If this was what college football had come to in 100 years, all of this insanity created by Chuck Hixson down there on the floor of the Cotton Bowl, then one had to wonder whether the game really needs to be played by 11 men on a side. Maybe you just need a guy to pitch and four or five fellows to go jump up in the air and see if they can catch it before the other side does. This was the sort of football game that crazy SMU staged against the Air Force in Dallas last week to welcome in the sport to a new century. All night SMU's Hixson threw the ball at everybody—you, us, them, Mustangs, Falcons, Kilgore Rangerettes, almost up to the lights—and if he had thrown just one more, he might have even won the game. But somehow that didn't seem important. Could a game like this have a winner? That became the question.
It did, of course, for the record. The Air Force survived the whacky evening by a count of 26-22, largely because it utilized several of the sport's more basic concepts—running, for example, and defense and kicking. Together with this it had enough passing of its own to build a 23-0 halftime lead and then hang on while Chuck Hixson did his number.
The Falcons had a quarterback of their own named Gary Baxter, who was a little more of what America remembers in the way of a quarterback. He runs with a style that has earned him the nickname of "Spider," and he has other runners with him—Curtis Martin and Ernie Jennings—who can fly or hammer away. And Baxter's all-round ability at sprinting out, dodging and also hitting 15 passes—-a sane number—got the Air Force rolling quickly and got them two touchdowns and four field goals by a dandy kicker named Dennis Leuthauser, enough to survive SMU's rally.
Against most other collegiate teams, the game would have been over at halftime because the Air Force is a solid team, one with everybody back from a 7-3 season, and they had this big cushion. But the Air Force was dealing with SMU, you know and Chuck Hixson, who hold this belief that the football belongs in the air all the time. So Hixson put it up there a total of 53 times during the evening as a continuance of what began a year ago at SMU and was labeled "Excitement '68" by a public-relations firm hired by the school.
Although a Dallas columnist quickly renamed it "Excitement '68, SMU O," Hixson completed more passes for more yards than any sophomore in the history of the game, and his coach, Hayden Fry, decided that Chuck was the greatest passer football had ever had. For a while last Saturday he looked the part.
With Hixson out there, SMU was bound to start scoring, one felt. After all, last year the Mustangs had trailed eight times at the half but had managed to win eight games, and they had averaged 28 points a game. The Air Force had "only" a 23-point lead. "Hixson has five points to play with," said Bill Morgan, the Southwest Conference publicity director.
Well, the tall, extremely mature-looking quarterback finally got started. Standing back there in his pocket, unblinking, and spraying passes everywhere, he wheeled the Mustangs 94 yards to get eight points on the scoreboard. Then he did it again for eight more. And now the new scoreboard in the Cotton Bowl began to perk up. "Go, go, go, go," it flashed. And then it said, "Remember the miraclemakers of'68?" The 43,000 Mustang rooters stood up and the 1,000 cadets who had been airlifted in from Colorado Springs sat down. It was 23-16 now, and Hixson was hot.
Chuck, who replies good-humoredly to his fans who think of him as a born pro quarterback by saying, "I can run like Unitas and I've got hair like Tittle," was not all that hot, however. He didn't get the Mustangs their other touchdown right away, and Spider Baxter drove the Falcons to that other field goal to increase their lead to 10 points. When Hixson did get a touchdown, there were only 40 seconds left in the game, and SMU still needed four more points.
Everyone in the stadium—and anyone watching national television who had not gone to sleep after halftime—knew that SMU would try an onside kick. It did, and, like the miraclemakers of a year ago, the Ponies recovered it at midfield. This only took one second. So Hixson had to go 50 yards in 39 seconds with no time-outs left.
Since he was in the process of completing 34 passes for 356 yards in all, there was no question as to how SMU might try to get that touchdown. So Chuck bent down behind the center, and the Air Force went into its old 3-2-4-2 defense, or whatever it was that Ben Martin was using against the most unorthodox team in the land.
Hixson immediately hit Gary Hammond, a brilliant sophomore who has inherited Jerry Levias' job, for 19 yards. Then he hit Hammond again for three. He's on the Falcons' 27-yard line now, but, oops, there are just 10 seconds left. A completion short of the goal won't do. It has to be for six, or at least incomplete, in which case he'll get one more try. Out go the receivers—Tight End Ken Fleming, who's caught eight. Flanker Sammy Holden, who's caught eight, and Hammond, who's caught nine. And some other guys. Hixson drops back to throw, the scoreboard mentions miraclemakers again, the stadium erupts.
But Chuck doesn't throw. He keeps looking. And he never does throw because an Air Force end named Harold Whaley has looped outside and come around in back of him and wrestles him down, and everybody goes home. Which brought up the fact that this is something else SMU and Hixson may do this year—run for minus yardage. Alone, Hixson was caught eight times for-48, and the Falcons intercepted him three times, and while this was happening Gary Baxter, the more complete operator, was getting the Air Force 178 yards on the ground along with his 206 passing.
