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)

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a tremendous and highly thorough write-up. I too am an old school fanatic.
    If time allowed, I'd be doing a similar blog probably.
    Great job again