Fred Akers, coach of the Texas Longhorns, was talking his team through its pregame ritual of deep relaxation last Saturday morning in a Dallas hotel meeting room, three hours before the kickoff of the invariably tense annual game against Oklahoma. "Only when you are relaxed completely can you make strong commitments that last," he told them. Akers went on to discuss the kind of commitments he had in mind and to express what each of his players should be thinking: "My heart will nearly burn with the pride I have being here today. When I take the field, I intend to make headgear rattle. I will be electric. Nothing can happen that I can't handle. I intend to win at any cost. My poise and concentration cannot waver."
He then led the Longhorns from the hotel to the Cotton Bowl dressing room. There, Akers pushed back his cap and, borrowing from the title of the book that rests on his desk back in Austin, scribbled a tag line on a chalkboard to complete the thoughts he wanted to pass along. It read, "Tough times never last but tough people do."
Thus, fully armed philosophically, the Longhorns, ranked No. 2 by SI, charged onto the field and played a generally crummy first half—the game was tied 7-7 at intermission—but a perfectly marvelous second half. The highlight of their performance was a six-minute, 59-second span in the third quarter in which Texas hooked 'em for 21 points. Apparently it took a while for Akers' words to sink in. Said Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer after his team had lost 28-16, "We were lucky they didn't score more points than they did."
Switzer, however, may have been too hard on himself. His Sooners got out there and mixed it up; they just got whipped by a better team. There's no shame in that. After all, the Longhorns, now 4-0, may well be better than everybody else in the country, too, with the exception of Nebraska.
October 16, 1983
They are a typical Texas-style team, composed of a hard-nosed, ornery defense and an offense that seems ordinary and lacks a star at quarterback. Texas' last great one was Bobby Layne, who played in the mid-'40s. Nonetheless, the Longhorns somehow put points on the board. During a meeting last Friday evening with his players, Akers told them, "You win championships with hard-hitting defense. If you don't win that game, you don't win the game." The Texas D stopped Marcus Dupree in his tracks, limiting him to 50 yards on 14 carries; held the Sooners to only 197 yards in total offense; and denied them a first down on 12 of 13 third-down plays. (The Texas offense converted nine of 18 third-down attempts.) What's misleading about the Longhorn defenders is that they appear to be a group without standouts to compare with blasts from the past like Kenneth Sims, Tommy Nobis, Scott Appleton and Brad Shearer. That raises an interesting question: Is it that the Texas defense has no stars or are they all stars? Whatever, the Longhorns have allowed fewer yards per game (179.8) than any other team in the nation.
Leading the defense is Middle Linebacker Jeff Leiding, a free spirit who had 10 tackles Saturday. Says Leiding, "Some people say we're great. Some say we aren't. The statistics prove we are." Leiding is having fun. "They say these are the best years of your life, and I believe it," he says. Of course. He has just returned to form after having been sidelined during much of last month when he slashed open his leg while diving into a river. The cut required 16 stitches to close. He's the same guy who jumped an Austin curb in his truck and leveled a park bench. "I meant to jump the curb," he says. "I didn't mean to hit the bench." He's the same guy who tapped a hotel window while a recruit had his nose pressed to it. The glass shattered, and the prospective Longhorn became a Sooner. And he's the same guy who swallowed a fly as a freshman to prove his leadership abilities. But Leiding does have his standards: He refused to swallow a cockroach. "The main thing I've learned about football," he says, "is you've always got to keep coming back."
Texas did plenty of that on Saturday—the Longhorns fumbled four times and lost three of them—and in the process showed the kind of character that's becoming a hallmark of Akers' teams. As the critical span in the third quarter began, Oklahoma led 10-7. Now came an 80-yard Longhorn drive on 11 plays, highlighted by a spectacular 32-yard, third-and-one pass from Quarterback Rob Moerschell to Tailback Mike Luck that put Texas in business at the Oklahoma 39-yard line. Luck later explained he didn't catch the ball one-handed, as alleged, but had, in fact, snagged it with only two fingers. The play, which calls for Luck to get open any way he can and to start looking for the ball eight yards downfield, was one Akers had talked up all week as a winner. Eight plays later, Fullback Ronnie Robinson ran inside for two yards and the score.
