The University of Texas football team is killing time in its dressing room tucked under the Cotton Bowl, secluded for the moment from any further "Hook 'em Horns" exhortations of its followers. More important, the players are protected from having to endure any more of the oldie-but-awful Boomer Sooner, the song of their hated rivals from Oklahoma. They sprawl on the light blue carpet flecked with brown and dark blue, tending to last-minute preparations. Which is to say, looking at their own pictures in the program.
The battle of the unbeatens will unfold in a few minutes. But everyone knows Oklahoma is more unbeaten than Texas, for the Sooners count among their victims Ohio State; Texas counts among its victims Virginia. Besides, Oklahoma was considered a hot prospect for a national championship: Texas was considered a hot prospect for finishing fourth in the Southwest Conference. Earlier this year, when Fred Akers was thrust into the uncomfortable position of taking over as head coach from Darrell Royal, Akers said, "We are not ready at this point to be a contender."
Youth is a big problem for the Longhorns. Leon Fuller, the defensive coordinator, laments, "We're so young we hold hands going onto the field." Not having whipped the squad from Norman since 1970, Akers summons his flock up off the floor and evangelizes, "There is nothing we can't overcome. Nothing. Good luck, men." Pause. "Ah, the hell with luck! Let's go out there and be us."
At which point the Horns raced onto the field in front of 72,032. For this game, hysteria was the norm, and things advanced from there.
October 16, 1977
First, a new Texas trick play resulted in an interception, and OU took over at the Texas 14 with the game six seconds old. Then, on Texas' seventh offensive play, starting Quarterback Mark McBath was torn, spindled and mutilated and hobbled from view. On the team's 16th offensive play, with a couple of minutes remaining in the first quarter. Texas' second-string quarterback, Jon Aune, was crushed and towed away. So out trotted the third-team quarterback, Randy McEachern, whose college record reads like that of a guy not considered good enough to play for most junior colleges. So unknown is McEachern that when Aune went down, star Running Back Earl Campbell stood on the field wondering. "Golly, who's gonna quarterback us?"
After being introduced around in the huddle, McEachern promptly set about helping Texas win. The final score was 13-6 in a wacky and wonderful game that forevermore will be held up as a model for overcoming adversity.
Beforehand, common sense suggested an Oklahoma victory. Sure, the Sooners had almost been dumped by Vanderbilt. But Oklahoma people called that a fluke. Texas, on the other horn, was rolling up box-car numbers, but the names of their rivals produced standing-room laughter: Boston College fell 44-0; Virginia fell 68-0; Rice fell 72-15 and displayed little interest in getting up. Texas was the nation's leader in rushing offense, scoring offense, rushing defense and scoring defense. And everybody said, "So what?" Akers also told his team moments before the contest, "We have a big advantage because Oklahoma does not know how good a football team you are." Neither, of course, did Akers.
All week Heisman candidate Campbell had worked secretly on a halfback pass. The beauty of it was that Campbell passing is like Babe Ruth bunting. But when the maneuver was tried on the Horns' second offensive play. Oklahoma Tackle Dave Hudgens intercepted. Three plays later, however, Fullback Kenny King fumbled, the 28th time a Sooner had this year. Midway in the first quarter Oklahoma got things together enough to score a 47-yard field goal by the hero of the Ohio State win, Uwe von Schamann.
In the next series of downs, McBath, who plans to be a doctor because "I like to mess around hospitals and nurses," was running an option. Before he could pitch out, he was caught by an Oklahoma defender, who started to twist him down by his ankle. At the same time, McBath was hit from the opposite side. Ironically. McBath had said earlier, "I always feel better after I'm popped good once, and I figure Oklahoma will accommodate me." X rays disclosed that McBath had a torn ligament in his left ankle and will be out for the season.
This was a serious problem for Akers because even with McBath, the quarterback situation was a little shaky. (Ted Constanzo, the second-string quarterback during spring practice, hurt his knee playing racketball this summer.) In fact, when Akers got the head job his first decision was to junk the famed wishbone offense that was born in Texas in favor of the veer and the. The wishbone has a fullback, which helps out on blocking, but it requires great quarterbacking to be effective. The veer has no fullback, but there is an additional receiver, which helps passing. It also can succeed with mediocre quarterbacks.
