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1977 Texas-OU: Milestones & Memories

40 years ago this week, Earl Campbell and the Texas defense turned this series around with a 13-6 win. 

Oklahoma v Texas Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

That’s what I love about college football. I get older but the game stays the same in my heart.

What drives most college football fanatics is that the present is always building on the memories of the past. The players and the style of play may change, but deep down great rivalries are about context – and how “The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of It’s Parts.”

Texas’ 13-6 win over Oklahoma 40 years ago created several milestones. It was the game that established Earl Campbell as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. It gave new Texas coach Fred Akers a signature win over the Sooners. And it was the first live broadcast of a UT football game that I ever worked.

The Buildup

From 1971-75 Darrell Royal and Texas went 44-13, finishing 1st in the SWC every season. The Horns were in the Top 10 twice - Top 20 four times. The only problem: Barry Switzer and the Sooners owned them. Texas had lost 5 in a row.

Then there was the 1976 game. It wasn’t a loss.

It was worse.

This was as brutal a game as I have ever witnessed. The vitriol was so pervasive and the anger so palpable that the 6-6 tie remains one of the most memorable contests in the series.

When Fred Akers was hired from Wyoming at the end of the 1976 season, he was only two years removed from Royal’s staff at Texas, and he had a good idea of the core of veteran talent he was inheriting, There was Russell Erxleben, the best punter/placekicker in the game. He had a quality offensive line led by Rick Ingraham, George James, and David Studdard. He sure as hell had electric playmakers in Alfred Jackson, Johnny “Lam” Jones and Earl Campbell.

When he got here he also quickly realized that Darrell’s last recruiting class was full of quality. On the defensive side: Steve McMichael, Johnnie Johnson, Lance Taylor and Henry Williams were already contributing. Akers added true freshmen like linebackers Robin Sendlein and Bruce Scholtz. The defense was talented but so young that Defensive Coordinator Leon Fuller cracked, “We're so young we hold hands going onto the field."

Offensively, Akers was moving to a two-back veer attack and after spring practice Akers told Earl that if he would commit to losing 20 pounds over the summer Akers would promote him for the Heisman, including putting him on the cover of the media guide.

Akers also felt confident that he had not one but two quality signal callers in sophomores Jon Aune and Mark McBath.* (This is known on the editorial side as foreshadowing*).

The Game

Oklahoma entered the season as the #1 team in the rankings, won 4 straight – and dropped to #2 behind USC. Texas, unranked at the beginning of the year, had outscored Boston College, Virginia and Rice by 184-15, and moved all the way up to #5 in the nation.

The game was not televised nationally. #1 USC was hosting #7 Alabama, and in these pre-ESPN days the NCAA held strict guidelines on how many games could be broadcast. The Horns appeared only twice on ABC that season – against Arkansas and Baylor.

However there was a “local exception” clause in the TV contract that the two schools took advantage of. If the game was a neutral site sellout you could broadcast it in the two “home” markets. That meant the ABC affiliates in Austin (KVUE) and Tulsa (KTUL) could show the game.

KTUL had their own truck so they supplied the video. Chris Lincoln (who would later work for ESPN) and Jerry Park worked the OU side and I was the “Texas” announcer. I knew both Lincoln and Park and they were pros, but let’s just say the deck was stacked just a little bit north of the Red River. When we got to the booth it was decided that it was too hard to have all three stand for the cutaways, so I sat while they stood on either side. I looked like a jockey standing between Larry Bird and Kevin McHale

Then the game kicked off.

All year Akers had been working on a halfback pass – From Earl. I mean, brilliant right? Who would expect Texas to have Earl pass on the first play of the game? OU did. They had it perfectly covered and Earl wasn’t exactly Tom Brady unloading the ball. The Sooner intercepted it and set up shop at the UT 14-yard line. The Texas defense forced a fumble and the two teams settle into beating the hell out of each other’s offense.

Next possession, McBath comes down the line and a couple of Sooners each grab a leg and make a wish. It comes true as McBath is out with torn ligaments in his left knee. Then 11 plays later, Jon Aune blows out his right knee.

As I said this was my first live broadcast and man did I study. I could recite the two-deep backwards and forwards, giving you their mother’s maiden name and the name of their dog.

I was ready.

Until Lincoln turns to me and says, “So who will play QB for Texas?”

I got nothing.

But I will cut myself some slack, since Randy was listed as a defensive back on the roster. Akers had given him his one and only D-1 scholarship offer back in 1974, and he had spent the 1976 game as a spotter for the radio crew.

Years later we were interviewing Earl for a “History of UT” video project and when this game came up he laughed and said, “Well, I have a story about it but you won’t be able to use it.”

He said the team really wasn’t sure who was coming out either. Randy hands off to Johnny “Ham” Jones for one play, and the next time Texas as the ball, Aune trots out. He takes the snap, moves back in the pocket – and drops like a sack of cement. Career over. So once again here comes Randy.

Senior Guard Rick Ingraham was the vocal leader of the offense, and this time when Randy comes into the huddle, Rick grabs him by the jersey looks him in the eye and says, “You give the fucking ball to Earl and then you get the hell out of the way!”

Actually Randy did much more than that. Not one bobble of a snap, not one missed handoff, managed the game. And when it counted, he hit Alfred Jackson with two perfect passes to set up the only touchdown of the day for either team.

This was the kind of game that most people who have been following college football for only the past 10-15 years wouldn’t recognize. Two teams lined up and dared the other to back down. More than a handful of the players would probably have been thrown out of the game if targeting called back then. True, neither team had a sophisticated passing offense, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that game is still one of the best I have ever seen.

Late in the 4th, OU finally had a sustained drive, and wound up with a 4th and 1 at the Texas 6 with a little over 4 minutes to go. QB Thomas Lott worked the option down the line, where Lance Taylor forced him into a collision with Johnnie Johnson.

I looked down and saw the five-yard line, and I knew he had to cross it for the first," Johnson said later. "I also knew help was on its way."

It was. All-American tackle Brad Shearer was there to finish the stop.

Already Russell Erxleben had kicked field goals of 54 and 63 yards (he just missed a 69-yard attempt). But he saved the best for last. After stopping OU, Texas was forced to punt, and Erxleben unloaded a 69-yard nail in the Sooner coffin. It was the first game in 11 seasons that Oklahoma failed to score a touchdown.

Post Script

ABC quickly picked up the Arkansas game for the next week. Texas survived 13-9, as Earl took a swing pass 28-yards to set up the winning touchdown with just 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter.

Campbell had yet another Ingraham story from the game. Earl ended up with 188 yards on 34 carries, but the first half was a struggle. After yet another 2-yard run through the middle of the Hog line, Ingraham came over to help Earl up. As he leaned down, he growled,

“Heisman my ass.”

Back then we were in the pre-email era, but viewers and fans always found a way to let their feelings be known. When I got back to the station on Sunday, there, shoved under the outside door to the newsroom, was the menu from a local establishment. Several patrons who excoriated my performance and called into question my heritage had signed it.

The handwriting wasn’t the sharpest, but apparently they decided I was responsible for all Oklahoma announcing as well. One finally pinpointed my major flaw

“How can you say Earl Campbell was outstanding,” he wrote, “when he was UNBELIEVABLE !!!!!”

Actually I can understand some of their frustration. I haven’t watched the tape for well over 30 years. The pictures in my mind of the day, and the game will suffice. It’s like having a tape of the first time you made love to a beautiful woman. Why ruin the memory of the event by breaking down every awkward move or slip.

After all “The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of It’s Parts.”