"53 Veer Pass"
It was a simple instruction from a coach on the sidelines to his Quarterback.
The circumstances swirling around them were anything but.
While Darrell Royal had the appearance of outward calm amid the chaos that was unraveling 41 years ago to the day in Fayetteville, Arkansas the facts spoke of something else. Unbeaten and #1 Texas had stumbled and fumbled its way into a deep dark hole against unbeaten and 2nd ranked Arkansas on this cold cloudy Saturday in front of over 45,000 Razorback fanatics, the President of the United States, and a national TV audience.
The scoreboard read "Arkansas 14 Texas 8," with 4:47 to go in the 4th quarter. QB James Street -- "Slick" to his teammates -- went over the the sidelines to counsel with Royal as Texas was facing a fourth-and-3 situation from their own 43 yard line. There was no time to contemplate exactly how the Longhorns got into this position. Besides, in order to take into account how the teams reached this point, you would have to look back over two years.
THE BUILD UP
Both Texas and Arkansas built their foundations for national prominence in 1968. The Longhorns were coming off of three straight 4-loss seasons, but had unveiled a new offensive scheme - the Wishbone - that fall. It was hardly an auspicious debut for the offense designed by Emory Bellard. Texas started the season with a 20-20 tie with Houston, and then went to Lubbock to face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders utilized two long punt returns to jump out to a quick lead, and midway through the 3rd quarter they led Texas 28-6.
Royal had seen enough. He decided to replace QB Bill Bradley with Street, who recalls the moment:
"Coach turned to me and said, 'You take it on the next series" Street said. He laughed and added, "Then coach said, 'Hell, you can't do any worse."
That might rank as the all-time understatement in UT football history.
Street couldn't engineer a complete comeback against Tech, losing 31-22, but the Wishbone was off and running with the perfect decision maker at QB. Texas would win 9 straight to finish out the 1968 season and then rolled into 1969 with a fearsome offense that was a lamborghini in cleats. Going into the 1969 Arkansas contest, Texas had won 18 in a row. Only once during that time had Texas won a game in single digits -- the second win of the streak, a 26-20 victory over OU.
With James Street at QB, Texas was averaging over 41 points per game during its 18 straight wins heading into the 1969 Arkansas contest.
Arkansas had finished 1968 10-1, their only loss to Texas. The Razorbacks were loaded will skill position talent on offense -- Bill Montgomery at QB, Chuck Dicus and John Rees at receiver, and tailback Bill Burnett. Arkansas also possessed an excellent defense led by Dick Bumpas and Terry Don Phillips. Phillips was a childhood friend and HS teammate of Street's back in Longview.
Heading into the Dec. 6th showdown, Arkansas had been just as dominant as Texas winning 15 in a row by an average score of 33-10.
TV BEGINS TO CHANGE THE LANDSCAPE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL
40 years ago, the NCAA tightly controlled TV rights. The NCAA believed they- not the individual schools - controlled the property rights to televised college football. The NCAA strictly limited the number of times a team could be televised (just 3 times a season), and they controlled when the games would be televised.
ABC-TV had paid $10 million for the TV rights to the 1969 season, and in February ABC Sports President Roone Arledge went to the NCAA with a proposal. Arledge looked at the schedule and saw the Texas-Arkansas contest, currently slated for mid-October, as a marquee game. He didn't like the idea of having such a quality game going up against the World Series telecast (yes children, the World Series was once shown during the daytime).
Razorback stadium had no lights. Arledge convinced the NCAA that it was in their best interest to move the contest to the first weekend of December. Arledge also convinced the NCAA to not have the switch count against the limited number of TV appearances for the two teams. That was the deal maker for both sides.
From then on ABC and the NCAA worked on time-shifting games, and as the sport became more popular (and more profitable) for TV, the colleges eventually entered into a courtroom struggle with the NCAA over TV rights. In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a an anti-trust suit originally filed by the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma, which allowed schools and conferences to negotiate their own TV contracts with the networks.
NOVEMBER 22, 1969 - THE FINAL PIECE OF THE PUZZLE FALLS INTO PLACE
All of the legwork done by ABC, and all of the gaudy statistics run up by both Texas and Arkansas really didn't mean that much on the national landscape until late November. That's because Woody Hayes' Ohio State Buckeyes were being talked about as the "Greatest College Football Team of All-Time."
Defending National Champions, Ohio State was loaded with six All-Americans led by QB Rex Kern, running back Jim Otis, as well as middle guard Jim Stillwagon and defensive back Jack Tatum. Ohio State had a 22-game win streak going into their season ending battle against Michigan.