So in trots Aune, a better passer than McBath, but not as good a leader. With 2:45 left in the first quarter he was leading Campbell on a sweep and had just planted his right foot to turn when he was hit. "I heard my right knee pop," Aune said. "I had the chance I'd been waiting for, and now it was gone." His X rays disclosed a torn ligament in his right knee and he, too, is out for the season.
In trots McEachern. It seemed, given his lack of experience, that if he got onto the field without tripping, he might be playing over his head. Akers had recruited him (in 1974 when Akers was a Royal assistant), and Randy was glad to accept, being as nobody else wanted him. When he was a freshman McEachern was the quarterback of the scout team, the group that runs the plays of the opponent in practice; as a sophomore he was red-shirted and spent the fall marking things down on a clipboard; as a junior he had knee surgery and was out all season, so he spent that fall spotting for radio broadcasts; and last spring he still was not ready. But this fall he played some when the games were already won. Was he nervous? "Oh, no, not unless you would consider your heart stopping a sign of nervousness."
On his first play McEachern carried the ball into the right side of the line. He lost one yard. But he didn't fumble, and he got up. Given the way things were going for Texas, this was a good play. Aune tried to come back on the next series, but his knee gave way and he was through. It wasn't long before the Horns were faced with a fourth and eight on the OU 46, just right for their star kicker, Russell Erxleben, the man who kicked an NCAA record 67-yarder two weeks ago. This one was 64 yards and true. Then, with only 1:10 remaining in the half and the Horns maneuvering for another field goal by Erxleben, Campbell crashed and bashed off left tackle, careening 24 yards for the score with the kind of effort that had Heisman written all over it. At the half the score was 10-3.
As they filed by, the Longhorn players tried not to look in the training room; the sight of two quarterbacks in street clothes is not inspiring. Backfield Coach Bob Warmack insisted of Oklahoma, "They're just looking for an opportunity to lie down." Akers insisted, "Men, we lose two quarterbacks, another comes in, and we're still gonna win." But there was deep concern, and something Akers had written on a blackboard before the game seemed strangely empty. It read, "Have fun." Texas' fate seemed to rest with its swarming defense and the foot of Erxleben.
Von Schamann kicked another field goal in the third quarter and Erxleben matched it with a 58-yarder in the fourth quarter to make the score 13-6, Texas. But Oklahoma, playing without talented Back Billy Sims, who injured an Achilles tendon against Ohio State, showed signs of life. Lightly used Elvis Peacock (seven carries all day) got the ball from Quarterback Thomas Lott, then passed it back to Lott for 11 yards. Freshman David Overstreet, in for Sims, got 15. Texas was flagged for pass interference, and Kenny King went 14. The Sooners had a third down and two on the Texas six with 4:39 left.
Peacock got a yard. With fourth and one on the Texas five, Lott slid along the line until he was turned in by Texas' Lance Taylor. Lott cut and was cracked head-on by Safety Johnnie Johnson. "I looked down and saw the five-yard line, and I knew he had to cross it for the first," Johnson said later. "I also knew help was on its way." It was, in the person of Tackle Brad Shearer, who was magnificent all afternoon. It appeared the Sooners were clearly done. But Erxleben made sure, unloading a 69-yard punt (he had a 71-yarder earlier) to keep Oklahoma at bay. "Kicking is no fun," says Erxleben, "if you're not good at it."
Back home in Austin, a mob of fans greeted the Longhorn plane as it taxied to the terminal, and Randy McEachern, who had left the day before not planning even to work up a sweat, was faced with T shirts on his return, inscribed, RANDY'S DANDY. He was four-for-eight passing, and if he only had a total of 59 yards on offense, that was enough. He was asked what was his biggest thrill of the game? "The end."
But when the shouting faded and Akers was alone in his office, he conceded his team had paid a high price. Backing up McEachern are three freshmen, and tough Arkansas was next on the schedule. Said Akers, "I think we're going to find out what we're made of."
But at least he knows now that his young Longhorns can climb Mount Adversity, and that they enjoy the view from the top.