in high school. We’ve become close friends. We play golf together, but when it comes time for the Henderson-Ouachita game, blood’s thicker than water, and I’m a Reddie.”

 

96th Battle of the Ravine

Nov. 11, 2023

Cliff Harris Stadium

Ouachita Baptist University

obutigers.com/hsusports.com

 

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