BLAST FROM THE PAST: Reliving Butler football's first ever national championship 40 years ago

Butler County Times-Gazette
The 1981 NJCAA National Champions, the Butler County Grizzlies. They finished the season 12-0.

In honor of the Butler Grizzlies honoring their 1981 national championship in football on Saturday, we've decided to run our story from Nov. 24, 1981 where former Sports Editor Harvey Perritt cultivated the story of Butler winning their first ever national title. 

Butler County wins Rodeo Bowl 21-14 as Grizzlies defeat top-ranked Norseman

By HARVEY PERRITT Times Sports Editor

ARKANSAS CITY— Butler County's Grizzlies broke Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College's victory string of 23 games and banded the Golden Norsemen a 21-14 defeat during the Rodeo Bowl here Sunday afternoon.

The game, played before a standing-room-only crowd estimated at between six and seven thousand, was the 12th win this season for the Grizzlies and their 16 consecutive victory, posted in the first bowl game for Butler County since 1950. The 12-0 win-loss record is the best in the nation this season and the best ever earned during a football season in the 52 years the sport has been played at Butler County.

"I don't have any doubt that we are the number one team in the nation now," Butler County head coach Fayne Henson said after the game. "What I'd like to say, is that we've been at it for 12 weeks now. We played a good ballgame against Northeastern Oklahoma, but we've played big game after big game this season.

"It's really a tribute to our football team that they can stay up and play hard every week," Henson added. 

Offensive mistakes played the key to the win for Butler County, as eight turnovers, including six interceptions by the Grizzlies secondary, hampered the defending national champions of Northeastern Oklahoma. Both John Kowalski, a Butler County linebacker, and A.C. Poynter, the Butler County free safety, garnered two interceptions apiece.

INTERCEPTION - Linebacker John Kowalski leaps high into the air to pull down an interception of a Northeastern Oklahoma pass to stop a Norsemen drive on the Butler County 10-yard line. Kowalski had three interceptions of new quarterback Tod Weder during the Rodeo Bowl Sunday in Arkansas City, one of them called back due to an interference call away from his play, as the Grizzlies intercepted Weder six times to add to a total of eight turnovers in the game. (Times Photo by Harvey
Perritt)

The loss dropped the Norsemen's record to 9-1.

The game, heralded as the battle for the national championship, as Northeastern Oklahoma was ranked as first in the National Junior College Athletic Association's poll throughout the season, and Butler County had worked its way up into the number two position, was a thriller.

The Norsemen dominated the game statistically, running up nearly as muchyardage rushing as the Grizzlies had in their total offense. NEO had 332 yards total offense, including 248 yards rushing, with fullback Barry Hughes finishing out the game with 158 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. While the Grizzlies totaled 138 yards rushing and 143 yards passing, both leading ballcarriers for Butler County held to less than 100 yards. Both teams converted for 17 first downs in the contest, both teams getting first downs once on a penalty, eight times on ground plays and eight times passing.

Butler County fullback Gee Wright garnered 72 yards on 19 carries, and scored a touchdown on a five-yard pass reception during the second quarter of the game, for the Grizzlies' first points on the board. Butler County tailback Dennis "Lobo' Allen finished the game well below his usual over-100-yard performance, with a total of 60 yards on 20 carries, including the two-yard touchdown with 28 seconds left in the third quarter to put the Grizzlies ahead in the game for good. Norseman freshman tailback Charles Kemp finished the game with 55 yards on 14 carries.

Northeastern Oklahoma jumped off to a quick two-touchdown lead with less than half of the first quarter left to play. The Grizzlies were unable to convert for a first down on their first offensive series, and a short punt by Butler County's Mike Gentry turned the ball over to the Norsemen on the Butler 41-yard line. On their first play from scrimmage, NEO quarterback Tod Weder pitched out to Hughes and the fullback went downfield for the TD.

LEADING RUSHER — Gee Wright (42), the Butler County Grizzlies 6-0, 210-pound Fullback, breaks loose behind a block by Jim Phillips (67) for a gainer Sunday afternoon in Arkansas city in the Rodeo Bowl Game against the defending national champions Northeastern Oklahoma. Wright led the Grizzlies ballcarriers with 72 yards on 19 carries and reception of a touchdown as Butler County defeated NEO in a hard-fought game, 21-14.

On the ensuing kick-off, Butler County's Louis Craft brought the ball back to the 39-yard line on the return, giving the Grizzlies good field position to try and answer the Norsemen's first TD, but, after driving down to the NEO 36, an ineligible receiver downfield penalty stilted the drive. Following the penalty, Butler County quarterback Mike Nardone threw a pass, picked off by NEO's cornerback Eric Keys on the 34-yard line.

On their second play from scrimmage, the Norsemen's Hughes took the handoff and ran the ball downfield to the Butler 24-yard line, a gain of 42 yards. Driving down to the Butler one, Hughes carried the ball in with 7:45 remaining in the first period, NEO with the 14-0 lead.

It was definitely time for the Grizzlies to get their offensive attack in gear, or all was lost.

"It was a matter of Northeastern Oklahoma is a really good football team,” Butler County head coach Fayne Henson said, "and they just outquicked us. They controlled the game completely during the first half of the first quarter."

Jeff Sanders returned a NEO punt 19 yards back to the Norsemen's 33-yard line to set up the Grizzlies in good field position. Tight end Wayne Burns caught a pass up the middle for a 21-yard gain and Wright drove the ball closer with a six-yard carry from first down. On the first play of the second quarter, the Grizzlies cut the NEO lead to one TD, when Wright caught a pass from Nardone for five yards and the touchdown. Nardone finished the game with 143 yards on nine-of-19 completed, including two TD's. The one interception to Keys early in the game was the Butler County quarterback's only of the game.

