And so there lies a young man named Cotton Speyrer, all 5'11" and 169 pounds of him, ringing out the old hundred years of college football and ringing in the new, holding onto something called No. 1 and clinging also, for whatever sentimental value it may be worth around Austin, to the very overwrought lives of Darrell Royal and his hordes of Texas Longhorn followers. Speyrer has just wheeled back, knelt, lurched and scooped up a forward pass thrown by another obstinate elf, James Street, on a gravely executed play that will simply have to be filed away among the real treasures of the sport. For it was this gamble in those last fading moments of the Cotton Bowl—this fourth-down pass from one gutty urchin to another—that enabled Texas to defeat a valiant Notre Dame team 21-17 in as courageous a game as any two schools played throughout the whole of the century.
In fact, the way the thundering afternoon was controlled and more or less dominated by the inspired play of the urchins—and not just Street and Speyrer but Notre Dame's marvelous Joe Theismann, as well—carried with it a message of what college football is all about. Here they were down on the soggy Cotton Bowl turf last week, in the best of the four New Year's Day games, surrounded by pro prospects of enticing quality, from the stampeding Steve Worster to the ponderous Mike McCoy, and it was the thin-waisted, seemingly fragile guys competing for honor, coach, campus and blonde who seized the day and turned it into a milestone.
After all, it had been Joe Theismann, the South River Road Runner who is only 6' and 170—hardly a Roman Gabriel—who almost whirled the Irish beyond their fondest memories of the Four Horsemen in Pasadena. Theismann's passing, faking and scampering shocked Texas and gave Notre Dame a 10-point lead in the game's first 15 minutes and 20 seconds. And it was his same multiple ability to escape the quick rush and find the open receiver that brought the Irish back in the fourth quarter and put Ara Parseghian's beautifully prepared team ahead again 17-14, with only 6:52 left to play.
If any Texas fans were truly surprised by the fury with which Notre Dame was playing, by Theismann's record passing in the Cotton Bowl (17 completions for 231 yards and two touchdowns) or by the notorious defensive work of Linebacker Bob Olson, they must have forgotten a basic fact—that Notre Dame is Notre Dame. When you added to it the fact that the school was making its first bowl appearance in 45 years and going against the No. 1 team, then all Texans should have known they'd be up to their Stetsons in a crusade. And it wouldn't matter whether the Irish would be using big mean McCoys or flighty little Theismanns.
January 12, 1970
As the Notre Dame quarterback had said before it all got started under a blue Texas sky (outlined against the three surviving Four Horsemen, who had flown in for the epic occasion): "I've never been so keyed up for a game, and I've never felt so confident."
The Notre Dame performance was good enough to have won against any team but Texas. The differences were a hard-running Longhorn backfield that tore out 331 yards rushing from the Wishbone T; a quick-thinking coach who has proved over and over that he can be dagger sharp when a game is, as he puts it, "in heat"; and Street, whose quality of leadership would not allow his team to lose in all of the 20 games that he worked.
Leadership is a quality we often overlook in this era of Archie Mannings and Jim Plunketts, the gifted physical types who will probably become great pros. Perhaps many of them are leaders, too, but as yet none of them has a record like the one Street posted at Texas or that of another winner, Penn State's Chuck Burkhart.
Which brings up the fact, momentarily at least, that Penn State might have grabbed one or two No. 1 plaques had Texas not beaten Notre Dame. The Nittany Lions embarrassed Missouri in the Orange Bowl 10-3, the same score by which USC topped Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Joe Paterno's team did the job in its usual manner—with a magnificent defense that intercepted seven passes, recovered two fumbles and generally made Missouri look sick.
Paterno, an amusing and likable coach on the order of Royal and John McKay of USC, had every right to try to argue his team into the No. I spot since it, too, finished 11-0, but no one paid much attention. The feeling, obviously, was that Texas won under more pressure in the big games and with greater ease in the earlier pushovers. Even McKay, who probably faced a tougher overall schedule than either and who also wound up unbeaten—but once tied—admitted that Texas deserved to be the national champion.
Besides, one can't escape the fact that Joe Paterno and his boys had a chance to take on the Longhorns in Dallas and passed it up for another trip to Miami and the sunshine. Penn State will have to live with that, along with No. 2.
All season Street and Burkhart got the job done, and last week both did it one last time. Burkhart, who lost one of his contact lenses during the first half, completed several key passes, including one for the game's only touchdown. Street's performance was a bit more spectacular because he operated under a greater strain—that of being No. 1. It was Street, we must recall, who almost singlehandedly got Texas by an Arkansas team playing its game of a lifetime in Fayetteville with a President and the whole world watching. A handsome, dapper senior with sideburns and a gabby personality, Street, who will get no closer to the pros than a 50-yard-line seat, just jabbered and ran and passed and gambled until Arkansas was beaten.
It was the same against Notre Dame. Street had already driven the Longhorns 74 and 77 yards to get back in the game, and now, behind 17-14, he was being required to do it again, flawlessly, because there was no time left for mistakes.
The Texas players say that in moments of crisis Street has a habit of babbling incoherently, saying things like, "It's guts up time.... Gotta get 'em.... No holdin' now.... No fumblin'.... Everbody get their man.... Let's gut it up..." And he's apt to continue until somebody like Bob McKay, the big tackle, says, "Aw, James, shut up and call the play."
On that last drive Street hit a sideline pass to Speyrer for a big gain, but the rest of the time he faked and pitched to his strong backs, Worster, Ted Koy and Jim Bertelsen, for the usual chunks of short yardage. Worster would tear inside, sometimes smothered so deep by Notre Dame defenders that all you could see was a moving heap of jerseys. But it moved enough.
