One of the longer running jokes throughout the cavernous Barking Carnival boardroom is my obsession with a seemingly small sartorial quirk on the Texas Uniforms.
It’s those damn #’s on the top of the shoulder pads.
It’s an on and off hang-up as Texas has gone this route a relatively few years over its storied history. I’ve tried to appeal to the traditionalists in the Athletic Department by delving into the history the development of the Texas Brand. It wasn’t by happenstance that Darrell Royal chose the Longhorn Look back in the 1960’s.
I’ve appealed the bottom line by trying to persuade Coach Herman that it was in his best interest to remove the numbers. Even with the current 4-game win streak Texas stands 56-56-1 in the 9+ seasons with this jersey.
It’s been mostly in good fun.
But in the dead, jet-black middle of the night, when you finally examine that small bottomless-pit of a hole in your soul, you must admit that almost every obsession, no matter how seemingly mundane it may be, begins with a mind transforming event.
Which brings us to 1976. And the first time Texas broke out these particular jerseys.
Every true rivalry has defining moments – games that reveal the essential nature of the two sides while exposing the raw emotions that can run from anger, joy, relief, even pure rage over a 3-hour stretch on a Saturday afternoon.
A Bitter, Mean End of an Era
In the fall of 1976 I was the Sports Director for KVUE-TV in Austin. Pre-season practice was in full swing and we went out early one day to interview players before practice began. Coach Royal saw us and walked over to see if we wanted to talk to him.
We didn’t need him that day, but he stuck around for a couple of moments making small talk. He moved the conversation over to some aspects of my job. As long as he had been dealing with the media he certainly knew his way around a TV studio, but he wanted to know a little more about some of the specific aspects of our local newscasts.
He asked if there was a system to handle sudden breakdowns or failure for video to roll. I answered that we had back-ups, but there were times when you had to improvise.
He joked, “Like dealing with fumbles and interceptions.”
He then asked a question that took me back a little. He wanted to know if I ever got tired of having an absolute deadline every day at 6:00 and 10:00 to get the sportscast ready, and if it got to be tedious. I answered that it made the job exciting and different every day, and there were hardly any dull moments.
Royal paused and said, “Yeah, I used to be in coaching to win, but sometimes I think I’m just working not to lose.”
He then walked out to mid-field.
1976: The Football Version of Murphy’s Law
To the casual observer that fall, Texas seemed to be well situated to make a run at the SWC championship. The Horns were ranked #7 in the AP pre-season poll. Texas returned 8 defensive starters off the 1975 team and had Earl Campbell, Raymond Clayborn as well as freshman Johnny “Lam” Jones and Alfred Jackson on offense. Just one problem, they didn’t have a quarterback.
Ted Constanzo was a highly regarded recruit, but he didn’t show much as a back-up in 1975. Behind him were former walk-on Mike Codaro and a couple of freshmen, Mark McBath and Jon Aune.
It didn’t take long for injuries to pile up, starting with Campbell. He had pulled a hamstring running a sprint during the spring and it never fully healed. He was overweight and hobbled by the leg all year. Defensive end Travis Crouch became the symbol for the season, when after stopping a trick play against North Texas, he jumped up in celebration - and blew out his knee.
Texas opened with a loss at Boston College and followed that up with narrow win over UNT. Grumblings about the shape of the program grew louder. The perception in 1976 was that Texas was faltering while OU was dominating the national scene. Since 1971, Texas was 44-13, a 77% winning rate. But five of the losses had been to the Sooners, and OU was coming off back-to-back national championships. Royal hadn’t beaten Oklahoma since Chuck Fairbanks got his version of the Wishbone rolling in 1971. Barry Switzer was the head coach now and he had the Sooner ‘Bone turning corners like a Lamborghini on two wheels.
Royal didn’t like losing to OU anymore than the alumni and fans, but there was something else that was driving his desire to win in 1976, something that turned the game in the Cotton Bowl into the meanest, most brutal athletic contest I have ever witnessed.
