Bill Little commentary: A toast to Willie Morris
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Sept. 13, 2012

Bill Little, Texas Media Relations

OXFORD, MS - No one - absolutely no one - would have loved this Texas-Ole Miss football game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium more than Willie Morris. He loved sports, he loved Texas and Austin, and he loved Ole Miss and Oxford.

In this college town in Mississippi, Willie Morris was a literary giant in a haven of great writers. Modern day John Grisham still visits here regularly. The late William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, is a local shrine. Square Books has hosted signings by such famous authors as Stephen King and John Grisham - at the same time.

But it is Morris, who died in 1999 down the road in Jackson, who would have been a likely choice to flip the opening coin toss at Saturday night's game. After growing up in Yazoo City, Miss., he came to The University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1950s. He was elected editor of the Daily Texan, and his scathing editorials against segregation, censorship and government corruption won him no prizes with the UT administration. He was named a Rhodes Scholar, and after graduation from the other Oxford - the one in England - he eventually returned to Austin as the editor of the liberal weekly newspaper The Texas Observer.

He migrated to New York City, where he served as the youngest editor ever of Harper's Magazine, and then he wrote "North Toward Home," which became one of his most famous books. In 1980, he became a writer in residence at Ole Miss, and lived his final years there. While writing was his vocation, sports were his avocation.

Langston Rogers, the long-time media relations director at Ole Miss, remembers Morris sitting in the lounge at the Holiday Inn in Oxford with his black Labrador retriever, Pete, by his side, regaling folks with stories - including those memorialized in his books about trips with his father to football games and the puppy dog he immortalized in his book (which later became a movie), "My Dog Skip."

Morris' relationship with Oxford (the one in Mississippi) extended to reverence when talking of things such as the pre-game parties at The Grove - the tailgating capital of the South - near the football stadium. He also was known for taking guests on a late-night trip to the local cemetery to visit Faulkner's grave. There, with a bottle of spirits of choice, he would announce that, "Mr. Bill is thirsty." And then he would pour out the contents and leave the empty bottle on William Faulkner's tombstone. It is one of those literarily inclined in Oxford to this day.

The irony of Morris and his odyssey is that he and Texas' legendary football coach Darrell Royal were ships passing in the night at UT. Morris left after graduating in the spring of 1957, as Royal was preparing to coach his first season in 1957. However, as the years passed, Morris and Royal would become great friends. And the connection with Texas and Ole Miss would also have significant impact on Royal's early career. Fact is, the meetings of the schools in bowl games following the 1957 and 1961 seasons arguably represent the lowest and highest points of Royal's early career at Texas.

The season of 1957 was a Cinderella story for Royal, who had come to Texas following a 1-9 season for the Longhorns in their final year under favorite son Ed Price. In that opening season, Royal's team surprised the country. They knocked off four nationally ranked teams, including a shocking 9-7 win at Texas A&M that knocked the Aggies out of national contention.

It was an era of excellence at Ole Miss, however. The Rebels of Johnny Vaught were a juggernaut of Southern football, and when Texas, at 6-3-1, was a surprise invite to the Sugar Bowl to meet the No. 7 ranked Rebs, Royal knew he was overmatched. And he was. The story goes that Royal was so embarrassed by the 39-7 thrashing that he walked out of a post-bowl team dinner and gave his watch to a guy on Bourbon Street. That, by the way, has never been verified.

What is true, however, is that four seasons later, Royal and his Longhorns would find redemption. This time, the game was a national showcase.

Ole Miss was still a major force in college football, and Texas had held the nation's No. 1 ranking for much of the regular season until a stunning 6-0 loss to TCU in the next-to-last game of the year knocked the 'Horns out of contention. In the final rankings (which were done before the bowl games back then) Texas had finished No. 3 and Ole Miss was No. 5 when the two headed into the Cotton Bowl Classic in Dallas on New Year's Day, 1962.

Royal's first bowl win at UT had been elusive. Texas followed that Sugar Bowl loss with a defeat to Syracuse in the Cotton Bowl game following the 1959 season, and a 3-3 tie with Alabama in the 1960 Bluebonnet Bowl. But riding the wings of perhaps the best offensive team of his career, Royal used a surprise 80-yard quick kick by all-American running back James Saxton to seal a 12-7 victory and claim his first bowl game win.

This 2012 version of the match-up has far different, and yet still important ramifications. It is the first road game for Mack Brown's very young football team. The times have changed since Willie Morris held court in that bar in what was then a sleepy college town. Folks who know say this game is one of the biggest things to happen in Oxford, where the Rebels are a dominating 40-6 against non-conference foes recently.

ESPN-TV will be airing the game nationally in a late (8:15 p.m. CDT) window, giving the country a look at the two schools who were national powerhouses fifty years ago.

The Longhorn coaches are anxious to see how the development progresses for a team that will close out the first quarter of its 12-game regular season with this road trip. As the non-conference schedule ends Saturday, Texas will follow its bye week next week with a trip to open Big 12 play at Oklahoma State on September 29.

Saturday's game will be intriguing and watched with interest across the country. And maybe, if the moon is just right, Willie Morris (wherever he is) will cover the game and drink his own toast to the two schools which drew his allegiance so many years ago.