State of the Hogs: Ronnie Caveness

All-America linebacker Ronnie Caveness will be missed when the '64 National Champs return for their 50-year Reunion next fall. Ken Hatfield, Loyd Phillips and Jim Williams remember their buddy.

Just like the famous team picture of the 1964 national champs, Ronnie Caveness will be missing when the greatest Arkansas football team returns for a 50-year reunion next fall. The great Razorback linebacker passed Saturday, losing a battle with cancer.

Along with split end Jerry Lamb and head coach Frank Broyles, Caveness missed the photo shoot for the team picture that appears on walls around the UA campus and in many personal collections. It's one of the most reproduced Razorback photos. All three were gone that day to participate in the Hula Bowl.

Ken Hatfield, another team captain, said that's been mentioned over and over in the last few days as teammates called each other to pass along the sad news about the passing of Caveness.

"We all just know that it isn't going to be right without Ronnie being there," Hatfield said. "He's going to be missed. Everyone loved him. We are just sick this is the year for the reunion and he's not going to be there.

"He was a great man, a great player. Jerry Welch and Jerry Lamb have been by to see him a lot of late and we were just talking about how that reunion won't be the same with Ronnie gone."

Caveness is a true Razorback legend, always in the conversation as one of the all-time great linebackers along with Wayne Harris and Cliff Powell, all first-team All-Americans during the glory years of the Broyles era. The Caveness tackle numbers, from a time when offenses generally had much fewer snaps, stand the test of time. Caveness was a two-time All-American.

The product of Houston Smiley and the target of a great recruiting war between Broyles and Alabama's Bear Bryant, Caveness amassed 357 tackles in three years. He led the team with 155 in ‘64, 154 in ‘63.

"The thing about his numbers, his best were against Texas," said Jim Willliams, who played in front of Caveness at defensive tackle. "That ‘63 game, he made 29! It was like he made every tackle."

Indeed, Caveness recorded 29 in the ‘63 Texas game, then followed it up with 25 against the Longhorns in ‘64. Those are one-two in UA history. Powell made 24 against Texas in ‘69. Caveness is next on the UA all-time single game list with 23 in the ‘63 Missouri game. There was also a 21-tackle day against Baylor in ‘63.

No one else made 20 tackles in a game more than once. Caveness ranks in the top 10 four times and three of the top four.

"The way our defense was set up, the linemen stopped the offensive linemen and the linebackers ran free," Williams said. "But no man I ever played with had the savvy of Ronnie Caveness to be where the ball was at on every play. Every play."

Caveness had battled dementia in recent years, sometimes to the point of forgetting that he had cancer.

"I'm not even sure Ronnie could remember he had it," said Ken Hatfield, "and I think that all of those tackles are the reason. It's got to be. I know the way linebackers played in those days, it takes a toll later. I think the linebackers from that era all are paying the price now. They took so many licks."

Caveness was sharp when he made the trip in 2010 when the National Football Foundation inducted him into their Hall of Fame. His only problems then were two bad knees that knocked him out of the NFL after four years. He was the 16th overall pick in the 1965 AFL draft and played for both the Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs.

"I was so happy for the Hall of Fame honor because I know he enjoyed it," said Loyd Phillips, the All-America tackle who played defensive tackle alongside Williams in front of Caveness.

"I always felt he belonged. I just felt it was awful late in coming, 46 years too late. He was a Hall of Famer when he played.

"I visited with Ronnie a couple of years ago and he told me how much fun he had on that trip. That was good. And, he still had a great sense of humor. He always did, a great wit about him. And he was tough as a pine knot."

Caveness, at 6-0, 210 during his college days, was strong and quick for his position. He was a fierce hitter, but his speed and quickness was an asset, just like it was throughout that '64 defense. It was the trademark of the early Broyles' era defenses.

One of the famous lines from Frank Broyles on how they coached Caveness displayed the confidence in how the linebacker played under the guidance of assistant Wilson Matthews.

"We just put Ronnie out there," Broyles said, "and wished him well."

Williams, Phillips and Hatfield said it was always certain who was in charge in the defensive huddle.

"It was Ronnie's huddle," Williams said. "One of my most distinct memories was in the fourth quarter in the Cotton Bowl against Nebraska. They were driving on us and I made a tackle in the backfield. I came back to the huddle and Ronnie grabbed me by the jersey and said, ‘Do it again! Get him, get him again and again.'

"That was the biggest tackle of my life and he was just making sure I knew there was another play coming.

"That's what a captain does, inspire you to play 100 percent every play all the plays. Physically and mentally, he played every snap and made sure you did, too."

Phillips recalls getting snapped back to reality by the captain in the ‘64 Texas game.

"It was on the last Texas touchdown drive and I got called for face mask on Ernie Koy," Phillips said. "I didn't do it. My hand went near his face mask, down to his front and just under his chin. I missed the face mask, never touched it. But I grabbed inside his shoulder pads in the front and it snapped him back. It probably looked like it, but I didn't do it.

"It was a big play and it's probably the reason they scored. It was a big play. I was saying something about not doing it in the huddle. He stopped me right there and told me, ‘Shut up and quit whining and play football.'

"Ronnie made me realize that nothing could be done about it and it was time to focus on the next play. That's the kind of leadership qualities you need in the huddle. I needed that, instead of just feeling sorry for myself that I got called for a penalty."

Hatfield and Phillips pointed to another game as the biggest for the Hogs. Everyone talks about Texas, but it was against Tulsa early in the season that the Hogs had their other tough game. Tulsa, with quarterback Jerry Rhome and wideout Howard Twilley, jumped on the Hogs, 14-0, in the first half. Hatfield was lined up opposite Twilley and had no answer.

"We were toast," Hatfield said, noting he in particular was toast as the halfback trying to match Twilley's precise routes.

"We played zone so I wasn't really covering man-to-man. But I was the halfback out there. They were so good at throwing and catching that you really couldn't do much against Twilley. They passed it better than everybody. I was just trying to get him down after he caught it. They were really proficient and we had no answer."

Caveness had the answer. He recognized a throw-back pass to Rhome and intercepted the halfback's throw. He returned it for a touchdown to close it to 14-7 at halftime, then caused and forced a fumble to setup another Arkansas score as the Hogs pulled away, 31-22.

That defense blossomed later to shutout the final five opponents, but it was a long day against the TU passing attack. The Golden Hurricane won in total yards, 346-212. But the Hogs — thanks to Caveness — forced four turnovers.

"They had us until Ronnie intercepted the pass," Hatfield said. "I don't know why they tried that throwback. It was a sucker play, but Ronnie wasn't suckered. He read it and took it in for the touchdown. We were still behind at halftime, but we knew we were going to win."

Hatfield said Caveness was an extension of linebackers coach Wilson Matthews on the field.

"Ronnie played three years at linebacker and it was like having Coach Matthews in the huddle," Hatfield said. "Not many started as true sophs.

"Ronnie called the signals in our huddle. When he called them, we believed they would work. He was just wired in with Coach Matthews. It was like Coach Matthews was talking to us."

A memorial service for Caveness is planned for June 5 at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock. Senior pastor Mark Henry, a former Razorback, will conduct the service.

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