There was a great big time out at the Notre Dame 20-yard line when Texas faced fourth down and two to go with only 4:26 remaining. Street went to the sideline to see Royal, and Bob Olson went to his sideline to confer with Parseghian. Meanwhile 73,000 hearts asked for a transplant. Texas was in field-goal range, but what would a tie do? Make Penn State, which would beat Missouri, or USC, which would beat Michigan, the No. 1 team?
Royal stayed with his triple-option offense, an attack that had made Texas the second alltime rushing team in college football during the regular season. Street faked Worster into the midsection, wiggled down the line and pitched to Ted Koy, who got the two yards by an eyelash just as Bob Olson arrived.
Now three more running plays found Texas at the Notre Dame 10. It was fourth-and-two again, 2:26 to play and another time out. Street went to Royal, and Olson went to Ara. It was a reprieve for the field goal, but Royal has always said, "When you're No. 1, you've got to try to stay that way or get carried out feet first."
The whole stadium was on its feet, and the bands were blaring out a couple of fairly familiar fight songs, while Street and Olson talked to their brains.
Street said, "How 'bout the counter option fake to the short side?"
Royal mulled it over.
Across the way, Parseghian was certain Texas would either run wide or pass. Olson was told to play the run first. It was percentages.
Out on the field now Cotton Speyrer, his back turned to the Notre Dame defense, was signaling the bench. He was dragging his thumb across his chest in the manner of a hitchhiker. The signal to Royal meant that Speyrer's defender, Clarence Ellis, was playing him tight and to the inside. It meant that Speyrer thought he could get outside on him for a quick pass.
"Left 89 Out," said Royal.
Street blinked. It was the Arkansas thing all over again, Royal calling a pass in a moment of supreme stress and James wondering, "Coach, are you sure?"
"Watch for the keep first," said Darrell. "You might be able to fall for two yards. But if you can't, drill it to Cotton. He says he's open on the out."
Street went to the Texas huddle and said, "Awright, suck it up. This might be our last play of the season, so let's make it a good one.... Everybody get tough...." Then he looked right at Cotton Speyrer and called the play.
Street took the snap, looked at the end coming up fast, stopped and threw. It was low, but Speyrer did his thing and made the catch. And three plays later, with exactly 1:08 on the clock, another urchin, Billy Dale, a 5'10", 190-pound junior who had replaced Ted Koy, hugged a hand-off from Street and followed a couple of blocks by Worster and Tight End Randy Peschel into the end zone.
In that instant Darrell Royal won his second unanimous national championship of the 1960s and firmly took his place among the coaching elite. Urchins do accomplish wonders.
It had certainly been a properly dramatic game to close out a century and one that had a thoroughly impassioned buildup. Much of the pregame discussion centered around Notre Dame's huge tackle, Mike McCoy, who is 6'5" and 280, and the offensive guard from Texas who would be asked to block him. The Texan was a junior named Mike Dean, a quick-smiling, blond-haired pre-med major who weighs only 210 pounds.
Dean played his role well, saying that the first thing he would do would be to try and make friends with McCoy. "It's not all that bad," Dean said. "I'll only be blocking on him 90% of the time."
Of course, the idea of poor little Mike Dean trying to handle McCoy—the elephant, the nonhuman—gave Texas fans a cause beyond the contest itself. Especially after a Dallas writer quoted McCoy as saying, "I don't intend to make friends with him. Actually, I've looked at the films, and I don't see any problems."
There were those Longhorn rooters who were so fascinated with the continuing publicity about McCoy's size and strength that they could not resist going to the motel where Notre Dame was headquartered and peering at him. Two of Royal's more intense worshipers were among these. And one day one of them said, "McCoy's the biggest man I've ever seen. He makes Bob Lilly look like me."
To which the other said, "Yeah, and all I know is, my little runty-legged Mike Dean's gonna eat his tail up."
Dean played well against McCoy, getting a good deal of double-team help from Bob McKay. Dean would slice at McCoy's feet and get pieces of him. He scrapped and scrambled. At times, however, McCoy overpowered everyone and got to the ball. Texas didn't spend the afternoon running at him, although Street optioned him a few times for good gains by Worster.
"He's awfully massive and scary," said Dean later. "I got pretty tired, but so did he. Frankly, with his buildup, I thought he'd show me more football player than that. I'll tell you who the great player is. It's that Olson."
And so that battle ended in rather a standoff, much to the satisfaction and well-being of Mike Dean.
If there was a relaxed moment of humor to be shared by both squads and coaching staffs, something to force a crack in the bustling pressure, it was provided at a big luncheon the day before the kickoff by Texas Governor Preston Smith. He not only welcomed all of the good visitors from "Illinois," he repeatedly referred to Ara as "Coach Parse-agan." Seriously.
A bit embarrassed, Royal had leaned over to Parseghian on the dais and whispered, "He went to Texas Tech." And when Ara finally appeared before the microphone he cordially thanked "Governor Schmidt," and collapsed the room in laughter.
Bowl games are essentially supposed to be fun for everybody concerned, of course, and Notre Dame's players, officials, coaches and fans seemed to enjoy all of the entertainment that was provided for them and the massive attention they received. The school's first venture into modern post-season play will probably be considered a success in everything but the final score.
That, too, might have been different if Notre Dame's opponent had been a team without a few midgets like James Street and Cotton Speyrer and Mike Dean, who can't do anything but play college football—and can't do anything but win.