Royal, a Bud Wilkinson protégé and former Oklahoma all-American, had effected a total sea-change in Austin since his arrival in 1957. His 1963 team went 11-0, claiming a third consecutive Southwest conference title and the school’s first AP crown. Entering the 1965 Orange Bowl, the Longhorns had lost only three games in four seasons. The Alabama team that waited in Miami for the late arriving, quietly confident Horns stood at 10-0 and had already been voted AP champion. Like Royal, Bryant had turned around a once-proud program at a school that hoped to forget the 1950s. Conference and national championships in 1961 and 1964 achieved that goal emphatically. Pundits and fans alike felt sure that both coaches had more national championship in their futures and it surprised no one when their teams fought out grueling contests that turned on goal-line stands.
The first and second ranked teams in the AP poll rarely met in bowl games in those days, but Alabama-Texas was in January 1965 came as close as imaginably possible to providing such a match. Unbeaten Southwest Conference champion Arkansas had finished behind Alabama and hosted Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. Royal's team had missed out on their fourth consecutive conference title by the narrowest of margins and were every bit as deserving as Frank Broyles' Razorbacks. The two sides had faced off in Austin on October 17th and for the first thirty minutes played out a defensive stand-off that only turned on an eighty-one yard punt return for a touchdown by Arkansas defensive back Kenny Hatfield. Offensively, the Hogs achieved little against a Texas defense led by all-American stand-out linebacker Tommy Nobis. Disciplined tackling and regular blitzes from the Hogs' defense interrupted Texas’ passing game, but the Longhorns ground out decent yardage with the run. Halfback Ernie Koy powered his way to a 110-yard day and eventually tired the Razorbacks enough to engineer a scoring drive to tie the game early in the final quarter. The Horns’ defense responded with resounding three-and-out, only to be called for a twelfth man on the field on the ensuing punt. Visibly deflated, Texas allowed the only sustained drive Arkansas enjoyed all day. Quarterback Fred Marshall directed a seventy-five yard scoring march that stood in stark contrast to his under-whelming final passing statistics: 6-12 for 81 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Texas responded late in the game with a bruising drive, again led by Koy’s running. Covering seventy-yards and eating plenty of clock, the Horns reached Arkansas' endzone with only 1:27 to play. Royal’s best chance at a second consecutive unbeaten year was a two-point conversation. Preferring to gamble on glory rather than bank a tie, Royal called a passing play and Quarterback Marv Krystinik failed to find Halfback Hix Green under pressure. The game finished 13-14 -- not for the last time that decade an epic Horns-Hogs meeting that featured an eventual national champion was decided on a two-point play by Texas.
Texas had romped to some big victories over weaker opponents – such as thirty-one and twenty-three point shut-out thrashings of Tulane and Texas Tech to open the year, and a 26-7 romp over hapless 1-9 Texas A&M to end it – but Royal's team had also shown its mettle in some squeakers. The week following the Arkansas loss Texas snapped a twelve year stretch without a road win over Rice in an uninspiring affair that ended 6-3. In a battle of field position, the Horns needed an outstanding special teams performance from Ernie Koy. For once, the Halfback's rushing stats did not eclipse his kicking as nine punts for a 46.3 yard average made the critical difference. In the Red River Shootout on October 10th Texas gave up 109 yards rushing in the first half alone, while OU Linebacker Carl McAdams produced a dominating career day with 18 tackles, a fumble recovery, and a twenty-eight yard interception return. But Krystinik finally emerged with a sixty-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter before the defense forced a fumble deep in OU territory. A thirteen-yard TD pass to End Pete Lammons put an unrepresentative gloss on the final score of 28-7.
By New Year’s Day 1965 the 9-1 Longhorns had convincingly beaten over-matched teams, pulled out gritty victories against good ones, and lost a heart-breaker in the noblest possible fashion to a team that would finish 11-0 and claim a shared national title. Royal’s 1964 Longhorns were champions in all but reality, equal in every respect to the Bear’s Crimson Tide. The two teams appeared as virtual mirror images.
