As nervous as Ohio State fans should rightly be about facing Texas in Glendale, we all have to look at the upside: two traditional powers will meet in a high-paying, high-profile bowl. This is a lot better than going to the Liberty Bowl to face some WAC champion, or – God knows – staying home altogether.
Others more capable than I will do a complete rundown on the 2008 Longhorns (probably complete with “The Imperial March” as background accompaniment), but I thought it might be interesting to take a quick look back at Longhorns history, and note two seasons in which Ohio State and Texas dominated the college football landscape.
Let’s not dwell too much on the 1969 Ohio State Buckeyes, because the very remembrance of how that season ended can make you leap out of your office window. Rex Kern, Jim Stillwagon, Jack Tatum and company were the defending national champions, and looked poised to claim a second straight national title until a stunning 24-12 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor (a game for which my father swears Rex Kern was paid to lose). That opened the door for Texas.
The Longhorns coasted through the 1969 season, riding the crest of a 30-game winning streak that lasted from the 1968 to 1970 seasons. They beat #8 Oklahoma handily, steamrolled rival Texas A&M 49-12, then prepared for a December 6th showdown with #2 Arkansas.
The 1969 Texas/Arkansas game (yet another contest that has earned “Game of the Century” plaudits1) should have been played for bragging rights alone, but Ohio State’s loss to Michigan gave President Richard Nixon all the opportunity he needed. Eager to curry political favor in the South, Nixon elected to attend the game personally, and brought with him a plaque symbolizing the national championship.2
Texas overcame a 14-0 Arkansas lead, as well as a few critical turnovers, and won a slow, boring battle of attrition and field position by a score of 15-14 before 44,000 fans. True to his word, Nixon conferred the national championship on Texas – a decision that still sends Joe Paterno into apoplectic fits.3
Texas went on to beat #9 Notre Dame 21-17 for the school’s 500th football victory, and the Longhorns cemented their first national title since 1963 - an ABC-TV poll of sportswriters even declared Darryl Royal “Coach of the Decade.”
Texas rolled through the 1970 season, and so did an infuriated Ohio State team.4 Both schools pulverized their opponents by mind-boggling, record-setting scores, and both schools played and whipped Texas A&M (Ohio State won in Columbus, 56-13, and Texas won in College Station, 35-13). Both schools beat their rivals (Ohio State beat Michigan 20-9, and Texas beat Oklahoma 49-9). All year long, Ohio State and Texas swapped the #1 and #2 position in the AP poll.
Both schools then proceeded to fall flat on their faces in their respective bowl games.
These were the days when wire services routinely declared national championships before the bowl games were actually played – a system that surely would have benefited Ohio State in 2006 and 2007 (and perhaps a couple of Cooper’s teams, to boot). Texas won the UPI championship after beating #4 Arkansas 42-7 in the regular season finale; Ohio State won the National Football Foundation title after crushing Michigan. The Buckeyes went out to the Rose Bowl to play Jim Plunkett and Stanford, and Texas prepared for another game against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl; the outcomes of those two games would determine the 1970 AP national champion.
Ara Parseghian’s Irish proceeded to snap Texas’ 30-game winning streak, beating the Longhorns 24-11 and dropping Texas to #3 in the AP poll. Ohio State held a 17-13 lead going into the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl, but Plunkett’s Indians scored ten points in the game’s final ten minutes, and upset Ohio State 27-17. The loss left Ohio State at #5 in the final AP poll.
Without question, the years 1968-1970 were filled with glory for both the Longhorns and Buckeyes, but they are also years of missed opportunities. Both programs had legendary coaches at the height of their powers; both programs had legitimate shots at three consecutive national championships. Interestingly, both teams went on to continued glory in the early and mid-1970s until Royal stepped down at Texas in 1976, and Hayes was dismissed in 1978.5
1 There have been a slew of “Games of the Century,” including 1946 Army/Notre Dame, 1966 Michigan State/Notre Dame, 1993 Florida State/Notre Dame (sensing a trend here?), and 2006 Ohio State/Michigan. How the 1916 Cumberland/Georgia Tech game qualifies is anyone’s guess.
2 Also attending the game that day were future President George H.W. Bush and the Reverend Billy Graham.
3 Paterno’s 1969 Lions went unbeaten, and elected to attend the Orange Bowl after their eighth win of the season, turning down offers from other bowls, including the Cotton. Penn State assumed that Ohio State would win out, and a trip to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas would only result in a game for the #2 spot. Several Penn State players are on record as saying that they felt the Cotton Bowl was a game for Texas, run by Texans, and that the visiting team wouldn’t be treated well by bowl officials. That’s why Penn State chose the Orange Bowl, and why Paterno lost out at a shot at the 1969 AP title (Penn State finished #2).
4 This was the season in which Woody had a carpet reading “24-12” placed outside the exit of the OSU locker room. The carpet stayed there throughout the offseason, and all through 1970, until moments after the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan.
5 Both coaches shared one other trait: a complete disdain for Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer. After Oklahoma beat Ohio State in a nail-biter in Columbus, Woody famously remarked that the Buckeyes had been beaten by “the best team money could buy.” Darryl Royal nearly exploded when Mack Brown invited Switzer to address the Longhorns before the 2002 Big 12 title game.