Bill Little commentary: Texas' first National Championship -- The season of 1963
(The following excerpt is from Bill Little's latest book, "Stadium Stories...Texas Longhorns" published by Globe Piquot Books. It is available at most bookstores and online order services. This is from the chapter entitled "A Safe Place.")
What 1961 and 1962 had done was create a strong winning tradition, and with an all-star cast, Royal and his staff were ready for 1963. The Horns began the season ranked No. 5, moved to No. 4 the second week, No. 3 the third week and by the fourth week of the season, they were No. 2 as they headed for Dallas and the annual meeting with Oklahoma.
Since Royal's first season of 1957, the Longhorns had not lost to the Sooners, but the national voters, the writers and the coaches, had installed No. 1 ranked Oklahoma as a favorite. Joe Don Looney, the Sooners' star running back, had even challenged the biggest name on the Texas defense, Outland Trophy winner Scott Appleton, by saying, "Appleton's tough, but he ain't met the Big Red yet." Neither, he would find, had he met Appleton.
The annual showdown in Dallas was the biggest game, but it came on a weekend of irony. The Friday night before UT and OU met, SMU knocked off the power of the East, Navy, and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, in the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
And then the next day, No. 2 met No. 1.
It was an execution of precision. With Carlisle operating the Royal Winged-T offense to perfection and the defense hammering the Sooners, Texas won, 28-7. A sportswriter from St. Louis perhaps told the story best when he wrote in his lead, "Who's No. 1? It is Texas, podner, and smile when you say that...."
Texas then began the improbable gauntlet of carrying the mantle of the nation's No. 1 team for six long weeks. It made it through tough wins over Arkansas (17-13), Rice (10-6), SMU (17-12), Baylor (7-0), TCU (17-0) and Texas A&M (15-13).
The Baylor game, matching the unbeaten Horns against a Baylor team led by Don Trull and Lawrence Elkins had been the best showdown in years in the Southwest Conference, with a Duke Carlisle interception of a late sure touchdown saving the Longhorns' victory.
Texas beat TCU, 17-0, the next week, and looked forward to an open date on November 23 before finishing the regular season at Texas A&M.
Darrell Royal was standing in his bedroom, tying his tie, getting ready for the events of the afternoon.
It was Friday, November 22.
At Austin's Municipal Auditorium, the crystal glasses and silver wear were all in place, as the seal of the President of the United States adorned the speaker's podium, waiting for a dinner that would never happen. At a campus hangout called Fritz's, students lunched and grabbed a quick beer as suddenly, somebody ran to the bar to listen to the radio. First one, and then another.
"Must be something about The President," someone said. "You know he's coming to Austin this afternoon after his speech in Dallas."
Royal, who was to meet President John F. Kennedy when his flight landed in Austin, got the word as he was dressing to go meet the plane.
"I was the person chosen to welcome him to Austin," Royal said. "He had learned how to do the 'Hook 'em Horns' sign and was planning to do it as I shook his hand. I went into our living room and just sat stunned until Walter Cronkite came on TV and said that he had died."
The shots fired in Dallas reverberated around the world, but particularly so in Austin. On a college campus, The President who would never come had been popular, even in the state of his chief Democratic opponent, his vice-president Lyndon Johnson. Now Johnson, by virtue of an assassin's bullet, was President. The Texas governor, John Connally, a former student body president at UT, had been seriously wounded.
Royal, who had become friends with both men, was faced with a dilemma. College football games that weekend were cancelled, but the Longhorns and Texas A&M were scheduled to play the most important game of Royal's career, and perhaps in Texas history, six days later on Thanksgiving Day.
For the first time, national live television became a major factor in America's life. We saw the man accused of killing The President gunned down in the basement of a courthouse before our very eyes, and watched as the dream of the new order and "Camelot" faded with a little boy's salute to his Daddy's casket.
And somehow, less than a week later, life dictated that it must, somehow, go on.
Thanksgiving Day, November 28, dawned cold and dreary in College Station. The field, which had been dampened with rains of the week, was made even worse when the grounds crew brought in dirt which quickly turned the surface into a quagmire.
And so it was that just as it appeared Texas was on the verge of that first-ever National Championship, Texas A&M jumped to a 13-3 lead in the season finale in College Station. Carlisle and reserve quarterback Tommy Wade led a comeback, which included some great fortune.
