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Echoes from the Past

I came to Texas with high football expectations.

Sky high expectations. I didn't know much about urban living nor what the university was really all about. Through all the cultural shock, the one expectation was that I was going to see some great football up close and personal. Realistic? I thought so.

After the great teams of '61 (10-1) and '62 (9-1-1) had put Texas in the mix for the national championship, the Horns had used a vicious defense to power their way to their first national championship in 1963. That defense forced three shut outs (Tulane, Baylor and TCU), five games with single digit scoring, including Navy in the Cotton Bowl, and only Arkansas and aTm scored the high of 13 points. Grand total for the season for points allowed: 71.  Great D centered around Tommy Nobis.

In 1964, a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to #8 Arkansas at Memorial Stadium knocked the Horns out of #1 but they would not lose another game, defeating Bear Bryant, Joe Willie Namath and 'Bama for a rousing start to 1965.

DRK and the Horns went 40-3-1 coming into '65, so I wasn't alone in my expectations. With Nobis coming back for his senior year and great recruiting classes coming off the national championship, it seems preordained that greatness would follow.

Greatness would never happen over the next three years. There were tumultuous times in the nation apart from football, but for the football faithful there was first disappointment, then shock and bitterness, and then cynicism.

1965 started off with three rainy games. It actually rained - more like Houston drizzle most of the time -for 21 days in a row, a record for Austin. I saw more umbrellas than I'd ever seen in my life, more than I would ever see again. But the Horns won, beating Tulane, Tech and Indiana to rise to #1 in the nation. Then we whipped OU 19-0 and the future looked so bright. Time to kick some ass.

Disaster in the HIlls

The Horns went to  #3 Arkansas for a nationally televised game. In the single luckiest game I've ever seen (only via TV), the Hogs grabbed a mid-air fumble to go 60+ for a TD and would also grab a muffed punt for another cheapie. The Horns fought back valiantly, but lost 27-24. Never, ever trust the Hogs. Ever.

That was such a black moment - you could see it in everyone's eyes on campus. That single game was where the great decline started and would carry through '66 and '67 seasons. The next week the Horns lost to Rice, 20-17, then got whacked by SMU, 31-14, and finally two weeks later fell to TCU, 25-10. They would rebound to beat the Aggies but would go no where. What started so great had turned into disaster.

1966 would get no better, losing to USC in the opener, 10-6 and then OU (18-9), Arkansas, 12-7, and SMU, 13-12. The close wins all went the other way, but the Horns won three straight to end the season and went to the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston and defeated Mississippi, 19-0, in one of the most well-played games I had seen all season.

The national press perked up a little and, in a fit of optimism, ranked Texas # 5 going into 1967, their first national ranking since mid-*65. However, in the opener the Horns lost to #7 SC in LA, 17-13, then fell to Tech the next week, 19-13, to fall out of the rankings altogether. Two weeks, bada boom, bada bing. Back to the pack.

The team did fight back, winning six in a row, including a 9-7 win over OU. But the season ended with two horrible losses. The first was to TCU, 24-17, in the absolutely worst game I've ever seen in Austin; no spirit, no competitiveness, no luck, absolutely predictable on offense. Texas' two TDs came on long runs by Chris Gilbert, the second for 96 yards which is still the record from scrimmage. The small crowd of about 45k didn't even notice until he was 30-40 yards from the goal line (he was on the Texas sideline, so he was shielded somewhat). But that was it, two plays which accounted for most of the yardage. No offense aside from the big plays, a problem that was apparent the last several years, with an increasingly vulnerable defense.

On Thanksgiving Day, Texas lost to A&M, 10-7. The loss was the first ever to the aggies for Royal, just like the loss to OU in '66 was his first since his debut season in 1957. A line had been crossed. The past had faded. The future seemed bleak.

It was perplexing. Texas had some great recruiting classes, including the '65 class with Bill Bradley and Chris Gilbert. And the recruiting hauls would continue in '66 and '67, but the Horns were getting no production from all those 'great players' and, in fact, were becoming more mediocre each season.

