Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Whatever happened to OU-Nebraska?

My last post recalled the Big Eight glory days of the OU-Nebraska rivalry. On November 7th 2009 the Sooners and Huskers played out a depressing 10-3 Nebraska win which featured a single touchdown, scored on a drive of one yard. The game will not enter the cannon of great and memorable meetings in this storied series. Both the 2009 Huskers and Sooners have had their problems at the quarterback position while fielding first rate defenses. It wasn’t surprising that the game proved a less-than appetizing spectacle of mutual offensive inertia. Naturally every great rivalry series will occasionally provide an underwhelming spectacle. That in itself is not a problem. The sad fact about this game is that Oklahoma will not play in Lincoln again until 2013. Since the inception of the Big XII the OU-Nebraska series has only been played two of every four years. Season ticket holders in Lincoln and Norman only enjoy the opportunity of seeing their erstwhile rival as often as they can vote for who resides in the White House. That, in my opinion, is a travesty.

So what ever happened to the OU-Nebraska game?

During the 1984 off-season the U.S. Supreme Court heard and ruled upon a
land mark case launched two years earlier to challenge the NCAA’s centrally negotiated television rights monopoly. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma vs. the NCAA proved to be college football’s Brown vs. Topeka. This decision combined with the growing number of channels available to American television sets via cable to pave the way for the near-saturation point levels of exposure enjoyed by the game today. Most importantly, the decision gave individual schools and conference the rights to control and distribute the revenue their games generated. This revolution turned the historical rationale for conference alignments on their heads. Geographical cohesion, natural rivalries, travel costs, institutional bonds and any number of factors that had created and sustained conferences through the mid-1980s were increasingly marginalized as the golden calf of TV revenue grew larger and demanded ever greater sacrifices.

In 1991 the SEC expanded to 12 teams in order to take advantage of a previously over looked NCAA by-law stating that a conference of twelve teams might form into two divisions and create a football championship game. Conference commissioner Roy Kramer saw an opportunity for a high profile game with unparalleled revenue generating capability. He was exactly correct. The SEC set a decade of conference musical chairs in motion after the 1991 season by extent ending invitations to independent South Carolina and long-time Southwest Conference member Arkansas. An ongoing dispute over the school’s radio broadcast and revenue rights made Arkansas administrators only too eager to bolt. This realignment immediately produced two unintended consequences. Firstly, it showed other schools and conferences the immense financial and publicity value of the two-division, championship game format. Secondly, it rendered the SWC an irrelevant, parochial conference geographically rooted in the local identity and tangled political life of a single state.

From the late 1960s onwards a cycle of cheating involving recruitment violation and payment of players infected the entire SWC. Struggling conference rivals attempted to keep from slipping too far behind the increasingly powerful Longhorns and Aggies. Eventually these unscrupulous practices unraveled the entire league. After the NCAA handed SMU’s football program a one-year suspension for the 1987 season boosters at various schools began a sordid retaliatory process of mutual muckraking that reduced the league to an utterly discredited public family feud. Once Arkansas departed UT chancellor William Cunningham began to explore the possibility of following suit. Despite initial flirtations with the academically alluring Pac 10 and Big 10 the most logical choice was the Big Eight. Conversations began primarily with the athletics director of longtime non-conference rival Oklahoma Donnie Duncan. With the model of the SEC’s lucrative expansion as a guide an agreement emerged by February of 1994 to marry the Big Eight with the four largest and most politically influential Texas universities. ABC’s initial contract with the new Big 12 was worth a base $90 million over five years with an extra $10 million incentive to add a championship game. The league obviously possessed the super-regional appeal that the SWC had long since lost.

Conference realignment, the conference championship format, and an increasing volume of nationally televised games through a growing entourage of cable network partners ushered in a new era for college football. Naturally, and perhaps fittingly, many aspects of the game’s former landscape changed. Conference commissioners and school administrators had to balance the weight of history and tradition with the generally more weighty imperatives of garnering the public interest and athletics revenue necessary to sustain competitive advantages. For the Big XII, the two division format added a championship game and created a juggernaut conference of national consequence. But it also involved a geographical divorce for the old Big Eight. Moving OU and Nebraska to different divisions meant potentially losing an annual series that had provided some of college football’s most memorable games and largest television audience. In the SEC several schools refused to allow realignment to disrupt the history of their most important annual fixtures. In order to maintain the Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee rivalries the league created four other annual inter-divisional series. This balance the mathematics of an eight game regular season and maintained the fixtures that created the most local and national interest in the league.

Why did the Big XII decide not to pursue a similar option in order to maintain the OU-Nebraska series? I recently discussed this question with Daily Oklahoman columnist Barry Tramel, an outspoken advocate of restoring the OU-Nebraska series to an annual fixture. According to Tramel the old Big Eight rivalry posed two major problems for the new conference alignment. Firstly, the game had traditionally been scheduled for late November since it almost invariably constituted a de facto conference championship play-off. In that slot the fixture garnered enormous national interest and large TV ratings. The new two-division format generated the distinct possibility Nebraska and OU would meet one another in the conference title game not infrequently. In that case a regular season fixture in November would lose the winner-takes-all relevance that had long made it a national staple.

Secondly, in the mid-1990s little appetite for maintaining the series existed in Norman. The possibility was raised of playing the game as a non-conference fixture on the two years of every four that the schools did not meet in conference play. Nebraska lacks a natural geographic rival and over the long history of Cornhusker football only Oklahoma has provided an annual game against an equally weighted powerhouse. Naturally folks in Lincoln wanted to maintain the annual meeting. But times were hard for OU, which had not won a conference title since 1987. NCAA sanctions and negative publicity resulting from recruiting violations and several high-profile player arrests led to Barry Switzer’s tumultuous and bitter departure in 1988. From 1989 to 1994 Gary Gibbs posted an unimpressive 44-23-2 record with only a single win over each of Nebraska and Texas. 1995 brought the disastrous single season tenure of the fossilized Howard Schnellenberger. John Blake failed to right the ship from 1996 to 1998 with an inglorious 12-22 record. While the 1990s were nothing but unkind to OU Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers won seven conference and two national championships. Offered an opportunity to drop the Huskers from the schedule two of every four years, Donnie Duncan jumped at the chance. The Big XII replaced OU on Nebraska’s annual November slate with Colorado, the only other team from the old Big Eight that might even attempt to claim anything like national prominence. Suffice to say that this annual rivalry game has thus far failed to match the glory years of the OU-Nebraska series.

Despite his columns appealing to the weight of tradition and the spirit of competition, Tramel does not see any momentum for the idea of restoring the series. Short of adopting Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s highly unpopular and wildly unrealistic suggestion of an eleven-game, round-robin conference schedule [which would obviously mean eliminating the lucrative championship game for which the conference was initially created], there is no chance that OU and Nebraska will play annually anytime soon.

Board of Regents vs. NCAA and the explosion of television coverage for college football that followed have, largely speaking, been good for the game. They have certainly been good to fans, who can now see almost every game of any significance nationally televised somewhere on their dial. But no transition between historical eras is ever without cost. The Big XII omelet involved the breaking of several proverbial eggs. The messy divorce of the old SWC has made life very difficult for several of the former member schools not fortunate enough to be taken along to the new Promised Land.

By comparison to the continued struggles of the football program at once-proud SMU perhaps the downscaling of the OU-Nebraska series is a relatively minor consequence. But anyone who remembers the days when the Big Eight's two great colossus programs perennially crashed into one another at the business end of the AP poll is likely to disagree.

(Sources: SI scorecard, 03/07/94; Dunnavant, 50 year seduction;; Boyles and Guido, USA Today CFB encyclopedia; oral interview with Barry Tramel; Sally Jenkins, SI, Sorry state)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Clash of the Big Eight titans

Between 1928 and 1940 Nebraska football won nine outright Big Eight championships, six of those coming during Dana X Bible’s eight year tenure as head coach. They did not win another until 1963. In the intervening years Bud Wilkinson turned conference rival Oklahoma into a national juggernaut, going his first eleven years as head coach without losing a single Big Eight game. Up to the time of Wilkinson’s arrival in Norman as assistant to Jim Tatum in 1946 Nebraska held a huge series lead over the Sooners, 16-6-3. The Cornhuskers did not beat OU again until 1959. By the time Bob Devaney became head coach in Lincoln the center of gravity in the series had emphatically shifted with the Sooners winning fifteen of the preceding seventeen. But from that point on, until the Big Eight’s merger with four teams from the old Southwest Conference in 1996, both OU and Nebraska were never far from the business end of college football’s rankings. Their annual clash of titans almost invariably decided the Big Eight champion and often counted for much more. After Oklahoma joined the Big Eight in 1919 the winner of the OU-Nebraska game claimed the conference title a staggering fifty-five times in seventy-six seasons. From 1950 the winner of the game went on to earn a national championship on twelve occasions. No two conference rivals in the college football’s modern era have collectively achieved so much national success.

