Texas football Coach Fred Akers, a man given to making frequent and earnest orations to his players, had dimmed the lights in a meeting room at the Marriott-Market Center hotel in Dallas last Saturday morning and was talking soothingly to the Longhorns about relaxing the big muscles in their legs and the little muscles around their eyes. Then, without raising his voice, he told the all-but-hypnotized players to think that "I will be like a scorpion when that ball is snapped. Nothing will escape my gaze. I will be the most exacting, aggressive football player in this country. I will be absolutely electric. I truly do not know what the word 'quit' means. There is nothing that can happen to me that I can't overcome. I will be stronger and stronger as I watch my opponent get more and more tired. It's not how much talent I have but how much I show."
And then the lights were slowly turned back up to full bright and the players blinked and stumbled back to reality. Three hours, 20 minutes later, the undefeated Longhorns—ranked first in the nation by SI and third by both the wire services—ran out on the carpeted floor of the Cotton Bowl and blinked and bumbled around like June bugs for the first 30 minutes, falling behind Oklahoma 14-3.
In truth, Texas was blocking and tackling and executing just fine; it had been two Longhorn fumbles that led to the two Sooner touchdowns. Akers, speaking in anything but a soothing manner to his assistant coaches at the half, said, "They're supposed to be the fumblers." Indeed, Oklahoma had fumbled 16 times in two previous games, compared to Texas' four fumbles in its last two outings. But last Saturday in the first half, the Sooners didn't fumble once, which led their coach, Barry Switzer, to say, "Already, that's an upset." Yet so sure was Akers that Oklahoma would revert to form that he made no significant adjustments at the half to either the offense or defense.
Instead, Akers chose to top up his boys' tanks with still more high-test oration at halftime, saying, "The Sooners have gone far longer than they deserve without a fumble and they know it." And as the Longhorns buckled their chin straps and got ready to run back on the field, Akers delivered himself of still more ringing oratory: "Men, what we want to do is kill their will. You will find a way. Just put your tattoo all over 'em. The collisions are going to be fierce and the intensity is going to be severe because we're going to make it that way. We are talking about going to war. We are talking about hand-to-hand combat. We are talking about grenades and knives and axes and baseball bats, with everybody kickin' and fightin' and bitin' and clawin'. You have championship fiber running through you."
October 18, 1981
Poor Oklahoma, without hearing a thing, was being talked into defeat. The wild-eyed Longhorns proceeded to play up to their coach's rhetoric after the intermission. They put 17 points on the board in the third quarter—three of them as a result of a Sooner fumble, it should be noted—and 14 more in the fourth, when another Sooner fumble squelched any Oklahoma comeback aspirations. When it was all over, Texas had blown the Sooners' wheels off 34-14. Longhorn Linebacker Larry Ford was right when he said, "That was a Texas whuppin'." The 75,587 fans who filled the Cotton Bowl, making this Southwest Conference-Big Eight shootout a sellout for the 36th straight time, were convinced.
So was Oklahoma. Twice the Sooners failed to convert on fourth and one. On one of those occasions, Oklahoma Quarterback Kelly Phelps was hit by Texas Tackle Mark Weber. "I beat my man and looked up and saw Phelps in my face. It was wonderful," said Weber. On the other such play, Tackle Kenneth Sims and End Eric Holle nailed Phelps. "I told you this was just like playing Rice, only it's in Dallas," said Sims, who had a hand in 12 tackles and pounced on one of those Sooner fumbles.
After the game, Akers leaped up on a table and told his celebrating players, "That was just a great performance, but, hell, you know that." Guard Doug Dawson chimed in, "That was the springboard to a national championship."
Could be. For if Saturday's game is any indication, the 4-0 Longhorns just may be as good as their coach tells them they are and not all hat and no cattle as some experts thought. Indeed, Texas Defensive Coordinator Leon Fuller seems genuinely baffled when asked how he would attack his own defense, which held Oklahoma—ranked second in the nation in rushing with an average of 358 yards a game—to 194 yards, allowed no pass completions and racked up three sacks. Fuller finally said, "I wouldn't want to be an offense against us."
All of this seems improbable to those who remember last year when a promising Texas season turned terrible. There were nasty noises to the effect that a number of Longhorns just packed it in as they closed with five losses in their last seven games. Akers puts it more gently, saying, "We didn't handle adversity well." Right, as in Custer didn't handle the Indians well. Never mind that, in the course of beating Oklahoma 20-13 a year ago, Texas had lost six offensive starters to injury and had only partly regained the services of three of them by the end of the season. Because of the Longhorns' poor 1980 record, a few bumper stickers emerged in Austin this fall that read: IT'S NOW OR NEVER, FREDDIE. For his part, Akers says that ever since he arrived in 1977 there have been "rumors that I was going to LSU, to Notre Dame, to the New York Giants, to Florida. After last season it was said that I was just going."
