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1984 Cotton Bowl: Field of Broken Dreams Pt. 1

The long story of a team and game and it’s effect on Longhorn football history

Longhorns hold up the ‘Hook’Em Horns’

35 years

It’s been 35 years since Texas and Georgia last lined up against each other. It was the 1984 Cotton Bowl – a famous game with an infamous ending – at least for Longhorn fans.

That was a long time ago, and yet having watched the game unfold over 2 hours and 45 minutes from the sidelines, for me the memories flood back with an intensity that belies the passage of time.

But hey, what is it that they say?

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

The Georgia 10-9 win is known as the game that cost Texas a national championship.


But what the hindsight of history does tell us that the loss was the “Canary in the Coal Mine,” for the Texas program. Underneath the pain of the immediate costs of losing were deep undercurrents within the program that were tearing the boosters, alums and fans apart. There were signs of the oncoming fog of mediocrity, if you were paying attention.

Over the years, my internet persona has been to make fun of an oversized sense of pain and loss from a fumbled punt. But I have never really addressed why I believe that this game is a seminal moment for my generation of Longhorn fans – marking the end of a period sustained success that was all we really knew growing into adulthood watching Texas football.

When the Sugar Bowl pairing was announced I knew I would have to write about that season and that game. I have approached it like you would taking a bandaid off a deep wound.

I began the process by peeling away at the edge. Making sure not to rip any “good” skin while exposing the scab. Then just ripping the SOB off when you get over the wound.

So with your permission I am going to tell this story in three parts, beginning with


In my opinion the 1983 squad was the most talented team Texas produced until Vince Young and friends showed up at the 40 Acres. It was culmination of a plan put into place almost as soon as Fred Akers took over for Darrell Royal.

After 20 years at Texas, Royal retired as a legend. He did not get a legendary sendoff.

His moving offstage, and the hiring of Fred Akers without his input, helped foster a division within the program that took years to surface, but it was always lurking in the background. Akers admittedly added to the stress by taking the advice others and ignoring his boss (AD Royal).

But Akers knew what he wanted to do with the program. Royal didn’t just leave him a Heisman Trophy candidate, there was a spectacular sophomore class that could be the foundation for the future. Akers planned that future built around the hiring an outstanding staff that was a blend of veteran, knowledgeable coaches and young aggressive recruiters

Fred’s first staff had two holdovers from Darrell’s last.

Ken Dabbs – his most important hire. Dabbs had been the first coach at Westlake HS, and was the lead recruiter for Royal with Earl Campbell. He had strong connections within the TX high school coaching ranks. He was among the very first ”Recruiting Coordinators” college football.

David McWilliams – legacy player and coach. Great defensive mind who also had a terrific rep among Texas HS football coaches.

Key New Members

Leon Fuller – Defensive coordinator -Native Texan, played HS football for Bum Phillips, college ball for Bear Bryant at Alabama. He followed Fred from Wyoming. One of the best I have seen at developing players to help them reach their potential and then scheming the defense to maximize their talents.

Leon Manley - One of two members of the staff who played college ball at OU, Leon had been on DKR’s staff before joining Fred in Wyoming. One look at Manley and you knew what position he had played. As far as I can tell Herb Hand is Leon Manley 2.0.

Charlie Lee – Wide Receivers coach. Hired off the Arizona staff, Charlie helped establish a Longhorn recruiting footprint outside of Texas

Bob Warmack – Three-year starter at QB for Oklahoma, Warmack was the QB coach at Missouri when Akers hired him at Wyoming. Another smart young assistant who enjoyed recruiting

Alan Lowry – Dabbs coached him at Irving HS. Was a defensive back at Texas until his senior year when he moved to QB. One of a handful of players to ever make All-SWC at two different positions (DB and Punter) Lowry also played baseball at Texas, but when Royal moved him to QB (and Akers moved to offense with him) he gave up baseball.

Mike Parker – Defensive line coach. Mike had coached at SMU in the early 1970’s and was another assistant Fred brought with him from Wyoming.

This staff was a blend of outstanding technicians and excellent recruiters who concentrated on Texas high schools while also using the national contacts made throughout their careers to expand the Longhorn reach.

A look at the 1983 roster shows the culmination of those efforts.

After the 1983 season, 17 Longhorns were taken in the 1984 draft. Nine of the 11 defensive starters were drafted, and the only reason the other two weren’t (Jerry Gray & Tony DeGrate) was because they were juniors. 32 players (including redshirting freshmen) off of that roster would be drafted. Out of that number, 27 would make NFL rosters and play a total of 142 seasons in the league.

I checked the player participant chart for the opening game against Auburn. Out of the 44 players Texas listed, 22 of them would be drafted by the NFL. That number does not include two of perhaps the five best players on the team. Edwin Simmons and Richard Peavy would have their chances to play in the NFL cut short by injuries.

This team was built for the way the game was played at that time. The rules favored defense. Offensive lineman from that team look at today’s game and only dream of being able to use their hands as allowed now. Meanwhile DB’s from then can only smirk at the protections afforded offensive players coming off the line and across the middle in this era.

The 1983 squad was set at every position – except for QB. There was talent, even NFL quality talent, among the three contenders. But instead of picking one and making sure the offense fit his talents, it was more of trying to make all three fit the style of offense Akers was committed to.

That meant Texas, like most teams of that era, relied on the run game and stout defense. But a look at the 1983 Top Ten indicates coming changes. Bernie Kosar at Miami and Steve Young at BYU are evidence of that.

Fred’s offense was driven by a conservative, don’t make mistakes philosophy designed to kill the clock. That meant that the team had little room for error. With talent like this, especially on the defense, that was usually enough.


Tomorrow: The Season