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1984 Cotton Bowl: Field of Broken Dreams Pt.3

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It was a one-point loss to a very good team, and yet it reverberated throughout the program for almost two decades.

AT&T Cotton Bowl - Texas Tech v Mississippi Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“Victory Goes to the player who makes the next to last mistake”

Chess master Savielly Tartakower

Stepbrothers

When Texas and Georgia looked at game film leading up to the 1984 Cotton Bowl, that’s what it must have looked like to the coaches. Two finely tuned defenses. Two lethargic offenses, and two coaches who deeply believed that when the game was on the line in the 4th quarter they trusted their defensive instincts.

Georgia had Terry Hoage, an All-America DB, as the defensive catalyst but he had help. Freddie Gilbert was a game-changer at defensive end. The Bulldogs had size and speed on that side of the ball.

Offensively John Lastinger was a “game manager.” They had an NFL quality tight end (Clarence Key) and like Texas a handful of RB’s who rotated in and out.

The Bulldogs traveled to Clemson early in the season and tied the Tigers 16-16. They actually moved up in the rankings (from #15 to #14) with that effort against the 1981 National Champs.

There were three quality teams in the SEC in 1983 (Auburn, Georgia and Florida). All three would finish in the Top Ten. Georgia beat the Gators 10-9 on a 4th quarter 99-yard drive for the winning score, but the next week Auburn beat Georgia 13-7. After a win over Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs were ranked #7 and headed to Dallas.

The Game

When last seen, Rick McIvor was taking advantage of a 30mph wind to shred Texas A&M for 4 touchdowns on just 8 completions in a little over 20 minutes of action. Most assumed that junior Rob Moerschell, who started 9 of the 11 regular season games, would still be the starter against Georgia.

He wasn’t

Akers thought that McIvor had the best chance of getting an early score (Georgia’s D was somewhat vulnerable to the pass) and decided to make McIvor a surprise starter. Rick hadn’t started a game since 1981, when his rifle arm produced wins over a Jim Kelly-led Miami squad and OU. He had also gone 2-12 for 18 yards and 2 interceptions in a half of play against Houston, enough to get Robert Brewer off the bench.

The decision looked good at the start as McIvor hit tight end Bobby Micho for a 37-yard gain on Texas first play from scrimmage. The Horns quickly moved to a 1st and goal inside the Bulldog 10. On 3rd and goal, McIvor rolled out and spotted fullback Terry Orr breaking open in the back of the end zone. Rick fires and just then the Georgia DB grabs Orr by the numbers on his jersey. The pass harmlessly zips by. Orr looks at the back judge, motions about the hold, and the ref just turns around and walks away.

Jeff Ward made a 22-yard field goal. Less than five minutes into the contest Texas leads 3-0. A seven-point lead with that defense that early in the game would have really ramped up the pressure.

For Akers it was “in for a dime, in for a dollar,” and he stayed with McIvor all the way. The offense reached inside the Georgia 33-yards line on seven different possessions – and had 3 Ward field goals (with two misses) to show for it.

Georgia got a 1st quarter field goal, and after that punter Chip Andrews was the busiest Bulldog, punting 9 times, for an average of 42 yards a punt – until with a little over 4:00 left in the game, he stood on his own 25-yard line.

The Punt

Georgia faced a 4th and 17, and for some reason there was real concern on the Texas sideline (which I was standing behind) that the Bulldogs may try a fake punt.

Texas called for the “unsure punt” formation. The defense stays out. Jitter Fields is the returner. Michael Feldt a Jr. defensive back was normally the “searchlight” in the formation. That was the up back, and Feldt, who was a QB in high school, practiced catching punts in that formation during the week.

This time Craig Curry was slotted there instead. Some believe Feldt got lost in the confusion on the sidelines, while Coach McWilliams said he remembers Michael being injured the play before.

For some reason (perhaps because he didn’t play the position regularly) Curry was closer to Fields than normal. Andrews kicks his worst punt of the day, a short knuckleball that only travels about 30 yards. Craig, with Georgia rushers bearing down, reaches out when the wind moves the ball a little to his right, and it slips right through his hands. Fields has a shot at it, but the ball eludes him as well.

Georgia recovers at the Texas 23-yard line.

It is the first time all game the Bulldogs were inside the Horns 25.

On 3rd and 4 from the Texas 17-yard line, Lastinger heads around right end on the counter option. LB Mark Lang is taken down with a nice tackle and Georgia scores. To be honest, Lastinger had the corner and at best Lang would have forced a 1st and goal.

