The old joke used to go, "We're with you coach, win, lose or tie." Obviously, that was before the current rules of overtime football, but then so is this story.
It was 1968 and Darrell Royal's Longhorns had struggled through three straight seasons of 6-4, 7-4 and 6-4 records. In the winter and spring following the 1967 season, Royal was determined to make some serious changes in his operation.
Most significant was a redesigning of his offense. The old Winged-T, which employed a back used primarily as a pass receiver and blocker lined up near the line of scrimmage, had been very good to Texas in the 1960s. In the four years from 1961-64, Texas lost only three football games and tied one. So potent was the attack that a total of 10 points kept the Longhorns from an astounding four national titles in a row.
But the mid-60s were not nearly so kind, and to make matters worse, the entire Southwest Conference was threatened by the rise of the Houston Cougars, a program that led the nation in total offense as an independent in 1967.
So, even though solidarity was not a common trait of teams in the old SWC, when Texas played Houston to open the 1968 season, the league was pretty much united against the Cougars. It was clearly — as far as they were concerned — a case of the good guys against the bad guys.
That was the backdrop heading into 1968. Texas had dutifully avoided the upstarts from the Bayou City when it came to scheduling. The teams had played only once (a Texas victory) back in 1953.
The preseason had been rocky for Royal. He instituted a mandatory offseason program and made the workouts tougher. Threatened both by harder work and an infusion of a talented sophomore class, several players left the team. Meanwhile, offensive backfield coach Emory Bellard was working on a new offense.
Thus it was that Houston and Texas opened the 1968 season on a warm, muggy night in Austin. Throughout the fall practice, Royal had kept his new offense behind the closed fences of the practice field across Waller Creek from the stadium. So he was shocked the night before the game when the Houston radio announcer asked him about his new offense where "the fullback lines up a yard behind the quarterbacks and in front of the other backs." In the years that would follow, Royal deduced that a Houston loyalist had probably sneaked into a vacant dorm room overlooking the practice field, but for whatever reason, the secret was out.
The battle was joined at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 — exactly 34 years ago tonight. The Cougars, led by outstanding running back Paul Gipson, drew first blood on the game's second possession, driving 59 yards in 11 plays for a 7-0 lead.
Texas answered on the next series. Three plays after the kickoff, the Horns star runner — All-American Chris Gilbert — broke through the left side of the line and raced 57 yards for a touchdown. Gipson eventually carried 28 times for 173 yards and three touchdowns, while Gilbert handled the ball 21 times for 159 yards and two scores.
The first quarter ended with a seven-all tie, and like a couple of prizefighters, the two teams slugged it out in the second quarter without scoring again.
Midway through the third quarter, Texas went on a 75-yard drive with Gilbert handling much of the running and took a 14-7 lead with 8:05 left in the quarter. Six seconds later, Gipson answered with a 66-yard touchdown run and the extra point tied the game at 14.
Then, things got strange.
On the next series, the Cougars intercepted a lateral from UT quarterback Bill Bradley and drove 20 yards in five plays for a go-ahead score. The Houston point-after attempt missed wide left and it was 20-14 in favor of the Cougars as the third quarter ended.
In the final stanza, Texas' All-American tackle Loyd Wainscott caused a fumble at the Houston 20-yard line that Bill Atessis recovered. Texas had just 20 yards to drive for an apparent lead. Six plays later, Texas reached paydirt, but the extra-point attempt sailed wide left. With most of the fourth quarter left, it was 20-all.
Houston, mixing in an effective end around from legendary receiver Elmo Wright (the uncle of current Longhorns freshman DT Rodrique Wright), drove to the UT 3-yard line. On fourth down, the Cougars set up for a go-ahead 19-yard field goal, which (by now you have figured this out) sailed wide right.
By the next drive, Bill Yeoman had figured it out, too. The Cougars drove down to the UT 2. On fourth down with 3:40 left, Gipson tried to run up the middle but was stopped by the Texas defense.
Thus, the game ended in a tie, but there were a lot of residual victories that night.
It produced one of the more exciting games of the decade, matching two teams that would go on to successful seasons. The packed house that included more than 30,000 student tickets between the two schools, was the catalyst for stadium expansion at Memorial Stadium. Royal's new offense would be named that night in a post game gathering with the media. Recognizing the alignment, which resembled the letter "Y", they dubbed it the "Wishbone." The Horns would lose their next game, but they took off on a memorable 30-game winning streak two weeks later.
Most important, however, was that Texas did not lose.
In a prizefight, when the two boxers fight to a draw, the champion retains his title, and when it came to football in the state of Texas, the Longhorns were the reigning champions and the Cougars were the challenger.