Dana Bible’s great Nebraska teams largely relied on good coaching of home-state farm boys. In the post-war era as television allowed the game to develop into an inter-regional phenomenon Devaney was able to restore Nebraska’s fortunes by developing national appeal and a recruiting network that spanned a continent. Wilkinson established a legacy in Norman of complete monopoly on in-state talent augmented with cross-border raids of the best Texas High School products. OU and Nebraska football developed into virtual mirror images. Both schools were flagship institutions in sparsely populated, geographically underwhelming football-mad states. Successive coaches at both programs found ways to attract the best players to their quiet towns, enabling them to field technically sound power-running teams characterized by under-stated class. College football evolved from the T and Diamond formations through the wishbone and into the option but one thing never changed. Every year Nebraska and Oklahoma lined up and ran at each other like a head-on train crash. The winner almost always took all.

In 1964 Bob Devaney received a phone call from an ambitious young coach whose three-year NFL career had ended two years earlier. A native Nebraskan and former state prep athlete of the year, Tom Osborne had played his collegiate football at his hometown Hastings College. He talked Devaney into giving him a position as an unpaid graduate assistant and started out coaching receivers in exchange for a dorm room and meals with the team. Osborne possessed a brilliant mind and in addition to pursuing his doctorate in educational psychology impressed Devaney as a coach sufficiently to earn the job as Nebraska offensive coordinator by 1967. Osborne possessed not only obvious tactical genius and profound organizational skills but also a rare personal touch. In 1969 he recruited Johnny Rodgers, a troubled young man from Omaha’s north side who had both been stabbed and shot another boy in the stomach before his sixteenth birthday. As a Nebraska freshman in 1970 Rodgers was involved in a gas station robbery that earned him two years probation. Osborne took responsibility for young man’s development and under his tutelage Rodgers stayed clear of trouble and played well enough to win the 1972 Heisman Trophy. Under Devaney Nebraska won consecutive national championships in 1970 and 1971. Osborne took over as head coach in 1973. The two men had successfully engineered a football revival in Lincoln. Most impressively they had done it without requiring a corresponding drop off in productivity from conference rival Oklahoma. In Devaney’s second championship year Chuck Fairbanks’ OU Sooners finished 2nd in the final AP poll. The two rivals played out a 35-31 Nebraska win in Norman that is widely considered to be ‘the game of the century’. Between 1970 and 1975 Oklahoma and Nebraska each won two national championships. Only once in those six seasons did either team finish outside the AP top ten [OU’s 20th place finish in 1970].

The same year Osborne assumed command in Lincoln Oklahoma’s own long-standing assistant moved up to the head job in Norman. Barry Switzer, a cock-sure young Arkansas graduate, took over for Fairbanks who moved to the NFL. He set about installing a version of Darrel Royal’s new 'wishbone' offense and saw immediate success [even despite NCAA sanctions for transcript irregularities dating to Fairbanks’ tenure]. Switzer’s teams smashed national records for offensive output on the ground. His first Sooner team went 10-0-1 finishing in the AP poll behind only Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes and Ara Parseghian’s Fighting Irish. Switzer won his first five meetings with Osborne, including a1975 home date in which the unbeaten, second ranked Huskers suffered a 35-10 humiliation at the hands of a seventh ranked OU squad that had picked up an inexplicable loss to the visiting Kansas Jayhawks the preceding week. Osborne’s first five Nebraska teams were good. They were excellent, in fact. From 1973 to 1977 Nebraska went 4-1 in the post-season, including victories over Texas in the 1974 Cotton and Florida in the 1975 Sugar Bowl. But they were not good enough to beat OU.

When the Sooners travelled to Lincoln for Switzer and Osborne’s sixth meeting as head coaches on November 11th 1978 they were again ranked number one and standing unbeaten at 9-0. Behind the explosive running of junior halfback Billy Sims, who would claim Oklahoma’s third Heisman Trophy that year, the Sooners led the nation in rushing with a massive 415 yards per game. Overall, the fourth ranked Huskers were even more productive. Despite a 3-point performance in their season opening loss at eventual national champion Alabama, Nebraska was averaging 515 yards total offense and scoring 41.5 points a game. While neither team relied on vertical passing to any great degree the Huskers showed slightly more balance. Operating out of the Sooners' precision wishbone attack quarterback Thomas Lott was averaging less than seventy yards passing. His counterpart Tom Sorley was passing for 175 yards a game, which only helped Nebraska’s own impressive performances on the ground.

Johnny Rodgers, Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne in more recent times

During a joint mid-week press conference Osborne played some public mind-games, intentionally downplaying his team’s chances. He told reporters in Switzer’s hearing:

“We have good running backs. [Rick] Burns or [Isaiah] Hipp could contribute to their team, but we don’t have anyone they even recruited out of High School.”

Burns had been an overlooked running back out of Wichita Falls, while Hipp was a walk-on from rural Chapin, South Carolina. Despite leading his home-town Eagles to two state AA championships and amassing nearly 3,000 career yards Hipp was not recruited by any college due to a shoulder injury he suffered as a senior. As a High School freshman in 1971, Hipp had watched the OU-Nebraska game on television. Despite never having been near the state of Nebraska he decided on the spot that wanted to be like Johnny Rodgers and would only play for the Huskers. Without any prior contact with Osborne Hipp scraped the money together to fly to Lincoln. He enrolled at NU and managed to catch the coaching staff'’s attention in walk-on try outs. He broke out as redshirt sophomore in 1977 with several hundred yard games, including a 77-yard TD against Indiana that is still Nebraska’s longest scoring run. Hipp was typical of Osborne’s Cornhuskers. Nebraska coaches found talent from across the country, and sometimes talent found them. Osborne’s staff improved players as well as any program in the nation. He may have been serious in talking about his team as over-looked, under-talented and generally not good enough for Norman. But Osborne knew his I-formation offenses, alternating lightening tailbacks Hipp and Tim Wurth with bruising fullbacks Burns and Andra Franklin, could rack up points on anybody. Against Nebraska's prolific offense backed up by famed “black-shirt” defense and playing at home, even Barry Switzer’s Sooners would struggle.

Isaiah Moses Hipp, walk-on

Although the matchup pitted the nation’s two leading offenses both coaches predicted a defensive battle. They were exactly right. In typical fashion OU and Nebraska pounded each other at the line of scrimmage all day. Eventually the narrow margin of victory came from a few fumbles caused by the handful of crucial hits that somehow stood out amid a great host of punishing, text-book tackles.

Virtually nothing separated the teams. Nebraska outgained Oklahoma by only twenty-two yards, 361 to 339. OU ran the ball sixty-one times, Nebraska sixty-two. Oklahoma made only thirteen first downs to Nebraska’s eighteen, but as was characteristic of the wishbone the Sooners made longer runs and outgained the Huskers on the ground by nearly eighty yards and 1.5 yards per carry. OU drew first blood, reaching the end zone on their second possession. The Sooners drove twenty-six yards to the Nebraska forty-four before Billy Sims kick-started his monster day by skipping through the line over right tackle, shaking off a Husker defender at the NU thirty-five and disappearing for a score. Sims was on his way to a 153 yard, two touchdown day and for a moment it looked as though Nebraska would be out classed again. The Huskers followed OU’s score with a Berns fumble on his own thirteen yard line. Fortunately for Osborne the blackshirts responded. Nebraska stuffed OU and pushed them back a yard on the first two plays. On third-and-eleven Lott went around left end on a QB keeper only to meet linebacker Lee Kunz at the corner and have the ball mercilessly stripped. Kunz’ points-saving takeaway provided the first in a string of OU turnovers that defined the game.

The wishbone, like any option offense, can chew up plenty of clock and cover a lot of territory – sometimes quickly in big plays. But the system is one dimensional, and never more so than in Switzer’s version. Lott finished the day with telling passing statistics: zero completions on two attempts. Nebraska defenders knew what was coming and brought pressure consistently, flying to the ball. For success, the wishbone requires misdirection, superior blocking schemes, and above all, ball security. On Oklahoma’s next possession Lott led his team to the Nebraska forty-three before a busted pitch out gave up another turnover. The Sooners simply could not afford such mistakes, but they kept coming. OU put the ball on ground nine times and lost it six. Even the irrepressible Sims was not immune. He lost two fumbles, including one at the Nebraska three yard line in the final minutes of the game with only a field goal separating the two sides. After the game a dejected Sims refused to cut himself any slack, telling reporters:

“I just got hit. But it was carelessness, not the hit. I don’t think I played a good game at all.”

