During the first half of the 1960's the University of Texas was the dominant program in college football.
From 1961-64, Texas finished in the Top 5 every season. The Longhorns won the National Championship in 1963 and were ranked #1 in each of the other three years - only to suffer two losses by a total of 7 points along with a tie to cost them three other potential titles.
1965 started out like the rest of the decade. Texas once again was #1 by mid-October, having won four games by an average of 23 points. On October 16, 1965, Texas was 44-3-1 over the last 4 and a half seasons.
That afternoon in Fayetteville, third-ranked Arkansas drove the length of the field and scored with less than two minutes to play to secure a dramatic 27-23 victory.
From that day through the 1967 season Texas went 15-11.
What the hell happened?
Recruiting: Success and Failure
The simplest and most obvious reason for the decline is talent, or the lack thereof. 1965 marked the first year of an NCAA rules change that allowed for free substitution, which meant platoon football would be taking over the game.
Texas wasn't prepared for it. The Longhorns had elite players - Royal admitted he had maybe as many as ever - people like Tommy Nobis, Pete Lammons, John Elliot, Diron Talbert - all who would have long careers in the NFL. But the drop off was dramatic from there, enough so that Royal continued to train his best players to play both offense and defense. When injuries hit after Arkansas loss, the team imploded, finishing 6-4.
Texas with a lack of talent? Hell, the myth back then was that Darrell Royal recruited who he wanted and then added more just so they couldn't play for somebody else. And it was a myth. The SWC had a limit of 115 football players on scholarship at any time. Texas wasn't loading up on monster numbers compared to everybody else.
After the 1967 season, Texas signed 40 recruits. A&M had 49, SMU 47, Texas Tech 44, TCU 43, Rice 38 and Baylor 37.
Texas' advantage wasn't in the number of signees. It was in having an unlimited budget for player evaluation and recognition. You could see a recruit as many times as you wanted, and the Texas staff was out every week during football season watching High School games. Then in the spring when most of the recruits were participating in track the staff was out scouting as well. Watching players with their own eyes over and over helped with evaluation, and the fact that every time one of these recruits was playing in a sport other than football they could look in the stand and see somebody from Texas didn't hurt.
But even Texas screwed up on evaluations.
1963-Royal's Worst Recruiting Class
One year when Royal went for volume was after the 1963 national championship season and he paid the price for it from 1965-67. Royal later admitted that he spent too much time on the banquet circuit while his assistants just sifted through the all the kids who wanted to come to Texas rather than do serious evaluation.
Texas signed 67 players that year. The best players out of that group turned out to be DB Ronnie Ehrig, QB Greg Lott, and halfback Linus Bear.
Not a single player from the 1964 recruiting class ever made a consensus All-SWC selection. By the time February of 1967 rolled around, Royal and his assistants had changed the pattern.
1967-Royal's Best Recruiting Class
Royal had begun to turn the talent drain around with the class of 65, which included players like Bill Bradley, Chris Gilbert and Loyd Wainscott. But it was the recruiting class of 1967 that would put the final touches on the rebuilding process. It was led by the most highly sought after running back in the nation - Bridge City's Steve Worster.
A confidential poll of SWC Head Coaches taken for Texas Football on the 1967 recruiting class revealed that Texas had signed seven of the top eleven recruits for 1967 as well as 12 of the Top 22 recruits.
Players like Worster, Eddie Phillips, Cotton Speyrer, linemen Jim Achilles, Mike Dean and Bobby Mitchell, as well as defensive players like Bill Zapalac, Scott Henderson, Bill Atessis, and Greg Ploetz. Defensive back recruits included Danny Lester and Freddie Steinmark.
The Wishbone: Blending Talent with the Perfect Scheme
Even with the increase of talent, 1967 was another disappointing 6-4 season. Going into the summer of 1968, Royal took a look at his assets and determined that he needed to find a better way to utilize all of his running backs. He turned to offensive coordinator Emory Bellard during that summer and instructed him to study ways to get his three top runners (Chris Gilbert, Ted Koy and Steve Worster) involved in the offense and on the field at the same time.
Homer Rice is credited with coming up with the triple option while at Cincinnati, and of course Bill Yoeman took it nationally while at Houston. But Yoeman used two split backs and two wide receivers.
Royal wanted something more along the lines of the triple option that Gene Stallings had run at Texas A&M in 1967 out of the I formation, but again, he wanted another back in there. Bellard came up with the Y-formation with Bill Bradley at quarterback, Worster at fullback and Gilbert plus Ted Koy at halfbacks.
There was another part of the equation. Royal wanted an offense that would be as effective either to the tight end or the split end side of the formation. Bellard determined that the only real run offense that could be successful towards the split end side of the formation was the triple option.
Bellard had seen a hybrid of the Wishbone when he was an assistant to former Longhorn great Ox Emerson at Alice High School. Emerson (who was on Ed Price's staff when he was fired and replaced by Royal), had moved one of his guards into the backfield after becoming frustrated with his inability to pull out on sweeps. Royal especially liked the idea of the loaded feature of this option -- there was a lead halfback blocker no matter which side the play ran.
What they discovered -very quickly- was that a fast wide receiver made the formation even deadlier to the split end side. If you have a wide out that the defense must respect i.e. Cotton Speyrer, then a lot of the time you are running the basic 'bone play with a numbers advantage. The defense would have one player on Speyrer and a safety over the top that had to respect him deep and therefore wasn't as dependable for run support.
