April 15, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
ARLINGTON, Texas –- It is a little over 20 miles, and Mapquest says it will take you about 30 minutes. But the distance from the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium to the Cotton Bowl Stadium at Fair Park is really a lifetime away for Phil Harris.
Wednesday, Harris, along with the late UT publicist and Cotton Bowl Association Executive Director Wilbur Evans, joined three players and former Texas A&M and Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill as the newest inductees into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame.
Evans’ history was indelibly linked to The University of Texas, not only for his pivotal role in helping coax Notre Dame to end its moratorium on bowl appearances in 1969, but for his time as student and later as UT Sports Information Director during the decade of the 1950s.
But it was the presence of Harris that triggered the most nostalgia for those of the Burnt Orange, because of what he did, and the time in which he did it.
To understand the moment, you need to understand the time, and the space in which we all lived. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to take you back to the beginning, and that started with a dream.
It was battleship gray, the door to the old press box elevator in the west side of what was then known as Memorial Stadium, and fewer than five of us had keys to the solid padlock that guarded the door.
The elevator was hand-operated, and it stopped at the ground floor and at two of the three levels of the long concrete structure that sat atop the single level stadium. The only entrance, other than the elevator, was a single door at the north end, which exited into the top row of the stands, which were filled with wooden seats.
Except on game days, the door was barred from the inside.
On game days, the stadium buzzed with excitement. But if you had a key on a moonlit night and you wanted a place to show a date the stars of the night and the lights of the city, you could ride that elevator up and no one on earth, not even Darrell Royal, could make it come down.
In other words, it seemed, in the autumn of 1963, the safest place on earth.
That press box, and the Tower, were the tallest buildings on campus. There was no Jester Center, no LBJ Library. The “Moonlight Tower,” which stood on the northeast corner of the stadium cast a glow over the quirky baseball field across the street to the north, and over the wooden roof of the tennis courts which were located on the northwest corner of the stadium.
And on the field below, with a black cinder track surrounding it, a dream came true in that fall, that fateful fall of 1963, when all of our lives would change, and nothing would ever seem safe again.
Ever since The Associated Press started naming National Champions in college football in the 1930s, The University had seemed to be riding on a great merry-go-round, and each time they reached for the gold ring, it somehow eluded them.
The 1941 team was featured on the cover of Life Magazine as the best team in college football, but a late season tie and a loss knocked them from contention. In 1961, the Longhorns had carried the No. 1 ranking until the next-to-last game, only to have TCU pull a stunning 6-0 upset. The 1962 team fell from the top because of 14-14 tie with lowly Rice.
But what 1961 and 1962 had done was create a strong winning tradition, and with an all-star cast, Royal and his staff were ready for 1963. The ‘Horns began the season ranked No. 5, moved to No. 4 the second week, No. 3 the third week and by the fourth week of the season, they were No. 2 as they headed for Dallas and the annual meeting with No. 1-ranked Oklahoma. When Texas won, 28-7, the Longhorns earned a No. 1 ranking they would never relinquish. For six long weeks, Texas kept winning.
In that time, since Notre Dame did not allow its team to participate in postseason bowl games, the two major polls—The Associated Press and the UPI (Coaches’ Trophy)—were awarded after the regular season. Texas had clinched that with a Thanksgiving Day win at Texas A&M.
The world—particularly our world in Texas and in America—had changed dramatically less than a week before Thanksgiving, when President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
As the country mourned and the shock centered in Texas, the Longhorns began preparing for their Cotton Bowl game meeting with the U.S. Naval Academy, which had finished ranked No. 2 in both of the national polls. Mired in grief of their own, Royal and his players were not aware of a backlash that would be directed toward them because of the President’s death in Dallas.
For some, the state of Texas would be disdained, and the Longhorn football team would catch the brunt of that emotion.
The Navy’s junior quarterback, Roger Staubach, would recall years later some scolding he personally received for not leading his team to victory that New Year’s Day in Dallas. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves here.
As the game neared, the media on the East Coast began lobbying for a recount in the national voting, since the only thing standing between Navy and an unbeaten season was a one point loss to SMU, ironically in the Cotton Bowl Stadium during the regular season.