Sims did play a good game. Running backs didn’t gain 150 yards with two scores against Nebraska on poor performances. Not with Osborne running the show. Sims lost the ball because of the hit. OU kept losing the ball all day because everywhere they turned there was a Husker waiting with a hit.

Nebraska answered OU’s relentless ground game with slightly more in the way of balance and variety. After the Sooner’s second turnover Nebraska took the ball fifty-seven yards the other way on a drive that including a ten-yard pace run from Hipp, a deep ball from Sorley to receiver Junior Miller, and a sideline flare pass that Burns converted to a first-and-goal at the OU nine. The drive finished with a straight up power run from Burns out of a deep set I. Nebraska had found their rhythm and very nearly scored again seconds before the break after forcing a David Overstreet fumble on Oklahoma’s own twenty-eight. On that occasion the OU defense limited the damage and Nebraska kicker Billy Todd found only the right upright from twenty-one yards. But even with the score tied and the Huskers’ finishing the half on the disappointment of a botched field goal, it was clear which team possessed the momentum.

The second half picked up exactly where the first had left. Overstreet lost a second fumble on exactly the half way line following a crushing hit from Nebraska’s Derrie Nelson. After OU held the Huskers to nothing on two plays Sorley went deep to Miller again, this time for a thirty-three yard gain. The Nebraska quarterback finished the day with a competent 111 yards on 8 of 20 attempts. That was 111 crucial passing yards more than Oklahoma managed. From third-and-ten Nebraska might have let another turnover slip without converting to points, but Osborne’s power-running offense was backed up by just enough aerial proficiency to keep his team on the field. Four plays took Nebraska the remaining distance with Hipp deftly evading tackles on a quick-footed scoring run from eight yards out.

Nebraska had a precious 14-7 lead but Oklahoma answered immediately. The Sooners drove seventy-three yards on the next possession, showing what they might have done had they been able to protect the football more consistently. Sims capped the march with a thirty yard touchdown run, bursting over the right end of the line before reaching the end zone untouched. For once on the afternoon a Sooner back made a big play without taking a hit or having to physically break a tackle. That would be the last time. On a fifty yard march beginning late in third quarter Sorley brought Nebraska back inside the Sooner ten with a first-and-goal before finally settling for another short field goal attempt from Todd. On his second try the Husker specialist finished the job. Nebraska had a three point lead. Ten minutes later when Sims lost the ball for Oklahoma’s sixth and final time after OU had once again ground their way into scoring position, Osborne finally had his win over Switzer.

The two coaches went head-to-head a total of seventeen times with Switzer earning a clear advantage 12-5. Neither man ever coached at another school. Both achieved astounding success despite sharing a tiny conference with an equally weighted powerhouse rival. Switzer coached at OU until 1988going 157-29-4 with two national titles and at least a share of twelve conference championships. Osborne stayed at Nebraska for a quarter century, eventually surpassing even Bud Wilkinson’s Big Eight win tally with a career record of 255-49-3. He earned three national titles and at least a share of thirteen conference championships. As both assistants and head coaches the tenures of Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne provided the golden age of a rivalry that defined college football on the plains of Middle America for more than half a century.

The defining play of the greatest college game ever played

(Sources: SI, Hipp: Wonder walk-on; AP poll archive;; College football’s 25 greatest teams; Great college football coaches; Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stanford rolls in the Coliseum

Stanford and Southern Cal can only be called rivals in the strict sense that they have always shared a conference and played one another annually. Decade after decade the on-field disparity between the two schools’ football prowess and aspirations could hardly be greater. Thirty-eight times USC has earned at least a shared conference championship. Stanford has managed only twelve, ten of those coming before 1970. USC holds a lopsided 58-26-3 series lead. Prior to 2009 Stanford had managed to win on consecutive visits to the Coliseum only three times. In contrast the Trojans longest streak without a loss in the series ran to almost two decades. USC defenses have held Stanford scoreless on fifteen occasions – more than one of every six meetings. Stanford has not shut out USC since Hitler invaded Russia. Only five times have Stanford teams breached the 30 point barrier against the Trojans, with one of those coming in a loss. Trojan teams have, over the years, taken Stanford to the woodshed not infrequently.

On 14 November 2009 Jim Harbaugh’s team earned Stanford University a second consecutive series road win vs. USC. The Cardinal beat the pre-season Pac-10 favorites emphatically, laying on a staggering 55-21 beat-down. This represents the series’ most complete win since USC throttled Stanford 54-7 in 1952. The ’09 Cardinal exceeded Stanford's best ever offensive productivity versus Southern Cal by twenty points.

On 9 November 1957 the Stanford Indians rolled into Los Angeles and hung a 35-7 thrashing on USC. That win stood as Stanford’s best over the west coast’s most dominant football power for over half a century. The win would have been as unlikely as ever had the Trojans not been under major Pacific Coast Conference sanctions for flagrant violations of league scholarship rules. The PCC, formed in 1915, had a strong constitution and a powerful commissioner to penalize transgressions. The NCAA had virtually no enforcement power in those days. Each conference set different scholarship, recruitment and eligibility boundaries and enforced them how they saw fit. In the early 1950s the PCC members gave athletics scholarships in the form of grants equal to the cost of tuition. The league allowed up to sixty such scholarships to come directly from regular institutional funds but additional scholarships could be given with money raised specifically for the purpose. Players could also earn money through work programs with remuneration limits set at $2.00 an hour not to exceed a total of $100 per month. Money raised for athletics scholarships came through organized booster club accounts.

Evidence that the University of Oregon athletics department had allowed booster club payments to players exceeding the league's limits forced the resignation of head coach Jim Aiken in 1951. Five years later Oregon officials reported similar payments at rival UCLA. Investigations unraveled a web of scandal inculcating most of the conference members in illegal payment schemes channeled through shady booster which reported only a fraction of their payments. Through the 1956 off-season PCC investigators turned up evidence that the activities of UCLA’s “Young Men of Westwood” organization, UW’s “Greater Washington Advertising Fund,” USC’s “Southern California Educational Foundation” and Cal’s “South Seas Fund” amounted to little more than unrestricted slush funds. Harsh penalties followed for the schools involved, accompanied with ongoing acrimonious protests from California schools which argued that a higher cost of living in Los Angeles and the Bay area necessitated additional aid that inflexible conference rules did not permit. The ill-will created eventually caused the PCC to disintegrate. In 1959 the four California schools and Washington began a new affiliation in the Athletics Association of Western Universities, which lacked any formal enforcement mechanism beyond an institutional honor code and did not require every member to play each of the others. Eventually every former PCC member except Idaho joined the AAWU and formed the Pac-Eight, but the league remained little more than a loose affiliation of mutually distrustful programs until well into the 1970s.

Unsurprisingly, squeaky-clean and academically rigorous Stanford was the only California school in the PCC not Penalized for scholarship rule violations in 1956. USC, Cal and UCLA were banned from accepting bowl bids for several years and lost key players to ineligibility rulings. In 1957 Don Clark returned only 15 of 34 lettermen from his 8-2 team of the previous year. The Trojans’ starting lineup was decimated by the loss of virtually every skill player. If there ever was a year for the Indians to score a big win over their perennially merciless big brother, this was it.

Stanford coach Chuck Taylor was a gentleman and an optimist. He accepted the job in 1951 more because he loved Stanford than from any personal ambitions to coach. Taylor never held another job and coached in Palo Alto only seven seasons. As a player he had been an all-American guard and captained Stanford’s 1941 Rose Bowl team to victory over Nebraska. His first Stanford team as coach started 9-0 before dropping the two games that really mattered – Cal and the Rose Bowl against Illinois. None of Taylor’s subsequent teams enjoyed such success, two 6-3 campaigns constituting his high watermarks thereafter. He later served as athletics director, overseeing another Stanford Rose Bowl trip. Even in the late 1950s Taylor faced the problem of academic eligibility in an intellectually rigorous environment. He could only recruit the players who, like him, truly wanted to be at Stanford. Unlike coaches in Los Angeles, Taylor could not easily replace stars. After the graduation of all-American John Brodie, the school’s record setting passer, Taylor had to return to more conservative game planning. First year starting quarterback Jack Douglas could throw down field if necessary but was best utilized as a runner in a well populated backfield. Taylor told reporters before the season that despite graduating two all-Americans, losses of rare magnitude for any Stanford coach, he felt his team’s offense would be better. He was right. Though Taylor’s team stood at only 4-3 heading in to Los Angeles on 9 November they had plenty of competent runners on the roster and employed end-around and pitch-out runs successfully from a Spread-T formation [not entirely unlike the modern spread-option]. The Indians made yards on most of their conference rivals, especially the ones reeling under league sanctions.

