On Friday, the University of Texas football team–ranked number two in the country–stops by Kyle Field on the campus of Texas A&M University en route to what most believe will be a showdown with the number one USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl. The Longhorn juggernaut, led by Heisman candidate Vince Young, is averaging 50 points per game. The Texas Aggies, who have had a disappointing season after being a pre-season pick to finish in the top 20, are expected to provide little more than a speed bump for the Longhorns on their road to Pasadena.
But as former coach and current ESPN commentator Lee Corso likes to say to his colleague Kirk Herbstreit just after he has made a strong case for the team Corso is not picking, “Not so fast, my friend!” There is a history here that folks ought to know before they write off the Aggies.
On Thanksgiving Day, 42 years ago, I was a freshman football player for Texas A&M. I was watching the Texas-Texas A&M game from the stands; in those days freshmen could not play varsity ball (not that it would have made a difference in my case), and we had finished our season 5-0, including a 7-0 win over the University of Texas freshmen in Memorial Stadium in Austin. We were hoping the varsity could pull off the upset over the hated “tea-sips” from Austin. It turned out to be the best, though most heart-breaking game, I ever witnessed.
The fall of 1963 was a tumultuous time. The country was in mourning after the assassination of Pres. John Kennedy only days before the game. Some had wanted to cancel, and the Aggies did cancel the big bonfire out of respect for the fallen president. But they chose to play the game.
Coach Darrell Royal’s Texas team was ranked number one in the country and was expected to meet number two Navy and Roger Staubach in the Cotton Bowl after they had finished off the Aggies, who had a proud football tradition. The Aggies won the national championship in 1939 and would have won it again in 1940 had Texas not upset them. As the A&M coach at the time said, “We had one foot in Memorial Stadium and the other in the Rose Bowl.”
But the once-proud A&M football program had fallen on hard times. Its current malaise had started with the departure of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who had jumped his contract to go to Alabama. During his first year as the A&M coach, he had taken his team to Junction, Texas, for early season practices. Bryant ran the players so hard that many of them quit, but those few who stayed–the “Junction Boys”–formed the core of the team that, with the addition of Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow, would defeat Texas to win the Southwest Conference in 1956.
But the Bear was gone and things had not gone well since his departure. The Aggies were 2-6-1 going into the 1963 Texas game and were not expected to be much of an obstacle to Texas’s championship ambitions. Critics described the A&M offense as “three yards and a cloud of dust, without the three yards.” Now it is a cliché to talk about how in a big rivalry game like Texas-Texas A&M records mean nothing. In fact, the better team almost always wins. But now and then, the underdog team can play way over its head and get the upset. But it takes some magic.
That’s what the Aggies had in 1963. Hank Foldberg, the A&M coach, had invited the 1939 national championship team to College Station to inspire his players; it apparently worked. There were other things going on as well. Some Aggie students kidnapped Bevo, the Texas Longhorn mascot. In retaliation, some Texas students burned a big “UT” at midfield of Kyle Field. The damage to the grass combined with torrential rains before the game turned the middle of Kyle Field into a morass. Ironically, Texas was hurt more by the field conditions than the Aggies.
So when the Aggies kicked off to get the game under way, I was standing on the Aggie side of the stadium, aligned with, I believe, the north end zone. During an A&M game, the whole Aggie student body stands the entire time, symbolizing the spirit of the “12th Man,” a tradition that remembers a student during the 1920s who had been asked to suit up for a game in case his undermanned team needed him.
Texas jumped off to a 3-0 lead on its first possession and it looked like the Longhorns would bury the Aggies in the Kyle Field mud. But the Aggies held tough. Early in the second quarter, Jim Keller found Travis Reagan for a 54-yard scoring pass and, much to the surprise of the pundits, A&M held a 7-3 lead at the half.
In the third quarter, after Ronnie Moore recovered a Texas fumble at the A&M 44, the Aggies shocked Texas again when Keller connected with George Hargett on a 29-yard touchdown pass, to give A&M a 13-3 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, Texas cut the A&M lead to 13-9. Then A&M’s John Brotherton intercepted a Tommy Wade pass at midfield with less than four minutes left in the game, but, when he tried to lateral the ball to a teammate, the ball was fumbled and Texas recovered it at the A&M 45.
With 2:24 left in the game Wade, the Texas quarterback, launched a long pass into the end zone but overthrew his receiver. I was elated as I watched Jim Willenborg intercept the ball in the end zone, catching it over his shoulder as if he were the receiver. He then gathered the ball to his body, and when he slid to his knees he was still a full yard inside the end zone.
My view was confirmed by game films and photographs, but an official ruled that Willenborg had been out of bounds when he picked the ball off. Given a second chance, Wade threw again, and Hargett nearly picked it off. Finally, with 1:19 left in the game, Texas’s Duke Carlisle scored on a 1-yard run and number one Texas barely escaped Kyle field with a razor thin15-13 victory.
Knee injuries ended my hopes of playing varsity football for Texas A&M (I did play for two years at UC-Santa Barbara), but in my mind’s eye, I can still see Willenborg’s interception to this day. The official’s call was nothing short of highway robbery, and I think every Texas player knew that A&M had outplayed them that Thanksgiving day and, but for a bad call, would have knocked them out of their Cotton Bowl date with Navy.
The records and the statistics point to a big Texas victory over Texas A&M on Friday. But they did 42 years ago as well in a game that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one coming up this week. Perhaps this time, the gods of football will balance the scales, redressing the injustice of 42 years ago. All I have to say is “Gig ‘em, Aggies!”
–Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations..