Things were in chaos last Thursday around the Austin home of Texas football Coach Fred Akers. The problem was that when two of Akers' children, Lesli and Stacey, came home after school they saw their dad's Cadillac still in the driveway. Normally at this time of day it would be parked outside his office. Inside, the coffeepot was still plugged in—the one thing Akers does do around the house is unplug the coffee—and there were their father's car keys lying on the kitchen counter.
The girls immediately assumed that Akers had been kidnapped on the eve of the Texas-Oklahoma game—sort of like the Navy goat. "This is awful," wailed 12-year-old Stacey. "They can't play the game without him." At which time Fred's wife, Diane, arrived home from a tennis match, listened to the hysteria and said, "Have you checked the closets?" A search ensued, but Fred was no closet case. The pool bottom also was empty.
As it turned out, Akers had got locked out of the house in the morning while all his family was gone, and he had been forced to call one of his assistants to come after him. Later, at dinner, a spirited discussion transpired between Diane and Fred over the circumstances of the coach being locked out and whose responsibility it is to see that he has his keys with him when he walks out the door.
But if Akers was short of keys on Thursday, he found all he needed by Saturday as his unbeaten Longhorns, AP's No. 4-ranked team, unlocked all the secrets of No. 3-ranked Oklahoma. The final score was 16-7, and the victory marked the second time in Akers' three years as Texas coach that the 'Horns have won in one of the liveliest rivalries in college football. "Folks don't take this game real serious down here," says one fan, "but they will kill for it." More significantly, the victory thrust Texas into serious contention for the national championship.
October 21, 1979
Up in Norman earlier in the week, Sooner Coach Barry Switzer had analyzed the game. "The difference almost always is who has the best defense," he said. "And if it all should come down to kicking, we'll lose. See, there's this funny thing about football. The best team usually wins."
As a prophet, Switzer gets an A-plus. The seasoned Texas defense—yearning to be recognized as the nation's toughest—demonstrated its mettle by limiting the heretofore high-powered Oklahoma offense, which had averaged 442 yards in its first four games, to only 158 yards, including a depressing 30 passing. In the process, the Longhorns shut down Billy Sims; the 1978 Heisman Trophy winner gained only 73 yards in 20 tries, the fewest for him in 14 games dating back to September 1978.
The Texas defensive tackles—255-pound Steve McMichael and 255-pound Bill Acker, both from tiny (pop: 2,804) Freer, Texas—played absolutely brilliantly. "All we had to do was tackle," said McMichael, who was in on 10 tackles and forced one turnover. "When the ball moved, we moved. It was all pretty simple." Indeed, the Texas coaching staff had simplified its defensive plan for this game in hope of encouraging more basic, hard-nosed, lights-out football. After the game, in which he had a hand in seven tackles and made a key fumble recovery, Acker said, "They rely on blocking us tackles, and they didn't do it." Through it all, Texas Strong Safety Ricky Churchman was his usual ornery self, putting big hits on Sims that repeatedly let the air out of the Sooner star. Asked if he thought his performance had cost him the 1979 Heisman, Sims said, "I don't care. I have one already. We still have a chance to win the Big Eight title...that's what matters."
With the previously rampaging Sooners, who had scored 182 points in winning four of four before meeting Texas, being held in check, the game's pivotal point came when Oklahoma field-goal kicker John Hoge missed a 37-yard attempt in the third quarter that would have brought the sooners back to a 10-10 tie and very likely replenished their spirits. This was precisely the kind of failure Switzer had feared. Meanwhile, Texas field-goal kicker John Goodson was having extraordinary success. Goodson walked on last season and asked Akers, who was looking for a successor to the nonpareil Russell Erxleben, if he could try out Upon seeing Goodson kick, Akers was horrified—first, to find that he was a soccer-style booter and, second, to discover that he was another of the barefoot boys, two things football coaches understand not at all. But after Goodson showed his stuff, Akers was impressed and told him he could stay around. Fortunate, that, for in four games Goodson has succeeded on 12 of 15 field-goal attempts to lead the nation. He was 3 for 3 against Oklahoma. A familiar phrase from Akers these days is "Thank goodness for Goodson."
How was Goodson able to come into the Texas-Oklahoma game and perform so well when he had never placekicked in college before this year?
"I'm not a nervous person."
Why no show of emotion after the one that iced the win?
"I never jumped up and down after a field goal before. Why should I now?"
So everything was perfect?
"Oh, no. I could have kicked all of them right through the middle. But I didn't."
Finally, Switzer also was correct when he said the best team would win. When Texas Center Wes Hubert was asked if his team was better, he responded thoughtfully, "Well, we played better."
The defense certainly did. And for the fourth week in a row, the Texas offense—it had 350 net yards against Oklahoma—ran crazy. Until it got into scoring position. Then it took sick. Counting Saturday's one touchdown against the Sooners, the Longhorns have managed only six TDs all year, hardly a championship total. Thank goodness for Goodson. There is concern about the lack of touchdowns, but the Longhorns try not to point fingers. "We all win or we all lose," Defensive Coordinator Leon Fuller says. "If the offense is not doing it, then it's up to the defense. It's like in a footrace, you don't say, 'Boy, my right leg did great, but my left leg was a little slow.' " And the offense did move the ball well enough to maintain lengthy possession—Texas had the ball for 80 plays; Oklahoma 49—and give the defense plenty of rest.
In the pregame frenzy, nobody was resting. At a raucous pep rally in Austin, Akers assured the students that all that was involved was "personal pride, university pride and state pride." Darrell Royal, Texas' athletic director, said "For this week, your palms are more moist, your mouth is drier, your hair stands out straight on the back of your neck. Hell, look how excited I am. I don't talk this fast normally. Every motion and emotion I have is speeded up."
