Bill Little commentary: Memories of the Lubbock triangle
Sept. 17, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It would be easy, given the circumstances, for Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, to agree with Mac Davis. Before he decides that his hometown actually does have redeeming qualities, the country singer and songwriter opines that, "...happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rear view mirror...."
In the last dozen years, the trio of Big 12 South contenders have won seven games and lost eleven, collectively, against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on the South Plains.
There was a time when Texas felt the same way about playing Baylor in Waco. Former Texas head coach David McWilliams, who actually served as head coach at Tech for a season, used to joke about the similarities between the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle to an area just south of Waco. He called it "The Waco-Bruceville-Eddy Triangle," including two small towns in the geometrical formation.
In its own way, history tells us that strange things just naturally seem to happen, both to Texas and to Texas Tech, when the two meet in the stadium on the north side of the campus in Lubbock.
It all started a year or two after Texas Tech officially became a member of the Southwest Conference. The first meeting of the two as league brothers came in 1962, and the direction of the series that was to follow started taking strange turns just then.
The evening had begun as any other September night on the South Plains. There is always a certain briskness of autumn, a harbinger that summer has ended, and a bleak winter is not far away. But for the moment, when the cotton is getting ready to be picked and the lure of "Friday night lights" signal that football is in the air...well, that's a cool thing.
In 1962, it truly was about the football being in the air -- at least to start with. J. T. King, the Raiders' head coach, knew he was outmanned, so he devised some trickery at the very beginning of the evening. He won the coin toss, and elected to receive. All seemed normal (that was before the lights went out -- more on that later) until the Tech kick return man fielded the kickoff. Instead of returning it, he immediately kicked the ball back, supposedly over the heads of the pursuing Longhorns. Unfortunately, he didn't get the roll he expected, and the Longhorns took over near midfield and promptly drove to their first score in a 34-0 rout. Oh, yes -- the lights actually did go out. They were able to get the lights on the east side to work, but the first half of the game was played without any lighting on the west side of the field. The lack of illumination, of course, didn't bother Darrell Royal and his Horns. They threw only six passes the whole game anyway.
It seldom rains in West Texas, but it did the next time the two met in Lubbock. In 1964, Friday rains and Tech's lack of a field cover caused concern about footing. It didn't matter, as Texas crossed up the Raiders and used the passing game to take a 23-0 lead before a second half deluge of more rain slowed the Horns down and ended the scoring.
By 1966, Texas Tech was still looking for its first Southwest Conference victory over the Longhorns, either in Lubbock or Austin. Billboards and placards showed a cartoon character Red Raider declaring, "Big Red says this is the year." That, however, didn't last long. A Lubbock native, sophomore Greg Lott, returned the opening kickoff 88 yards for a Longhorn touchdown and Texas put the Raiders away, 31-21.
But the spirits of the "Triangle" were gathering. Tech finally broke the Texas string with a victory in Austin in 1967, and the 1968 meeting in Lubbock turned out to be the best worst-thing that ever happened to the Longhorns.
After three four-loss seasons, Texas had entered the 1968 campaign with a new-fangled backfield alignment where the fullback lined up a yard behind the quarterback, and the two halfbacks were set behind him, to his left and right. In time, it would become known as "The Wishbone." As with any experiment, however, it required fine-tuning.
Tech's Larry Alford set the tone for the Red Raiders with two punt returns for touchdowns, and Texas turnovers and blown assignments resulted in a 21-0 lead. Looking to make something happen, Royal decided to change quarterbacks. He called for a reserve junior named James Street, and paused for a moment before he sent him into the game with the famed words of support, "H---, you can't do any worse.!"
With a brilliant second half performance, Street brought the Horns back into contention before the Raiders notched their winning score of 31-22. After that night in Lubbock, Texas would not lose again for 30 football games.
From that moment on, the series would take a turn of points and paybacks. The 1970 Longhorns hammered Tech, 35-13.
Throughout its history, Texas has had two rivals in college football -- Texas A&M and Oklahoma. In 1972, Texas Tech began to state its case for being the little brother that nobody would pay any attention to. Texas won in Lubbock, 25-20. And then the tables began to turn.
In 1974, the Raiders again used a punt return to ignite their offense to a stunning 26-3 victory over the No. 5 ranked Longhorns. The next trip, some close friends of Royal say, was more memorable for what happened off the field than what happened on it. Earl Campbell was coming off a hamstring injury, and Royal, in his 20th year as head coach at Texas, was tired of the angry direction recruiting seemed to be taking. At a hotel on the south loop in Lubbock, one of Royal's close assistants recalls his commander-in-chief telling him that the 1976 season would be his last.
The next day, Campbell reinjured his leg, and would miss six games that season. Texas Tech pulled out a 31-28 victory. At the end of the season, Royal did retire.
From there, the series turns into a blur. When the Longhorns landed in Lubbock in 1978, a Texas Tech spirit group met the team at the airport and rolled out a red carpet. Defensive tackles Bill Acker and Steve McMichael walked around it. Texas answered the two straight losses in the Hub City with a smothering defense in a 24-7 victory. That, by the way, was the last time the Saddle Tramps met the Longhorns with a welcome mat.
The Horns lost, 24-20, in 1980, despite an aerial assault by Rick McIvor. The defense answered that with a 27-0 shutout in 1982. Jeff Ward's field goal with only seconds left marked the 1984 victory, but in David McWilliams' only season in Lubbock, Texas Tech won 23-21 in 1986. Billy Joe Tolliver became a Raider folk hero in 1988 as he hurled the Techsans to a 33-32 victory. On a day that started out sunny and ended with a blizzard and a field filled with hail and sleet, the Horns won in 1990, 41-22. Texas won in 1992, 44-33, before Tech knocked out a No. 15 ranked UT team, 33-9, in 1994. Shon Mitchell scored on the first play of the 1996 game, opening the point party in a 38-32 win, in John Mackovic's last trip to Lubbock.
The Mack Brown era began with a 42-35 victory by a Spike Dykes-coached Raider team, where a disputed onside kick helped a late Tech comeback in 1998. Chris Simms subbed for an injured Major Applewhite in the Longhorns' 29-17 victory in 2000. In 2002, the series began to take on a higher profile in the college football world. Texas was in position to grab its first-ever BCS bowl bid, but played the game riddled with injuries and eight freshmen on the field regularly. Texas Tech won, 42-38, knocking the No. 3 ranked Longhorns out of the national picture.
The Tech game of 2004 was a coming out party for Vince Young. After less than impressive performances against Oklahoma and Missouri, Young silenced all critics and began his magical ride as the Texas quarterback when he overwhelmed the Red Raiders in a 51-21 victory. In 2006, Colt McCoy would step into the folklore of the series, leading the Longhorns from a big deficit to a 35-31 victory.
He had done the same in 2008, bringing the No. 1 ranked Longhorns back from oblivion to a 33-32 lead with just 1:29 left to play, before Tech rallied and scored in the final seconds for a 39-33 victory.
What emerges from all of this is a spirited series that has, as I said, been about points and pay backs. In the more than 30 years since 1978, Texas holds a 9-7 edge. The three Longhorn losses in the Mack Brown era have seen the two teams score 249 points, with the Raider victory margins being 7, 4 and 6 points.
The magic of that final moment two years ago will forever live as perhaps the greatest single event in Texas Tech sports history. For Texas, it is a pain that cannot be erased -- a chance to play for a National Championship gone in the Lubbock winds. Now, new people, new folks and new images gather for the once-every-two-years experience.
If the past is any indication, this game will leave something for us all to remember. And only the keepers of the Triangle know what just now.