The conference's second national champion was Meyer's 1938 TCU team, with the great Davey O'Brien at quarterback, but my favorite stories involved the Southwest Conference's third champions of that decade, the 1939 Aggies. I heard about them from my old granny, who had become addicted to Texas A&M football as a girl when she watched the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band parade down Fort Worth's Main Street before a game at TCU. Though she never saw a game, Granny could recite plays from every Aggie season. "When time was a-runnin' out," she would tell me as I lay curled at her feet, "we give the ball to Jarrin' John Kimbrough, and he went and followed Marshall Robnett's block, bodies going this-a-way and that-a-way, plumb to the end zone." In the '40s and '50s, Granny and I listened to Aggie games on radio. Before each game she would kill a chicken and study the entrails, then place an appropriately colored candle in the window. When the Aggies scored, we would march around the room, waving maroon-and-white pennants and singing the Aggie War Hymn.
My first Southwest Conference game was SMU versus Texas in Dallas in 1947, which was the second and final meeting between Walker and Layne, who had been teammates at Dallas's Highland Park High. Their rivalry took SWC football to its highest level. Layne was primarily a passer and leader but also played defense. Walker did it all—ran, passed, caught, kicked, played defense—and was the most graceful and indomitable player I ever saw.
That was not only the first major college game I ever saw, it was also the best. After SMU took the lead on a backward reverse from Walker to wingback Paul Page, the Longhorns tied it with a plunge by running back Tom Landry—you'll remember that name, though probably not from his days as a Longhorn—but SMU struck again when Walker caught a 54-yard pass in front of Landry, now playing defensive halfback. Layne's passing pulled Texas to within a point, 14-13, but the Longhorns missed the extra-point attempt. The Mustangs' margin of victory was Walker's second extra point. Walker accounted for 125 of SMU's 199 yards on offense. Layne passed for 120 of Texas's 196 yards.
In the 1950s I became directly involved with the Southwest Conference, first as a student at TCU, then as a sportswriter for the Fort Worth Press. I was in the stands as a cheering undergraduate in '55 when Jim Swink led TCU to a conference championship. Swink was a fluid runner, dashing through defenders like a mountain stream rushing past boulders. The Frogs won the title again in '58 and tied for it in '59.
The best team of the 1950s may have been Bryant's '56 Aggies, who included John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, Jack Pardee, Charlie Krueger and an unheralded defensive end who would become better known as a coach, Gene Stallings. Unfortunately, as the conference's first major pay-for-play scandal enveloped a number of the players, the Aggies became best known as the finest team money could buy. They went 9-0-1 that season but went nowhere on New Year's Day because they were on probation.
One other thing I remember about the 1956 season is a song that several writers for the Fort Worth Press composed in the press box after the Frogs lost a 7-6 heartbreaker to the Aggies in a rainstorm. Sports editor Blackie Sherrod had hired the editor of the TCU student newspaper to cover the Frogs' dressing room, but when the game ended, the kid said he couldn't face those valiant boys. Sherrod reminded the lad that his attitude was less than professional, but the student stood his ground with this immortal reply: "You never went to that school, buddy!" That's why, anytime I watch the Frogs play football, I remember this opening verse:
You never went to that school, buddy!
You never walked down Tom Brown Hall.
You never had no dealings
With M.E. Sadler.
You never attended a Howdy Week Ball.
(No, you never went to that school, buddy
And you don't know nothing at all!)
For most of us living in Dallas, two events in the fall of 1963 affected us profoundly: the assassination of President Kennedy and the weekly struggle of Royal's Longhorns in their drive for a national championship. I was with the Dallas Morning News, sharing an apartment with fellow sportswriter Bud Shrake. In the evenings we hung out in smoky bars like Jack Ruby's Carousel Club, sometimes partying all night. My day job was covering the Cowboys and occasionally the Longhorns. Two days after the assassination, Shrake told me in the parking lot of Cleveland's Memorial Stadium that the man arrested for shooting Kennedy had himself just been shot in the basement of the Dallas police station. Shrake asked me to guess the name of the gunman. I guessed Jack Ruby. I still don't know why that name popped into my head, except it was the wildest thing I could think of.
A few days later I was standing in the mud and cold at Kyle Field, watching the Longhorns try desperately to salvage the season and their No. 1 ranking against fired-up A&M. In the dying minutes defensive back James Willenborg appeared to intercept a Texas pass in the end zone, which would have ended Royal's dream of a national title. But Willenborg was juggling the ball as he fell over the end line, and it was ruled that he did not have possession. The ball went to Texas, which scored and won 15-13. The Longhorns were on their way to the Cotton Bowl against second-ranked Navy and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Roger Staubach.
In the days before that game Shrake and I spent time in Austin, eating Mexican food with our new friend Darrell and writing about how he was preparing his team to contain the scrambling Staubach. We didn't realize that Royal was also putting a wrinkle in his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack. The 1963 Longhorns had a defense that was among the best in the country. It included linebacker Tommy Nobis, the most efficient predator since Vlad the Impaler. But the Eastern press was unimpressed. One sports-writer called the Longhorns "the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the football public" and wrote that Texas linemen had "skinny legs like centipedes or girls and high rear ends."