Bill Little commentary: Pieces of history
Sept. 24, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
"If we could learn from history," wrote famed English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "what lessons it could teach us!"
In that case, let me help you with something: Don't take this UCLA game lightly.
History tells us that the Longhorns and the Bruins have met only four times in the history of college football at the two institutions. The irony is, each of those four games has had an important impact on the course of Texas football--two of them positive in their own way, and the other two significantly negative.
It all began forty years ago, when the Longhorns were the most powerful team in all of college football. Darrell Royal was in the process of solidifying his place as the "Coach of the Decade" of the 1960s. By the third game of the 1970 season, his teams had won two national championships, and arguably had the best team in the country in four other years. In the ten seasons between 1961 and 1970, Texas would win national titles in 1963, 1969 and 1970, and finish in the nation's top five seven times, the others coming in 1961, 1962, 1964 and 1968.
When the veteran coach Tommy Prothro brought his UCLA Bruins into Austin on October 3, 1970, Texas had thrashed California, 56-15, and had easily disposed of Texas Tech, 35-13. The Horns' winning streak, while running its new-concept "Wishbone" offense, had extended to 22 games. Included in the victims were two Cotton Bowl Classic opponents--No. 8 ranked Tennessee (36-13 after the 1968 season) and No. 9 ranked Notre Dame (21-17 after the national championship season of 1969).
What was then known as Texas Memorial Stadium was undergoing its first major renovation in years, with the construction of the upper deck on the west side. The work, which was begun after the 1969 season, was less than half finished. A temporary press box had been built on the east side, and the lights had been removed. The game actually kicked off at 4 p.m., trying to avoid the early October heat and still have enough daylight to make it work.
It all started a year or two after Texas Tech officially became a member of the Southwest Conference. The first meeting of the two as league brothers came in 1962, and the direction of the series that was to follow started taking strange turns just then.
UCLA was 3-0 and ranked No. 13 in the country, but the powerful Longhorns, which hadn't lost a home game in three years, were a prohibitive 22-point favorite. No one, it seemed, could stop the innovative Wishbone with its triple option attack. No one, that is, until Tommy Prothro showed up with a team of very talented football players.
The tenor of the game didn't take long to be established. On the second play of the game,Texas quarterback Eddie Phillips took the snap, faked to the fullback just as he would normally have the option to do, and rolled to his left. When the UCLA defensive end committed to him, Phillips confidently pitched a blind pitch to his trailing halfback, Billy Dale. And he hit a UCLA linebacker in the back of the helmet. For the first time, Prothro had come up with a way to stop the offense. His new defensive maneuver consisted of firing a linebacker or cornerback at the pitch man to disrupt the outside option. It worked, and Texas was in trouble. So in trouble, in fact, that with 20 seconds left in the game, the Longhorns were at the UCLA 45-yard line, trailing, 17-13. It seemed only a miracle could save them, but somehow, the Longhorns found a way. Under a heavy rush, Phillips threw a pass deep over the middle. One UCLA defender took a swipe at the pass as it sailed over his head and into the arms of UT's Cotton Speyrer. As Speyrer landed on his right foot at the 25 yard line, he spun completely around so that his first step with his left foot was to the south goal. Another UCLA defender had been poised for the tackle if Speyrer had stepped straight (as would have been normal), but instead he tackled air. Speyrer ran the rest of the way for the 45-yard score. Only 12 seconds remained in the game, but Texas had preserved the win streak, 20-13. The Longhorns would go on to their second straight national championship, and run the streak to a then NCAA record 30-consecutive victories before it would end.
The second significant happening wasn't so positive, though few realized it at the time. The next season, Texas headed to Los Angeles to meet the Bruins in the re-match. At the time, UCLA played its home games in the famed Los Angeles Coliseum, and when the Longhorns rolled in there for the season opener of 1971, they hadn't lost a regular season game since the second game of the 1968 season.
Phillips by this time was becoming recognized as perhaps the most athletic, if not the best, operator of the Wishbone offense. Taking over after James Street had won 20 straight games from 1968-69, the senior quarterback was the perfect `Bone quarterback -- he was big, strong, fast, smart, and could throw. And that is the way he played that day in the Coliseum in 1971. Tommy Prothro had moved on to coach the Los Angeles Rams, and the popular Pepper Rodgers had come from Kansas to replace him.