What the hell was going on? Royal was being challenged in ways he had never been before. The wolves were howling. The confidence of alumni and regular fans fell to new lows that hadn't been seen since Royal came on board. The '63 championship was still a point of pride but suddenly ancient history. Sound familiar?

A New Beginning

The Horns had averaged only 18.6 points per game in '67 and it smelled like slow death to the now cynical fans. At the end of the season, Royal asked his OC, Emory Bellard to design an offense to take advantage of all the talented running backs the Horns had accumulated. DKR had always been defensively oriented and really never had a bad D. But offense became worse and worse. So they'd gone after more offensive players but the wing-T offense had become stale, not just at Texas but across the nation.

Bellard had heard about an offense near Ft. Worth when he was at Breckenridge, the Monnig T, created by junior high coach Spud Cason to move the fullback up closer to the line to get him into the play quicker. And Bellard had been an assistant coach to Ox Emerson down at Alice, where Emerson had moved a guard into the fullback position to get a running start at the line to created better blocks.

Bellard came up with his refinement, using parts of Bill Yeoman's and Homer's Rice's veer offense, a take off on the earlier belly series my HS team had even run in the early 60s. The Horns had watched A&M run an option offense when it had beat Alabama in the Cotton Bowl that year.

Change was in the air. And if you can't beat 'em...  Bellard's creation, the formation and the blocking, gave the Horns a half-a-person to a whole-person advantage at the point of attack and forced teams to defend the whole field all the time. It put tremendous pressure on the D, not so different from the modern spread offenses.

The wishbone didn't start well in 1968, even though the rumors of the new offense had pushed Texas to a #4 ranking.  Houston, ranked #11 with RB Paul Gibson really putting on a show, wound up tying Texas, 20-20. Then the Horns turned fumble fingered at Tech, losing the ball every way possible and lost 31-22.  QB Bill Bradley was moved to receiver  and then to safety, and a youngster named James Street took over for good. Texas whipped Oklahoma State 31-3 and then faced OU, with both teams unranked.

This was the pivotal game in wishbone history. Texas trailed 20-19, and got the ball back in the shadow of their own goal with just over 2 minutes left. Many of the OU fans had  left the Cotton Bowl, but all us Texas fans were there and just screaming our butts off.

Strangely enough, the drive started with three straight jump passes to Pete Lammons, which gained about 25 yards. I don't ever remember any Texas coach ever using such a sequence again. But that third jump pass just was so unexpected it totally shook up OU. Texas had no problem working down the field, getting more aggressive as they went. And once in the red zone, Steve Worster ran through holes that, from my vantage point in the northwest corner down low, were just enormous. Texas scored and won, 26-20.

The rest, as they say, is history. All those great recruiting classes turned to gold on both sides of the ball. The Horns found the winning touch, found their luck and would storm to a couple of NCs and the longest winning streak in the school's history. That didn't diminish how long those three mediocre years seemed to me, just like the last two have been an agony for you younger Horns. But it made the wait seem worth it all.

Back to the Present

Change does not come easily. Time is a spiral in terms of humans. While it may seem to repeat, it never does so in the same manner. What happened exactly 40 years ago this season won't be repeated in the same manner. There are so many situational similarities, though, that I felt this would be of some value.

The chances of the current Horns finding a new variant on offense is slim; that bone has been thoroughly chewed, and I would expect only minor changes.

The Horns score plenty of points and with better execution will continue to do so. It's the defense which has slipped.

What can be created are new defensive variants, because right now the spread is gaining dominance in college football and is ripe for some defensive catch-up. The pros can stop the spread, and they do it with speed, with pressure on the QB and man-to-man at the corners. So, this is about personnel and scheme, with timing and attack.

The Horns aren't the only one searching for answers, but they are in the upper echelon of teams with the athletes and the speed to find the answer. It may not be easy but the opportunity is there this season. Of course, '68 led to '69 and '70. And remember, patience is always a virtue.