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Texas Longhorn History: The Rose Bowl That Almost Was

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Today is the 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and there is fascinating side story involving the 1941 Texas football team and the Rose Bowl from that season.

Rose Bowl

75 years ago today, December 7th, 1941, A date which will live in infamy,” the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor External, Hawaii Territory, killing more than 2,300 Americans, plunging the United States into World War II.

There is a somewhat trivial, albeit interesting side story about that weekend that involves the 1941 University of Texas football team, and it concerns one of the biggest “What Ifs” in Longhorn history.

The late, great Lou Maysel, a long time columnist for the Austin American Statesman produced the definitive history of Texas Football from its beginning through the Royal Era entitled “Here Comes The Texas Longhorns.” In it, he provides insight into the story of Texas and the Rose Bowl during the 1941 season.

Texas football spent most of the 1930’s mired in mediocrity – or worse. Jack Chevigny was in the middle of a second straight losing season in 1936 when he announced that he would resign at the end of the year. Several influential boosters immediately brought up Nebraska Coach D.X. Bible as their choice to be the next coach.

Bible was the “hot” name that season. He had led Nebraska to 6 Big Six titles in 8 years. More importantly for the Longhorns, he had 5 SWC titles as the coach at Texas A&M before going to Nebraska. Money appeared to be a problem in getting Bible. The Cornhuskers were paying Bible $12,000 a year to keep him in Lincoln. Chevigny had been making $5,000 at Texas.

Bible came down for an interview, expecting to recommend several coaches for the Texas post, and to use the trip as a vacation to visit relatives in Ft. Worth. It turned out to be more productive than thought, for both sides. The Texas Board of Regents was so taken with D.X. that they decided to find a way to make the hire work. Until then, the jobs of Athletics Director and Head Football Coach had not been combined. Bible was offered an unprecedented 10-year contract for both jobs at the unheard of salary of $15,000 a year. He not only was the highest paid coach in the nation, he was making twice as much as the University President.

When Bible arrived on campus he sold the alums and fans on a five-year plan. The program was a hot mess, Chevigny had ignored Texas high school coaches and instead the Notre Dame grad had done a lot of recruiting in the Midwest. Bible quickly organized the state into specific areas for each assistant. He collaborated with the Texas Exes to find summer jobs for his players (permissible at that time), and he set about rebuilding the program.

1941 – The Best Longhorn Football Team of the Pre-Royal Era

Bible kept his word on his 5-year plan. The 1941 squad returned 18 starters, 16 of them seniors. The 1940 team had experienced success. They stunned Texas A&M, defending National Champions and winners of 19 in a row, 7-0 on Thanksgiving. The 1941 squad had such Longhorn Legends as ends Malcolm Kuntner and Wally Scott and running backs Pete Layden and Jack Crain leading the way.

Free substitution had been approved for the 1941 season, and Bible’s 5-year plan had supplied enough talent to field two quality teams. The Horns started the season in the Top Five and blasted through their first six games (Colorado, LSU, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Rice and SMU) by an average score of 38-5.

The sixth win was a 34-0 whitewashing of SMU in Dallas. The Horns had not scored a touchdown against the Ponies in Dallas since 1933, but after this beating, SMU coach Matty Bell said Texas was “the greatest team in SWC history.” In his book Maysel writes that the Longhorns returned to Austin after the SMU game and,

“when they came into the dining room at Hill Hall, they found a long-stemmed red rose at every plate. ‘This is for the Rose Bowl, because that is where you are going,’ housemother Mrs. J. M Griffith told them.”

Texas was now the #1 team in the polls, and Life magazine announced they would grace the cover of their Nov. 17th edition, a few days after their next game against Baylor. 14 Longhorn players were on the cover and there was an eight-page article on the team inside.

Yeah about that cover.

Time-Life Inc. wouldn’t start Sports Illustrated for another 13 years, but that cover will suffice for Longhorn fans as a substitute for the dreaded “S.I. Jinx.”

Texas went to Waco nursing several key injuries. Meanwhile Baylor came up with a new “slanting” defense that confused the Longhorns on offense. Texas led 7-0 late in the game, and Baylor, with only 90 yards of total offense at the time, took over on their own 18 with 4 minutes to play. The Bears scored with less than 30 seconds left and tied Texas 7-7.

Texas only dropped to #2 in the polls, but the aftershock didn’t wear off, and TCU upset Texas 14-7 the next week when the Horned Frogs scored with 5 seconds left in the contest.

The Thanksgiving contest at A&M was a battle of Top Ten teams. The Aggies were now #2 in the nation. That loss to Texas in the 1940 game was the only blemish on their record for the last three seasons. Texas was #10 going into the game, and hadn’t won in College Station since 1923.

Some enterprising students decided to look up Madam Hipple, a well-known fortuneteller here in Austin, to see if she could help with the Kyle Field Jinx. She told the students to follow an old Chinese ritual and burn red candles before the game. Soon red candles were covering the campus.

Texas shut out the Aggies 23-0.

Bowl invitations went out the following week. Texas was back up to #4 in the polls and still very attractive to the any of the five bowls that were scheduled that season.

Oregon State was the west representative for the Rose Bowl, and their AD was an old friend of Bible’s. He pushed hard for Texas to get an invitation. While waiting to hear from the Rose Bowl, Texas turned down invitations to both the Orange Bowl (they took TCU instead) and the Sugar Bowl.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Oregon State edged Oregon 12-7, and that made the Rose Bowl committee nervous. Texas would finish the regular season December 6th by hosting the Ducks. The committee feared that an Oregon win would embarrass the Rose Bowl, so they chose #2 Duke instead of #4 Texas to play in the Rose Bowl.

Texas was shut out of any bowl, and Oregon would pay for it – to the tune of a 71-7 beating at the hands of the Horns on December 6th. The team was so pissed at the snub that 8 different players scored. Bible said afterward that there was no stemming the tide of anger short of telling his players not to try.

Less than 24 hours later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Fear of an expanding war towards the west coast led Rose Bowl officials to think about cancelling the game. After a few days they decided to move the contest to Durham, North Carolina, home of the Blue Devils. Oregon State edged Duke 20-16 in Durham on January 1st 1942.

Two plays. 30 seconds of action. That is what separated Texas from hosting the 1942 Rose Bowl.

Bible would coach another five years and remain on as Athletics Director, until he led another coaching search that was blown away in the interview with a young coach by the name of Darrell Royal.

Most of the 16 seniors were in some branch of the military by the end of the year. Two, All-American Guard Chal Daniel and end Mike Sweeney lost their lives during their service to their country in the war.

For the members of that 1941 team, the season was one of expectations and success that fell just short of their goals. That disappointment was quickly forgotten as they became part of the “Greatest Generation,” to help combat and defeat true evil in World War II.