By Sandra Cox Birchfield
When the Arkansas Industrial University Cardinals ran on the football field for the first time in 1894, the team did so only 24 years after Congress declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. As new autumn traditions, it was almost inevitable that football and Thanksgiving would be celebrated together, even here in the Ozarks.
The new Cardinals football team had an unlikely coach in John C. Futrall, a young Latin professor who later became president of the institution after it was renamed the University of Arkansas. Futrall was tasked with leading the very green Cardinals in an 1894 Thanksgiving Day match in Austin with the more experienced University of Texas team. The outcome was nothing short of humiliating. Texas soundly handed the Cardinals their birdseed by scoring 54 points. Arkansas couldn’t even get on the scoreboard. An intense Arkansas-Texas rivalry had begun.
As years passed, the Cardinals became stronger and more threatening. When Arkansas defeated LSU in 1909, then-coach Hugo Bezdek declared his team had played “like a bunch of Razorback hogs.” A few weeks later, the team lived up to Bezdek’s assessment in a Thanksgiving game in Little Rock against Washington University, who lost with a score of 34 to 0. Arkansas celebrated its first-ever undefeated season, and The Arkansas Gazette proclaimed a “new era” for the “cardinal-clad gladiators.” A year later, this new powerhouse became the Razorbacks.
A challenge to Thanksgiving Day football came in August 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday from the last Thursday of November to the fourth (November had five Thursdays that year) to help boost the Depression-era economy with a few extra shopping days before Christmas. It also boosted outrage by football coaches who now faced a dilemma: how to reschedule their Thanksgiving Day football game on short notice, including the Razorbacks’ game against Tulsa. (So upset, Ouachita Baptist College’s coach in Arkadelphia threatened to vote Republican!) Many governors heard these outcries, including Arkansas’ and Oklahoma’s, and ignored Roosevelt’s declaration. The Razorbacks played Tulsa as originally planned and won.
Now, all states observe Thanksgiving on November’s fourth Thursday with millions spending the day watching their favorite professional football teams compete on television. Thanksgiving Day Razorback football, however, didn’t survive. Yet a newer tradition takes place: Razorback football on Black Friday.