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What better way to begin a Texas-is-back story than with a Royalism? Former Texas Longhorn coach Darrell Royal once declared, "Trends are bunk—only angry people win football games." With a Cotton Bowl bid riding on the outcome of last Saturday's game against unbeaten and untied Houston, the Longhorns confirmed the wisdom of Royal's edict. Having bludgeoned Texas in three previous meetings by a combined score of 173-64, the Cougars hoped to make it four straight but found themselves on the field facing some angry young men. Before 82,457 spectators in Austin's Memorial Stadium—the vast majority cheering raucously for Texas—the Longhorns pulled off a 45-24 upset by stuffing the Cougars' high-scoring, pass-happy, run-and-shoot offense.
In winning their seventh game against only one loss, a 29-22 defeat by Colorado in the second game of the season, the Longhorns had their way with Houston's linemen in the trenches, allowing quarterback Peter Gardere to outplay his more celebrated Cougar counterpart, David Klingler, who had thrown for 34 touchdowns and 444.1 yards per game.
But nothing brought the Texas faithful as much joy as the rampages of Butch Hadnot, a 6'2", 210-pound true freshman tailback out of Kirbyville, Texas, who rushed for 134 yards on 23 carries and scored three touchdowns. At Kirbyville High, Hadnot scored 24 touchdowns his senior year and ran the 100 meters in 10.5 seconds, according to the Longhorn media guide. The biographical sketch also says that Hadnot bench-presses 385 pounds. It might have also mentioned that all by himself, Hadnot evokes the glory years of the '60s and '70s, when Texas won three national championships and 11 Southwest Conference titles. Hadnot accomplishes this by bowling over defenders like a young Earl Campbell, the Longhorns' 1977 Heisman Trophy winner. Indeed, as Hadnot scattered opponents on Saturday as if fitted with a cowcatcher, it was easy to see why his teammates call him Baby Earl.
Texas, suddenly wide awake after six years of torpor, is set to reclaim the honors that Longhorn teams used to take for granted: a conference title, a Cotton Bowl berth, national respect. But earlier last week Longhorn fans were doing their best to pretend that their team did not need a win over Houston to have a successful season. The prevailing wisdom was this: If our guys can just keep it close, it will be a moral victory. Even Texas's defensive coordinator, Leon Fuller, admitted, "We just hope to keep our poise."
The Longhorns did, and thereby destroyed Houston's. Texas, leading 45-18, was well out of reach when, with seven minutes left in the game, Klingler betrayed his desperation by throwing his fourth interception of the day, a clone of his third interception, thrown only two minutes earlier. Both giveaways were ill-advised bombs on the first play of a new possession. Both were clear signals that Houston had run out of both poise and patience. Houston coach John Jenkins took responsibility for the interceptions, saying, "It came down to gambling on my part. I was trying to get the ball deeper downfield instead of going with the more disciplined plays we normally run."
In spite of the loss, Jenkins was upbeat and full of praise for Texas. He can afford to be gracious. The defeat was only the Cougars' fifth in nearly three full seasons, during which time they have outscored opponents 1,406-572. At 38, Jenkins is one of the youngest Division I-A head coaches and one of the most successful. An architect of the "multiple adjustment passing offense," a.k.a. the run and shoot, he is primarily responsible for one of the more dramatic turnarounds in college football history. The 1986 Cougars, coached by Bill Yeoman, went 1-10. The following season, new coach Jack Pardee brought Jenkins in as his offensive coordinator, and the team finished 4-6-1 before improving to 9-3 and 9-2 the last two seasons. Pardee left last January to take over the Houston Oilers, and Jenkins was given the top job. A three-year NCAA probation primarily for recruiting violations committed during Yeoman's tenure hardly slowed the Cougars down. Before Saturday, Houston aspired to become the first team on probation to finish atop the Associated Press poll since Oklahoma in 1974.
Fidgeting in the press box in a myrtle-green blazer, Cotton Bowl president John Stuart affected a studied neutrality. Inwardly, though, he must have been bellowing, "Hook 'em, Horns!" The Cotton Bowl has no use for the Cougars, forbidden as they are by the NCAA to go bowling until 1992. A Houston win could only devalue the Cotton Bowl, forced, as it would be, to take the Southwest Conference runner-up. Stuart & Co. desperately want Texas for New Year's Day, even though Baylor and Texas A&M still have a fighting chance for the league title. As Longhorn publicist Bill Little told Cotton Bowl executive director Jim Brock before the game, "Hoss, you should break out your orange underwear for this one."
Texas, coming off its second straight losing year, did not engage in a lot of bowl talk in the off-season. In fact, David McWilliams began this season, his fourth on a five-year contract, with the discomfiting knowledge that he would be coaching for his job. When athletic director DeLoss Dodds fired Longhorn coach Fred Akers after the 1986 season, he replaced him with McWilliams, who had been coach at Texas Tech for only one year. McWilliams had been a 6-foot, 195-pound linebacker, center and a captain on Royal's 1963 national championship team, and the feeling around Austin was that he might revive some of that spirit. Instead, the program rapidly deteriorated to a state worse than anything seen during the Akers regime. Successive 7-5, 4-7 and 5-6 years put a quick end to any comparisons with Royal. The low-water mark came during last year's 50-7 home loss to Baylor. "That's as close to quitting as I've ever seen a Texas team come," recalls an athletic department official of that humiliation.
In the off-season, pressure was brought to bear on McWilliams by alumni and media to fire some of his assistant coaches. The Austin American-Statesman generously volunteered the names of several coaches it thought were ripe for replacement. McWilliams thanked the paper for its concern and kept his staff intact.
Asked "What turned it around?" McWilliams replies, "Senior leadership, I think," a catchphrase that is right up there in every coach's lexicon with "momentum" and "playing well as a unit." For once, however, "senior leadership" is not a pat answer. This year's two-deep roster includes 26 seniors. Last season's had six. In 1988 the squad had 11 seniors. This year McWilliams distributed T-shirts that said WIT, which stood for Whatever It Takes—the season's theme. It went over big. Many Longhorns had played in highly successful high school programs, and, as senior wideout Johnny Walker says, "We were sick to death of losing in college."