Generally inhospitable

Like Taylor, Don Clark coached his alma mater. He had been a successful but not outstanding guard and had played two years of pro football with the San Francisco 49ers after serving in WWII. Also like Taylor he only ever had one head coaching job. He began as an assistant at Navy in 1950 before moving back to USC to work for Jess Hill in 1952. With controversy swirling around the program in 1957 Hill “moved upstairs” to become USC athletics director. It seems strange that a coach leading a program coming under punishment for scholarship rule violations should be promoted to AD, but university administration firmly believe no wrongs had been committed and that the fault lay with unfair enforcement of misguided league standards. That was all well and good for Hill, but on the field Don Clark was left holding the baby. Clark’s three years as Trojan coach included two of the program’s worst. Losing players to ineligibility rulings and without the lure of a Rose Bowl trip to promise recruits Clark struggled. His first team finished with a pitiful 1-9 record. Little wonder he decided to return to his family business in 1960 and never went back to coaching.

The USC team Stanford faced on the field in the Coliseum in November 1957 was not cut from the usual Trojan cloth. Starting center Ken Antle had played only 44 minutes during the previous season, which was fairly typical. Halfbacks Tony Ortega and Rex Johnson were large enough, but lacked elite speed. The Trojans had won their first game of the season 19-12 the preceding week on the road against equally underwhelming 1-4-1 Washington. No one was surprised when Stanford’s more experienced line and faster backfield ran all over Southern Cal.

Before a homecoming crowd of over 50,000 the Indians refused to play the part of obliging visitor and put on a workshop in classic 1950s football. Occasional underneath passes to backfield members served primarily to augment the multi-faceted running game. Fullback Chuck Shea, the PCC’s leading rusher, made 77 yards on the ground with a 6 yard touchdown run. Jack Douglas’ passing figures were competent but far from eye-catching. He went 10 of 16 for 85 yards with his most impressive stat, a 12 yard touchdown strike to future Dallas Texan wide receiver Chris Burford, coming after a third quarter USC fumble that allowed the Indians to ice the game.

For most of the afternoon Stanford was methodical, not aggressive. The Indians made 21 first downs to the Trojans’ 15. They opened the scoring with a first quarter 67 yard drive. USC answered immediately, capping a 76 yard, eleven play drive early in the second quarter with a twenty yard strike from quarterback Willie Wood to end Don Voyne, the only passing play of the drive. At that point it looked as though the two teams might trade blows all day, but Stanford dug in and from that point the difference in depth between the two squads showed. The Indians held Wood to only nine completions in twenty-two attempts for a total of ninety-four yards and two interceptions. The Trojans added 168 yards rushing but lost a crucial fumbled inside their own twenty when they could not afford to give up another point.

Seven points in the first quarter and fourteen in both the second and third put the game beyond doubt. Trojan tempers were obviously frayed and late in the final quarter a fracas erupted on the USC sideline that resulted in the ejection of USC’s Walt Gurasich and Stanford’s Don Dawson. No doubt receiving convincing home-field thrashings from perennial underdog Stanford was as much fun for Trojan lettermen in 1957 as it is today. Tempers flared between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh after the 2009 meeting over the Stanford coach’s decision to try a two-point conversion in order to crack fifty points with the game already beyond reach. No matter how many years pass and how personnel may change, it is unlikely that USC will ever take a home loss to Stanford as anything other than an unusual and highly frustrating occurrence.

Luckily for USC fans they probably won’t have to get used to the feeling. Jim Harbaugh is fielding job offers from all corners and will likely move on at some stage in the not-too-distant future, while battering-ram running back Toby Gerhardt will almost certainly be giving the most articulate interviews in the NFL next fall. The 2009 Cardinal fielded Stanford’s best offense ever – better even than their efforts with John Elway in the backfield. Stanford fans should enjoy it while they can. The 2010 Cardinal will likely be a lot worse and the chances of the university beating USC by thirty again in the next five decades are probably not brilliant.

"How do ya'like them apples, coach?"
"I dislike them very much, coach."

(Sources: PCC, wiki; SI, Brave new AAWU; New York Times; SI, 1957 PCC preview)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Oregon State, in Pasadena?!

Oregon State has played in the Rose Bowl on a grand total of three occasions, winning only once. On New Years Day 1942 the Beavers travelled to Durham, North Carolina to play the only Rose Bowl game ever to take place outside of Pasadena. Less than a month removed from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, military authorities on the West Coast feared that a packed stadium would present an appealing target to enemy bombers. University administrators had no cause for confidence that Oregon State would get another shot at the Rose Bowl any time soon so they agreed to take the game east and play Wallace Wade’s Duke Blue Devils on their home turf. A 20-16 victory vindicated their decision. Oregon State is still waiting to add a second Rose Bowl championship to their tally.

Wallace Wade’s version of the single wing revolved around the play calling and backfield blocking of stand-out quarterback Tommy Prothro. The Tennessee native played his last college game against the Beavers before passing up the NFL draft for an assistant coaching job at Western Kentucky. He served the last two years of WWII as a U.S. Navy Lieutenant before spending eight seasons as an assistant to Harold “Red” Sanders at Vanderbilt and UCLA. In 1955 Prothro succeeded the disastrous 20-36 tenure of LaVerne Taylor in Corvallis. Like his mentors Wade and Sanders, Prothro ran the single wing, sticking with the system long after it went out of vogue elsewhere. His offenses were not imaginative but Prothro was a thoroughbred coach. His father had coached pro baseball, including a long career with the Philadelphia Phillies. He proved more capable than any Oregon State coach before or since of installing in his teams a collective ability to consistently master the fundamentals. Without upgrading the talent he inherited in

1955 Prothro improved a 1-8 team to a 6-3 record. He led Oregon State to their second and third conference titles the following two seasons and repeated the feat in 1964. His 63-37-2 record over ten seasons gave him the best winning percentage of any State coach in the modern era until Dennis Erikson. He led the Beavers to both of their only Rose Bowl appearances since the war and also coached the school's only Heisman Trophy winner in 1962, Terry Baker.

Like buses coming along in twos after near eternal delays, football success in the State of Oregon in the twentieth century is largely clustered around the 1950s. Protho's successful career Corvallis coincided with Leonard Casanova’s relative fat years in Eugene. The in-state rivals have met 112 times to date with the Oregon Ducks leading 56-46-10. On Thursday December 3rd the 113th meeting will decide the Pac-10 championship and the winner will meet Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl. Prior to the 2009 season the ‘civil war’ has provided a de facto conference championship game only once in eleven decades.

On November 23rd 1957 Prothro’s Beavers headed to Eugene to face Casanova’s Ducks. Both teams stood at 7-2 overall. Oregon had a game lead in the Pacific Coast Conference standings at 5-1 and had already secured at least a share of the title. Due to the Conference’s prohibition on repeat bowl appearances Oregon State was ineligible for a trip to Pasadena regardless of the game's outcome. But pride, in-state bragging rights, and a conference co-championship were incentive enough -- especially to Prothro who had been on the receiving end of a 28-0 drubbing on his first trip to Eugene as a rookie head coach two years earlier.

Both teams had enjoyed offensive success all year, especially Oregon State who had scored at least twenty points in each of their eight wins and cracked the thirty point margin twice. They ran a power ground game behind text-book line play called by all-conference junior center Buzz Randall, who tragically died of leukemia shortly before what would have been his senior year in 1958. Team captain Ted Searle called plays and handled kicking duties. He was helped in the backfield by Hawaiian halfback Joe Francis and tenacious fullback Clarence ‘Nub’ Beamer. Nub earned his nickname from his relatively small size. At 5’10” and barely over 180lbs he was not a large fullback, but his vision and determination entrenched him in Prothro’s team when he earned his first meaningful playing time in the 1957 Rose Bowl. He came off the bench as a sophomore to gain 31 yards and a score on seven carries in the Beavers' losing effort against Iowa. Beamer’s success continued as a starter the following season, paving the way for an eventual NFL career. He later summed up the workman-like attitude Prothro established in Corvallis in an interview with his hometown newspaper:

“[Prothro] was a man of few words. He wasn’t too much into giving pep talks… My fundamentals improved at OSU. I learned how to block and run better. He helped me get into the pros.”

Blocking and running were much in evidence in Eugene for the 1957 Civil War game. The Beavers' high scoring offense literally ran into the disciplined defensive play of Casanova’s Ducks. Only once all year did Oregon give up more than 13 points, and that in a 27-26 win over Stanford. The Ducks were not exactly revolutionary, but their play was at least balanced. Against State, Oregon made 109 yards on the ground and 101 through the air for fifteen first downs and a touchdown. For the era Jack Crabtree constituted a relatively prolific passer. He went 13 of 18 with a one yard TD reception by halfback Jim Shanley. In response, the Beaver’s archaic single wing attack was characteristically one dimensional [though by no means ineffective]. 217 hard fought rushing yards for thirteen first downs and a three-yard score from Francis contrasted starkly with -1 net yards passing on a single completion in a whopping three attempts.

