Longhorn Quarterbacks, Championships, and Near Misses

On Saturday March 3rd, the University of Texas Longhorns opened another spring football training session. Hopes are running high for all the orangebloods because of the impressive victory in the past Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Not only that but because an extremely talented freshman class at times showed flashes of brilliance. With yet another top recruiting class (ranked #2 nationally) suiting up next fall, it is easy to see why so much optimism abounds around the forty acres………………

While the hope and optimism is very high there is one very major reason that it is also guarded hope and optimism. That is because the most important position on the field remains unsettled. Yes the quarterback situation remains clouded. David Ash the former Belton schoolboy played very well against the Golden Bears fromCalifornia in the bowl victory and so did Case McCoy, in the previous game, as he led the Horns to victory against the Aggies in their final series game, at least for now.

And he did this on the turf at Kyle Field. But neither of these youngsters showed the consistency or the ability that will be needed to take this team back to the big dance. Clearly both are very young and no doubt will grow, but we all know that recently the likes of both Vince Young and Colt McCoy have set the bar very high. We also know that it took setting the bar that high to get to the ever so elusive championship game……

Through the years it has seemed that the Longhorn fortunes have rested on the shoulders of the signal-callers, even in those years when Heisman Trophy winners such as Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams were the toast of the country. So let’s take a look back at those years beginning with the Cotton Bowl against the Ernie Davis-led Orangemen…….

Bobby Lackey was the man under for Texas and led the team to a 9-1 record and a disappointing loss to Syracuse in the Cotton Bowl. Only Syracuse and TCU beat Texas that year and it cost the Horns a shot the national title. They ended the season at #4. Two years later TCU would once again spoil the national championship hopes with a stunning 6-0 victory inAustin.

A talented and strong armed quarterback from Graham Texas named Sonny Gibbs hit wide receiver Buddy Iles for a game winning eighty yard touchdown throw that broke the hearts of Longhorn fans everywhere. It was the only loss of the season as quarterback Mike Cotten along with Heisman finalist James Saxton and All-American tackle Don Talbert led the Longhorns to victory in the 62’ Cotton Bowl over Ole Miss by a 12-7 count………………….

A year later the Horns finished the regular season with a 9-0-1 record with a 14-14 tie with Rice as the only blemish on their record. Tommy Wade quarterbacked the Horns through the 62’ season and another near miss as the LSU Tigers handed Texas a disappointing loss in the Cotton Bowl……………

Then came the magical year for Texas as they fought their way through an undefeated regular season behind the quarterbacking of Duke Carlisle and the running of Tommy Ford. Sophomore Tommy Nobis one of the all time greats at both the collegiate and professional level was already making a name for himself at middle linebacker. Scott Appleton, from Brady, won the Outland Award as the best lineman in the nation; so the defense was a dream unit. Tommy Wade the quarterback from the year before had to come in and rescue the Horns in College Station as the determined Aggies almost upset the number one team.

Texas escaped with a 15-13 victory due more to Aggie mistakes than Longhorn dominance. Earlier in the season Carlisle had been called on to play safety on defense against Baylor as they barely nudged the Bears inWaco 7-0. Carlisle intercepted a Don Trull to,Brownwood native, Lawrence Elkins pass to preserve the victory. Then the Horns completely manhandled the Roger Staubach-led Navy team in the Cotton Bowl by a 28-6 margin and gave Texas their first ever national championship………………

1964 almost produced a repeat performance as Texas once again finished 9-1 with their only loss at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks 14-13 in Austin. Arkansas, with the likes of Jimmy Johnson (Dallas Cowboys Coach) and Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys Owner) on the team, went on to win the national championship with an undefeated team of their own.

Texas went to the Orange Bowl and narrowly beatAlabama with Bear Bryant as the coach, and Joe Namath as the quarterback. Marvin Kristynik, one of three brothers to play forTexas quarterbacked the team along with Jim Hudson who also played defensive back. Hudson would later become a teammate of Namath with the New York Jets as they won Superbowl III………………

UT would go into a dry spell until 1968. In 1965 the Horns landed one of their most famous recruits ever in quarterback Bill Bradley out ofPalestineHigh School. Because of his seemingly unlimited talent Bradley was dubbed “Super Bill.” His first two seasons quarterbacking Texas were not disasters, but they did not produce the desired results that most of the Longhorn faithful were expecting.

He even had one of the most talented running backs in the country alongside him in a player named Chris Gilbert. By the 1968 season the pressure was mounting on Coach Darrel Royal and his coaches to see the talents of three outstanding recruiting classes come to fruition.

