By Scott Goode, assistant athletic director for sports information
Everything about the 2020-21 school year was unusual, including athletics. Harding had 17 of its 18 teams in action, but all of the teams played only in the spring semester. When the dust settled, the University won its third all-sports trophy (the Great American Conference calls it the Commissioner’s Cup) of the last four awarded by the conference. It was Harding’s 10th all-sports trophy and was capped off by track and field’s Matt Hipshire winning the GAC’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award.
In addition to three in the GAC, Harding also won the 2011 Gulf South Conference men’s all-sports trophy as members of NCAA Division II. Harding also won six all-sports trophies as members of the NAIA Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. Four of those came in consecutive seasons from 1990-93, another came in 1981, and the first came back in 1976, a year that also saw a Bison win the conference’s scholar-athlete award.
Harding’s first season in the AIC was 1957-58, and the conference began awarding an all-sports trophy in 1963-64.
For the first 12 years, the AIC all-sports trophy went home with either the University of Central Arkansas or Southern Arkansas University.
Finally, in 1976, Harding snapped the streak. The Bisons finished with 76 points, topping second-place Ouachita Baptist at 71 points and third-place Southern Arkansas at 65 points.
In the 1975-76 season, the AIC sponsored nine sports: football, cross-country, basketball, swimming, bowling, baseball, track and field, tennis and golf.
The Bisons won the conference championship in four of them, taking titles in cross-country, swimming, bowling and tennis.
Harding placed four runners in the top 10 to claim the cross-country championship by 19 points over Ouachita Baptist. Marshall Grate, a native of Waterloo, Indiana, and a four-time First Team All-AIC performer had his highest career finish in the AIC meet, placing second in 25 minutes, 51 seconds. Grate earned the 1978 Berryhill Award as Harding’s top senior athlete and the 1978 AIC Cliff Shaw Scholar-Athlete Award as the top student athlete in the conference.
Kent Johnson (sixth), Mark Galeazzi (eighth) and Phil Hostetler (10th) all placed in the top 10 and helped the team win the fifth of 19 consecutive AIC cross-country championships.
“It’s always great to win an AIC title, no matter how many times you’ve won it,” head coach Ted Lloyd said in an interview with the student newspaper after winning the championship. “We had the leadership from our front runners all season and always seemed to have the depth when we needed it.”
The next title came in the pool, where Harding won the swimming and diving championship, snapping a streak of 12 straight conference titles by Hendrix. Harding had 136.5 points with Hendrix second at 87.5 points. Harding won seven of the 12 events with Norman Kahla winning the 100-yard freestyle (52.7), 200-yard freestyle (1:56.8) and the 500-yard freestyle (5:33.7).
Kahla, a freshman, came to Harding from Deer Park, Texas, where he set the school record in the 200-yard individual medley. He also was the captain of his high school’s water polo team and president of the Deer Park High School orchestra.
The 1976 triumph, under head coach Arnold Pylkas, was Harding’s only conference championship in swimming. The University canceled the swimming program in 1988.
“We had just a superb effort from our entire team. The majority of our boys outswam themselves, with most setting personal records,” Pylkas told the student paper at the time. “Norman [was] as versatile a swimmer [as] I have seen in a long time. The fact that he set a school record nearly every time he swam attests to that.”
Although it was not one of Harding’s four national championship seasons in bowling which discontinued in 1980, the Bison keglers won their 11th AIC championship over a 12-year period. The Bisons had the top six bowlers in the conference, including individual champion and Harding Hall of Famer Zearl Watson. Steve Klaske was second, and Tim Bauer third. Harding placed fourth nationally in Kansas City. Watson led the team with a seventh-place individual finish. A year earlier, Watson was the doubles national champion with Gary Beck.
“Everyone worked hard to win this championship,” Watson said at the time. “We had an extremely good effort.”
Harding closed out the season by winning the tennis championship. It was Harding’s first AIC tennis title since 1970. The Bisons next won in 1981. Harding had 29 points to second-place Ouachita’s 23 points, winning two of the six singles slots and two of the three doubles lines. Charles Ganus was the Division IV singles champion. Ross Cochran was the Division V singles champion. Kyle Asbill and Tim Oldham won Division II doubles. Ross Cochran and Charles Ganus won Division III doubles.
“Our team did not have any superstars,” Ganus remembered, “but we had a lot of depth and were able to beat people up and down the lineup.”
Harding’s football team that season placed fifth in the conference but laid the groundwork for a conference championship the following season. The basketball team placed fourth in the AIC standings with Butch Gardner leading the conference in scoring at 23.2 points per game. The Bisons were fourth at the AIC track meet with Steve Celsor setting a new conference record of 6 feet, 10 inches in the high jump. The Harding baseball team was fifth with Ordis Copeland hitting .394 to place second in the conference. The golf squad was fourth, led by Jeff Price, who placed fifth at the AIC meet.
Each year the AIC gave out the Cliff Shaw Scholar-Athlete Award. The 1976 winner was Bison Ken Neller, a four-year letterman in football. He compiled a 3.992 grade-point average on the 161 undergraduate hours he had completed and graduated with double majors in Bible and history. He ranked second in a class of 604 and made A’s in every course except for a B in golf and bowling.
President Clifton L. Ganus received the 1976 AIC All-Sports Trophy from LeRoy Nix, the AIC commissioner, at 1976 graduation ceremonies.
Forty-five years later, after a strange but successful season, we celebrate the 10th all-sports title.