Bill Little commentary: The rivalry that almost wasn't
Oct. 9, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It was the summer of 1973, and the College Sports Information Directors of America were holding their annual convention in Denver. And after a drive through the Texas Panhandle and up through Colorado Springs, I came away with the same impression most Texans have about the state that hugs the north-most border of the Lone Star country: God was on a roll when he made Colorado.
The state, with its majestic mountains and stunning scenery, is captivating. But the intriguing relationship between CU and UT has produced a unique sort of football rivalry. In the 1940s, Texas dominated three games, including a Bobby Layne-led 76-0 rout in 1946.
That was the beginning of a series that turned into a rivalry that nobody would have expected.
The two schools didn't play again until a Bluebonnet Bowl meeting almost 30 years later. It was the final game of the 1975 season. The Longhorns were operating with an injured quarterback in all-American Marty Akins, who had a hurt knee that would require surgery after the season. But as it seems to be with so many of the Texas-Colorado meetings, the game would provide some unforgettable individual highlights. It could be argued that this was the last great game of the storied era of Darrell Royal at Texas.
Akins had been superb that season. From the opening game of the year, the Longhorns had been ranked in the nation's top 10. By the Texas A&M game, they had climbed to No. 5. But Akins had suffered an injury in the TCU game prior to the regular season finale. When asked how much he thought his team would miss the injured quarterback if he couldn't play against Texas A&M, Royal had looked pensively at the reporter and said quietly, "How much would we miss Marty Akins? How long is a piece of rope? There is no way to answer that question."
Akins had tried to play against the Aggies, but was knocked out of the game early, as No. 2-ranked Texas A&M won, 20-10. But in a twist of fate, A&M had moved its game with Arkansas to the final game of the year. When the Razorbacks upset the Aggies, it threw the SWC into a three-way tie, giving Royal his 11 Southwest Conference championship in his 19 years.
By the Bluebonnet Bowl on December 27, Akins had recovered enough to play, and Royal became a harbinger of the future of Texas football offensively when he moved fullback Earl Campbell to a running back position. The Buffaloes rolled to a 21-7 halftime lead, and appeared to have the game in control. But after a 40-minute halftime where it seemed every marching band in Houston performed, Texas came out inspired.
With Earl's brother Tim leading the defense and Earl leading the offense, the Longhorns shut out the Buffaloes in the second half and scored 31 unanswered points, winning, 38-21. Tim Campbell blocked a punt for a touchdown early in the third quarter, and Earl rushed for 95 yards on 19 carries. In what was believed to be a first in a college bowl game, the brothers were named the outstanding offensive and defensive players of the game. It was Royal's final bowl game and victory. The next season, as Texas finished 5-5-1, the UT coaching legend retired.
It was also the demarcation line in the series. When it resumed with a home and home series in 1989-90, Colorado began a six-game winning streak that would carry all the way through the first two games of the Big 12 competition in 1996 and 1997.
But even those games would not be without their moments. In a 29-22 loss to a CU team that would go on to compete for a National Championship, David McWilliams' "Shock The Nation" Longhorns came ever-so-close to an upset because of a play that was never supposed to happen. Texas had taken a 19-14 lead two-thirds of the way through the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, the Longhorns kicked out of bounds, resulting in a kick-over and a five-yard penalty. Kicking off from his own 30, the Texas kicker actually missed the ball, and caught just the top of it with his foot. The ball rolled 11 yards to the UT 41, where all-American safety Stanley Richard recovered it for an impromptu onsides kick. But Texas couldn't hold on, and Colorado went on to a comeback victory.
The John Mackovic era produced two showcase games in a losing cause for heralded quarterback Shea Morenz. In a 36-14 loss in Boulder in 1993, Morenz threw for 347 yards and two long touchdowns. Then in Austin in 1994, the Buffaloes won on a field goal on the final play of the game, 34-31. Morenz was spectacular in leading a Texas comeback to tie the game at 31-31, but Rashaan Salaam of Colorado rushed for 317 yards en route to a Heisman Trophy performance. That was also the game where Mackovic suffered a concussion after being hit by Longhorn defensive end Tony Brackens who was pursuing CU quarterback Kordell Stewart near the Texas bench area.
In the Mack Brown era, the Horns and the Buffaloes have played twice in the Big 12 Championship Game, with heart-breaking and heart-warming results for Texas. The latter, of course, was the 2001 Championship game played in Texas Stadium, where the Longhorns suddenly found themselves a win away from playing for their first National Championship since 1970. But despite a valiant comeback led by quarterback Major Applewhite (who now, of course, is the Longhorns' running back coach), Colorado prevailed, 39-37.
It was a different story in Houston in 2005, when the Vince Young-led Horns crushed the Buffaloes, 70-3, on the way to Pasadena and the BCS National Championship game against Southern Cal. Including last year's win in Colorado, Texas has now won four straight, and six of the last seven meetings.
Of the teams in the North Division of the Big 12, Colorado features more memories than any of the others for the Longhorns - save, perhaps, for some classic games with Nebraska - all of which have come since the league started in 1996. It is a series that has extended over only 17 games, but it has produced some of those Rocky Mountain highs and valley lows.
Saturday night's game in Austin figures to be no different. Those who have seen the Buffaloes play will tell you that they are better than their record shows; that they have never quit and have played, at times, well enough to beat anybody.
Texas is much like some of the teams of the Darrell Royal era, when it was just exciting to come to see the team play. With only three home games remaining, there are senior players whose time at Texas is growing short, and there are exciting young players that are itching for a chance to get on the field and show what they can do.
And on what is expected to be a perfect night for football weather-wise, that's all you can ask.