Royal had been convinced for over 4 years that OU was spying on its opponents. He specifically believed that they knew beforehand that Texas put in a quick kick for the 1972 contest. Royal had installed the it into the playbook for the first time in four years the week leading up to the game.
With OU holding on to a slim 3-0 lead late in the 3rd quarter, Texas was pinned inside its own 10-yard line. There was only one sub for the play - center Greg Dahlberg - and when he went in, OU players immediately began to yell “quick kick, quick kick.” Texas didn’t change out of the play, and it was blocked. Lucious Selmon fell on it in the end zone and OU went on to win 27-0.
Back in 1972 Memorial Stadium was undergoing renovation and Royal was convinced that someone had entered disguised as a construction worker and had spied on their practices. The charges all came to a head the week of the 1976 game. Royal had found out the name of the alleged spy. He was Lonnie Williams, who had ties to OU coaches Switzer and Larry Lacewell.
Royal went public with his accusations and even went so far as to offer to pay $10,000 to the favorite charities of Switzer and Lacewell if they took and passed lie detector tests. They of course denied all allegations. Royal was so sure of it that he contacted a few reporters and supplied them with information, hoping they might be able to confirm it. I was one of them.
Switzer readily admitted that Lonnie Williams was a friend, but laughed at the cheating accusation, adding, “Some coaches would rather listen to guitar pickers than work hard.”
There was little doubt that this was eating at Royal and Switzer’s flippant response led him to an error in judgment with another reporter.
Royal gave an interview to Robert Heard of AP, where among other things he said he hoped Switzer and Lacewell would sue him for slander, so he could get them into court. Thinking the interview was over, Royal added, “Why those sorry bastards, I don’t trust ‘em on anything.”
When that quote hit print, it got even uglier.
We were still almost 48 hours from kick off, and that let both sides simmer in the bile being traded back and forth for a long time.
I spent the afternoon on the Cotton Bowl floor that Saturday and it is easily the most bizarre, brutal and vicious athletic event I have ever witnessed. Anyone who has been in the Cotton Bowl for a Texas-OU contest knows that the intensity level is special, for the fans as well as the players.
This one was different.
This one was personal.
60 Minutes of Hell
The pre-game warm up was tense. The atmosphere was ugly. When Royal came out, students and fans of his alma mater serenaded him with chants of “Sorry Bastards, Sorry Bastards.”
Then there was the pre-game coin toss. President Gerald Ford was on hand, and he was escorted out to the middle of the field by the two coaches.
One OU fan yelled, “Who are the two assholes with Barry?”
Neither coach would acknowledge the existence of the other.
The injuries had stacked up for Texas. Earl Campbell was nowhere near full strength and both Johnny “Lam” Jones and defensive back Johnnie Johnson were out.
OU came into the game unbeaten, but had its share of problems as well. OU’s starting quarterback, Dean Blevins, couldn’t play, so sophomore Thomas Lott would start. He could count on three swift running backs in the Sooner Wishbone in Horace Ivory, Elvis Peacock and Kenny King.
Royal had his team cut to a razor’s edge, especially on defense. They were as focused a unit as I have ever seen. Once the game began, every play was a train wreck. You didn’t hear much trash talk, mainly because it was drowned out by the violent hits. No one stood around, because it was the best way to get de-cleated.
Texas had horrible field position all during the first quarter, and Campbell, slowed by the hamstring, did minimal damage. Texas did have the best punter in the country, and Russell Erxleben pushed OU into -27 yards of field position from his first punt to his third kick in that quarter. Erxleben averaged 48.5 yards on 9 punts that day.
The Texas defense was brilliant. Led by DL Brad Shearer, and linebackers Lionel Johnson and Bill Hamilton, the Horns shut down Lott and the Sooner Wishbone. How good was the Texas defense that day? OU produced 95 yards rushing on 50 carries for the afternoon. A 37-yard Erxleben field goal were the only points of the first half.
The second half was more of the same. The OU coaches had noticed that Campbell liked to get a rolling start on the snap count. They alerted the Big 8 officiating crew and he was called for illegal procedure five times in the game.