With the Aggies still leading 13-9 in the closing minutes, Texas A&M intercepted a Texas pass, but fumbled on the return when they inexplicably tried to lateral the ball. Tom Stockton, the fullback who has scored the only touchdown in the Baylor game, recovered to give Texas new life. Then as Texas zeroed in on the goal line, another Aggie tipped a Texas pass and gained control only after he had fallen out of the end zone, missing what would have been a game-saving interception. A photographer named Jim Seymour captured the cryptic picture of the defender's knee ruts, where he landed just beyond the end zone line.
Finally, Carlisle plunged over from the one, and Texas prevailed. The National Championship was accomplished. The polls crowned Texas as champions at the end of the regular season, but there were doubters in the media in the eastern part of the country. Navy, which had lost only that game to SMU in Dallas back in October, openly challenged the Longhorns' ranking.
Wayne Hardin, the coach of the Naval Academy, had lobbied for a post-bowl game decision. On the field before the game, Hardin told a national TV commentator in an interview broadcast across the nation as well as to the crowd in the stands, "When the challenger meets the champion and the challenger wins, then there is a new champion."
To which Royal answered a crisp "We're ready."
Despite owning three national championship recognitions, Texas was almost the underdog going into the game. The Longhorns were lambasted as "fraud," and "unable to pass," and generally not what it was cracked up to be.
Finally, on top of all the publicity, Royal spoke back to the critics.
"Look," he said in obvious ire, "we're not a darn bit afraid to put it on the line."
Hardin's strategy was to make Texas pass, and it did. The Midshipmen came out in an eight-man line, which left gaping holes in the secondary for Carlisle to exploit. He did, setting a Cotton Bowl total offense record and earning all but one vote as the game's outstanding back. Texas actually held a 21-0 lead at one point, and finished the game with its reserves on the field, a yard away from another score at the Navy goal line.
Texas hammered the Midshipmen, 28-6, and Staubach would say years later that the hardest he was ever hit, as a quarterback in college or during his illustrious career with the Dallas Cowboys, was in that Cotton Bowl game.
Allison Danzig, the respected writer for the New York Times, summed up the game pretty well.
"The first University of Texas football team ever to be recognized as national intercollegiate champion sealed its claim to preeminence today with an overwhelming 28-6 victory over Navy in the Cotton Bowl.
"Roger Staubach, Heisman Trophy winner and the most celebrated player of the year in leading Navy to a ranking second only to Texas, was harried unmercifully and eclipsed by Duke Carlisle as the Texas quarterback threw two tremendous touchdown passes and scored one touchdown in one of the most shining performances on record in the New Year's Day fixture."
And Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News added, " Texas brags. But they're entitled to talk big. The powerful Longhorns clearly proved their right to No. 1 rank in the nation today when they thoroughly thrashed second ranked Navy, 28-6, in the 28th Cotton Bowl."
And finally from George Minot of the Washington Post, "The winner and still collegiate football champion of the world-- Texas. Advertised as the title game between the nation's number one and number two ranked teams, the 28th Cotton Bowl Classic was turned into a shambles by a rampaging Longhorn line and a quarterback who they said couldn't pass, but did."
On the season, Ford and Appleton each earned all-American honors, and they were joined by a young sophomore named Tommy Nobis, who gained the first of his three years of national recognition honors. The heroes were legion. When their tenure on the Forty Acres was finished, the seniors of 1963 had posted an incredible three-year record of 30-2-1.
Looking back, the most remarkable thing about the season of 1963 was the closeness of the games, and yet except for the frightening moments late in the Aggie game, one never had the feeling that the team was threatened.
But in their youth, there was something about their lives that was about to change.
Just as the 1941 team will forever be linked with the events of December 7 that year, so will the fall of 1963 be remembered more for tragedy than it will for football. A year before, the missiles of October in Cuba had given them their first taste of actual fear, as the country and the world stood on the brink of war, and there were stirrings of a conflict in some faraway place called Vietnam. But when President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, we were forever changed.
Today, elevators are run by computers, and all doors have exit bars and keys. The hole in the stadium where the old door was is now full of video cables and concrete. Our world is one of caution, and security is a device in an airport, or a search at the stadium gate.
But in the chambers of the mind, on a fall evening where you can see the stars and remember, there was a team which made Texas proud and won it all, and set a standard that opened the way for more.
And in that space, in the memory of a time gone by, we are once again safe.