So much was expected of Joe Ferguson when Frank Broyles signed him out of Shreveport, La., Woodlawn in the winter of 1969.
Razorback fans were in the midst of a three-year run near the top of the college football world and Broyles sweeping in and plucking Ferguson away from LSU’s Charley McClendon and Alabama’s Bear Bryant proved it.
In a day and age without recruiting rankings, Joe was a bona fide 5-star recruit. Everybody wanted him.
His goal as a youngster was to be able to “whip the ball like Bradshaw,” referring to NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw who Joe followed at Woodlawn, playing for the legendary A.L. Williams. He just never had Bradshaw’s body. At 6-foot-1, he almost to defy gaining weight.
But nobody ever questioned his ability to throw a football.
“Joe could throw it so hard that if you didn’t catch it just right it would split the webbing on your fingers,” said one of his targets, Mike Reppond.
Along with a recruiting class that included Reppond along with Ferguson’s high school teammate Jim Hodge and Jack Ettinger, Broyles was able to round up the skill position people needed for a pass-oriented offense.
The day Broyles signed Ferguson and Hodge in Shreveport, many people in Arkansas thought he guaranteed Arkansas a national title. He didn’t say that. He did say — and never backed off from — was a team with a quarterback of Joe’s ability should have a chance to win a national championship before he graduated.
Frank just couldn’t get the linemen to go with it.
In Ferguson’s sophomore season, he was never expected to start. With senior Bill Montgomery returning from back-to-back Sugar Bowl seasons (and barely missing a national championship in 1969), he was the starter in 1970, starting with Stanford in the first game of the year in Little Rock.
Jim Plunkett, who would win the Heisman Trophy that year, quickly had a 20-0 lead in the first 20 minutes of the game. It became 27-0 and Broyles sent in Ferguson.
His first pass was completed to Hodge and he moved the Hogs downfield (despite getting hammered by the Stanford rush) at a breakneck pace. In the Red Zone, Broyles put Montgomery back in and the fans booed.
Looking back, that set the tone for a disappointing 9-2 season where Broyles and the seniors declined all bowl bids and the focus turned to Ferguson and what was expected to be a huge 1971 season.
It didn’t work out that way, as teams discovered Arkansas had no running game. Ferguson wasn’t adept at running the ball and he never pitched it backwards as well as he threw downfield.
When he led the Hogs to a rollicking 31-7 win over Texas in Little Rock in the rain, fans started ordering Cotton Bowl tickets. Two weeks later, again in Little Rock, Gene Stallings’ Texas A&M team came in and won, 17-9.
The next week in Houston against Rice, Ferguson fumbled when hit at the 1 going in for what would have been a winning score. Rice messed that up and Ferguson got the Hogs in position to salvage a 24-24 tie on a Bill McClard field goal at the buzzer, but the Cotton Bowl was gone.
Instead, it was the Liberty Bowl against Tennessee in the first night game in the bowl’s history. Ferguson broke a Liberty Bowl passing record, but the only touchdown was a pass to Hodge after they faked out the Vols’ All-American safety, Bobby Majors.
Well, there was the infamous Preston Watts mystery call on a field goal and a fumble that was recovered by the Hogs, but given to Tennessee, and the Vols won 16-13. Arkansas’ players literally almost chased the officials out of the park, but it didn’t change the result.
Ferguson won the MVP award and tearfully promised Hog fans better things in 1972.
That didn’t work out, either.
The season started with a loss to USC where Ferguson, bloodied from a broken nose, only was out for a few plays after stopping at the Trojans’ celebration of his being knocked out to tell them, “I’ll be back.”
He was, but it wasn’t enough and a 31-10 loss totally deflated Arkansas and Joe finished his career sitting on the bench in Lubbock, Texas, and watching Scott Bull salvage a 6-5 season.
Ferguson was drafted in the third round by the Buffalo Bills where he launched an 18-year career by handing the ball to O.J. Simpson for most of his record 2,003 yards.
After retiring, he coached, including a stint at Arkansas coaching quarterbacks and also won after two bouts with cancer.