We're going to do the best we can with what we've got, and if that isn't good enough for 'em, the hell with 'em.
—Fred Akers, before this season
So, then: The hell with 'em.
Not that Fred Akers, having come so far with so much dignity, would have said that last Saturday, when the University of Texas made him the first football coach it had ever fired. Akers evinced an admirable serenity through his final days. Oh, the flashing blues of his fabled stare—to hear some tell it, the Akers stare is the only thing the man will leave for the fabulists—had been disarmed somewhat over the course of a season filled with too many injuries, too few wins and unremitting speculation that it would be his last.
But there were no cracks in his public demeanor last week, not even after the Longhorns lost 16-3 to Texas A & M on Thanksgiving Night to end a 5-6 season—no late-night mumblings to the portraits on the walls of the athletic department offices, no imprecations to his offensive coordinator to kneel with him in prayer. No, Akers left the Nixonian excesses to the survivors in the Southwest Conference: to A & M (read: Autos & Money) coach Jackie Sherrill, who cynically stonewalled members of the press when they printed allegations of a slush fund in his program; and to the plumbers at SMU (read: Spurious Methods University), who cheat, get caught and merrily cheat again.
Akers, 48, is not a crook, and by the prevailing, abysmal standards of the SWC, that is remarkable. He is guilty only of what in these parts are considered much less forgivable transgressions: He has won, he has won a lot, and he has won more or less honestly. But he hasn't won while playing the wiseacre, and while whupping A & M and Oklahoma and his annual bowl opponent. In other words, he hasn't won Texas-style or Texas-big.
Never mind that no other active coach in the conference has won more games, or that Akers' .741 career winning average is the second best in the history of the SWC. "If you'll remember," says Carroll Kelly, one of several prominent Longhorn boosters who worked to oust Akers, "a 70 in school will get you a D or an F."
At Texas they don't grade on a curve. The state constitution mandated the building of "a university of the first class." If something isn't already there on its fetching campus in downtown Austin, well, then, it'll be brought in, by golly, cost be damned. The resources for luring excellence are immense: modern facilities, the nation's largest endowment ($ 1.3 billion) and deeds to some 21 million acres of oil-rich land. All of which helps explain how the university has been able to attract a bevy of Nobel laureates over the last several years.
A similarly ambitious and high-minded spirit prevails in the athletic department. The Longhorns, for instance, do not have a Hall of Fame; they have a Hall of Honor. Preseason All-America tight end William Harris didn't play for Texas this year—not because he failed to meet NCAA academic minimums, or even SWC minimums (he met both), but because he didn't meet Texas minimums. Texas isn't quite like Cal, where they're trying to build a football team equal to the high academic standards of the university, or like Penn State, where they're trying to build a university equal to the high academic standards of the football team. It is, rather, a place with surpassingly high expectations across the board.
To get a better fix on Akers' fall, we paid a visit, before the ax fell, to the office of Charles Alan Wright in the Texas law school. He is a renowned constitutional scholar who represents the finest the university has to offer. Wright says, "The question I don't have the answer to, and I'm glad others get paid to find it, is whether the public controversy has destroyed his effectiveness.
"It's useful to remember that we went through a period in the '60s with three consecutive 6-4 [regular] seasons," continues Wright. "My impression is that there was never any serious talk of getting rid of [coach Darrell] Royal. The difference in the personalities of the two coaches and the circumstances under which Fred was hired have a lot to do with our being less tolerant."