Michigan would go to the Rose Bowl with a win over the Buckeyes, while Ohio State could wrap up their second consecutive National Championship with a victory. Because of Big 10 rules, Ohio State was finishing their season in Ann Arbor. The Big 10 did not allow a member to go to any bowl except the Rose Bowl, and a team could not go to that post-season game two years in a row. A win over Michigan and Ohio State would elminate any team from catching them in the polls.
The bitterness of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry played a big part in the 1969 contest. Ohio State wrapped up the 1968 regular season with a 50-14 thrashing of Michigan in Columbus. When the Buckeyes scored in the final moments of the game, Ohio State went for two -- and made it. When asked by the press why he went for two, Hayes replied simply, "Because I couldn't go for three."
After the 1968 season, Michigan hired Bo Schembechler, and his first team got off to a rocky start, but by the time Ohio State week rolled around, the Wolverines, led by taliback Glenn Doughty, offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf and tight end Jim Mandich, were 7-2.
Schembechler knew Hayes and his hatred for everything Maize and Blue as well as anyone. Schembechler played for Hayes at Miami of Ohio, and was an assistant at Ohio State under Hayes. In 1969, during practice the week leading up to the Ohio State game, Schembechler had every Wolverine scout team player wear a practice jersey with the #50 on it.
Ohio State jumped out to a 12-7 lead in the first quarter, but Michigan drove the length of the field to take a 14-12 advantage. A 68-yard punt return quickly set up the 3rd Wolverine score.
Michigan stunned top-ranked Ohio State with 24 first half points in 1969. Neither team scored in the 2nd half in a 24-12 Wolverine victory.
Saturday November 22nd was an off day for Texas. Darrell Royal didn't feel like sitting home, so he called Baylor and asked if he could come up and sit in the press box for the Bears game against SMU. As Royal watched SMU defeat Baylor 12-6, members of the press kept him up to date with what was happening in Ann Arbor.
The stage was finally set for the "Game of the Century" on Thanksgiving as Texas destroyed A&M 49-12 and Arkansas shutout Tech 33-0. When Royal was asked how he felt about ABC getting the two squads to move their game to the end of the year, he replied:
“It makes them look smarter than a tree full of owls.”
President Nixon had arranged to attend the game and present a presidential plaque to the winner of the contest, naming them the #1 team in the nation, which angered Joe Paterno and unbeaten Penn State. They were later given a consolation prize - a plaque commemorating Penn State for having the nation's longest win streak.
By the time Nixon arrived the game had already started, and Texas spent a good deal of the first half acting as if they hadn't arrived as well. Texas turnovers led to Arkansas points in the 1st and 3rd quarters. The excellent play of the Longhorn defense was the main reason the Razorbacks didn't have an even bigger lead than 14-0 at the end of three quarters.
Street finally supplied the spark that the Texas offense needed on the first play of the 4th quarter.
James Street, flushed out of the pocket by the savage Arkansas rush, ignited the rally with a 42-dash to the end zone on the first play of the 4th quarter.
After Street's dash to the endzone, there was no hesitation on the Longhorns part in going for two. Street ran the counter to the left side, and suddenly Texas trailed by only 6 points.
Arkansas came right back, and was in position to kick a field goal to take a 9-point lead when the Razorbacks tried a pass on third down and UT’s Danny Lester stepped in front of Chuck Dicus to pick off the errant Bill Montgomery throw and keep the Longhorns hopes alive.
But now Texas was faced with a 4th and 3 and their own 43-yard line with just 4:47 on the clock when Street called timeout and went to find out what play Darrell Royal had dialed up.
Royal remembered a conversation he had earlier in the game with tight end Randy Peschel. Royal was asking why the option wasn't working to the tight end side and Peschel had told him that the Arkansas defensive back, Jerry Moore, was coming up in run support at the snap and he couldn't get a clean block on him.
Now facing 4th and 3 late in the contest, Royal decided to go for it.
"I never considered punting," said Royal. "I knew with our football team it would take longer to score than we had. I just thought it was time to swing from the floor."
As the timeout wound down, Royal finally told Street to run "53 Veer Pass."
Street knew the play called for only the tight end to go out and he was to go deep. Street actually thought he may have not heard the play correctly. Maybe Coach Royal really meant "53 Veer," so he went back to doublecheck.
"Coach are you sure 53 Veer pass?"
You're damn right." Royal replied.
That season, the play had been called only a handful of times when Peschel was in the game, and it had never worked. Street heads back to the huddle, and while looking straight ahead made the call and told Peschel to take off and if he was covered just turn around to get the first down.
On the snap, Street faked a handoff to fullback Steve Worster and dropped back. Peschel took off as Razorback defender Jerry Moore stepped towards the line of scrimmage. He soon realized what was happening, and he chased after Peschel. He was joined in the pursuit by Dennis Berner, and they quickly closed in. Both Street and Peschel first thought the pass had been overthrown. but it was a perfect pass, falling into the tight end’s hands just over the outstretched arms of Moore and Berner.