The 'Bone made its debut against the Houston Cougars as the game ended in a 20-20 tie. A week later a loss to Texas Tech brought about two shifts - one in the formation and one in personnel.
Tech led 28-7 (they would eventually win 31-22), and after another screw up, Royal decided to bench Bradley and insert James Street at quarterback. He grabbed Street by the jersey pushed him towards the field, and said:
"Get in there...hell you can't do any worse."
The week after the loss to Tech, Street got the start against Oklahoma State. It was a very big deal in the media. Bill Bradley had been the most widely heralded recruit in Texas history. Nicknamed "Super Bill" in High School, he had already been featured in Sports Illustrated before he ever stepped foot on the 40 Acres. But Bradley had been bothered by injuries and didn't adapt to the Wishbone very well. He would eventually move to defensive back where he would thrive and go on to play in the NFL for nine years.
Street on the other hand, was at ease in the offense and let the game come to him. A fierce competitor, he also had a knack for making the right decision on the option. Street was also a much better deep passer than given credit, which made the offense even more explosive.
Texas made one other change in the Wishbone in the week leading up to OU. Bellard and Royal had decided that Worster was too close to the QB and needed to be moved back about a half a yard. He was getting the ball before the lineman could complete their blocks, and at too steep an angle. It made all the difference in the world in getting to the pitch option cleanly.
The Game That Establishes the 'Bone
Texas was 1-1-1 going into the OU contest, while the Sooners were 1-1. They had been blasted by Notre Dame and beaten North Carolina State.
Texas moved the ball fairly well from the start, but miscues kept them from getting into the end zone. The Sooners had an excellent runner of their own, Steve Owens, along with a passing combination of Bob Warmack to Eddie Hinton and OU led 14-6 at the half.
Loyd Wainscott took over the game for Texas in the 3rd quarter. The defensive lineman first stripped Warmack of the ball at the OU 35 to set up a short TD drive. Worster took it over from two yards out, and Gilbert scored a 2-point conversion on a triple option to make it 14-14.
The next time Texas got the ball they stalled out at the OU 37, but Happy Feller connected on a 53-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and then bounced over. A little later, after a brilliant Bill Bradley punt that was killed at the OU one-yard line, Wainscott sacked Warmack for a safety. Texas led 19-14.
The Sooners moved 77 yards for the go-ahead score, and after missing on a two point conversion, OU led 20-19.
Texas started a drive about midway through the 4th quarter, but Street tossed an interception at the UT 48. Eventually Texas got the ball back on its own 15 yard-line with only 2:37 left in the contest.
As in so many other times during his career, Royal - the man famous for disdaining the pass - would rely on it at the most crucial of times. Texas had used a play designed to get the tight end isolated on a LB only once that year (against Tech), but now Deryl Comer would make catches of 18, 21 and 13 yards to move the ball deep into OU territory.
Texas was so focused on getting into field goal range for Happy Feller since they only trailed by 1, that when Royal started sending in straight hand-offs to Worster, Street finally realized they were inside OU's 20-yard line.
Worster got the call twice in a row, and the touchdown run happened so fast that he didn't even realize that he had scored until the cannon went off. When Happy Feller kicked the extra point, to make the score 26-20, the clock showed 0:39 left in the game.
OU got off four more plays. The game ended with the first UT interception of the contest - by Freddie Steinmark -- at the Texas 20-yard line.
It was Texas 10th win in 11 years over the Sooners.
So much came from that game -- national coverage for the new offense, renewed confidence in the team and momentum that would stretch for years.
As devastating as that 3-point loss to Arkansas had been in 1965, this win over OU would be the antidote that would help cure the mediocre doldrums that Texas had been mired in for three years.
Texas would finish the 1968 season with 8 straight wins and a dismantling of Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl. The Wishbone began to roll up sick offensive numbers, as Texas average 331 yards a game rushing and 448 yards total offense per game. The average score in those final 8 wins was 38-18. Senior Chris Gilbert finished with over 1,100 yards rushing, going over the 1,000 yard mark in each of his three varsity seasons.
Of course it was also the 2nd straight in what would be a 30-game win streak, the crowning achievement of Royal's 20 years at Texas.
Thanks to the rules back in the 60's & 70's a run oriented offense like the Wishbone was a monster scheme, and if Royal was Dr. Frankenstein to many defensive coordinators during that time, he would discover that the monster could be turned on Texas as well.
During his entire coaching career, Royal believed in sharing information with everybody. He believed that helping other coaches was a part of being in the fraternity, and spring practices after the Wishbone took off were a veritable NCAA coach's convention. Bear Bryant had Royal and Bellard come to Tuscaloosa for a week to help install the Bone at 'Bama.
Bellard told the story of having Royal walk into his office and tell him that Chuck Fairbanks was getting heat at OU and he wanted to switch to the wishbone. Royal said Sooner assistant coach Barry Switzer would be calling and Bellard was to help them with the mechanics of the offense.
I shook my head," Bellard said, "Darrell, you got to be joking?"
He said, "No, I wanna help him." I said, "Well, I can admire your wanting to help somebody but I said, gosh darn, not them."
Bellard recalled a later conversation where Royal said, "Emory, if I had it to do all over again, I probably wouldn't have been so benevolent."