Like Texas, Alabama had made easy going of the lighter names on their schedule. A resounding season-opening 31-3 home win over Georgia in Vince Dooley's first game as Bulldogs head-coach preceded 36-6 and 24-0 wins over Tulane and Vanderbilt. Alabama looked unstoppable behind the precision passing and dangerous outside running of senior quarterback Joe Namath. After a post-season suspension for breaking curfew, Namath had worked his way back into Bryant’s good graces and looked set to smash records and make a strong case for the Heisman. His 16 of 21 passes for 167 yard, combined with 55-yard rushing on 11 attempts, for 3 TDs against Georgia were typical for their cool efficiency. Unfortunately, Alabama’s season changed dramatically in the fourth game -- a home date versus North Carolina State. With six minutes remaining in a still scoreless first half, Namath rolled out of the pocket looking for an open receiver and badly turned his knee. With the Tide star already on 7 of 8 passes for 58-yards, the injury interrupted what was shaping up to be another career day. More significantly, in the days before modern reconstructive ligament surgery that single miss-step hampered Namath for the rest of his career. He played professionally until 1977 with great success, including a Super Bowl championship with the Jets in 1969. But the scrambling dual-threat Quarterback that thrilled Tide fans and helped the Bear rebuild Alabama football never left the field of Denny Stadium that October 10th 1964. Had team doctors possessed the scanning technology available today Namath probably wouldn’t have seen another collegiate snap. Even without Namath, stiffling defense and the competent play of back-up Steve Sloan enabled the Tide to destroy NC State 21-0. As is characteristic of great championship teams, other players rose to the occassion. End Tommy Tolleson set a school record with an eight reception day for eighty-one yards; it hardly seemed to matter who was throwing to him. But in the grander scheme, replacing a talent of Namath’s magnitude was no easy task.
Offensive productivity dropped the following week in a 19-8 win over Tennessee. In Alabama’s sixth game, a home date against Florida, Namath returned to start but re-injured his knee late in the first quarter. Sloan's underwhelming 6 of 11 for 85-yard performance with one interception provided an unwelcome contrast to Namath's talent through the remaining three quarters. Fortunately for Alabama fans, the Tide possessed enough other play-makers to pull through. Fullback Steve Bowman provided eighty-two yards rushing with two scores on just eleven carries, including a thirty-yard score after a thirty-seven yard punt return from Halfback John Mosley in the final quarter. That touchdown tied that game at 14-14 before Bama place-kicker David Ray established a slender lead on a twenty-one yard attempt with three minutes remaining. The Tide needed all the special teams help they could get with a future Heisman Trophy winner in the opposing backfield. Steve Spurrier had an outstanding day, including a perfect seven of seven passing performance in the second half. Following Ray’s late three-pointer the Gator sophomore marched his team down the field with passes of sixteen, nineteen and seventeen yards before Alabama’s defense finally recovered its footing. Alabama sacked Spurrier and dropped Fullback John Felber for a loss with time expiring to force a quick field goal try. Those tackles robbed kicker Jim Hall of the spare seconds he needed to compose himself and the Florida specialist shanked his twenty-four yard attempt.
Two weeks later Alabama secured the SEC title in Birmingham with another narrow escape, beating LSU 17-9. On another mediocre passing performance from Sloan, the Tide held a slender 10-9 lead at halftime and relied entirely on defense to finish the job. Twice LSU drove down to the Alabama eleven-yard line before coming away empty handed. Stand-out defensive tackle Frank McClendon batted down four passes inside the redzone during those two desperate stands. Late in the fourth quarter a thirty-three yard interception return for a touchdown by defensive back Hudson Harris finally sealed a win that had looked very much in doubt.
Another close battle nearly caused Alabama to falter at the final hurdle, but once again one outstanding non-offensive performance made the difference. Hated instate rival Auburn, led by the power-running of consensus all-America Fullback Tucker Frederickson, enjoyed a 301 to 245 yardage edge in the 1964 Iron Bowl. Bama needed a a 107-yard kickoff return from Halfback Ray Ogden on the first play of the second half to tip the balance, earn a 21-14 win, and save the undefeated championship season. Namath returned to action during the game, adding a much needed spark. His twenty-three yard pass to End Ray Perkins provided Alabama’s final score. The stark contrast between Alabama's form before Namath's injury and later desperate wins over Florida, LSU and Auburn could not have been clearer. With him the Tide had some magic and could move the ball. Without, only bruising defense, clutch special teams play and gritty refusal to accept defeat elevated a good team into an unbeaten champion.
