"The class of '57," says the old Statler Brothers song, "Had its dreams…."
And 45 years later, as Darrell Royal's first recruiting class at Texas gathers in reunion, that tune is a perfect theme song.
What we know about teams, and about classes within teams, is that they are a collection of lives that come together for a common purpose in a special window of time. Mack Brown says the life of a team is 365 days, from the end of the past season to the end of the current one.
And as the clock begins to run down on the years that have followed, roots and reunions suddenly have unique meaning. That's why Dan Petty, one of the 40 or so who were part of that class that entered The University as freshmen in 1957, decided to put together a get-together.
"I think we all felt that we were part of starting something fresh," says Bob Gurwitz, who today is an executive in the retail clothing business. "It was a new beginning for The University."
Gurwitz, like the other members of that freshman class, had watched as Texas football dropped to the depths in 1956. Ed Price, a wonderful gentleman who had both played and coached here, had stepped aside as head coach after a 1-9 season. In his place, The University hired a dynamic young coach named Darrell Royal. At 32 years old, he was one of the youngest head coaches in America.
It was a time of crew cuts, a culture of innocence whose greatest challenge was fending off the "evils" of some new music called rock and roll, whose chief advocate was a swivel-hipped, long-haired singer named Elvis Presley. There were no wars to fight and football was the biggest game on campus. Except, at Texas, the Longhorns were struggling to recover from a downturn.
Oklahoma was in the final year of a record winning streak, and TCU and Texas A&M were Southwest Conference powerhouses. Rice, Baylor and SMU had also had their excellent moments in the decade of the 1950s.
And so it was that D. X. Bible, a legendary college coach who served as UT's athletics director, called the young former Oklahoma football player Royal and asked him to come from Washington to be the Texas coach.
"A person who takes over a 1-9 program does not inherit a warm bed," said Royal, in one the first "Royalisms" for which he would become famous over the next 20 or so years.
So to heat things up, Royal and his staff went about the business of recruiting. Freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity in those days, so this class actually did not play when Royal and his staff surprised everyone with a 6-3-1 regular season and a trip to the Sugar Bowl following the 1957 season.
But they were on board in 1958, when Royal ended the Oklahoma winning streak over the 'Horns. It was prior to that game, which Texas won in dramatic fashion, 15-14, that Royal said what could well be the lasting theme of the men who were boys that fall of 1957.
"Texas has to develop a football tradition," he said. "It had one once, but lost it. When we get one, maybe we can stop that bloodletting up at Dallas and turn it into a good show."
Beginning with the 1958 game, Royal's teams won 12 of the next 13 games against the Sooners. That was one of several significant milestones involving the freshmen of 1957.
As student athletes, they were the first group to have the advantage of academic support to go with on the field coaching. When Royal hired former high school administrator Lan Hewlett as his "brain coach," he created the first academic advisor for athletics in the country.
On the field, their credentials included the big win over Oklahoma in 1958, a Southwest Conference championship in 1959 (the first since 1953), the first Cotton Bowl appearance since 1952 (1959) and a Bluebonnet Bowl game tie with Alabama (1960).
"What I remember most of all about the group was their work ethic, and the fact that they really wanted to achieve something. They were tough kids who thrived on discipline and were a fun bunch to start out with," said T Jones, one of the coaches on the staff.
Jones was one of two (along with Bob Schulze) coaches retained by Royal when he arrived at Texas.
"He brought in a great staff," said Jones, who not only coached at Texas, but later had a distinguished career in athletic administration, finishing several years ago as Athletics Director at Texas Tech. Of the seven staff members, four (Jim Pittman, Charlie Shira, Jack Swarthout and Ray Willsey) went on to become head coaches. Mike Campbell remained with Royal as his chief assistant until Royal quit in 1976, and Schulze retired at Texas after a long career in coaching. Pittman, Shira, Campbell and Schulze are all deceased, but Jones, Swarthout and Willsey are expected to return for the weekend festivities.
"Looking back," said Jones, "the most important thing about the players was probably the stability they brought. We needed that. Coming off of a 1-9 season, we needed somebody to help right the ship. We had a lot of strong upperclassmen who provided leadership in 1957, but they needed somebody to hand the ball to when they left."
The class of 1957 produced a solid corps of leadership, as well as steady players. As sophomores in 1958, they were part of a team which flirted with a national ranking for the first time, climbing all the way to No. 4 in the country before back-to-back losses to Rice and SMU dropped them from the top 20. They ended the season with a 7-3 record.
It would be the season of 1959, however, that would establish Texas as a presence on the national scene again. Royal's Longhorns finished the season at 9-2, and ranked No. 4 in the nation. As tri-champions of the SWC, they represented the league well in a hard-fought loss in the Cotton Bowl to No. 1 Syracuse.
Injuries hammered the team in 1960, but the 'Horns closed out the year with four straight wins and a 3-3 tie in the Bluebonnet Bowl against Bear Bryant's No. 9-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.
With a handful of the original class still around in 1961, Texas embarked on one of the greatest decades in the history of college football. The Longhorns lost only three games, from 1961-1964. From 1961-1970, Texas finished ranked in the nation's top five a total of seven times, including National Championships in 1963, 1969 and 1970. In a very real sense, the way for that run was paved, in part, by the class of '57.
Four members of the '57 class — Don Talbert, Ed Padgett, Deene Gott and David Kristynik — played important roles as fifth-year seniors on the 1961 team. Talbert, who missed the 1958 season with a broken leg, earned all-conference and All-American honors in 1961.
"It wasn't that we had a lot of guys who were recognized as stars," said Jones. "They were just guys who wanted to make something of themselves, and they wanted to be a part of something special here. We all did. It wasn't just the players; the coaches felt the same way. We believed in Darrell and what he was trying to do."
For both Jones and Gurwitz, the most impressive thing about the group was not the success it had on the field, but the success that most of the players have gone on to achieve in life.
"We didn't really remain close," said Gurwitz, "and I wish that we had. A lot of things happened to us after we left school. But when you look at the group and realize the things guys have done with their lives, then I'd say we got what we came for at Texas."
For the Legends of the Fall of 1957, life would change considerably when they got out of school in the early 1960s. The peace they felt as freshmen had turned to an ugly encounter in Vietnam. They say that Art McCallum, a member of the class, died when his jet hit below the flight deck on an aircraft carrier. Drew Morris delayed his civilian career as a doctor to serve as a Marine officer. Each man, each story, an account of a life; wives, grand-kids, successes and challenges.
Forty-five years later, 22 members of the freshman class, along with Royal and three of the assistant coaches, will stand on a field in a stadium where they once played. The game program, which cost 25 cents in 1957, sells for $5. The MackBrown-TexasFootball.com web site, where their story will be told, gets 25 million hits a month, from 2.5 million unique visitors.
The campus has few reminders of what it looked like those years, and some of the strong, ready bodies are now, at least for the most part, pudgier and a lot of the crew cuts have given way to bald spots.
What we learn from them no longer has to do with a touchdown or a tackle, it has to do with family, friends and faith. And that, after all, is what they arrived here with a long time ago, and it is the legacy that they leave us in the fourth quarter of their dream.