Competition between football teams representing Saline County’s two largest cities, Benton and Bryant, gave birth to the Salt Bowl in the fall of 2000. Played between the Benton High School Panthers and the Bryant High School Hornets, the game attracts fans and alumni representing all of Saline County. The average number attending annually exceeds 20,000; according to the Saline Courier, 34,086 attended in 2015. The Salt Bowl is played at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
In 1973, Fort Smith Southside ended its contract with Benton and would no longer play against its team. Meanwhile, Bryant was looking for a new rival, having just become a 3-A school. It was decided that Benton and Bryant would face-off the following year. No real rivalry existed between the two schools before 1974. In fact, Bryant placed seventh out of ten on a list of Benton’s rivals at the time.
The “rivalry” between the Benton Panthers and the Bryant Hornets began on Thursday, September 19, 1974, the day before their first game, when a group of students, allegedly from Bryant, painted Benton High School’s wooden panther statue pink. In retaliation for this, someone dropped a huge load of bright pink marshmallows from a helicopter onto Bryant’s football stadium. In addition, Benton High School’s band adopted the theme from the popular Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie series as its official fight song and since then has played it after every touchdown against Bryant. When the two teams finally met at Benton’s C. W. Lewis Stadium, the Panthers dominated the game, finishing with a score of 28–0. On September 23, 1974, the Benton Courier hailed these events as the “start of a hot rivalry.”
Benton dominated their rivals again in 1977 with a 42–0 shutout victory followed by Benton’s second state championship later that year. Bryant’s first shutout victory happened on a rainy Friday night in 1978 when the Bryant High Hornets defeated the Panthers at Bryant Stadium with a score of 3–0. In 1979, Benton retaliated with a 21–0 win. As the rivalry began to heat up, the idea of doing a bowl game was suggested by Benton coach Dwight Fite, who led the Panthers during the 1980s, but Bryant coaches declined the offer. The annual Benton-Bryant face-off was left as a kind of end-of-the-year finale until the games started to attract so many people that neither Benton’s nor Bryant’s stadium could hold them.
In response to the need for a bigger stadium, in 2000, the first official Salt Bowl was played at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium; this bowl game starts each season for Benton and Bryant. The name was chosen in honor of Saline County’s nineteenth-century salt works. A former Bryant Hornets player, businessman T. J. Sivewright, provided financial sponsorship for the game and paid for the trophy. Bryant dominated the first Salt Bowl with a 44–17 victory over Benton, and Bryant continued to dominate nearly every Salt Bowl game. However, in Salt Bowl VI, Benton won against Bryant 14–7.
In 2008, Bryant became a 7-A school, while Benton remained in the 6-A division, but the rivalry continues. Occasional acts of vandalism have occurred since the beginning of the Salt Bowl, as happened in August 2016 when Benton High School’s new $30,000 Panther statue was vandalized a week before the Salt Bowl game. On August 25, 2018, a fight broke out during the Salt Bowl, and some spectators mistook the sound of a knocked-over barricade as gunfire, leading to a panic that emptied War Memorial Stadium and brought a halt to the game, which had drawn a record 38,215 people. In 2020, the Salt Bowl made national news for being the first sizeable sporting event to open with a live spectators in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; it was also the first year the game was made available on pay-per-view.
For additional information:
Couch, Martin. “Hornets vs. Panthers: The History.” Bryant Daily, September 1, 2010. Online at http://www.bryantdaily.com/hornets-vs-panthers-the-history/ (accessed July 15, 2021).
Perez, Juan Jr. “Friday Night Lights: The South Braces for Fall Football Crowds.” Politico, August 25, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/25/arkansas-high-school-football-coronavirus-401857 (accessed July 15, 2021).
Starkey, Sammy. “Bryant Outclassed, Outmanned, Outgunned.” Benton Courier, September 23, 1974, p. 6.
Cody Lynn Berry
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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