The 1965 Orange Bowl was the first collegiate game ever to experiment with an evening kickoff in the hopes of capturing a large prime-time television audience. Critics howled that ten solid hours of New Year’s Day football constituted ‘saturation’, but the masses disagreed. The game provided a gripping spectacle that propelled college football into the lucrative national viewing spotlight it has occupied ever since. The two power-house teams had all season long risen to the biggest occasions and clutched seemingly improbable triumph from the very jaws of grim defeat. Against one another, they played out a dual which ultimately turned on a decision so fine that Bama die-hards still dispute the outcome half a century later.
Several days prior to the game Namath again aggravated his injured knee practicing a routine hand-off. Bryant told reporters with characteristic frankness:
"If we don’t have Namath, our chances against a strong Texas team will be hurt… It’s like losing Sandy Koufax on the eve of the World Series."
By game time Namath’s leg was so heavily taped as to render him virtually immobile. Sloan got the nod for the start, though he also carried a nagging knee injury. Royal’s team had health problems of its own, with End Sandy Sands and Wingback Phil Harris carrying niggling injuries. But Texas did not enter the contest without any key starter. In fact, the Horns were stronger for the return of senior linebacker Timmy Doerr, who had been sidelined since the Arkansas game. Royal said everything coaches are supposed to say, reminding media men that Alabama had gone 6-0 with Sloan as the primary Quarterback. He claimed: "[Sloan] scares us just as much, if not more. He throws too good." But Royal's game-plan revealed his true perspective.
Viewing Sloan as an exploitable weak-link, defensive co-ordinator Mike Campbell had run weeks of rigorous full contact drills focusing on breaking up the Alabama option game and preventing the Tide back-up from finding his rhythm passing with play-action fakes. Texas' powerful defensive front seven blitzed early and often. For the first fifteen minutes this strategy worked perfectly. Alabama produced nothing offensively while the Texas managed to establish their running game and earn several first downs. Ernie Koy blew the game open on a big play late in the first quarter, receiving a pitch-out and turning the corner on the left side of the Bama line. He rumbled for a seventy-nine yard score, helped by the lead blocking of Guard Lee Hensley. On Texas’ next possession Royal ruthlessly exploited a rare Alabama coaching mistake. Changes to the substitution rules in 1964 allowed coaches to remove and return players in the same quarter for the first time since 1952. They could only do so, however, when the clock stopped. During a Bama timeout with Texas facing third and long, Bryant sent in most of his offensive personnel in anticipation of regaining possession. Royal quickly sent in his backup quarterback Jim Hudson, the team’s best deep passer. End George Sauer ran a seem route and when Safety Mickey Andrews took the bait on a pump-fake, Hudson hit him in stride past the fifty-yard line. Sauer raced off for a sixty-nine yard score.
Bryant commented after the game that he couldn’t remember when any team had burned Alabama on two long plays in such startling fashion. With his team desperately lacking a game-changing spark, Bryant once again turned to his hobbled star. Namath entered the game and answered Texas’s second score immediately. Deftly reading the blitzes that had disrupted Sloan, he set about dumping the ball off with calm accuracy. In a crucial eighty-seven yard march the Tide stand-out connected with Ray Perkins for twenty-five and nine yards, Tommy Tolleson for fifteen, and Wayne Cook for nine, before finishing with a seven-yard strike to Wayne Trimble in the endzone. The drive cut the Texas lead to 14-7 and completely changed the flow of the game. No longer was the Texas run-defense going against an option threat in Sloan. The immobile Namath had to rely on vertical passing finished with 255 yards on 18 of 37 passes for two scores. Bama totalled barely fifty team yards rushing. In contrast, Texas managed little through the air but gained more than 200 rushing yards, Koy alone accounting for 133 on twenty-four carries.
