Darrell Royal remembers it as if it were yesterday. In his fifth year at Texas, the dream was so very, very close.
For two weeks, following a 27-0 win over SMU, Texas had carried the mantle of No. 1 in the country. Only two teams, a TCU team that was 2-4-1 and a Texas A&M team that would finish the season at 4-5-1, stood in the way of the Longhorns' first-ever National Championship.
The juggernaut that was Texas had steam-rolled over opponent-after-opponent. Their closest game had been a three-touchdown, 28-7 victory against Oklahoma. This was in an era where starters played both offense and defense and a 28-7 win was huge. The National Championships were awarded prior to bowl games, so Texas was two victories away from unprecedented glory.
For Royal, it was certification of excellence. He had come to Texas in 1957. In 1959, his team had flirted with the school's highest national ranking since 1950, finishing fourth with a 9-2 record. Now, with an offense featuring an innovative winged T formation that sustained three outstanding separate teams, the Longhorns seemed invincible.
That is, until a 6-foot-7 quarterback named Sonny Gibbs gave TCU a 6-0 lead on a trick flea-flicker pass. Jim Saxton, the team's star running back, wouldn't remember much about the game. He was knocked out when he was kicked in the head following a long screen pass. The quarterback, Mike Cotten, would remember the opportunity that slipped away. Bob Moses would remember standing alone in the end zone, hoping that Cotten would see him on a crucial fourth down play that would have meant a touchdown. An extra point later, UT would have been safely home with a victory. Jerry Cook would remember the TCU receiver who drifted behind him on the trick play for a 50-yard score.
Only one time in the game, other than that pass, did TCU cross the Texas 40-yard line, but when the gun sounded on that chilly, cloudy day in Memorial Stadium, the eyes of Texas told the sad, sad story.
"Beat A&M and win the Cotton Bowl and they'll forget this game," someone said trying to console Royal.
"I don't believe I ever will," Royal replied.
And he hasn't.
It had happened before to Texas. Noble Doss, the legendary Longhorns halfback whose famous catch beat Texas A&M in 1940, thinks a little every day about a pass he dropped when he was in the open in a 7-7 tie with Baylor that knocked Texas out of No. 1 in 1941.
Blair Cherry quit as the Texas coach because of the fan and media criticism after a 14-13 loss to Oklahoma gave his Texas team that finished second in the country its only regular season loss and denied the Longhorns a chance at the National Championship in 1950.
However, this time, it was so very, very close.
Fortunately for Texas, that is not the end of the story.
"What I remember about the TCU game," Royal says today,"is that two years later, we came back and won the whole thing. But we had to get in the area to have that chance."
That is the message that should come from Dallas on Dec. 1. Every player on the Longhorns team has an "if" that could have made the difference, just as those Texas players 40, 50 and 60 years ago.
In 1962, Texas got to No. 1 again, but a 14-14 tie with Rice - A Rice team that finished 2-6-2, - that knocked the Longhorns out of yet another No. 1 ranking and eventually out of the National Championship.
But in 1963, just when it seemed perhaps the most unlikely, it all came together. The Longhorns were No. 2 when they defeated Oklahoma 28-7 to become No. 1. They held that ranking through six gruelingly close games, climaxing with a 15-13 miracle comeback over Texas A&M in the last game of the year. UT was crowned National Champion and finished the season by pounding No. 2 Navy in the Cotton Bowl.
Royal never forgot that strange afternoon in November 1961, just as Randy McEachern will never forget the last game of the 1977 season - the Cotton Bowl loss to Notre Dame. That time, Texas was No. 1, sitting on an 11-0 record and it needed only to dispose of Notre Dame to win it all. However, even with Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, Texas fell to Notre Dame, 38-10.
They still tell stories in Austin about Craig Curry, the Longhorns defensive back whose dropped punt put Georgia in position for a victory in the 1984 Cotton Bowl. That loss spoiled a perfect 1983 season. The Longhorns had been No. 2 and Nebraska No. 1 all season. Folks had talked about getting special permission for the two powerhouses to meet after their expected bowl victories.
However, Georgia capitalized on the dropped punt for a touchdown and claimed a 10-9 victory. That night, with the National Championship in its grasp, Nebraska failed on a two-point conversion attempt that gave Miami a victory in the Orange Bowl. Immediately after the game, the media criticized Tom Osborne for not kicking an extra point and securing a tie that would have preserved the National title. Miami won the game by a point and claimed its first national title and folks assailed Osborne for not being able to win the big game.
The message in all of this is that when two teams play, somebody loses. They feel the same heartache in Knoxville, Tenn., Gainesville, Fla., and Norman, Okla. For awhile, it was felt in Lincoln again, until fate dealt the Cornhuskers another hand.
Royal will tell you that the National Championship of 1963 was won in the heartache of 1961 and again in 1962. Players and coaches who came so very close understood better than anyone what it would take to get it done. Most of all, it led the way to a program that dominated the decade of the 60s. From 1961-64, UT lost only three football games.
He would see it again five years later, when perhaps his best team - the 1968 inaugural edition of the wishbone - tied the first game and lost the next. Then, it won and won again and again. Thirty consecutive times and two national titles.
That's the attitude Texas and its fans need as they approach the Holiday Bowl. The Longhorns have won the Big 12 South Division two of the four years Mack Brown has been at Texas. At 10-2 and ranked ninth in the country, the 'Horns have a chance to finish in the top 10 for the first time since 1983. This is the reason Royal tells his story of heartache which turned to joy, of failure which turned to success. It is a message I heard a long, long time ago at my brother's high school graduation. The speaker quoted a little poem that I remember to this day:
"Isn't it strange that princes and kings,
And those who caper in circus rings,
And common folk like you and me
Are builders of eternity?
Each is given a book of rules,
A pair of hands as a set of tools,
And each must built,
Ere his time is flown,
A stumbling block
Or a stepping stone."
With that said, Happy Holidays.