Texas started the season off with a 20-20 tie with the University of Houston and a loss to Texas Tech. The offense was a brand new invention of assistant coach Emery Ballard, called the wishbone. While it looked promising there was something missing. In the second half in the Tech game Coach Royal insertedJames Street fromLongview into the quarterback slot. S

Suddenly everything clicked andTexas under the field generalship of Street would not lose in his next twenty starts.Texas pummeledTennessee in the 69’Cotton Bowl by a 36-13 score. The following season the Horns swept through all ten regular season games and beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl to secure Royal and Texas’ second national championship of the decade…………………….

A year later Texas would extend the winning streak that Street had begun, to thirty straight games, but the battered Horns with the big targets on their backs lost a rematch to Notre Dame as Joe Theisman led them to a 24-11 victory. Eddie Phillips from Mesquite had the unenviable task of replacing Street.

He did a great job, but winning them all in 70’ was almost too much to ask. In those days the national championship was awarded prior to the bowl games so Texas was named the best in the land for the third time in eight years……………..

The 1976 season was the final time on the sidelines for the legendary Royal. He was replaced by former assistant Fred Akers. The call was for Akers to get Earl Campbell, the greatest offensive player ever atTexas, out of the wishbone offense so that he could be a featured runner.

Akers did that and the team ran through the season undefeated. They were beaten soundly by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl by a 38-10 score. Earl was great but he needed the help of a quarterback that could wing it when needed. Randy McEachern did as well as he could and made some great plays in the undefeated regular season but the Fighting Irish exposed his weaknesses in the big game……

The next shot at winning a national title came in 1983. This was still pre-BCS days and pre-Big 12 days for the Horns.Texas had gone through yet another season unbeaten and was to play the Georgia Bulldogs in the Cotton Bowl. Hershel Walker, the Heisman winner from the previous year for the Bulldogs, had taken his wares to the NFL butGeorgia still had plenty of weapons.

The signal caller for the Horns that year was another West Texas boy from Fort Stockton named Rick McIvor. He had been recruited because of his passing ability, but the defense-minded Akers had a philosophy that if he could put ten points on the board then he would depend on his defense to take care of the rest.

It worked until the Cotton Bowl. Clinging to a 9-3 lead late in the game defensive back Craig Curry fumbled a punt in Bulldog territory and a 17 yard scamper by the Georgia quarterback sealed a 10-9 victory. It was unfortunate for Longhorn nation as the number two Steers would surely have been named national champions because the number one Nebraska Cornhuskers lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl. The once beaten Hurricanes claimed the big prize…………..

Glory would not come to Austin again until Vince Young and the talent laden Longhorns made a bid for another Big 12 title in 2004. Only a 12-0 loss to Oklahoma in theRed River shootout stood between UT and the throne room. But with a fabulous performance by Young, Texas defeated Michigan and ended the season at #5.

That game set the stage for the championship run of 05’.Texas returned to the Rose Bowl where #1 Southern Cal and two Heisman Trophy recipients awaited. In an almost identical performance Young led the team to a fourth quarter victory and claimed the national championship once again; the first since 1970……………

Colt McCoy capped a great senior season in 2009 leading the Horns to another undefeated season and a return trip to the Rose Bowl for a chance to bring home the championship trophy. This trip to the Rose Bowl for Texas did not come up roses as Alabama defeated Texas to take home the championship hardware. McCoy who was injured early in the game and gave way to what was supposed to be the star of the future for Texas, Garrett Gilbert………………

So there you have it. With Gilbert, Mack Brown and staff thought they had the quarterback in place to bring back the magic, but in two seasons after that last Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Gilbert has transferred leaving the man under job to either Ash, McCoy, or incoming freshman Connor Brewer out of Scottsdale, Arizona. The task at hand for these kids is monumental but I feel sure each one of them knew the expectations before they signed on to sleep under a burnt orange blanket for four years……………….

There is no doubt in my mind that James Street and Vince Young are the crown jewels of all Longhorn quarterbacks simply because they won it all. Young had all the tools, great competitiveness, and big play magic. Street was undersized and did not look the part, yet he could come through in the clutch better than anyone I have seen wearing the burnt orange.

He was a smooth operator and rarely made mistakes even in the high risk wishbone where accurate option pitches were required even when getting shelled by a defensive end. Phillips and McCoy had their own heroics but bringing home the trophy just carries a special place in Longhorn lore. Maybe the best ever was Bobby Layne who later starred for the Detroit Lions and owns a bust inCanton. But he was before my time so he is not included in this piece……………RC

About Ronnie Clifton

Ronnie Clifton was a Texas Football Coach for 29 years. In addition to football, Clifton also served as the head coach in basketball and both girls and boys track. “I loved being involved in and playing sports as a kid, and I soaked up every ounce of available information about any sporting event; I also love to write. What better combo for me than becoming the writer of a sports blog?”
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