Aside from general good health, the key change from 1980 for Texas is that Quarterback Donnie Little, who had
guided the Longhorns for two years, volunteered to switch to wide receiver for his final season. He said he knew that his future as a pro, if any, wasn't at quarterback and he wanted to showcase his talents elsewhere. "I think the quarterback gets too much credit when he does well and too much criticism when he doesn't," says Akers. The fact was, Little had come down with big-time college football's most dreaded disease: Not Living Up to Expectations.
Waiting in the wings to replace Little was the perfect man to be the Texas quarterback—junior Rick McIvor. He's everything a Longhorn signal-caller should be, straight off a ranch in West Texas, equipped with a goal-to-goal arm ("Naw," he demurs, "I only throw 83 yards...with accuracy") and throws nothing but ropes. He's tough, tall (6'4"), rangy (200 pounds) and, best of all, a real, sure-as-shootin' cowboy who can ride fences and doctor cattle and yup and nope with the best of them. He can also be expansive.
Sitting around in Austin last week savoring a pinch of Skoal, McIvor talked of how roping cattle on his relatives' ranches around Fort Stockton had strengthened his wrist and shoulders. "I enjoy every minute I'm on a ranch," he says. "It's the one place where your freedom is really free. When I'm just aridin' along on a horse from one pasture to another, the pleasure's all mine."
These days, the pleasure is all Texas', as Oklahoma discovered. It took a while for the truth to sink in, however. The Sooners' opening kickoff, to John Walker, was fumbled, John Truitt recovered, and Oklahoma had the ball on the Texas 16. Said Walker later, "I could see in Coach Akers' eyes that he felt like I could do better." Three plays later, Halfback Chet Winters punched over from the one for Oklahoma's first TD. In the second quarter it was McIvor who fumbled, and the Sooners went 34 yards for their second—and last—score, Fullback Stanley Wilson going in from the one.
It was a start bad enough to make Akers wonder if all his players had been snoozing when, in his pregame oration, he had exhausted them with this declamation: "Men, you've grown this season. And you'll be bigger after today. If any team should have confidence, it ought to be this one. Let your skill free-flow. When you have it, take advantage of it. When you don't, fight like hell to get it back. Go for the throat."
The third quarter was go-for-the-throat time. Three times Texas had the ball, and three times it scored. Senior Tailback A.J. (Jam) Jones, who was thought to be all-world when he arrived in Austin but who has turned out to be all-whirlpool, carried on eight of 10 plays in the first drive, finally diving in from the one. That narrowed the Oklahoma lead to 14-10. "I've always been a power runner and a slasher," said the oft-injured Jones, who ended up with 134 yards on 36 carries. "The difference in this game is I was a little more of a power runner and a whole lot more of a slasher."
Moments later, following a Wilson fumble on his own seven, the Longhorns' Raul Allegre, from Mexico City via two years at the University of Montana, kicked a 22-yard field goal to make it 14-13. Then, after Sims's and Holle's fourth-and-one stop of Phelps at the Longhorn 31, Texas came back up the field, pushing the Oklahoma defense around so much the Sooners should have ordered backup lights for their hip pads. With third and 15 on the Sooner 36, McIvor was looking to throw to Jones but couldn't find him. He scrambled to his left, forcing Oklahoma Free Safety Dwight Drane to come up and try to contain him. Drane having committed himself, McIvor gunned the ball to Wide Receiver Maurice McCloney in the end zone. Texas 20, Oklahoma 14. When the previously unheralded McCloney was asked if he ever thought he'd be a star in this sort of game, he said, "Sure, I was planning on it all along." That ought to give him an A-plus in Akers' positive-thinking seminar.
When McIvor threw a four-yard scoring pass to 6'6" Tight End Lawrence Sampleton with 8:19 to go in the fourth quarter, Longhorn Offensive Coordinator Ron Toman jumped up in the coaching booth and hollered, "We've got their number." But another assistant, Craig Rider, said, "Let's stick one more down their throats." Which the Longhorns did, with only 17 seconds to go, when third-team Tailback Rodney Tate raced in from 17 yards out. A deflated Switzer said, "We just have to get better as a team."
And assuming that Texas, too, will get better, its opposition could be feeling a lot worse. Make no mistake. The Longhorns are good all over. They have depth, with only the offensive line being short on experienced reserves. Collectively they might be the most talented team Akers has had. Physically, the hay is in the barn. What's left is to work on their minds. And like an engineered-for-the-'80s Rockne, the 43-year-old Akers is working overtime. "Picture that locker room after the game," he was telling his players before the Longhorns met Oklahoma. "Think how exuberant it's going to be." Picture how right he was.