And so there lies a young man named Cotton Speyrer, all 5'11" and 169 pounds of him, ringing out the old hundred years of college football and ringing in the new, holding onto something called No. 1 and clinging also, for whatever sentimental value it may be worth around Austin, to the very overwrought lives of Darrell Royal and his hordes of Texas Longhorn followers. Speyrer has just wheeled back, knelt, lurched and scooped up a forward pass thrown by another obstinate elf, James Street, on a gravely executed play that will simply have to be filed away among the real treasures of the sport. For it was this gamble in those last fading moments of the Cotton Bowl—this fourth-down pass from one gutty urchin to another—that enabled Texas to defeat a valiant Notre Dame team 21-17 in as courageous a game as any two schools played throughout the whole of the century.
In fact, the way the thundering afternoon was controlled and more or less dominated by the inspired play of the urchins—and not just Street and Speyrer but Notre Dame's marvelous Joe Theismann, as well—carried with it a message of what college football is all about. Here they were down on the soggy Cotton Bowl turf last week, in the best of the four New Year's Day games, surrounded by pro prospects of enticing quality, from the stampeding Steve Worster to the ponderous Mike McCoy, and it was the thin-waisted, seemingly fragile guys competing for honor, coach, campus and blonde who seized the day and turned it into a milestone.
After all, it had been Joe Theismann, the South River Road Runner who is only 6' and 170—hardly a Roman Gabriel—who almost whirled the Irish beyond their fondest memories of the Four Horsemen in Pasadena. Theismann's passing, faking and scampering shocked Texas and gave Notre Dame a 10-point lead in the game's first 15 minutes and 20 seconds. And it was his same multiple ability to escape the quick rush and find the open receiver that brought the Irish back in the fourth quarter and put Ara Parseghian's beautifully prepared team ahead again 17-14, with only 6:52 left to play.
If any Texas fans were truly surprised by the fury with which Notre Dame was playing, by Theismann's record passing in the Cotton Bowl (17 completions for 231 yards and two touchdowns) or by the notorious defensive work of Linebacker Bob Olson, they must have forgotten a basic fact—that Notre Dame is Notre Dame. When you added to it the fact that the school was making its first bowl appearance in 45 years and going against the No. 1 team, then all Texans should have known they'd be up to their Stetsons in a crusade. And it wouldn't matter whether the Irish would be using big mean McCoys or flighty little Theismanns.
As the Notre Dame quarterback had said before it all got started under a blue Texas sky (outlined against the three surviving Four Horsemen, who had flown in for the epic occasion): "I've never been so keyed up for a game, and I've never felt so confident."
The Notre Dame performance was good enough to have won against any team but Texas. The differences were a hard-running Longhorn backfield that tore out 331 yards rushing from the Wishbone T; a quick-thinking coach who has proved over and over that he can be dagger sharp when a game is, as he puts it, "in heat"; and Street, whose quality of leadership would not allow his team to lose in all of the 20 games that he worked.
Leadership is a quality we often overlook in this era of Archie Mannings and Jim Plunketts, the gifted physical types who will probably become great pros. Perhaps many of them are leaders, too, but as yet none of them has a record like the one Street posted at Texas or that of another winner, Penn State's Chuck Burkhart.
Which brings up the fact, momentarily at least, that Penn State might have grabbed one or two No. 1 plaques had Texas not beaten Notre Dame. The Nittany Lions embarrassed Missouri in the Orange Bowl 10-3, the same score by which USC topped Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Joe Paterno's team did the job in its usual manner—with a magnificent defense that intercepted seven passes, recovered two fumbles and generally made Missouri look sick.
Paterno, an amusing and likable coach on the order of Royal and John McKay of USC, had every right to try to argue his team into the No. I spot since it, too, finished 11-0, but no one paid much attention. The feeling, obviously, was that Texas won under more pressure in the big games and with greater ease in the earlier pushovers. Even McKay, who probably faced a tougher overall schedule than either and who also wound up unbeaten—but once tied—admitted that Texas deserved to be the national champion.
Besides, one can't escape the fact that Joe Paterno and his boys had a chance to take on the Longhorns in Dallas and passed it up for another trip to Miami and the sunshine. Penn State will have to live with that, along with No. 2.