"He's the best at running that style of offense I've ever seen," Rodgers would say of Phillips. But fate was about to play a cruel trick on Texas -- a turn of events that would affect the course of the rest of Darrell Royal's career as head coach. On a young Texas team that played 23 sophomores that day -- newcomers because freshmen were not eligible -- the hopes of extending the dominance of college football rested on the shoulders of his veteran quarterback.
Phillips gained 142 yards on 20 carries, but as he headed in for the third touchdown of the game in a 28-10 victory, he pulled a hamstring muscle that had been bothering him. He would miss the next game, and was limited when the Longhorns faced Oklahoma two weeks later. The Sooners, with a 48-27 victory, ended a Texas string that had seen the Longhorns win 12 of 13 games in the Red River Rivalry. The next week, with both Phillips and his replacement, Donnie Wigginton, out with injury, Arkansas beat Texas 31-7.
So in its own way, the 1971 victory over the Bruins turned out to be a loss for the future of Texas Football. Despite claiming conference championships that year and again in 1972, 1973 and 1975, the Longhorns were no longer a regular player in the national championship picture.
Twenty-six years later, the Bruins would have arguably their most profound impact on Texas Football. UCLA had lost to both Washington State and Tennessee when they came to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in 1997. The fateful irony of the day had begun with the ABC television network's telecast of the game.
In an effort to link the campuses to the show, a young ABC producer had come up with the idea of videotaping students and others singing the network's buzz song, "America's Biggest Road Show...College Football on ABC." The star of the UT opening was a student named Emilie Williams, a former Longhorn cheerleader who worked in the sports information office. John Mackovic, the Longhorns' head football coach, was fresh off his greatest victory -- the fourth-and-inches triumph over Nebraska in the first ever Big 12 Championship in 1996. He was trying hard to interact with the student body, so when Emilie asked him to join the kids for the singing of the opening, he agreed.
So there, in the middle of a bunch of happy UT students, was Mackovic singing the line, "College football on ABC...." That prompted announcer Brad Nessler to open the telecast with the fateful words, "You can tell John Mackovic's feeling comfortable when you can get him to sing before a big college football game...." It was, of course, the last time Mackovic would feel comfortable. The 66-3 loss cast the dye that ended his tenure at the close of the season.
At the same time, however, Mack Brown was on the sidelines as his North Carolina Tar Heels were beating Stanford. His assistant, Cleve Bryant (who had coached at Texas for several years early in Mackovic's time at UT), came up to Mack after the score was announced on the PA.
"Bad night to be in Austin, Texas," he said. No one, not even Brown himself, could envision the events that would follow. Mack, who never considered leaving North Carolina, would be on his way to Austin less than three months later--as the new coach of the Texas Longhorns.
The last meeting between the two teams was, in its own way, a corollary to that. In Brown's first year at Texas, the Longhorns played the Bruins again on the West Coast, this time in the Bruins' new home - the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Early in that game, the Longhorns' starting quarterback, Richard Walton, had injured a finger on his throwing hand. His replacement was a young redshirt freshman named Major Applewhite. Brown flinched at halftime when his team trailed, 35-3. Visions of disaster were not far removed from the 66-3 debacle of a year before. This one, however, would be different. Although the Longhorns lost the game that day, the statement that was made was a harbinger of things to come in the next 13 years at Texas.
The Longhorns fought back to a respectable 49-31 defeat, and the 15,000 or so Texas fans in southern California gave the team a standing ovation for their gallant effort.
No one could have envisioned that the Longhorns would play three more times in that historic venue over the next 12 seasons--winning two Rose Bowls, a national championship, and playing for another.
So folks, the series on paper is even. And what's more, what seemed like a victory sometimes has been a defeat, and a loss has turned into a victory. Most of all, the message is this: UCLA is a significant opponent that commands attention and respect. History tells us that, and so do the facts surrounding this fifth meeting between the two schools.