Northeastern Oklahoma's Weder probably wishes he could say that.

PASS RECEPTION - Steve Hardesty (12), wide receiver for the undefeated Butler County team, hauls in a pass for a gain of 12 yards Sunday during the Rodeo Bowl against the Golden Norsemen. Hardesty finished the game with 44 yards on three catches. (Times Photo by Harvey Perritt)

NEO took the kick-off on their 25 and set up a series that traveled to the Butler 41-yard line. Butler County linebacker Don Weatherby leaped up and touched a Weder pass, tipping the ball into Poynter's hands for the interception on the Butler 36-yard line.

On the next NEO offensive drive, another turnover, caused when Hughes fumbled a pitch for a loss on fourth down gave Butler County possession of the ball. The situation had been set up a play earlier. Jim Nance had penetrated the NEO line and tackled Kemp to stop the first-down conversion.

“It was very crucial that they didn't score right before the end of the first half,” Henson said. "That could have been the turning point in the game for us. During the half, I told the kids that we hadn't had any breaks in the first half, and that if we kept playing hard, we'd get our breaks in the second half.”

The Norsemen's placekicker, Mark Ritchey, attempted a field goal over 45 yards with 22 seconds left and failed but NEO kept the ball on a roughing the kicker call against Butler, moving the ball to the 14-yard line. The Norsemen ran a flanker-reverse to try and score the TD, but Sanders, who had worked the play in practice, tackled Kevin Smith short of the goal line.

In the third quarter, the Grizzlies started to get the breaks Henson talked about. Nance recovered a NEO fumble on the Norsemen's 18-yard line, but the Grizzlies couldn't convert for the first down. The Norsemen started driving, but were halted when Kowalski picked off a Weder pass on the Butler 10. On later NEO drive, Nance picked off a Weder pass on the Butler 44.

Then Nardone connected with Dennis "Tex” Allen, the speedy Butler County wide receiver, for a touchdown, out of a reverse play the Grizzlies had been working on for about three weeks in practice, but had never used against an opponent. The TD tied the score at 14-14.

Just over three minutes later in the quarter, Butler County's Bryan Watson recovered a Norsemen fumble on the NEO 34, to set up a touchdown by Lobo Allen 12 plays later on an isolation power play from two yards out. That drive included a critical pass reception by Tex Allen for a first down on the NEO nine with 28 seconds left in the period.

At the start of the fourth quarter, Kowalski got his second interception of a Weder pass to set up a 39-yard field goal attempt by Butler's Charlie Green, his longest attempt of the season. The kick fell short, capping a Butler County drive from the Butler 42 to the NEO 23.

With just six minutes left to play, NEO started driving. The first-ranked offense took over from the failed field goal attempt on their own 23 and drove back upfield to the Butler 13. An unsportsmanlike conduct call against NEO placed the ball back on the Butler 25 on the 12th play of the drive. Sanders pulled in an interception, Weder's fifth of the game, but was hit hard and fumbled the ball back to NEO for the first down. Then, on the last NEO offensive play of the game, Poynter cut in front of tight end Steve Edwards and got his second interception of the day, matching his effort earlier in the season during the Cowley County game on the same Curry Field.

With 58 seconds left in the game, Northeastern Oklahoma was out of timeouts and had to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the Grizzlies ran the clock out. Weder finished with five completions out of 17 attempts and six interceptions.

"That interception was something else,” Henson said. "The secondary made the big plays in the whole second half."

Final: No. 2 Butler 21, No. 1 Northeastern Oklahoma A&M 14

Butler    0    7    14    0    —    21

NEO     14    0    0    0    —    14

Scoring summary

1st quarter

12:55, NEO - Hughes 42 yd run (Ritchey kick)

07:54, NEO - Hughes 1 yd run (Ritchey kick)

2nd quarter

14:54, BUT - Wright 5 yd pass from Nardone (Greene kick)

3rd quarter

3:35, BUT - Dennis L. Allen 41 yd pass from Nardone (Greene kick)

0:28, BUT - Dennis C. Allen 2 yd run (Greene kick).

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

RUSHING: Butler - Wright 19-72, Dennis C. Allen 20-60. NEO - Hughes 27-158, Kemp 14-55.

PASSING: Butler - Nardone 9-19-1-142. NEO - Weder 5-17-6-85.

RECEIVING: Butler - Dennis L. Allen 2-53, Hardesty 3-44, Burns 1-21, Dennis C. Allen 2-14. NEO - Kemp 2-40, Edwards 1-36, Allen 2-14.

Final NJCAA Poll

Tuesday, Dec. 8, 1981

By HARVEY PERRITT Times Sports Editor

After the Butler County football team defeated defending national champion Northeastern Oklahoma, 21-14, during the Rodeo Bowl on Nov. 22 in Arkansas City, the Grizzlies first post-season appearance in 31 years, man Butler County fans considered the Grizzlies the number one team in the nation.

With the release of the National Junior College Athletic Association's final poll for the year this afternoon, that first-place nomination becomes official. The Grizzlies are number one.

Butler county finished their action this year with a 12-0 record.

Another national honor was accrued by the team when sophomore noseguard Aaron Usher, a Wichitan, was named to the NJCAA National All-Star Team today. Usher, who had an unbroken string of games with at least one quarterback sack, extending back to the last four games of the 1980 season, is the only player on the Butler County roster to receive the honor.

JUCO TOP 15

by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Top 15 teams in the season's final National Junior College Athletic Association football poll, with first-place votes, this season's records and points:

1981 football schedule and results

Record: 12-0, 8-0 KJCCC

Head Coach: Fayne Henson (24-16-1 all-time at Butler)

1981 National Champions

1981 KJCCC & Region VI Champions

1981 Rodeo Bowl Champions