The game was lost, but Hixson has got "Excitement '69" off to the kind of start that SMU is accustomed to. They win some and lose some but everybody remembers the swell heart attack they suffered, in any case.
Had Hixson got the ball away and had Hammond or Fleming grabbed it for a touchdown, SMU would have outscored the Air Force, but who would have had the better team? Interesting. One team—the Falcons—had played one game by all of the old-fashioned rules. But this other one, SMU, had been playing jai alai all night, or something like that, because Chuck Hixson has no other way to travel, and because SMU is not just playing college opponents every week in this new era, it is playing the Dallas Cowboys for the entertainment dollar.
When Hixson got to SMU two years ago the coaches weren't sure how tough he was. Could he take real punishment, the kind a guy receives when his protection pocket crumbles? Could he stand up to the rush repeatedly and always get up when he got stomped? They decided to play a little game that could have been called "get Hixson."
The game involved the assistant coaches forming a human wall behind him—behind the offensive backfield—during workouts. When Chuck would drift back to pass, the wall was there so he couldn't possibly escape the onward rush. He either got rid of the ball fast or he got buried. When he would appear to be retreating, the coaches would block him and even, at times, hurl him into the defenders. Hixson kept getting up.
"Spending a year as a red shirt will teach you a few things," Hixson said. "There's no question that it helped me learn to take it, but also to look for receivers—and quick."
Hayden Fry might be the only coach in America who won't use the triple option this year. Hixson, of course, is the reason. "If there is anything you need, it's a healthy quarterback," Fry said. "Hixson couldn't run the option anyhow. He's too slow, although he has run for some touchdowns. But I don't want him taking the punishment a quarterback takes with that offense."
Dedicated as he is to the passing game with Hixson this year (and next), Fry's workouts are not like anyone else's. He might spend a whole day rehearsing ways for Hixson to throw the team into the end zone from only eight yards out. Or he might spend another whole afternoon rehearsing ways for Chuck to hurl the Ponies out of their own territory. "Everything we do is based on one theory,'' said Fry. "We believe it's easier to throw for four yards than to run for four. At least with Chuck it is."
But there are many reasons why Hixson is already immortal and, given good health, will surely break every collegiate passing record there is. First, he can throw his passes in a variety of ways—soft, the nose of the ball up, or hard and flat. He also has the knack of being able to see many receivers all at once, like each and every one of the four or five hundred that the Mustangs send out on practically every play. SMU's alphabet offense spreads across the field like a marching band and then some, and Hixson has to stand back there and search across the entire horizon before he throws.
"Not too many years ago they said a passer had to be able to spot his secondary target," Fry explained. "For us, Hixson has to be able to find his third and fourth receivers, and no one could possibly do it better."
The final thing is the matter of his quick release. Most passers have to step forward a little to get the ball away. Not Chuck. He barely moves his left foot, primarily, of course, because some angry lineman has a grasp on it. He just stands there or sways gently and, suddenly, flick. Hixson has shot the ball maybe 40 yards downfield, and right where he aimed it.
Of course, as already suggested, there is quite another thing that will help Hixson shatter the records; this offense that Fry is using, a total commitment to the pass. It started last year in SMU's first game when Hixson completed his first toss from his own end zone. That was against Auburn over in the Southeast where they don't do such things.
SMU was back on its three-yard line when it happened, and when he called the play his teammates looked at their sophomore general as if he'd maybe had his hat stepped on.
"We run it 50 times a day," Chuck said to his team. "It's what we believe in. Let's go." Whereupon he promptly hit 27 passes that day for 283 yards and little old, lowly, underrated, unrespected SMU—long-suffering since the days of Doak and Kyle—became one of the most exciting teams in football, Hixson completing his last pass of the season to upset Oklahoma in the Blue-bonnet Bowl.
That one was probably funnier than his first against Auburn. Chuck had gone to the line of scrimmage and seen Oklahoma's two safeties looking him in the eye. He laughed to himself and did what he usually does, which is call an audible. It was a deep pass to Fleming. Just after he threw, he turned and started for the bench, knowing it was good. And it was.
"A pro coach told me how proud he was last year that his quarterback had called audibles for seven touchdowns," Fry said. "I just didn't have the heart to tell him that Chuck had called audibles for 11 touchdowns. That's how smart he is, along with everything else."
What Hixson does seems to be of far more importance than what SMU does because of the fun-and-thrill war that Hayden Fry feels obliged to wage with the professionals. If that is what college football is up to in its new century, SMU may be the first team to have discovered how to win while losing.