Sept. 11, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The high plains of southern Wyoming--nestled between the Snowy Range and the Laramie Range of the Rocky Mountains has a unique tie to Texas football history, and as the Longhorns head there Saturday to play the University of Wyoming, former Texas and Wyoming head coach Fred Akers will step on Jonah Field at War Memorial Stadium one more time.
Thirty-three years ago, Akers left there in search of a dream.
Fred Akers tenure as head coach at Texas--10 seasons--equals that of D. X. Bible. In terms of longevity, it is third behind Darrell Royal (20 years) and Mack Brown (11 years). His teams were ranked No. 1 in the country at some point during three different seasons and he coached players who earned first team all-American honors 21 times. They posted two unbeaten regular seasons and won two Southwest Conference crowns.
In his window of time as the Longhorns head football coach from 1977 through 1986, time after time the magic of the ultimate goal of the gold ring seemed to somehow just slip away.
Akers retired from coaching years ago and has been involved in motivational speaking. He and his wife, Diane, now live at Horseshoe Bay, but Saturday, he re-joins the Longhorn football family as a guest when UT travels to Laramie, Wyo., where a pivotal piece of the montage of his life occurred.
This is his story.
In the annals of Texas football, only six men have come close to coaching the Longhorns as a head coach or an assistant for 20 years. The legendary Clyde Littlefield leads the crowd with 25 years, followed by David McWilliams with 21, Darrell Royal, Mike Campbell and Bully Gilstrap with 20 and Fred Akers with 19.
Akers had been a dashing young assistant coach, rising from the ranks of Texas high schools to join Darrell Royal's staff in time for one of the most storied eras of Longhorn football history. His odyssey would take him to a head coaching job in Wyoming, and two years later, to the ultimate job of his dreams.
He was Freddie Akers then--this young man whom Darrell Royal had chosen from the ranks of Texas high school coaches to join his staff in 1966. For nine years, he had coached positions on both sides of the football as the Longhorns went on a 30-game winning streak, won six conference championships and two national titles.
He was one of those bright young guys in college coaching--an assistant who had been courted by some Southwest Conference schools--and as the 1974 season ended, he took the leap to the head job at Wyoming. The Cowboys struggled to a 2-9 season his first year, but the next season, Akers and his staff turned things around. The team went 8-4, won the WAC Title, and earned a surprising berth in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
His destiny was far from finished, however. Oh, he was a cowboy at heart--he and his wife had actually owned a ranch that doubled as a summer camp for kids east of Austin. He had the boots and the jeans, but he also could switch easily into a three-piece suit. His youth (he was 39), his time at Texas, his quick success in Laramie and that new look captured the attention of the powers that be at The University of Texas. When Darrell Royal decided to retire as head football coach following that 1976 season, Fred Akers was the surprise choice to follow the legend--picked over Royal's long-time assistant and personal favorite Mike Campbell.
With an energetic young staff and a stable full of really good football players, Akers' first season was almost like a dream come true. Earl Campbell won the Heisman Trophy, Brad Shearer was the Outland Trophy winner, and Texas finished the regular season as Southwest Conference champions, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country.
It was the first of three times (1977, 1981, 1984) Texas under Akers would achieve a No. 1 national ranking during the regular season. Three other times (1979, 1980 and 1983) they made it as high as No. 2. Akers' 1981 team earned its highest finish--No. 2 in the nation--after beating Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
Despite a few critical losses, which denied Texas and Akers their ultimate goal, by the middle of 1984, he had the highest winning percentage in Texas history. His teams had won 80 percent of their games. Then in the midst of a time of turmoil in the Southwest Conference where NCAA violations took down several programs, Texas began to disappear from the national college football landscape. Akers saw it slip away as his teams went 14-14 over their last 28 games, and his time as the Longhorns head coach ended after his injury plagued 1986 team finished 5-6.
It is always tough to follow a legend, and Fred Akers sought and accepted that challenge. His 10-year record of 86-31-2 produced the third most wins by a Texas coach--behind Royal and Mack Brown. He brought the Longhorns two conference championships, two unbeaten regular seasons, a Heisman Trophy winner and took them to nine bowl games.
His teams were respected for tough, solid football. He took the great talent Royal had left and added to it with exceptional recruiting classes in the early 1980s. His 1983 team sent a school-record 18 players into the NFL draft.
When the 2009 trip to Laramie was scheduled, Akers contacted Mack Brown
about the possibility of riding along as the Longhorns headed to the high country. When Wyoming officials got word that Akers was making the trip, they arranged for him to be on the field for the coin flip. He is, after all, the only man to ever serve as head coach at both schools, and in his time he brought league championships to both.
So Saturday, Akers will be back in Wyoming, where his head coaching career was launched. He's a guest of Texas, whose Longhorns will be putting their No. 2 national ranking on the line in a 2:30 p. m. (CDT) game against the Cowboys.