Then, just 20 seconds after that, Cornerback Mossy Cade intercepted a pass from Sooner Quarterback Danny Bradley intended for Split End Buster Rhymes at the Sooner 30 and returned it to the 20. Said Bradley afterward, "I'm not going to point fingers at anyone, but I hit him in the left shoulder. It was a catchable ball." If Rhymes had made the grab, the play would have been an 83-yard Oklahoma touchdown and would have given the game a different flavor. As it turned out, another fullback, Ervin Davis, one of 11 Texas backs who played, crashed, bashed and smashed his way over from the two with the help of fine blocking from Luck. Abruptly, the Longhorns were ahead 21-10.
Late in the quarter, with Texas back on its own 33, the Longhorn coaches decided to be very careful. "Dial safe if not sure," is the way Ronnie Thompson, an offensive assistant coach, put it. So Texas ran one of football's oldest plays—off-tackle and straight ahead. On this occasion, though, freshman Tailback Edwin Simmons, thanks to a block from yet another fullback, Terry Orr, stepped through the hole and breezed into the clear. With long and glorious strides, the 6'4", 226-pound Simmons ran for a 67-yard touchdown to put Texas up 28-10.
Simmons admits he's not ready to be a starter, and he says he's glad Akers "has brought me along little by little." The point is, he's not the Longhorns' new Earl Campbell. Yet. Simmons' left leg is one inch shorter than his right and that prompts him to explain, "If I run on my left leg, I'm six-feet, four inches and too tall to be a running back. But when I run on my right leg, I'm six-foot three, the same as Chuck Muncie." Actually, Muncie's only 6'2", but what's an inch among great backs.
Simmons' 67-yard run was reminiscent of a 63-yard dash by Dupree in last year's Oklahoma-Texas game. This time around, Dupree wasn't a factor, and, in fact, he remains an enigma. His poorest performances this season have been in the Sooners' biggest games, against Ohio State and Texas. In the 24-14 loss to the Buckeyes, he gained only 30 yards on six carries before silting out the second half with a bruised nerve in his left leg. To be fair, Oklahoma's offensive line hasn't distinguished itself. The suspicion is that one of these days, when Dupree puts his mind and remarkable body to it, he will become the player Switzer and everyone expected him to be after his dazzling freshman season of 1982.
Contributing enormously to the Texas attack Saturday was the blocking of 6'3", 263-pound Right Guard Doug Dawson, who says, "We like to blow people off the ball and outmuscle them." Dawson, who has a pillow in his dorm room that says HERE LIES A WORKAHOLIC, was the single most effective player on the field, although his performance went unnoticed by many. "The idea," explains Dawson, "is to dominate your man all afternoon and feel good about yourself. Nobody knows how we did except us."
The Sooners know how they did, and they aren't amused. A 3-2 record is cause for alarm in Norman, and even Sooners Illustrated, a weekly publication during the football season, reported recently, "This is now an Oklahoma football team which is forced to think more about what's wrong with itself than about the upcoming opponents." Says Defensive Tackle Rick Bryan, "Great teams are able to overcome their mistakes. We haven't done that yet this season." But chances are good that they will, and also good that come Thanksgiving weekend, Oklahoma once again will play Nebraska for the Big Eight title. Should the Sooners win that game, the loss to Texas would be eminently forgettable.
Meanwhile in Austin, football is in the ascendant, and Akers gets the credit. Ever since becoming coach in 1977 he has worked to improve on an already highly successful program. Time was he chafed in the terribly long shadow of his legendary predecessor, Darrell Royal. But that's no longer a problem. The turning point came Jan. 1, 1982 when Akers' Longhorns upset third-ranked Alabama 14-12 in the Cotton Bowl.
He's succeeding grandly at Texas—his record is 59-16-1—for a lot of reasons, but the main one seems to be his ability to get his message across to his players. For example, before the Oklahoma game Akers told his team, "We like the slashing and banging and blows delivered in a tough football game. This is your kind of game. You're going to love it." The emotion flowed almost visibly from the players. You could see it in their eyes. So could Akers, who also told them, "We're partial to fiery eyes when we play these kinds of games." When the players look at Akers and respond, "Yes, sir," they believe—in him and in themselves.
Moments after Saturday's game ended, Akers jumped on two chairs in the dressing room and shouted, "Congratulations on believing in yourselves. You can't roll up anybody better than you did Oklahoma in the second half."
Yes, sir, strong commitments and tough people do last.