Bill Little commentary: The passing of the torch
To understand the meaning, you had to understand the times.
The year was 1977, and for the first time in 20 years, there was new leadership for the Texas Longhorns. As that team observes its 30th anniversary on Friday and Saturday, it is important to look back at where they came from, and celebrate what they did.
Darrell Royal, whose teams had won three national championships, 11 Southwest Conference championships and had recorded seven top five national finishes in the decade of the 1960s, had officially "set his bucket down" and retired following the 1976 season.
Royal was the winningest coach in the history of the Southwest Conference, but in a power play of powerful people, the Texas administration had rejected Royal's choice of assistant Mike Campbell to replace him. They instead turned to a young Fred Akers, who was head coach at Wyoming and two years removed from serving as an assistant on the Texas staff.
A series of unfathomable injuries had devastated Royal's final team in 1976. More than 18 starters missed games with injuries as the Longhorns finished 5-5-1. Earl Campbell missed four games with injury. Johnnie Johnson, who this year will be inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame, missed almost the entire season with a severe charley horse.
The Longhorns, which had been the scourge of college football at the turn of the decade when they were in the midst of a 30-game winning streak, had surrendered the battlefield in their annual Red River rivalry game to their rival from north, Oklahoma.
So into the fray rode Akers, with an enthusiastic staff and new energy. At Texas, he found a world of talent, now healthy and ready to roll.
At the forefront of this was Campbell, who had been the most highly recruited football player of the time. After a successful freshman year and an even better sophomore campaign, Campbell had struggled with a hamstring injury through most of 1976. As the Longhorns fought through it all to a break-even record, Campbell, as the fullback in the Wishbone offense, had rushed for 653 yards, with 339 of them coming in a 208 showing against North Texas in the second game of the year and 131 in the last game against Arkansas.
But as great as Earl would be in 1977, he found a lot of company. Of the players in the cupboard when the 'Horns opened the season, more than a dozen would make all-Conference during the next years, and at least 18 would go on to play in the NFL. Six would become all-Americans, and three would win national player of the year awards at their position.
Akers, who had played at Arkansas and coached high school football in Texas before joining Royal's staff in the mid-1960s, assembled an exceptional staff. He kept David McWilliams and Ken Dabbs from the Royal staff, and brought two coaches with strong Texas ties in former offensive line assistant and Royal classmate at Oklahoma Leon Manley and former Longhorn defensive back and quarterback Alan Lowry.
Bob Warmack, who had played at Oklahoma, became his quarterback coach, and when original staff member Jimmy Ray left for an extended career in the NFL, he hired a top recruiter in receivers coach Charlie Lee. Leon Fuller, who had deep roots in Texas and was a product of Bear Bryant's Alabama, was in charge of the defense, and a tough Marine named Mike Parker headed up the defensive line.
While Earl and the Texas offense would get most of the accolades, along with kicker-punter Russell Erxleben, the defense would produce many of the stars who would go on to play on Sundays. Five members of the secondary-Johnnie Johnson, Derrick Hatchett, Glenn Blackwood, Vance Bedford and Ricky Churchman, would start at times in the NFL, as would linebackers Robin Sendlein and Bruce Scholtz and tackles Brad Shearer and Steve McMichael.
The offense, while featuring Campbell as the "I" back, was piloted by a heady youngster named Mark McBath, and he was backed by a talented passer named Jon Aune. As the Longhorns crushed Boston College, 44-0, steamrolled Virginia 68-0, and devoured Rice, 72-15 in their first three games, McBath was the team's second leading rusher behind Campbell, and Aune was the leading passer, with a narrow edge over McBath.
In a twist of irony, the team's greatest - and most devastating - moments would both occur in the Cotton Bowl stadium on the state fairgrounds in Dallas.
To begin with, the annual Texas-Oklahoma game had turned from a heated rivalry into a bitter one by the time the two unbeaten teams arrived in Dallas. The Longhorns under Royal had dominated the series from 1958 through 1970, winning 12 of the 13 games. But Oklahoma had won five straight from 1971 through 1975, and in a 6-6 tie in 1976, the game had turned from bitter to down right nasty.
Now, in his first meeting as a Longhorn head coach against his former Arkansas teammate Barry Switzer, Akers' team was ranked fifth in the nation, three spots behind the No. 2 Sooners.
As the Longhorn staff prepared its travel squad, the magnitude of the match-up seemed to dictate that this would be a game where the starters would play most of the time. At the quarterback position, it would be McBath and then Aune, and Texas felt comfortable with either - so much so that the staff actually debated in their final meeting whether to take a third quarterback on the travel squad. It was a worthwhile conversation.
On a cloudy, mild day in Dallas, Oklahoma led, 3-0 with 9:21 remaining in the first quarter when McBath ran a keeper to the left, and suffered a season-ending ankle injury. But Texas fans, who always love the second-team quarterback, felt comfortable in the hands of Aune. That is, until he went down with a season-ending knee injury with 2:45 remaining in the same period.
In the coaching debate about the travel squad, they had decided that they would carry a third quarterback, just as a precautionary measure. Now, a little-known junior named Randy McEachern was standing beside Akers, ready to move into the biggest arena of his college football life. Campbell and the other offensive players welcomed him warmly when he got to the huddle. Late in the second quarter, he directed an 80-yard drive capped off by a 24-yard run by Campbell for the only touchdown of the game in a 13-6 victory.
A week later, Texas, now ranked No. 2 in the country, won again in a hostile environment, knocking off No. 8 Arkansas, 13-9. Two weeks later, Texas was voted No. 1, and the Longhorns held that ranking through the regular season. The team had won close games, and blowouts like their 57-28 thrashing of Texas A&M at College Station.
Campbell rose on the charts in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, and when pre-season favorite Gifford Nielson of BYU went down with a year-ending injury, the way was open, and Earl ran right through everybody to become the Longhorns' first Heisman winner.
The dream season ended, however, with tragedy and disappointment. As Akers and his Longhorns prepared for the game in Dallas, his brother and two nephews were killed in a car wreck in Arkansas. The Longhorn coach left the team just a few days before the game to attend their funeral.
Injuries to key players, including linebacker Lance Taylor and speedy wide receiver Johnny "Lam" Jones hurt Texas' chances, and the No. 5 ranked Fighting Irish - led by a young quarterback named Joe Montana - pulled off a 38-10 upset.
What had seemed a team of destiny had come just short of its final goal, but history records the ultimate success of the players and what they have meant to Texas. The Akers era in its early years restored some of the luster, which the injury-plagued 1976 season had seen dull. Texas took over the series in Dallas, and dominated its rival in College Station.
In the years that have passed, team members have become doctors, judges, lawyers, business executives and All-Pro players. They have underscored the meaning of the term "student-athlete."
While Texas could have disappeared from the national football landscape in the years following a legend, the Longhorns of 1977 saw to it that it didn't happen. And they left a legacy of honor far beyond the arena.