The Beavers opened the scoring with a sixty yard drive on the game’s first possession, with Francis making thirty-three yards and the score. Shearle attempted to drive home the advantage with an onside kick but barely touched the ball and gave the Ducks a forty yard field to answer the score. Crabtree led Oregon to the one yard line and a fourth down before hitting Shanley for six rather than attempt a field goal. After a rapid start from two efficient and previously successful offenses the scoring dried up, replaced by a lot of bruising tackles on both sides. A seventeen yard field goal opportunity late in the third quarter offered Shearle redemption for his botched onside kick. He gladly took it, giving his team a precious 10-7 lead.

In the end, turnovers made the difference. The Beavers were not imaginative but rarely made mistakes. In contrast two of the five Crabtree passes that did not find an Oregon receiver were intercepted. More fatally still, late in the fourth quarter Oregon reached State’s two-yard line and threatened an imminent go-ahead score before Shanley fumbled the ball away. With the game in the balance Nub Beamer burst through Oregon’s line as Shanley plunged for the endzone. He crashed into the Duck standout and punched the ball from his flailing arm as he fell backward. Nub immediately pounced on the ball, icing both the game and a conference title. Points had been less-than-plentiful but the game had proved a thrilling one regardless.

For much of its history the Civil War has existed in the category of bitterly contested in-state rivalries of little greater significance that go largely ignored by outsiders. Mississippi’s ‘Egg Bowl’ and the Kansas-Missouri ‘Border War’ are two other notable examples. Only once has this rivalry actually mattered for both contestants in the grander context of a west coast championship. Fifty-two years later this December 3rd football fans should be ready for the rivalry to provide another classic.

And it better had, because we may have to wait another half a century for a third installment.

(Sources: Ocala Star-Banner, Randall dies; News-Review, Nub Beamer;; SI, Pacific Coast Conference; New York Times, Nov 24th 1957)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Oregon, in Pasadena?!

At the time of writing the Oregon Ducks control their destiny regarding a berth to represent the West Coast in the Rose Bowl. That, to say the least, is a rare and note worthy occurrence. The long history of Oregon football is less than glamorous.

Of head coaches whose tenure exceeded five seasons, only one left Eugene with a winning percentage above .700 – Hugo Bezdek who went 29-10-4 between 1906 and 1917. Since WWII only three coaches have exceeded the .500 mark. Oregon boasts only two outright conference titles and none prior to 1994. Two of its five shared conference crown predate the war, as do two of its four Rose Bowl appearances. Until Rich Brooks’ later years the football gods were seldom kind to Oregon. The Ducks won their first ‘Tournament of Roses Game’ over then-mighty Penn in 1917, but lost three years later to Harvard. By the time the Ducks returned to the less cumbersomely re-named Rose Bowl in 1958 few living could even remember the 1920 game and most of football’s rules had dramatically changed.

Caught between regional rivals located in more populous and glamorous areas the state of Oregon languished as West Coast football’s backwater. The state lacked a truly major metropolitan area and could neither produce nor recruit the kind players Washington, UCLA, Stanford and USC had to spare. To date, hated in-state rival Oregon State only has five conference crowns, and none outright since 1956, to show for its twelve decades of football. The Beavers have even managed fewer trips to the Rose Bowl, technically. It simply has always been difficult to win football games in the state of Oregon; which makes the 1957 season all the more remarkable. The annual ‘Civil War’ match-up took place in Eugene on November 23rd and both teams sat at 7-2 overall with the Ducks leading the conference by a game. After Oregon State squeezed out a 10-7 victory the two schools shared the conference crown [those being the days before some man of genius came up with the revolutionary ‘tie-breaker’ concept], improbably locating two of their combined twelve all-time conference titles in the same year.

The Pacific Coast Conference’s prohibition on back-to-back bowl appearances kept the Beavers from heading to Pasadena, despite their head-to-head tirumph. Instead, the Ducks went south for the New Year to meet Ohio State and their young, ambitious coach Woody Hayes. The buckeyes had started slowly under Hayes, who was a controversial hire over fan-favorite Paul Brown in 1951. His irascible personality made every new job a difficult transition. But once Hayes entrenched himself, got his way and recruited the players for his power-running, line-heavy T-formation offense the sea quickly changed. A 10-0 campaign behind the sprightly running and lightning pace changes of all-American and later Heisman trophy winner Howard “Hop-along” Cassidy brought Hayes a Rose Bowl and AP crown in 1954. Only conference rules prevented a repeat trip to California as Big 10 champion the following year. Despite a four-point season-opener home loss to defending Cotton Bowl champion TCU, by New Year’s Day 1958 the Buckeyes were 9-1 and had already been voted UPI coaches poll national champion. There was no explosive Cassidy, but bruising sophomore Half Back Bob White ground out yards as well as any uphill runner in the game and would be a consensus all-America selection the following season. Vegas set the line in favor of Hayes’ team by a daunting 19.5 points. That was quite a statement for a team whose unglamorous and gritty but effective offense was joking characterized as “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

The Ducks were perhaps similarly gritty, but they lacked the depth and pedigree that allowed Hayes' boys to consistently win at the highest level without any concern for offensive variety. Leonard Casanova served as head coach in Eugene for sixteen seasons, going 82-73-8. Not until Mike Belloitti earlier this decade did an oregon coach pass that total with a win parcentage still above .500. Casanova simply did the best job he could with the players he could find. He introduced no offensive innovations. His teams did throw the ball when they needed to, which was unfortunately slightly more often than their talent-rich rivals. At least in 1957 Casanova had a quarterback in Jack Crabtree who could throw with some confidence.

The Ducks executed fundamentals well enough to compensate for their talent gap and at one point reached 6-1 overall and were unbeaten in conference, only a three-point in Portland versus Pitt darkening the resume. Oregon eventually lost two conference games, though none by more than a touchdown. Only once all year did their disciplined defensive play allow give up more than thirteen points. Why the odds makers set the line so high should have been a mystery. Certainly Casanova saw it as an insult and showed his players newspaper clippings to enrage and inspire them heading into the New year's Day showdown.

Leo Casanova at the Rose Bowl with his assistant, future USC coach John McKay

Casanova knew exactly what the Buckeyes would bring. Hayes never built his success on surprise, variety or complicated scheming. The Ohio State legacy has always been one of power, execution and stamina. Naturally observers presumed a long, brutal day was in store for the Ducks when on the first possession of the game the Buckeyes drove seventy-nine yards sustained by two 3rd down conversions for a touchdown on a short plunge from quarterback Frank Kremblas. The drive was vintage Buckeye football – short runs between the tackles behind bruising blocking and devouring clock. Kremblas would finish the day with characteristically anemic passing numbers, going 2 of 6 for 59 yards. But Woody Hayes quarterbacks were coached to choose between hand-offs and keepers, not to check down field for open receivers. Kremblas made his usual contribution on the ground and was aided by 93 yards on twenty-five carries from White and a further 82 on fourteen from the fullback Don Clark. Methodically, the ever reliable Buckeye ground game compiled an impressive 245 yards team rushing and 19 first downs. The Oregon response however was something no Buckeye had counted on.

Frank Kremblas blocking for Don Clark

An over-matched Oregon team might understandably have collapsed after the morale crushing blow of an early score by a powerhouse program that rarely relinquished a lead. Instead, undersized Ducks began standing up more highly touted players at the line of scrimmage and the crucial third down conversations for Ohio State dried up. For the rest of a long, physical game Oregon players found the extra effort to manufacture huge defensive plays inside their 30-yard line. For all their total production the Buckeyes did not find the end zone again. Early in the second quarter Crabtree engineered a drive of his own, leading his team eighty yards on ten plays that finished with a five-yard touchdown run from Jim Shanley. Casanova knew he could not hope to beat Woody at his own game. The Ducks approach was one of balance, keeping the Buckeyes guessing rather than make a futile attempt to run over them.

The approach worked. Oregon outgained Ohio State with 351 total yards and 21 first downs, coming from an almost even 160 yards passing and 191 yards rushing. Shanley rushed for 59 yards and Jack Morris for 60 on eleven carries each. The Ducks did not have a back like White to simply hand off to twenty-five times, but they had Ron Stover who hauled in ten passes for 144 yards. At quaterback Crabtree accounted for 135 yards passing, the other twenty-five coming on halfback tosses that helped keep Ohio State guessing and created breathing room for the run game.