Eastern writers besmirched the Texas offense, as one that was slow and not very creative. After all, it was Royal who had said, “Three things could happen when you pass, and two of ‘em are bad.”
That, however, was about to change, and Phil Harris would be a huge part of that.
A product of San Antonio Jefferson High School, Harris had joined his teammate Tommy Nobis as Longhorns, and both were sophomores in the season of 1963. While Nobis was beginning a career that would make him the most famous linebacker in school history, as well as playing offensive guard, Harris settled in as the “wingback” in Royal’s Winged T formation. Despite being a sprinter in high school and an all-state running back, it didn’t take Royal’s staff long to realize his greatest value to the team was as a blocker who ran an occasional option pitch—a play on which he scored six touchdowns during the regular season.
He had touched the ball only 25 times that year, but as the Cotton Bowl game approached, the Texas coaches felt they could exploit the Navy defense with, horror of horrors, the dreaded forward pass.
And that is exactly what they would do.
Wayne Hardin, coach of the Naval Academy, had lobbied for a post-bowl game decision. On the field before the game, Hardin told a national TV commentator in an interview broadcast across the nation as well as to the crowd in the stands, “When the challenger meets the champion and the challenger wins, then there is a new champion.”
To which Royal answered a crisp “We’re ready.”
“Ready” meant Harris would be the pivotal figure, with touchdown pass receptions from quarterback Duke Carlisle of 63 and 58 yards. Texas went on to a 28-6 win over Navy, in a game Staubach would later recall as viewing from his back after the UT defense relentlessly harassed him.
The heroes were legion as the Longhorns won that first National Championship. When their tenure on the Forty Acres was finished, the seniors of 1963 had posted an incredible three-year record of 30-2-1. Harris’ career would be star-crossed. He would battle injuries, but deliver key blocks as Texas beat Alabama in the 1965 Orange Bowl en route to a 10-1 season in 1964.
A pulled muscle hampered his senior season of 1965, but he still wound up high in team rushing with 84 carries for 367 yards before he left tailback duties to try to help bolster a defense struggling with injuries. He signed a contract with the New York Giants after being drafted in the seventh round of the 1966 NFL Draft, but the injuries that had troubled him at Texas ended that brief career.
He still lives in San Antonio, and is active in the Longhorns’ T Association gatherings. Just as the Cotton Bowl game has moved, the stadium in Austin now shares the name of his coach, Darrell Royal, and is a monument to college football on campus in the 21st Century.
Today, elevators are run by computers, and all doors have exit bars and keys. The hole in the stadium where the old door was is now full of video cables and concrete. Our world is one of caution, and security is a device in an airport, or a search at the stadium gate. Fear dominates where tranquility used to live.
As we celebrate Phil, it is fitting, also, that our old friend Wilbur Evans is being honored in a class that includes Harris, Sheffill, Warren Lyles of Alabama, and Notre Damers Kris Haines and Joe Montana.
“Wilbo” as he was known throughout the industry, loved his alma mater with a passion, wrote numerous books about it and helped form the Longhorn Hall of Honor. He was the consummate Sports Information Director, and he carried the tools he learned as a sportswriter and SID into critical roles in the Cotton Bowl’s storied history. With his great friend, the late Field Scovell, Wilbur helped woo Notre Dame out of self-imposed bowl exile to play the Longhorns of 1969, in what certainly was one of the legendary games in the history of the Classic.
Two years ago, when the Cowboys were finishing their new palace in Arlington, the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association, long removed from its ties to the defunct Southwest Conference, elected to move its New Year’s Day game there, in spite of significant improvements made to the old stadium on the fairgrounds of the State of Texas.
So where Hall of Fame classes used to walk down the great steps leading down from the main entrance to the stadium right into their induction ceremonies, a new setting in a new venue was in place Wednesday.
It is 20 miles, and on a good day, you can drive it in 30 minutes from one to the other. But for Phil Harris, and those who remember, it is a simple walk down the corridors of the mind, where photographs and old movie film survive, and life is young again.