By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
We have entered a special week in West Virginia football history as Texas comes to Morgantown for the first time ever.
“I’ve never coached there. I have never been there,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “So we’re really excited about it. We’ve always heard how great their fan base is and how challenging it is to go there and play.”
For Texas, it is challenging to play West Virginia anywhere. They’ve played them twice, once against a 6-4 team in 1956 coached by Art “Pappy” Lewis the year after Fred Wyant graduated with the great team he quarterbacked, and last year when WVU’s 7-6 team pulled out its last victory before seeing an undefeated season fall apart with five straight losses.
Each meeting was fiercely fought, the Mountaineers winning 7-6 in 1956 and 48-45 last season.
Make no doubt, however, how big this game is to West Virginia, who is looking to finish with a winning record and must win two of its final three to at least reach .500 and be bowl qualified, while Texas has shaken off a slow start and is looking for a Big 12 title, having won five straight.
Make no doubt, this is college royalty (or should we say Royal-ty, for Hall of Fame coach Darryl Royal?) coming to town for this week’s 7 p.m. game, a team rich in history, national championships — one even presented by former President Richard Nixon himself — Heisman Trophy winners and College Football Hall of Fames.
The Texas football history is richer than you can remember or imagine, going back to Thanksgiving 1893 when a group of students from the college situated in Austin went to Fairgrounds Park in Dallas to play the Dallas Football Club, self-proclaimed “The Champions of Texas.”
They were hoping to draw a big crowd for what was then Dallas, a city of 40,000, and they started the day with ruffians from the Dallas Football Club strutting down Main Street sporting an angry look and big stogies in their mouths.
Wrote the Dallas News that day, “To a man who had never heard of Walter Camp and doesn’t know a half-back from a tackle, the professional game of football looks very much like an Indian wrestling match with a lot of running thrown in.”
Suffice it to say this was a war, so hotly contested that one of the two referees quit at halftime because he was tired of the constant arguments. Also, suffice it to say, Texas won the game, 18-16, or who knows, they might never have played football.
It went from there to amazing heights over the years, historic games, historic coaches, historic plays and historic players.
The first great game came on Thanksgiving to end the 1920 season, Texas and Texas A&M meeting unbeaten, the Longhorns having outscored their opponents, 275-10, and A&M completely unscored upon — sounding much like an early game between West Virginia and Marshall.
Texas A&M led 2-0 late in the game as the Longhorns drove to the Aggie 11, fourth and 7.
This was how what ensued was described by Bill Little in “The History of Texas Football”: Tom Dennis, who would later become one of the state’s great high school coaches, was a punter and tackle on the team. Francis Domingues was a crowd favorite, and Bill Barry was a little-used halfback.
Down to its last chance, the Texas team broke its huddle with Barry surprisingly on the field in place of Joe Ellis.
“The snap went to Domingues, who handed to Barry on a reverse,” wrote Lou Maysel. “Barry stopped, wheeled and hurled a high throwback pass to Dennis, who was an eligible receiver on the play. Dennis saved the play with a spectacular leaping catch in front of the goal posts and came down on the 4, just clearing the first down marker. Domingues, the people’s choice, rammed the ball behind the blocking of Swede Swenson, George Hill and Dennis on the next play, and Dennis kicked the point.”
Texas had won, 7-3. The Aggies’ unbeaten string had ended at 25 games, and Whitaker got a huge salary increase from $3,000 to $3,750.
Football was now king and the real king to be crowned was a quarterback named Bobby Layne, who had come to school with all intentions of being a baseball pitcher in 1944 but wound up being one of the great competitors, quarterbacks and characters of his time both in college and the NFL.
The turning point to the modern era in Texas football, however, came with a 1-9 season in 1956, sending Texas in search of a coach.
They could have come up with one of the big names in coaching but leaned instead toward a young man, just 33, with a coaching background in Mississippi State, Edmonton, Canada, and Washington by the name of Darrell Royal.
You may have heard the name. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Royal not only rebuilt the Texas name, his name is on the stadium. He was that good, that important, that influential.
Tommy Nobis came along early in the Royal reign as one of the all-time greatest linebackers in history, known mainly for his goal line tackle of Joe Namath to save an Orange Bowl victory, one of the most famous plays in that bowl’s existence.
But the group of seniors that graduated Nobis’ sophomore year had put together an incredible 30-2-1 record.
If the Nobis-Namath game was one of the greats, it did not stand alone.
In 1969 Texas started the season beating all opponents by an average of 44 points a game, being matched in the final regular-season game against No. 2 Arkansas in a true “Game of the Century” for the first 100 years of college football.
The Longhorns came from behind to win, 15-14, were presented the No. 1 trophy by Nixon after the game, then went out and matched with Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, which was the Irish’s first bowl trip since the Four Horsemen in 1924.
James Street finished the only unbeaten QB career in Texas history with a 20-0 victory.
Then there was Texas’ Ricky Williams’ bid against A&M to break Tony Dorsett’s career rushing record set at Pitt. He almost made people forget it, as it was.
Needing only 11 yards, with 1:13 left in the first quarter he broke three tackles and went for a 60-yard score, finishing with 259 yards on a career-high 44 carries.
The greatest play in Longhorn history? This one was in recent memory, 2006, facing fourth and 5 in the Rose Bowl against defending national champion USC, which was leading, 38-32, they called “928 Sneak,” Vince Young taking the snap, dropping to pass.
When he saw an opening, he took off and lit for the end zone for an 8-yard score with 19 seconds left, giving the Longhorns a 41-38 victory and their first national championship in 45 years.
In truth, there is so much more to say about Texas, about Earl Campbell, who showed up looking for success because “I want to build my momma a house so that she doesn’t have to look at the stars at night through the holes in the roof,” and so, so many others, but it is best to cap off this recap with a contribution that completely changed the game, for it was out of Darrell Royal and his problem-solving efforts that the Wishbone Offense was created by assistant Emory Bellard.
Bellard wanted to run the veer and the triple option; Royal wanted to add a split receiver and lead blocker.
After a slow start, Royal said “what the heck” and installed his new offense and once he got the hang of it there was no stopping it, and by 1969 it was leading the nation in rushing at 363.0 yards per game and 33.8 points per game.
Against SMU, they rushed for 611 yards with all four starting backs rushing for more than 100 yards.
And the thing is, when Texas comes to Morgantown this week, this game is as important to them as any in the past because they will be battling for the Big 12 crown and coach Mack Brown is trying to hang on to his job as Texas changes athletic directors.
Who will it be?
You may know if Oliver Luck shows up at the game with his bags packed.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.