In the end, a game that was supposed to have been defined by Buckeye power came down instead to Oregon’s failure to close. The game remained tied late in the third period when a Duck drive stalled at the OSU twenty-five. Jack Morris hooked a field goal try, failing to add precious points to his solid contribution of rushing yards. The Buckeyes took over and Kremblas led a fifty-six yard drive that ate all of the remaining third quarter before retaking the lead on a thirty-four yard Don Sutherin field goal early in the fourth. The rest of the game was all Oregon, with the Ducks driving to the OSU twenty-four before Stover fumbled and lost a twenty-three yard reception that had Oregon in range to at least draw level. The Ducks' final chance began on their own seventeen yard line but quickly penetrated Buckeye territory after a thirteen yard Stover reception and a pass interference flag on a rare mental error that indicated an increasingly panicked Ohio State approach to the Oregon passing attack. With the clock winding down Crabtree looked downfield for Stover on every play, allowing Ohio State a measure of certainty in defending Oregon plays they had lacked all afternoon. Without the threat of balance Oregon stalled for the last time. Two incompletions sandwiched a six-yard run to set up fourth and four near the Buckeye forty. Crabtree again looked for Stover and the ball once again fell incomplete with forty-seven seconds to play.

Three of Crabtree’s seven incompletions came on that final set of downs. Casanova’s resourceful team did not punt all day. But the Ducks lost two fumbles and missed a field goal. The difference between Hayes’ great Ohio State team and Casanova’s Ducks, who were only in Pasadena due to league rules, was projected to be almost three touchdowns. Instead the difference was three mistakes from three players who otherwise performed outstandingly on a day that constituted the high water mark of Oregon football history until the 1990s.

Woody Hayes accumulated thirteen Big Ten championships and three national titles. His teams were perennial powers. The 1957 Pacific Coast Conference championship, shared with a hated in-state rival, proved to be Casanova’s only title. His Ducks never came close to even smelling a national crown. But for a single afternoon on January 1st 1958, amongst the pageantry and possibility of the Rose Bowl, very little separated Buckeyes and Ducks.

That was the first meeting of those two programs. On six successive meetings no Oregon team came ten points of victory. This year, on January 1st 2010, Oregon may get another shot.

If Oregon does play at the Rose Bowl, here's hoping they wear these. God save us from their other uniforms.

(Sources:, 1958 Rose Bowl; Register-Guard; GoDucks; CFB datawarehouse; ESPN Big Ten encyclopedia; John Lombardo, Fire to Win)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two random items on Georgia Tech

In the earlier part of this decade I lived for two years on the campus of Georgia Tech (though not actually enrolled at the school). During those years I went to quite a few Tech football games. Most people outside of Atlanta don't know as much, but Georgia Tech has a lot of very fun and rather peculiar campus traditions. They are mostly there to keep the students from going insane because life is hard when the only pictures in your text books are diagrams involving Greek letters and squiggly lines and there are approximately three females to share between every seven males.

One of those traditions at football games is that after the third quarter the band always plays the music from the song in this totally awesome-tastic, old-timey Budweiser commercial:

While the band plays the students bob up and down on the alternate beat to the people either side of them. The visual effect is quite impressive, though it's hard to do if you have no rhythm. [Incidentally, the 'no rhythm' demographic accounts for somewhere around 98% of Tech undergraduates not actually in the band, dance squad or football team]. When the band plays the duh-duh-duh-daa the students all chant "Go Georgia Tech, go Georgia Tech, go Georgia Tech, go Georgia Tech... when you say Bud-weis-er, you've said it all."


It may sound lame, but it's fun. So much fun that while I was "at" Tech the students would stay until the end of the third period no matter how badly the Jackets were getting licked just to do that song/cheer before heading back to their dorm rooms to meet their online role playing game friends and complain about how badly Chan Gailey's play calling sucked. But no one ever explained to me why the band always did that song. I'm not sure anyone actually knew.

Then today I was listening to the ESPN U college football podcast and Beano Cook, who invariably fills his sentences with random, unprovoked pieces of invaluable information from days of yore, mentioned that back in the late 1960s when the NCAA finally allowed television broadcasters to sell advertising slots to alcohol distributors during college football games they had certain restrictions. Those restrictions included a stipulation that liquor commercials could only appear after the end of the third quarter [obviously to limit the amount of time alcohol advertisers could purchase]. Back in those days the average CFB game only ran around 18-20 commercials, took about 45 minutes less time than today's marathons (unless you count Notre Dame on NBC in which case they took about 8 hours less), and breaks generally only included a single ad. So back in the early 1970s it was likely that the third quarter break in most televised college football games consisted exclusively this awesome Bud commercial, nay, work of art. The GT band started playing the same tune at their own games as an amusing parody during the 1970 season when Bud Carson was their coach. And they never dropped it.

I think this is brilliant and so wonderfully Georgia Tech. Firstly, by the standards of your average football crowd joke, this is at least somewhat clever. Secondly, forty years later they're still doing the same thing even though most GT students have probably neither seen the commercial nor heard of Bud Carson. That's the way they roll in midtown Atlanta: nerdy and old-school.

Speaking of old-school... just how old-school is Paul Johnson? There are so many reasons to love what he's doing at Tech. This is a man who has made his career on the back of an offense that his contemporaries view as antiquated. Now Johnson is so out of style that he's all the way back in vogue as the flavor of the month. You also have to love that his offenses keep rolling up yards even though the other team knows exactly what is coming. But most of all, I just love to see Georgia Tech winning again. This is a school that was a national football power and perennial Notre Dame rival back when every school in the entire South sucked hard core except them, Bama and Tennessee.

Take a look at the box score from GT's recent home upset of the Hokies. One completed pass and an interception in only seven, count 'em VII - SEVEN - attempts passing for 51 yards with a whopping 309 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns. These numbers are so old school you pretty much have to go back to the fall of 1906 to find fans who wouldn't scratch their heads at them.

The forward pass was introduced by the NCAA rules committee after the public outcry following a brutal 1905 season. The rule was envisioned initially as a play that would be run behind the line of scrimmage laterally to remove bodies from the tackle box and prevent deadly scrum collapses. It surprised people when coaches tentatively, and at first infrequently, began to use the rule to advance the ball vertically down the field.

In his 1994 book The Anatomy of a Game: Football, the Rules, and the Men Who Made the Game David Nelson's book attributes the first collegiate forward pass to Bradbury Robinson of St. Louis University on September 5th 1906. Similar passing plays wowed fans across the nation on the rare occasion coaches plucked up the courage to try the move throughout the 1906 season. Most pundits felt the fad would not catch on.

On September 27th the New York Times reported forward passes in the Carlisle-Villanova game the preceding day and commented:

"The passing was more of the character of that familiar in basket ball than that which has hitherto characterized football. Apparently it is the intention of football coaches to try repeatedly these frequent long and risky passes. Well executed they are undoubtedly highly spectacular, but the risk of dropping the ball is so great as to make the practice extremely hazardous and its desirability doubtful."

This is no doubt similar to the kind of reception Tech's 51 yard completion must have received in the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday. Concerned Tech alumni must have turned to one another and said:

"Golly-gosh darn it, friend. What the jimminy is that coach Johnson fellow playing at, having that poor Nesbitt chap attempt one of those risky, new-fangled forward passes!"

And quite right they are, too. When you can lay 309 yards on a VT rushing defense that had averaged only 95 ypg allowed against teams not named Alabama, why pass? GT clearly doesn't need to. So in the age of five-wide out, run-and-shoot, air-raid madness: crack open a nice cool Bud, Paul Johnson. You've bloody well earned it!


(Sources: wiki, forward pass; David Nelson, Anatomy of a game)

Defense wins championships

Between 1922, when BYU football formally began its history, and 1971, when Tommy Hudspeth retired, the Cougars’ combined record was an underwhelming 174-235-22. Worst of all, the record head-to-head against hated rival University of Utah was an awful 7-37-4. A remote location and strict school behavioral codes made recruiting the best athletes a nearly impossible task. Even LaVell Edwards was not able to do that. After ten years as Hudspeth's assistant Edwards knew the BYU program and knew how to bring in the best players he could possibly attract to Provo. More importantly, he quickly proved that he knew how to coach intelligence, vision and maturity – on and off the field. Edwards didn’t care that Provo was remote, or that BYU is a church school, or that Utah is sparely populated. He told a reporter at the height of his career:

“Rather than worry about what we couldn’t do, I set out to concentrate on what we could do.”

Prior to the Edwars era BYU had only a single WAC conference championship, earned in 1965. LaVell was not intimidated. In his time he was a visionary coach and became the first in the modern era to use a pass-happy attack to minimize the effect of his inherent talent disadvantage. Edwards’ teams ran out of base offensive formations with four and five wide-outs decades before that approach became fashionable or even accepted. When Edwards started, Woody Hayes was still running the Split-T and did not have five wide-outs on his depth chart. Darrell Royal famously warned that of three possible outcomes when throwing the ball two are bad. Levell Edwards defied that conventional wisdom and always argued:

“I just don’t see down field passing as a high risk offense; the wishbone is high risk.”