Texas had no intentions of surrendering without a fight and responded to Namath's first score with a sustained drive of their own to end the first half. Seventy-two yards, almost entirely on the ground, took the Horns inside inside the Alabama ten-yard line, where they finally stalled. With time running out Kicker David Conway came out for a short attempt. Alabama blocked the effort but in attempting to advance the ball fumbled it right back. Ernie Koy then converted Alabama's second mistake of the day for a one-yard touchdown with only seconds remaining. Texas took an imposing 21-7 lead to the locker-room.
Not for the first or last time in his astonishing career, whatever Bryant said at halftime rejuvenated his team. The Alabama defense dug in and the Longhorns failed to cross the fifty-yard line through the remaining two quarters. On offense, Namath picked up where he had left off and a Bama comeback began to assume the air of inevitability. Only five minutes into the third quarter Namath capped a sixty-three yard drive that featured only five rushing yards with a scoring strike to Ray Perkins. After an exchange of punts to Alabama's field position advantage, the period ended on a twenty-one yard field goal that cut the Texas lead to four at 21-17.
Bama players always said in later years that they never felt any doubt regarding the outcome. Fans in the stadium and the huge national television audience sensed as much when Namath again guided the Tide inside Texas' ten-yard line with less than five minutes remaining in the game. Perkins carried a seven yard pass out of bounds at the Texas six-yard line before Bama abandoned the passing game that had brought them within reach of triumph. Fullback Steve Bowman plunged into the Texas line three straight times for a net gain of five yards. With the ball on the Longhorn one and needing a touchdown, Namath went to the sideline. His coaches were uncertain as to the best option. The Alabama signal-caller made the decision to call his own number on a sneak. Tommy Nobis guessed the call and timed his plunge into the line of scrimmage perfectly to meet Namath. He has always claimed that the Bama legend's first dive came up short and that Namath only reached the endzone crawling on his elbows in a futile second effort. After some deliberation the referees agreed. Bama men, Namath not least among them, swear that the play succeeded. Despite protests, Texas took over possession and clung on for a precious four-point upset.
The next week, watching film back in Austin, Mike Campbell reviewed the play and jubilantly exulted to an assistant:
"Not only didn't Namath score, but not one damn Alabama jersey crossed that goalline."
No one saw things so clearly in the moment. Both sets of players and coaches readily acknowledged that the call could have gone either way. Virtually nothing separated two prolific championship winning programs on that eventful night. Alabama fans felt that if their star Quarterback could make 255 yards passing on a bum knee through three quarters that he would likely have made the decisive difference at full health in four. But injuries and hair's-breadth losses are simply part of the game. Championships with asterisks appended are not. Played out ten times the 1965 Orange Bowl might have resulted in a 5-5 series tie. As it is, the record books only show that Texas won, fair and square.
On January 7th, 2010 the Tide and Horns met for the ninth time, to play for the BCS championship in Pasadena. For the first time in more than twelve glorious decades of winning tradition, the University of Alabama defeated Texas. Early in the first quarter a routine tackle from Bama Defensive End Marcel Dareus put Colt McCoy, the all-time NCAA leader in career wins for a starting Quarterback, out of the game with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder. Redshirt freshman Garrett Gilbert could not have entered a bigger, more overwhelming stage under greater pressure. For the remainder of the first half, with their young signal caller visibly unnerved, Texas faltered and Bama surged. After the break, with the help of sixth-year senior Jordan Shipley [a veritable one-man receiving corps], Gilbert found his groove and posted a reasonably efficient effort. With three minutes remaining, back in possession of the ball and down by only a field goal, Texas fans sensed a repeat of 2005's miraculous fourth-quarter Rose Bowl come-back on the cards. It wasn't to be. Two turnovers gave Bama the victory with a deceptively emphatic final score of 37-21.
Texas fans have far more right to wonder what might have been through four quarters with a healthy star at Quarterback than Bama fans did in January 1965. But the metaphysical futility of presuming on unprovable alternate outcomes given hypothetical contingencies speaks for itself. The record books will ultimately only show that Bama finally managed to best the Longhorns.