Late in the 3rd quarter, Ham Jones turned the corner with a pitchout and moved down the sidelines. OU’s Daryl Hunt clothes-lined him. It was so vicious that not only was he flagged for the play; he was kicked out of the game. That led to another Erxleben field goal and a 6-0 Texas advantage.
The score remained 6-0 Texas over halfway through the 4th quarter. OU had not been shut out in 9 years since Notre Dame did the trick. With a little over five minutes to go, Texas had the ball on their own 36-yard line and one more first down would probably seal the win.
Royal commented that he turned to defensive coordinator Mike Campbell and said he wished he had put the quick kick back in the game plan. Texas faced a 3rd and 3 when Royal ordered a pitch to halfback Ivey Suber. Royal felt that if they didn’t make the first down, Erxleben would pin OU back deep in its own territory
Years later Ivey was a photographer with KTBC, where I was now working. It took a helluva long time to get around to talking about that play, and to this day I can see the pained expression on Suber’s face. Ivey said that he spotted a gap on the right to shoot through to get the first, and as he planted his inside foot, he started to shift the ball to protect it and someone from his blindside stripped it out.
OU got the ball back on the Texas 37-yard line with five minutes to go. The Sooners moved those 37 yards in 10 agonizing plays. It was like having bleacher seats at the siege of the Alamo - you knew how it was gonna turn out, but you couldn’t avert your eyes.
Horace Ivory finally scored to tie the game 6-6. Despite playing brilliant defensively (OU ended the day with 133 total yards on offense) the Horns were an extra point away from a devastating defeat.
In comes Uve Von Schamann - the OU placekicker who hit 140 consecutive extra points. But OU also had a walk-on deep snapper. He had been streaky earlier in the day, almost bouncing a couple of snaps to the punter.
Right before the snap, Lionell Johnson leaned in and said, “I bet you snap this over his head.”
Van Schamann, with his head down, never saw the ball as it sailed almost all the way to Waxahachie.
Game over. Everyone is pissed -- players, coaches, fans from both sides -- everyone. It was an angry, sullen mob of over 75,000 who made their way out of the Cotton Bowl. Following the teams back up the ramp was a weird experience. No one said a word. Royal paused long enough at the ramp to retch.
The locker room was surreal as media members tried to find anyone who could put into words what exactly they had witnessed. Royal looked like he had aged 10 years in 3 hours. It was in the weeks after the OU game that rumors of Royal’s resignation really took hold.
In his autobiography, “Bootlegger’s Boy,” published in 1990, Barry Switzer admitted to the spying. “It did happen,” Switzer wrote. “As it turned out, although I didn’t know it at first, Darrell was right to accuse us of that. It was my fault because I was the head coach, it happened.”
Later, Switzer changed his tune, saying he was only trying to make Royal feel better. Switzer said, yes, OU did spy on Texas, but it stopped after 1972, when he was merely the offensive coordinator. “It just took three or four years of our people mouthing off for the word to trickle back to Texas,” said Switzer.
In recent years Switzer added that spreading the spy story back in 1976 was simply “Royal’s way to vent his frustration over being dominated by Oklahoma.”
Switzer also predicted that his former assistant, Lacewell, “might run his mouth off.”
Lacewell now readily admits his involvement in the spying. “We were young and foolish,” said Lacewell. “If I had to do it again today, I wouldn’t do it, particularly against Coach Royal. I don’t think any of us would.”
”Oklahoma-Texas is too great a rivalry to mess with.”
Royal kept his feelings about all of this pretty much to himself since he left the game. “There’s no sense picking old scabs,” Royal said, “or digging up bones.”
This will be the 42nd contest since that brutal Saturday in the Cotton Bowl, but I swear to you that there are long stretches of that day and game that are as clear to me as if it were yesterday.
In cold hard print, it is just a 6-6 tie from a long, long time ago. But the fact that it still resonates within both programs is evidence of how deep passion flows in this rivalry.
11:00 AM Saturday can’t get here soon enough.
Now if was can just get the damn numbers off the shoulder pads maybe the PTSD acquired from that 1976 game will begin to ebb away.