Off and on for a few years as time would permit and the spirit was willing, the story of the beginnings of the University of Arkansas athletics has been pieced together. From a myriad of obvious and obscure places, virtually every piece of information found from digital sources, books, publications, guides, collections, microfilm, and museums has been saved and number in the thousands. As recently as last week, an image of a draft report edited in Hugo Bezdek’s hand from an oddly labeled file came to us from a place we can only hope to travel to one day. From the content and source, there is no doubt that it is real. As of now, chapters are written and some are being re-written as new discoveries are made, and the answers to questions appear.
Some history can wait as it has for more than a century, but this anniversary is now.
Before 1893, sports at the University of Arkansas, then known as Arkansas Industrial University or A.I.U., had a place on the Fayetteville campus. The baseball club arranged games with local teams. Both men and women played tennis. Boxing apparently had a decent following, and field games existed which were a combination of events which today would be track and field, e.g. sprint races, and picnic games, e.g. a sack race.^ Albeit a different kind of a field game, football was reportedly on campus as early as 1884.^ Each sport had its own autonomous club.
Because the structure of the school year at the university was significantly different than today, a few details about it may make what follows more understandable. In 1893 the school year nestled within the calendar year. Beginning in 1887 at the preference of university President Edward H. Murfee, the school year began in the first week of March and ended in the first week of December, and terms were structured as trimesters. (1) Although a Catalogue of the University of Arkansas for 1893 was not available for this writing, all indications from the ones in 1892 and 1894 as well as the 1910 Reynolds and Thomas History of the University of Arkansas are that the first term ran from the first of March to the last of May with the second from the beginning of June through the end of August, and the last from the beginning of September through the end of November.
The references below come from the Arkansas University Magazine which was typically delivered in the month following the month of the issue. For example, a subscriber would typically have the April issue in hand in May.
The first reported indication that athletics would be organized overall came in May 1893 issue. (2)
Following a second report in June that an athletic association would be created, a few reasons were given for the interest in athletics in the first half of 1893: (3)
Without citation, although it will have an entire chapter when the book is published, those at A.I.U. likely felt that the athletic world was going by them. Almost 18 months before, Little Rock hosted the state’s first formal football game. Teams formed from athletic associations, colleges and high schools around the state and issued public challenges to play opponents. There are numerous accounts of local games year-round in 1892 and 1893, and simply because of a cancellation due to bad weather and muddy field, the first intercollegiate football game had not been played yet. Newspapers of any size across the state featured stories about games between northeast schools such as Princeton and Yale. One such game in the fall of 1891 turned away fans in excess of the 25,000 seat field capacity. Boys watched the game from trees while men bought standing-room-only tickets. The gate tally of more than $50,000 raised even more attention. The games and the notoriety that came with them were bypassing the campus.
The passage above is telling in another way. “Under it will be Athletic Clubs, Boxing Clubs, Tennis Clubs, and Base Ball teams.” “Mr. Naismith’s game” as it was known would not be exhibited in Arkansas until the next year and did not appear on the University of Arkansas campus until it started as a women’s game some two decades before the men’s team formed in the mid 1920s. ^ However, the glaring problem from today’s perspective is the omission of football. To them, however, it was not an issue. In June 1893, there was no organized football at A.I.U.
In July 1893 it was announced that a foot-ball team was organized, and the same month the Athletic Association organized and consisted of “an athletic club, a tennis club, two base ball teams and the foot-ball team.” At the top of column 2 is found:
“From the fact that this year is the birth of the Athletic Association, much cannot be expected of us, but we hope it will game such a foot-hold in the University that it will never be thrown out. We think in a few years the State will build us an Athletic Hall, such as they have at other Universities.”
The date that the Constitution of the Athletic Association of Arkansas Industrial University was created and signed is not now known although there is some indication above that it was signed contemporaneously with the the creation of the organization in July 1893 or shortly thereafter. A reference above says that an Athletic Club committee was being formed to draft a constitution in agreement with the Athletic Association as if the constitution of the Athletic Association already existed. (5) What is known is that this was not simply a faculty-lead, student organization. University President Murfee and presidents of the various colleges were the sole signatories to and the ones approving the Constitution of the Athletic Association of Arkansas Industrial University . ^
In the month of July, 1893, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, the University of Arkansas Athletic Association and the University of Arkansas Football team, both of which have been loved by millions of Arkansas Razorbacks fans over the last century and a quarter, were formed.
We have a reason to celebrate!!
— Sharp Williams
^ Citation in hand but withheld for book.
(1) Reynolds, John H, and David Y. Thomas. History of the University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1910. p. 148. Print.
(2) “Military and Athletic.” Arkansas University Magazine, Fayetteville, Arkansas, May 1893, Vol. 1, Issue 2, p. 29.
(3) “Military and Athletic.” Arkansas University Magazine, Fayetteville, Arkansas, June 1893, Vol. 1, Issue 3, p. 49.
(4) “Military and Athletic.” Arkansas University Magazine, Fayetteville, Arkansas, July 1893, Vol. 1, Issue 4, p. 66.
(5) Note: “Athletic Club” not ” Athletic Association” is referenced as needing a change to their constitution. As best understood now and subject to change, the Athletic Club consisted of recreational sports and field games.
(6) “Military and Athletic.” Arkansas University Magazine, Fayetteville, Arkansas, July 1893, Vol. 1, Issue 4, p. 53 Cover.
**The feature photo is the earliest image of an Arkansas Industrial University football team known. It is the 1895 team.^