Aftershock

Since the Horns win over Auburn in mid-September, Texas had been a solid #2 in the ratings behind Nebraska, a consensus pre-season pick to win the National Championship. The Top five going into the bowls looked like this:

Nebraska

Texas

Auburn

Illinois

Miami

Texas loses. Auburn edges Michigan 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Illinois is exposed by UCLA 45-9 in the Rose Bowl. Howard Schnellenberger and Bernie Kosar led Miami to a 31-30 in over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl New Year’s Night. Cornhusker QB Turner Gill sees his 2-point conversion pass tipped away by a Miami DB will less than a minute to play. Miami wins the National Championship

One that should have gone to Texas, Right?

Meh

That assumes that the Orange Bowl script doesn’t change even if Texas had won. I don’t buy it. Schnellenberger watches the Cotton, Sugar and Rose Bowls unfold well before their game. His talk to the Hurricanes in pre-game could be pretty simple. Just write 10-9 on the blackboard.

Miami obviously came out with a real purpose, surprising Nebraska with 17 straight points in the 1st quarter. Even with that lead, on their home field, the Hurricanes had to survive a methodical comeback from the Cornhuskers.

Now say Texas wins. Miami could beat Nebraska by 20 and they still aren’t passing the Longhorns in the rankings. And BTW Nebraska is reminded that the Horns have been right behind them since September and they are waiting. So, yeah, I do think that Nebraska doesn’t give Miami a 17-point head start if Texas had won earlier.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Player

22 years after the Cotton Bowl, Brad Townsend, a friend and reporter for the Dallas Morning News, caught up with Craig Curry. It was a side bar leading up to the Texas-USC game, and it exposed just how haunted Curry had been by that one play. The thought of costing his teammates a national championship made it impossible to even keep in touch with his friends.

Curry told Townsend that years earlier he had run into coach Akers in an airport and, “as they exchanged pleasantries, Curry’s eyes welled. “Coach, I’m so sorry,” he blurted.”

Both Akers and McWilliiams kept trying to keep Craig involved with his teammates, but he admitted that it was hard,

”I know it and I feel it and I love ‘em for it,” Curry says of the consoling efforts. “But the bottom line is that [expletive] happened. I’m not psychotic or suicidal or anything like that. It’s just the pain and hurt of letting the Longhorn family down.”

Canary in the Coal Mine

The disappointing end to Akers 7th year at Texas didn’t wipe away a really impressive stretch of Texas football. From 1977-83 the Horns went 66-17-1. Two SWC titles. Three Top Five finishes, two more in the Top Ten.

This was accomplished while going 21-9 against Top 20 opponents during this 7-year stretch. The Horns were an impressive 14-6 playing teams ranked in the Top Ten. Of course, there always seemed to be a WTF moment every season and that was a part of the unrest throughout Akers tenure.

In part 1 of this series I wrote about the coaching staff that Akers gathered, and how it was a blend of outstanding teachers and enthusiastic recruiters. And as noted, the 1983 team had a sick amount of talent. But by then, the initial staff was no more, and recruiting was already beginning to show the damage. Gone from that 1977 staff:

Akers Coaching Staff 1977

Ken Dabbs. (1982)

Leon Fuller (1981)

Charlie Lee (1980)

Bob Warmack (1980)

Alan Lowry (1981)

That’s a lot of coaches who helped to recruit the 18 players who would be taken by the NFL in April of 1984. The cupboard wasn’t bare, but the talent pool was shrinking. In the 1985-89 NFL drafts (covering the last of the Akers era recruits) a total of 17 Longhorns were drafted.

There were other factors for the decline of the program - some out of their control. Jackie Sherrill put everyone on notice that he was ready to do whatever it took to build a program. He and others took notice of how SMU built the Pony Express and so the cost of doing business went up in the SWC.

Then there was the deep undercurrent of animosity toward Akers that had been building for 7 years. As I said some of it came with the hiring and some of it was self-inflicted, but it has always been my contention that because of the handling of Coach Royal’s “resignation,” Fred was fired the day he was hired, it was just a matter of how long winning could keep the hounds at bay. His ability to organize and coordinate a staff, recruit and motivate players , as well as create a culture of discipline and physicality produced 7 very good seasons.

The administrations reaction to all of the negativity swirling around the football team– and its effect on the long-term health of the program, is another story for another day. I simply believe that the erosion of the program was well underway by January 1, 1984, and this game was the just the first outside signal of what was to come.

Epilogue

If you have never visited Athens, Ga. I heartily recommend it. Terrific college town. Live music, great food and beautiful scenery. However, I really didn’t fully appreciate the qualities of Athens when I visited there with the Texas tennis team for the 1984 NCAA championships. One Longhorn tennis fan, who had business in Atlanta and had been to Athens often, was on the trip. He was friends with Vince Dooley and got us an invitation to watch the Stanford-Georgia semi-finals in the AD box.

Dooley was there and was a gracious host who never brought up the Cotton Bowl. But then the Texas fan noticed that I was wearing my Cotton Bowl watch. He grabbed my wrist, laughed, and said,

“See, Vince, he has the same watch. Of course, all the Texas watches stop every day at 10-9.”