Terry Don Phillips and Gordon McNulty had pressured Street, but were a split second late. As Street watched Peschel make the catch, he turned and looked down at his high school teammate, put a hand out to help him up and said, "C’mon Terry Don, we’re all the way down the field.”
The pass was good for 44 yards down to the Razorback 13-yard line. It took the Longorns only two plays to cover the last 13 yards for the score. Ted Koy picked up 11 behind clearing blocks by Bobby Wuensch and Jim Bertlesen. Then Bertlesen dove into the end zone on the next play to tie the score. Happy Feller kicked the extra point to make it 15-14.
There was still plenty of time for an Arkansas rally. Montgomery moved the Razorbacks down close to field goal range with just over a minute to go. But UT’s Tom Campbell stepped in front of John Rees on an out pattern at the Texas 20-yard line to secure the win for the Longhorns. Suddenly, Razorback Stadium, which had been at the decibel rate of a 747 for the entire game, became enveloped in silent disbelief.
Texas actually outgained Arkansas 368 yards to 308. Arkansas did a great job of shutting down the halfbacks in the 'bone holding Ted Koy and Jim Bertlesen to just 57 yards on 27 carries. Steve Worster was effective up the middle with 94 yards rushing on 25 carries, while Street contributed 73 yards on 8 carries. Still the Longhorns tried to give the game away with two interceptions and four lost fumbles.
POST GAME: RELIEF, ELATION, RESPECT
If the Razorbacks reaction to the end of the game was disbelief, for the Horns there was a sense of relief and elation. Several participants have commented over the years to having a mixture of emotions: relief over having survived a game that was far from their best effort. Pride over the fact that they were good enough to overcome a staggering six turnovers against an elite team on their home field. There was also a strong sense of respect for their opponents -- many of whom were friends from high school.
On the last play of the game, Texas didn't have to snap the ball, but simply lined up and let the clock run out. Terry Don Phillips stepped across the line of scrimmage to congratulate Street, and said, "Good luck in the Cotton Bowl. You had better beat Notre Dame."
For one of the few times in his life, Street almost found himself at a loss for words, finally telling Phillips, "It was a great game man, it was a great game."
The two coaches met near the center of the field, and neither really knew what to say. Frank Broyles was comforting his twin daughters, Betsy and Linda, who were crying. Darrell Royal reached out to embrace Betsy and give her a hug.
Frank Broyles says that 41 years later, he still hasn't taken a look at the game film from the 1969 contest.
Some Arkansas fans showed their displeasure over the outcome by throwing cups of ice, cushions and empty liquor bottles at the Longhorn Band. Several fights broke out near the band, and after a while law enforcement showed up to calm matters. Band Director Vincent DiNino decided that the band would stay in the stands until everyone else had departed.
The team made their way to the locker room as quickly as possible. The last to make it in for the Presidential presentation were assistant coaches Fred Akers and Emory Bellard who had made the long trek from the press box, but the struggle was worth it.
POSTSCRIPT: "LUCK IS WHEN PREPARATION MEETS OPPORTUNITY"
Attention to detail.
It is a highly developed trait found just about all elite football coaches. Darrell Royal was no exception. Royal always had his quarterback sit next to him on the team bus to the game. While heading towards Razorback Stadium on Dec. 6, 1969, Royal was going over last-minutes details with James Street. Royal began to tell Street exactly what play to run should Texas go for two points after a touchdown.
“Aw, coach,” said Street, “we won’t have to worry about going for two.”
Royal curtly cut him off and told him that in that situation Texas would run the counter-option. When Street scored the Horns first points of the game on the first play of the 4th quarter, there was no hesitation in the huddle. Street called "Counter 49" and there was no indecision on the part of anyone as they ran the play.
Royal had made the choice on what 2-point play to run the night before. Every Friday night before a contest Royal held a staff meeting to go over possible scenarios for the next day's game. Even after the meeting adjourned the game planning was not over. Royal was known to stay up late into the night, and call an assistant to go over another aspect of game strategy that he had thought of.
“Attention to detail,” marveled Street years later. “That’s one of the biggest things I remember about coach Royal. No detail was too small, from how we went from one practice station to another, to what we wore on road trips.”
Organization and preparation were the cornerstones for just about anything Royal did.
In 1956 when he was contacted by D.X. Bible about the UT coaching position, before heading to Austin for an interview he and his wife Edith went to see the movie "Giant."
Once in Austin, Royal asked Bible for the name and description of every member of the Athletics Council and the Board of Regents -- so he could address each one of them by name during the interview process.
Paying attention to detail doesn't guarantee success, but it will help form confident decisions when contemplating when to go for two -- or to run "53 Veer Pass."