Edwards coached his players to play with their eyes and brains. BYU moved the ball steadily with short gains taken when the quarterback saw his first opportunity. But Edwards always coached his players to read missed coverage and exploit numerical advantages down field if defenses offered the opportunity. They frequently did. As a result, BYU became known as “Quarterback U” with a string of stand-out all-America passers including Jim McMahon and Steve Young. Edwards’ system and his often underrated teams turned BYU football around, winning an amazing eighteen conference championships between 1974 and 1999. An outstanding twenty-eight year head coaching career reached the ultimate height in 1984 with an AP national championship that would have been unthinkable two decades earlier. Perhaps most importantly of all, Edwards went 22-7 against the Utes.

Understandably the memory of Edwards’ achievement is largely tied up with his eye-catching offenses. Celebrating offenses is always easier than recalling the great defensive names and plays. Fans and commentators alike love scoring, and obviously scoring wins games in the most literal sense. Edwards’ BYU teams rarely featured highly ranked defenses. They didn’t really need to. But in 1984, the crowning year of Edwards’ superb career, one defensive stand that required a single great defensive play changed the course of BYU football history. Without that one play, in that one stand, on that one day, BYU would never have posted its break through year. Kyle Morrell’s acrobatic goal-line tackle on third-and-goal from the one at Hawaii seemed very important even at the time. In retrospect, it was the single moment of defensive inspiration that preserved an ostensibly offense-driven legacy.

Through the 1984 season BYU averaged 340 passing and 479 yards total offense per game, leading the nation in both categories. Only twice in a perfect 13-0 campaign did the Cougars score below 24 points and never less than 18. They scored 30 or more on nine occasions. Robbie Bosco’s 283 of 458 passes for 3,875 yards and 33 TDs were second in efficiency only to Doug Flutie. But BYU was far from an offense only team that won gaudy shootouts. The defense at times gave up large chunks of yardage and only four opponents failed to score at least 13 points, but BYU only gave up more than 17 points twice and pitched two shut outs. It was actually the Cougar defense that got the magical campaign started, carrying BYU to a 20-14 win in a brutal season-opening slug-out at third ranked Pitt [ESPN’s first ever live televised college game, incidentally]. But even in that game, Edwards’ offense made the most memorable play. Despite a slow start, Bosco finally came to life late and hit receiver Adam Haysbert on a deep “go” route for a 50 yard TD to take the lead with only 1:40 remaining.

Three weeks later, thousands of miles from home in sunny Hawaii BYU needed its defense to deliver the team again. On that occasion a defensive play actually made the headlines that the unit as a whole deserved. Morrell again struggled to find his grove in an intimidating road environment and after three quarters BYU led only 12-10. Early in the fourth quarter Hawaii quarterback Rafael Cherry began a drive inside his own fifteen that ate ten minutes of clock and took his team to the BYU two yard line for first and goal. BYU was ranked #6 and national championship speculation was only just beginning. No one knew how much was ultimately on the line as Cherry ran two sneaks, both into punishing tackles from BYU linebacker Marv Allen. With the clock winding and BYU’s offense unimpressive a Hawaii touchdown seemed likely to decide the game. After gaining 18-inches on two sneaks Cherry’s chances of making 6 more on another looked good. Hawaii attempted the same play again. Defensive tackle Jim Herrmann surged forward, leading his unit to the crucial push they needed. Herrmann did not know that behind him safety Kyle Morrell had lept over the line, somersaulted in mid-air, flipped over Cherry's head and pulled him backwards by the jersey while landing.

Morrell said later that he saw Hawaii's running backs shuffling forward, unwittingly signaling to the defense that they were running the same play. With all the quick-thinking intelligence and commitment of an Edwards coached player Morrell moved almost on instinct. His grab pulled Cherry back for the split second it took for Herrmann and co. to fill the gap with a pile of bodies and kill the play. After failing to make two-yards on three plays Hawaii coach Dick Tomey panicked and sent out his field goal unit. Bouyed by the momentum of the inspirational stand Bosco finally found his rhythm and led the Cougars to a game-killing score.

BYU escaped 18-13 and never lost their offensive grove again the entire season. The Cougars became one of only two national champions to lead the nation in passing offense [the other is 1938 TCU]. Edwards’ offenses received much deserved accolades, but as is so often the case, the entire superstructure rested on defensive performances that garner far less praise. Without one play in particular, BYU’s national championship simply would not have happened.

Video Courtesy of

(Sources: Doug Looney, SI, It’s Possible; Deseret News, BYU survived close calls; cfb data warehouse; Wiki, Robbie Bosco)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The 1969 Red River Shootout

It took the Texas Longhorns just nine seconds to open the scoring in a home romp over an overmatched Navy team in Austin on Saturday October 4th 1969. Darrell Royal’s boys had not lost since a trip to Lubbock in September 1968. Senior quarterback James Street had not lost any of his ten games as a starter. Texas was already 2-0 after easy victories by a combined score of 66-7 at Cal and versus Texas Tech, two squads who would both finish the year 5-5. Standout halfback Jim Bertelsen fired off a 43-yard touchdown run on UT’s first play from scrimmage. As he burst from behind his blocker into the

Midshipmen secondary a defensive back had the inside angle for a tackle but Bertelsen stepped on the gas and disappeared. From that point on the game was only a matter of numbers.
Royal pulled his starters from the game permanently after only nineteen minutes. The Horns’ first string offense had been on the field only a totally of 6:29 but posted four touchdowns - all on the ground. Street ran for a score himself and threw only a single pass, which he completed to his favorite (and virtually only) target Cotton Speyrer. Texas’ other first team halfback Ted Koy also ran for two scores.

That was Texas football under Darrell Royal. An all-America selection as defensive back and quarter back at Oklahoma, Royal played for Bud Wilkinson from 1946 to 1949. He was present at the start of Wilkinson’s incredible run as head coach in Norman. The Sooners dominated not just Texas, but everybody during the 1950s. Of all things Texans dislike, being dominated generally and by Oklahomans in particular ranks first. A desperate University of Texas turned to an erstwhile rival in 1956 and hired Royal as head football coach. The Longhorns never looked back. Royal never had a losing season in two decades and delivered eleven Southwest conference championships, two AP titles and one UPI coaches poll title. His best years were powered by the success of an original formation he coauthored with his offensive assistant Emory Bellard.

The wishbone, like all offensive innovations, seems simple in retrospect. But when Royal implemented it early in the 1968 season in a desperation move with his team losing badly in Lubbock, Texas Tech had no answer. A triple option four-man backfield could rack up huge rushing numbers with a combination of complex inside blocking schemes, multiple fake handoffs and manpower mismatches. Defenses used to seeing much less complicated running schemes simply could not account for every runner, allowing the quarterback to hand the ball off to whichever back had no man reading him. The wishbone became the standard college offense by the late seventies and eventually, as is always the case, defenses caught up and made the formation obsolete. But in 1969 James Street was the first and only wishbone quarterback in the game and no defensive coordinator knew what to do about the Longhorns.

The Navy game was Royal’s 100th win at Texas. Heading into the Red River Shootout against Chuck Fairbanks’ sixth ranked Oklahoma Sooners the 3-0 second ranked Longhorns led the nation in rush yards per game, having racked up a combined 1,091 on 211 carries. Bertelsen’s 216 yards on 30 carries with 3 TDS for a 7.2 yard average ranked second in the Southwest conference. Texas’ total offense was also second in the conference despite standing dead last in passing offense with a worthless combined 12 completions in only 27 tries for 119 yards, zero TDs and three picks. Street was 6 of 17 on the year for only 59 yards and no scores. And the Longhorns were unstoppable. That was the wishbone.

Royal didn’t mind winning games convincingly, but he worried that his players might not be ready for OU. Royal acknowledged:

“Winning big has plusses and minuses…. I worry that we haven’t been in one of those old country gut checks.”

This is probably one of the better problems for coaches to face, as Royal readily admitted:
“A coach has got to have problems, and I like mine better this year than last.”

Texas’ problem was stamina and game readiness, so Royal increased the usual tempo and intensity of his game-week practices, attempting to simulate the fury of a Cotton Bowl clash. He hoped his players would be equal to the fever-pitch atmosphere, but felt confident enough to jokingly tell reports:

“If you can’t get up for this one, you must be dead.”

