Bill Little commentary: Changing destiny
As "The Showdown in the Shoe" -- the first game of a home and home series between Texas and Ohio State -- approaches Saturday in Columbus, by now most folks know it is the first meeting between the two collegiate powerhouses.
But this is the story of the most important game the two never played.
When you mention the season of 1969 to Texas fans, the memories gush. It was the era of the Wishbone, the middle of a 30-game winning streak, the tragedy of Freddie Steinmark, the Game of the Century, and Texas' Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame.
But the fact is, the most important game leading to the Longhorns' National Championship was one in which they didn't play.
The No. 4 ranked Longhorns opened the 1969 season on the road at California, in a memorable setting where the fog in the canyon beyond the stadium somehow blended with the family of "Flower Children" sitting on their front porch, which the team busses passed on the way to the game.
It was, after all, the '60s in the Bay area.
Two weeks later, after a 49-7 thrashing of Texas Tech, the Longhorns moved to No. 2 in the country. For almost two months, that is where they stayed.
It had been six years since Texas had claimed the first National Championship in school history, but the quest to repeat that accomplishment seemed distant. The No. 1 team in the country, and that was absolutely unchallenged, were the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Prior to the season, Beano Cook, an enterprising executive with ABC-TV, had sought a game to conclude the season, which marked the 100th year of college football. Cook had gotten Darrell Royal at Texas and Frank Broyles at Arkansas to agree to move their game from its traditional mid-October date.
But as September gave way to October and rolled into November, it was the Buckeyes of Ohio State who were clearly the favorite to repeat as National Champions. With five first team all-Americans-guard Jim Stillwagon, quarterback Rex Kern, fullback Jim Otis, and cornerbacks Ted Provost and Jack Tatum-half of the Buckeye team, an incredible number of 11 players, earned first team all-Big Ten honors as well.
Texas was rolling, too. The Wishbone offense, which Darrell Royal had unveiled in 1968, had allowed the Longhorns to dominate opponents after the second game of that season. Including a lopsided win over Tennessee in the 1969 Cotton Bowl, Texas had strung together 16 straight victories after its win on November 15.
That day, the Longhorns had fueled debate in the Southwest when they pounded TCU, 69-7. The Horned Frogs had been the victim in Ohio State's opening game, a 62-0 whitewash in Columbus. But Ohio State had answered the challenge of November 15 by dismantling No. 10 ranked Purdue, 42-14.
The powerful Buckeyes had averaged defeating opponents by almost 40 points per game, scoring 46.4 points and allowing only 7.7 through eight games, with only a November 22 game with arch rival Michigan remaining.
The Longhorns were on a roll of their own. They had averaged 43.8 points per game and had surrendered an average of 9.5. Debate raged in the Texas circles, and all-American teams struggled to choose a fullback between Otis of Ohio State and Steve Worster of Texas.
Texas had two games remaining. The traditional battle with Texas A&M was set in College Station on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, and the Arkansas game was set for December 6 in Fayetteville.
Kern was in the midst of one of the most successful quarterback strings in Ohio State history. In his three years from 1968 through 1970, the Buckeyes would go 27-2, with two Big Ten titles earning two trips to the Rose Bowl.
Texas was in its second season with James Street as its signal caller, and the Longview native was in the process of becoming a Longhorn folk hero in a career that would finish with a 20-0 record as a starter.
On Monday, November 17, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas had announced it had convinced Notre Dame to be the opponent opposite the host team SWC champion in its game on January 1. The National Championship would be awarded by then, since at that time it was given after the regular season.
It would be an historic moment, since the Irish had chosen not to participate in a bowl game since the 1925 season.
But the hope to be in the National Championship race was dwindling. Each week, as the Buckeyes stretched their winning streak to 22 games and Texas won as well, the two clubs continued to lead the country as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. Arkansas and Penn State, long before it joined the Big Ten, were unbeaten as well. But at that time, neither of those teams had anywhere close to the "sex appeal" of Ohio State and Texas.
Freddie Steinmark, the UT safety who was nursing a hip pointer, was excited about playing Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. At the time, no one could have known that the hip injury was, in fact, a cancerous tumor, which would cause the removal of his leg after the Arkansas game, and eventually cost him his life.
Saturday, November 22, dawned a chilly day in Austin. Darrell Royal, with an open date, had traveled to Waco to watch the Baylor-SMU game.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, a young man named Bo Schembechler was preparing to coach his first game against the Buckeyes as Michigan's head football coach. The Wolverines were ranked No. 12, but were given little chance against a team that legendary Buckeye coach Woody Hayes had called "the best team we ever put together, probably the best team that ever played college football."
The game was not televised in Austin, but as Longhorn players watched the "game of the week," they began keeping up with the score as it was passed along by announcers.
Royal got reports in the press box in Waco, and soon began losing interest in the outcome of the Bears and the Ponies.
Worster was driving his car when the score came on the radio. Michigan had won, 24-12 "I almost had a wreck," he later would say. At the players' dorm wing in the new Jester Center, folks ran up and down the halls, yelling.
"It is," said team tri-captain Glen Halsell, "the chance of a life time."
The Latin expression, Carpe' Diem, means "Seize the day," and Texas did.
The Longhorns moved to No. 1 in the polls, and beat Texas A&M, 49-12 on Thanksgiving. Then came the storybook finishes against Arkansas and Notre Dame.
History, at least in Texas, remembers 1969 as perhaps the greatest season in Longhorn football history.
Late in the afternoon of November 15, TCU coach Fred Taylor, whose team had played both Texas and Ohio State, mused, "I'd like to see Texas and Ohio State play in a bowl game. It'd be a tossup."
It might have been.
What we know is, it is the best game that was never played.