So, perhaps this annual Cotton Bowl confrontation has got too big? "Interesting," said Royal. "You work hard to get big, and then you reach some point where you say, 'Maybe football is not meant to be this big.' But if you're not this big, then you're off in the corner sulking and sucking your thumb because you ain't."
Whatever, downtown Dallas continues to go mad on the eve of the Texas-Oklahoma game. At one point last Friday night, a line of drunks were handcuffed together by the cops, and the first one fell over, creating a fascinating domino effect.
While the rest of the city went bananas, Akers had his football players holed up in a Dallas hotel, where he was applying psychology. "What we're talkin' about is passin' out headaches and black eyes, men," he said. "We like it that way. For winners like us, there is no excuse good enough to keep us from what we want. There are no excuses. Only real fighters should have the privilege of playing in this game. It's gonna be tough out there because we're gonna make it that way. All you have to do is refuse to give in to self-pity. Every time you get knocked down, get up twice."
On Saturday morning Akers gathered his charges for one last assault on their minds, saying, "It must feel good to know you have teammates who are as good as you are. We can weave a web with our kicking game that they can't get out of." Elsewhere, Switzer was exhorting his charges to "fight your guts out." At which point, one of his players, Tight End Forrest Valora, raced onto the field and collided with a TV cameraman filming for—of all things—The Barry Switzer Show. It took six stitches in the forehead to put Valora together again.
The 'Horns offense got off to a typical start. Directed by sophomore Quarterback Donnie Little and relying on Halfback Jam Jones, who carried nine times for 45 yards in the Longhorns' 54-yard, 14-play first-quarter drive, Texas moved up the field. But then the 'Horns became frightened of their own shadow when they got to the Oklahoma 13. Cool Hand Goodson came in and kicked a 37-yard field goal to salvage three points. In the ensuing series, Oklahoma failed to move and was forced to punt. The kick was fumbled by the normally reliable Johnnie Johnson, and the Sooners' Ken Sitton recovered the ball on the Texas 16. Three plays later Oklahoma Quarterback J. C. Watts connected on an 11-yard pass play over the middle to freshman Fullback Stanley Wilson for the go-ahead touchdown. It was a nifty play named "The Freddie Akers Special" because it was designed to take advantage of Texas' aggressive rush defense.
Late in the second quarter Watts attempted another pass, but he was leveled by McMichael as he threw, and the ball headed toward Texas Cornerback Derrick Hatchett. "When I saw the pass thrown, I thought it was an excellent opportunity for me to do something good," said Hatchett, who ran the interception back 36 yards to the Oklahoma five. Three plays later Little, using a play he had not called before this season, connected with Tight End Steve Hall for the two-yard score. Oddly, it was Hall's first reception in two seasons. And ironically, Hall is one of only two Oklahomans on the Texas roster; Oklahoma has 23 Texans, inculuding Sims. Hall's reception gave Texas a 10-7 lead.
The play also helped vindicate Little, a sophomore who keenly feels the criticism he has received for not getting his team into the end zone often. In his defense, Little has been troubled with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand since the Longhorns' 21-0 win over Missouri on Sept. 29. Evaluating his performance against Oklahoma, Little said, "I was fine, good, O.K.—but not great." That's a fair self-evaluation. Several times Little missed glorious opportunities to run for big yardage when he passed instead. But he has overcome his tendency of last year to fumble. "Before each game, I review my own game plan with myself—fumbling is not in it," Little says. Akers, meanwhile, keeps Little pumped up. "He's a winner. That's why he's my quarterback," Akers says.
At halftime Akers was not only thinking of victory but of domination. "Men, just because it's tough doesn't mean it has to be close," he said. "You'll have 'em suckin' wind in the fourth quarter."
Midway in the third quarter came the key Sooner field-goal miss. Meanwhile, Texas continued acting just like Texas. With 3:43 remaining, Linebacker Robin Sendlein made a blind-side hit on Watts as Watts dropped back to pass. The ball popped up—right into the hands of Acker, who returned it two yards to the Oklahoma 22. But the 'Horns failed to make a first down on fourth-and-one at the Oklahoma 13 and handed the ball over without even getting a field-goal try.
In the fourth quarter Texas marched again, from its own 35 to the Sooner six, whereupon Goodson booted a 23-yard field goal—a bit to the right of dead center, it should be noted. Moments later Sims fumbled and End Tim Campbell, Earl's little brother, jumped on it. Texas got the ball to the Oklahoma 11 this time. Is it really necessary to explain what happened this time, or are you getting the drift? O.K., you-know-who kicked another you-know-what from 38 yards to make it 16-7.
Throughout the afternoon Texas' Jam Jones continued to shred the Oklahoma defense as he led all rushers with 127 yards on 31 carries. Like Goodson, Jones was calm. "I'm not a person that gets overwhelmed by anything," he said.
But it was all overwhelming enough to send Akers clambering atop a folding table in the locker room after the game. "This was no fluke," said Akers, correctly. "You can use this win as a springboard to whatever you want in this country." That's as close as Akers would get to alluding to a national championship. It was at this point that Texas Governor William P. Clements showed up to slip in front of the television cameras and announced that in a bet on the game with Oklahoma Governor George Nigh, he had won a buffalo. Nobody much cared, but when the Governor said he would have the buffalo barbecued for the players, interest perked right up.
And much later, upon returning to his Austin home—keys firmly in hand—Akers opened the door, made himself a pot of coffee and sat down with the pleased expression of a man who had just done precisely what he had intended to do all along. Which is easy if you remember the keys.