The Longhorns need to be up. Oklahoma had problems of their own, but Fairbanks’ Sooners were no slouches. The Wilkinson steamroller had sputtered somewhat in its later years, with two almost unthinkable campaigns in 1960-61 of a combined 8-11. When Bud finally retired in 1963 he handed off to his long standing assistant Gomer Jones. The job of following a legend is a hard one in any circumstance, but Jones never wanted the limelight. He could stand the heat for only two seasons in which OU went a disappointing 9-11-1. In 1966 things barely improved when new head coach Jim McKenzie went 6-4 before unexpectedly dying. His first year assistant Chuck Fairbanks was left holding the baby and in a very difficult and increasingly desperate environment engineered two conference championships in 1967 and 68. Only a loss to Texas in a 10-1 season kept Fairbanks from delivering a national title his first season. By 1969 Oklahoma sat where Texas had been in the late fifties with Royal’s first teams. Fairbanks’ Sooners were good and could win conference titles, but they were not doing what OU coaches are hired to do – beat Texas and win national championships. To do that, Oklahoma always needed to augment recruiting classes by cherry picking the best talent from south of the Red River.

Fairbanks was able to do just that with the help of an assistant coach he hired to fill his former role after the 1966 season. The son of a prohibition era bootlegger former Arkansas standout Barry Switzer was as brash and country as they come. He made an immediate impact on the OU staff as a highly productive recruiter and superb offensive coordinator. In 1967 every school in the Southwest conference wanted Abilene prep star Jack Mildren. At the time conference recruiting regulations limited SWC coaches to two home visits. The Big Eight had no such rule and Switzer, OU’s West Texas recruiter, visited the Mildrens several times. The coach said later:

“You can’t get to know a kid in two visits. You’re doing all the talking and he’s still looking at his shoes.”

Switzer was always a joker with the press, a charmer with parents and school dignitaries, and an absolute hard-ass with his players. He told a reporter before the 1969 Texas games:

“[Mildren] is not a picture passer and he doesn’t look fast. He’s not a super athlete by any means. In fact he’s a little pigeon toed and … clumsy.”

But Switzer knew what he had in Mildren. In the 1967 Oil Bowl, the annual post-season clash between all-State prep selections from Oklahoma and Texas, the OU commit rubbed his decision in the faces of football fans from his home state by hitting 12 of 12 for 250 yards in the first half alone. That was the only time Mildren would represent the state of Texas on the gridiron. As a sophomore starter in 1969 he led the Sooners to a 2-0 start heading into Dallas for his first Red River Shootout. Mildren started as well in college as he had finished in High School. His first varsity play from scrimmage went for a 67 yard touch down.

Oklahoma had all the balance Texas seemed to lack. The Sooners, like most teams of the era, ran a backfield-heavy offense lineup with rarely more than one man wide. Their base offense was a diamond formation that in addidtion to the era's standard power runs also favored toss-sweeps and passing plays to men coming out of the backfield. That allowed a lot more passing yards than Royal’s system. Of course it helped that opposing defenses were keying in on all-American senior halfback Steve Owens. The tenacious back made over 4,000 yards in three seasons, invariably carrying the ball around 30 times a game. Owens’ work load would be unthinkable today. In one famous trip to Stillwater Owens carried the ball 36 times in the second half alone! He made yards after contact with apparent ease and frequently did work all on his own without sufficient forward blocking.

Offense would not be OU’s problem. In two big wins, 48-21 at Wisconsin and 37-8 vs. Pitt, OU had given up over 400 rush yards. Their starting defense was senior-heavy in the back field but made up of sophomores and juniors in the front seven. The OU middle had looked particularly suspect. That was bad news heading into a game against the nation’s leading rushing attack, and one that did almost everything between the tackles at that. Mildren admitted to reporters that he suspected his breakfast would taste quite awful on the morning of Saturday October 11th.

As events unfolded Mildren’s breakfast could hardly have settled before his Sooners led 14-0. Fairbanks committed to playing Texas at its own game. He loaded the box with an eight man front, daring Street to throw downfield and prove he could do better than 6 of 17 for 59 yards in three games. On offense, OU ran right up the middle, riding Owens’ power and vision. The eventual 1969 Heisman winner gained 123 yards on the day, 53 in the first quarter alone. Mildren capped a sixty yard drive answering a Texas three-and-out with a nine-yard end around TD run after only four minutes. Five minutes later Owens dived over a pile for a one yard score after a short 17-yard drive that followed an interception return. OU linebacker Steve Aycock reeled in a risky Street pass into the flat for excellent field position and the Sooners appeared to be cruising.

For once Texas was making nothing on the ground. OU’s defense refused to live up to its underwhelming billing, holding the Horns just 158 yard rushing on the day. The Sooners made a more impressive 198 team yards on ground in reply and also finished with a slight edge in first downs at 20-18. But in the end Royal’s Longhorns squeaked out a comeback win in a manner that characterized the now mythologized “cult of ‘69” Texas team. Like so many championship teams Royal’s boys did what they had to do when they had to do it, and they were lucky.

After two series that ended in a punt and a pick, trailing by fourteen, Street knew there was only one way to beat OU. He had to answer Fairbanks’ challenge and complete passes. He settled himself and did just that. On the first play of UT’s third possession Street hit Speyrer for a 35 yard strike and two plays later found the same receiver for a 24 yard touch down. On the Horns’ fourth possession he hit Bertelsen underneath and the halfback converted the catch for a 55 yard gain to the OU twenty. Bertelsen did the rest of the work, out racing OU safety Joe Pearce for 19 before converting himself from the one. Street was well on his way to a relatively impressive 9 of 18 for 215 yard passing performance and just like that Texas had leveled at 14-14.

The teams remained neck and neck in the third period. Texas opened with a 54 yard drive that resulted in a 27 yard field goal from the hilariously named Happy Feller, who despite only having attempted one previous three-pointer led the Southwest conference in scoring solely by virtue of converting PATs after UT’s many touchdowns. OU answered with a field goal from Bruce Derr after Vince LaRose picked of a James Street pass and ran the ball into a crowd of Longhorns before deftly handing off to Pearce who ran it back to the 24 before Street himself pushed the safety out of bounds.

With the two teams going blow for blow, each answering the strength of the other, a single moment seemed likely to change the game. Texas took a 20-17 lead early in the fourth period on a second Feller kick after a drive that began with another Street completion to Speyrer, this time for 49 yards, stalled. The teams then traded punts and OU had more than seven minutes remaining to retake the lead when safety Glenn King fielded UT’s kick at the OU 23. King said after the game:

“I was in the right position to field the ball, but that was about it. I took my eye off [it] for a split second. I was thinking about running with the ball before I caught it. I wanted to get us in good field position.”

King only succeeded in getting the Horns into good position. He spilled the kick and Texas cover man Bob McKay quickly covered it. Steve Worster, Bertelsen and Koy’s less flashy but highly efficient colleague dove in from the one to cap a short drive and put Texas ahead 27-17 with barely six minutes to play. The decisive moment had come and gone. Oklahoma never crossed their thirty yard line in the remaining minutes.

King acknowledged after the game:

“Being from Texas makes losing to them hurt all the more. I had special reason, too. Texas didn’t offer me a scholarship… and I wanted to get them back for that. I guess that’s why I messed up… I was too keyed up.”
Oklahoma had given everything on the day. Despite losing by ten it had been a close contest. The Red River Shootout turned out to be their best effort of the year. OU finished just 6-4, losing by thirty to eventual Big Eight champion Nebraska. Texas, on the other hand, went from strength to strength. The nation’s leading rushing offense blew out every opponent until their season finale showdown in Fayetteville vs. second ranked, unbeaten Arkansas. Once again, James Street threw winning completions when Texas needed him to, and once again Speyrer was on the other end. Royal’s charmed Horns posted one of College Football’s all-time great comeback wins with one of the all-time great clutch plays. Unbeaten Texas was voted national champion and went on to defeat Ara Parseghian’s 8-1- Fighting Irish in the 1970 Cotton Bowl. James Street started 19 games as Texas’s first wishbone quarterback. He won all of them.

The 1969 Red River Shootout was everything that makes the OU-Texas series one of the game’s great rivalries. Though Texas’ victory was the eleventh win for the Horns in twelve years Cotton Bowl games was always a hard fought, close affair. OU dominated the fifties and Texas the sixties, but overall, this series is as even as they come. Since 1950 the record is a dead heat. It is also important to remember that for most of its history the series was an inter-conference rivalry. OU has seven national titles since 1950 under three coaches. Texas has four under two. In the modern era OU and Texas are two of the game’s half-dozen great powers and yet every year they voluntarily risked a loss against the other purely for spirit of competition.

So in this 40th anniversary season of the great 1969 national championship winning Longhorns and the irrepressible Steven Owens’ hard won Heisman Trophy, here’s to OU-Texas. May the sacred Crimson-Burnt Orange line never be crossed!

(Sources: Fort worth Star-Telegram; Terry Frei, Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming)