Crazy, gutsy, lucky, insane. Any of these words work, but I think most Longhorn fans describe what happened 17 years ago as legendary.
Of course, The New York Times said Texas “struck pay dirt.” Due to my homerism, I don’t like this description, but it’s probably right on the money.
There were a lot of things said about the Longhorns’ improbable victory in the Big 12 Championship Game over the highly-favored Nebraska Cornhuskers (emphasis on the “highly”) and John Mackovic’s daring fourth-and-inches call. Many felt Nebraska choked in a game that, if they won, would have secured a date to play Florida for their third national title in a row. Others gave all the credit to the Longhorns, who dominated the passing game and made the big plays when they had to.
It’s funny to think that just six weeks before this game, not a single positive thing could be said about that Texas team.
If you’ve been watching ESPN, reading the newspaper or listening to sports radio, the story of this flawed, yet likeable team, might ring a bell.
Back When Arsenio Hall Had a Talk Show (oh, wait)
The year was 1996.
It was an interesting time for college football. Much like women’s fashion of the day, players had oversized shoulder pads (seriously), the BCS had yet to show its ugly head, and the Big East had more than two teams ranked at the end of the season. It was also an interesting time to be a Longhorn fan.
Following the dissolution of the SWC (the Longhorns’ home for the previous 81 years) Texas joined the Big 8 along with A&M, Baylor and Tech, effectively making it the Big 12.
The Big 12 was the first of its kind; a power conference if there ever was one. The previous year saw Big 8 member Nebraska win its second-straight title, and four Big 8 teams finished the season ranked in the top 10. Such conference dominance is nearly unheard of. In fact, the only apt comparison I can make is to the current reign of the SEC. But when these eight powerhouses north of the Red River extended a “helping hand” to the lost Texas schools, a conference of astonishing depth and grandiosity was created.
Texas fans were as excited as they were nervous. Though the Longhorns won the SWC title the previous year, Texas had been struggling, going to only four bowl games in the previous 10 years. There were also fears about how Texas would respond to such a hike in competition after playing in a less-than-stellar conference for much of the past decade.
Pollsters didn’t see it that way. In fact, this version of the Longhorns, fresh off a SWC title, was a team on the rise. Sure, the competition would be stiffer, but college football prognosticators were impressed by Texas’ pro-style offense and felt they could give those farm schools up north a run for their money.
The Longhorns were given a preseason ranking of No. 8 in the AP Poll and No. 9 in the Coaches Poll, and the Horns suddenly saw themselves as a dark horse national title contender.
The hype only grew after the Longhorns kicked off the season with two strong showings. Texas won its first game, which also served as its first conference game as a member of the Big 12, by trouncing Missouri 40-10. The Longhorns followed this with a dominant performance against their common non-conference foe New Mexico State.
A 2-0 start to the season and the Longhorns rose to No. 6 in the AP Poll.
The Luck of the Irish and the End of Texas’ National Title Hopes
Texas featured a dual-threat quarterback who shared his name with the King of Soul (James Brown was only the second African American starting QB in Texas history), a running back who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy two years later, and were coached by the now-infamous John Mackovic.
(NOTE: The following season, these three would be part of a 4-7 team that led to the firing of Mackovic. Of course, this led to the hiring of Mack Brown, and Ricky Williams would go on to break countless records and receive the Heisman in ‘98.)
More noteworthy is the presence of Priest Holmes, who after an injury in ‘94, which forced him to miss nearly two full seasons, was relegated to third-string running back. All of this despite having one of the greatest NFL careers of any Longhorn in recent memory. More on him later.
In short, this was a damn good team, and one deserving of all the hype and praise directed its way.
Like the previous year, Texas faced Notre Dame in the third game of the season. And like the previous year, the Longhorns would lose.
The game, which pitted the No. 6 Longhorns against the No. 9 Fighting Irish, received a great deal of hype. Sports Illustrated, who were the end-all be-all of sports journalism in the 90’s, labeled it the most compelling game to come to Austin in decades, and the magazine even touted it as a game that would send Texas back to the top echelon of college football.
There was little doubt that the winner would prove themselves as a viable national title contender.
(ANOTHER NOTE: This Notre Dame team would be the last one coached by the great Lou Holtz (ESPN, anyone). In fact, after Holtz resigned following an embarrassing end-of-season OT loss to unranked rival USC, the Fighting Irish (ranked No. 13) elected to skip the postseason since a major bowl game was no longer in the cards.)
To the appeasement of every college football fan in the world, save for the Longhorns, the game wound up being a classic.
With the Longhorns up 24-17 in the final quarter, a tipped pass wound up in the hands of a Notre Dame linebacker. The Irish would go on to score a touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from the six. This was followed by a defensive stop that led to a game-winning field goal by freshman Jim Swanson.
Though this hardly resembled the 55-27 shellacking the Horns faced in South Bend the previous year, the loss swiftly quieted talk of a national title for Texas.
A Loss, Another Loss, and Another Loss
The Longhorns were left scratching their heads after the heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame.
"We had this game," said Texas flanker Mike Adams. "Then we gave it away."
Feeling this way is a recipe for disaster in what we sports writers deem the “bounce-back game.”
And so it went.
The Longhorns, who fell seven spots to No. 13 in the AP Poll, faced the No. 19 Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville. The Tiki Barber-led Cavaliers had an untarnished 3-0 record but had yet to face a ranked opponent. This was a chance for Virginia to do what the Horns failed to do the previous week, prove themselves.
Texas would turn the ball over on each of its first four possessions, and that’s all she wrote.
The game wasn’t even close. A 37-13 victory on national television vaulted Virginia to No. 12 in the AP Poll, and Texas was left broken, battered and utterly embarrassed. In fact, the game continues to embarrass Texas to this day, being named the sixth greatest victory in Cavalier football history.
(AND ANOTHER NOTE: This was a particularly fun Cavaliers squad. As mentioned above, the Cavaliers featured the famous/infamous (however you might see it) Barber brothers and, despite a 7-5 record, were very close to beating some powerhouses (No. 3 Florida State). In a strange, circular transpiration of events, Virginia’s biggest win that year came against the No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels, who were coached by Mack Brown.)
Though the Longhorns would hold on for dear life in the AP Poll at No. 23, fans and media nearly twisted their ankles jumping off the proverbial bandwagon.
Kevin Blackistone, now of “Around the Horn” fame, wrote “Four games into their 12-game schedule, they (the Longhorns) already are a team that was.”
“This was a team that just yesterday, literally nine days ago, was undefeated,” Blackistone wrote. “This was a team actually being mentioned in the same sentence with the phrase ‘national title.’”
Those with pen and paper are quickest to write a team off.
In the immediate future, things didn’t get much better. Despite thumping Oklahoma State the following week in what amounted to a cupcake conference game, Texas would fall to the winless Sooners. That’s right, not only did the Longhorns lose to the Sooners, but lost to one of the worst Sooner teams ever.
For what it’s worth (very little) it was a close game. This might be the only thing that kept Matthew McConaughey from losing his mind and crashing the ’97 Oscars in protest of not being nominated for “A Time to Kill.”
Oh, and things got even worse.
Texas lost the following week, too. Though there’s no shame in coming up four points short to the No. 8 Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder, Texas, once a national title contender, was now sitting unranked at 3-4.
Thank the Lord for the Easiest Stretch Run Ever
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but sometime after the loss to Colorado, Texas got their groove back. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the foe (three of the final four games came against former SWC teams) or maybe the rest of the teams they played just sucked. Either way, the Longhorns went on a rampage.
A 28-23 win over a mediocre Baylor squad hardly reversed any cynicism. It was nice to stop the bleeding, but the Longhorns still had yet to justify the preseason hype.
In fact, none of the final four conference games would inspire much optimism from Longhorn nation.
The biggest win came against Texas Tech, who, if the Horns had lost, would have been the team to face Nebraska for the Big 12 Championship. After the Longhorns eked out a 38-32 victory in Lubbock, the media and fans dubbed Texas the Cornhuskers’ sacrificial lamb.
The final two games came against Big 12 bottom feeders Kansas and Texas A&M. The Longhorns slaughtered both, perhaps even unexpectedly, by an average of 28 points per game.
Despite winning four games in a row, the media remained unimpressed as the Longhorns failed to crack the AP’s top 25.
Regardless, Texas’ 6-2 conference record made them the Big 12 South representative, and a matchup with the almighty Nebraska Cornhuskers was set.
Texas Was Supposed to be Nebraska’s Wingman on Their Date With Destiny
At the same time that all of this drama was going down in Austin, Nebraska had their sights set on making history. No team in the history of college football has won three national titles in a row. Six golfers have shot 59, dogs have been to outer space, and I’ve been asked to leave a movie theater for sneaking in candy, yet no team has lifted that crystal football three years in a row. In 1996, with two titles in the rearview mirror, Nebraska was looking to become the first.
The Cornhuskers entered the Big 12 Championship Game ranked No. 3 in the nation, their only loss coming at the hands of the Jake Plummer-led Arizona State Sun Devils.
Nonetheless, this was setting up nicely for the Huskers. All Nebraska had to do was defeat lowly, unranked Texas and a date with the No. 1-ranked Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl would be set.
Texas was not supposed to win this game. It was one of those games that Longhorn fans were praying would be close, just to avoid the embarrassment of a rout. The 19-point spread Vegas had in favor of Nebraska might as well have been 100 points. It was a lost cause.
I’m sure those living in Austin during that time could hear a collective sigh of relief as UT scored their first touchdown.
The matchup was shaping up like a cliché scene of a bad action movie. You know, where the protagonist is chained to a moving belt line in an empty chicken factory. The hero is struggling to get free as he inches closer and closer to the buzz saw; all the de-feathered chickens being split in two right in front of him. The helpless man has only seconds to escape his impending doom. Normally, without a nanosecond to spare, the hero shakes free.
Well, that scene might look something like this in football:
With that gutsiest of gutsy calls in the fourth quarter, Texas accomplished what many deemed the impossible.
On the legs of backup running back Priest Holmes, who ran for 120 yards on 9 carries (Holmes had only 204 rushing yards the whole season before that game), and the arm of James Brown, Texas went on the defeat the Cornhuskers 37-27 (a score I have etched in my mind from a Big 12 Champions shirt my aunt bought me that had the final score on the back).
The win was so beautiful, so surreal, so improbable, I nearly forgot that Texas went on to lose to No. 7 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Maybe I’m to blame. I remember promising, in the waning moments of the Nebraska game, that I would never ask for another thing as long as I lived. In retrospect, it was a good call.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Longhorns’ identity; whether they’re a running team, a passing team, or none of the above. To that, I suggest the ups and downs of the 1996 season is what defines the Longhorns. They’re tough, they’re resilient, they’re unpredictable, they’re frustrating and they’re always exciting.
That is the Longhorns in a nutshell. That is sports in a nutshell.
As the ‘96 team proved, a new season begins every Saturday. Whether it’s the beginning of the conference schedule, a game against a heated rival, or a nationally televised matchup against a ranked opponent, the saviors of a season are countless.
If we bleed burnt orange, we will find any reason to love our team and never lose hope.
Cheers ‘96 team, you were truly spectacular.
Full disclosure: This article was a labor of love in the truest sense. The 1996 Texas Longhorns remain one of my favorite teams in Texas football history, and James Brown remains one of my favorite Longhorns. Perhaps I have an affinity for those who fall and get back up.
The 1996 Big 12 Championship game cemented my fandom. I knew from that day forward that I would be donning burnt orange on Fall Saturdays for the rest of my life. Win or lose, the Longhorns are my team.