In times of turmoil and uncertainty, there is an opening for someone to cut through the chaos and establish a certain sustainable stability. For Texas Longhorns fans, James Street would be that person and would endear himself as the epitome of a gritty, tough competitor in both football and baseball.
His passing on Monday touches our shared legacy of what it means to be a Longhorn, and for me, a lot of that is a legacy he helped to build.
1968 was a rough year, with the assassinations of RFK and MLK and the war in Vietnam looming over everything in our collective future. The University of Texas was still collecting its innocence after Charles Whitman's murderous escapade from the Tower on August 1, 1966. Two years later people would still be casting furtive glances up at the tower when crossing the South Mall. As someone who was supposed to be there at noon that fateful day and by luck was not, I certainly thought about that ever so often.
Football slipped into the doldrums in the fall of 1965 and for three years it seemed like the whole damn world was going to hell one way or another, especially so in the summer of 1968. Head Coach Darrell K Royal felt as much heat at Texas as he had since he began in 1957. He'd finally lost to the dreaded Aggies in the final game of '67 and everyone was disgusted after seasons of 6-4, 7-4 and 6-4.
No good news was coming out of the football program during the summer and while national publications were somewhat upbeat with the promise of good recruiting classes the prior two years, students and fans weren't optimistic. You couldn't berate the Aggies, and Super Bill Bradley had lost a little of his luster. We were gun shy, for good reason.
Little did we know that DKR was more concerned about getting all his running backs on the field than our projections of the coming disaster. Royal had gone to the I formation in '66, then toyed with the idea of the tight slot version of the Wing T.
However, what he wanted was to get Ted Koy, Chris Gilbert and newcomer Steve Worster on the field at the same time with the same attacking strength in both directions at the same time. And he wanted a split end -- not two like the University of Houston used -- and a tight backfield. So, he threw the problem to offensive planner Emory Bellard, and he and the coaches began a process of elimination which resulted in the conclusion that the triple option was the best means to accomplish those goals...and that a single split end would actually help.
The coaches actually walked through this with some enlisted volunteers and thought it would work. Then they began designing a whole offense around the concept and how to implement it come the start of practice in the fall. There was none of this in the spring practice...this sprouted to full bloom in the fall. That is amazing in and of itself. And it was one of the best kept secrets since D-Day. The attack -- which the staff just called the veer -- didn't even have a name until after the first game when Mickey Herskowitz jumped at the chance to name it the Wishbone.
The serious question for the coaches was whether Bill Bradley could operate the option well enough -- it had not been a key skill in the prior seasons. Street was the solid selection to back him up, but he had only played 20 minutes total in '67 and had missed spring practice due to baseball. In addition to the offensive changes, the Longhorns had switched their base defense from the split six they had played for so long to the 4-4. So the coaches and the Tinker in Chief were rearranging the lines and changing people from one side of the ball to another through the first several games. They found an unproven tight in in Charles "Cotton" Speyer, all 168 pounds of him.
Turnovers plagued the Wishbone in its first outing versus Houston in what was a 20-20 tie. I attended that game and it was exciting and relatively well played. Street did play some in the second half and on his first two options he made the wrong decisions. Then he completed a 12-yard pass to Speyer. Later he threw an INT. He was learning as he went just like everyone else.
The second game at Texas Tech was a first half disaster with two long punt returns and numerous mistake by the Horn offense put them behind 21-0 at the half. Midway in the third quarter, Royal inserted Street. On his second possession, Street hit Speyer for 28 yards, then Worster broke off a 50-yarder and the Horns made a run to get back in it, closing to 28-22 but ultimately lost, 31-22. The wolves howled all week long after that. Royal made the decision to start Street in the next game against Oklahoma State, but did not announce it publicly, wanting to keep the pressure off Bradley, who moved to wide receiver.
Street hit a 60-yarder to Speyer. to give UT an early 10-0 lead and the Horns built it to a 31-3 triumph. The fans took the change in stride and were just happy to get a victory. The Horns were 1-1-1 and the jury was still out on the Wishbone with Oklahoma coming up the next week. Royal made one small change before the OU game, moving Worster back about two feet to facilitate better blocking development and smoother QB-FB connection on the first option. Little things sometimes help a lot.
With 2:37 left in the fourth quarter in Dallas, Texas was pinned back at its own 15 with OU leading 20-19. Many OU fans were streaming out of the Cotton Bowl, thinking they had won, suckers that they were. They missed the drive and those wonderful moments when both James Street and the Wishbone fully asserted itself for the first time in a critical situation. Now over my agonizing hangover, I joined my brethren in pumping up our collective blood pressure. Street threw three straight completions to tight end Daryl Comer for 18, 21 and 13 yards. A fourth bounced off a OU defender's hands -- you always gotta have a little luck in Dallas. Street found Bradley for 10 more and the Horns were down to the OU 21 with 55 seconds remaining.
James "Happy" Feller had nailed three field goals that day, from 29, 40 and a school record 53. So safe running plays to Worster were sent in but nobody told him to play it safe. He plowed through a giant hole for 14, then another for the final seven yards for the touchdown for a resounding 26-20 victory. That drive and that game validated the Wishbone and the man who birthed and operated it so well, James Street.
He would win 18 more consecutive games, from the Cotton Bowl triumphs over Tennessee and Notre Dame and the Great Shootout up in the hills of Arkansas. He had the knack of hitting the key passes when they counted the most. He was a pleasure to behold every single moment he played and there's really not much more you can say about a football player.
Street was just as assertive on the baseball diamond. I attended many of his games, especially the double headers where Burt Hooten would pitch the first seven inning game (yep, seven in those days) and Street would start the nine inning game. If you know baseball, you understand that it is a pitch-by-pitch drama and this keyed to what Street did best...to compete and find a way to get the out. With a 29-8 record, 21 complete games, a career 1.86 ERA and 302 strike outs and three consecutive College World Series appearances, he was a complete ball player. Street tossed a no-hitter against SMU in '69, and a perfect game versus Tech in '70. He earned second team All-American honors twice and All-SWC three times.
Those games when he pitched at old
Disch-Falk Clark Field are some of my fondest memories.That he was a good man with a quick smile and was humble in the face of his accomplishments made the time and the chaos of his era more bearable and showed the finer side of being human.