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TGS BIG 12 RETROSPECTIVE...THE REAL GAME THAT CHANGED THE GAME!
                                                           by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

When
the subject of “most important” college games will arise, there are rarely any shortage of candidates for the honor. Regarding college basketball, and with apologies to shallow sorts such as Seth Davis, who wrote an entire book to place the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State NCAA title game in nomination, we have addressed the question on the pages of TGS Basketball in the past, and have always opted for the epic 1968 UCLA-Houston game at the Astrodome as the unquestioned winner. (You can check out our case for UCLA-Houston by referring to one of the earliest passages from our archive section on the TGS website homepage.)

The same question for college football, however, has, to us, at least, remained more difficult to answer. We have written at length about some of those nominees on these very pages, and some of those can also still be accessed on our website (such as “The Biggest Game of Them All,” reviewing Mike Celizic’s memorable book on the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 draw, and last summer’s Big 12 Retrospective price that relived the epic Texas-Arkansas classic from 1969.) But in terms of actual impact on sport, especially televised sport, we think we’ve identified a clear winner, and it once again involves a current Big 12 entry. And it’s not Texas-Arkansas ‘69, or the “Great Plains Shootout” between Nebraska and Oklahoma in 1971...though both were unforgettable classics.

But for pure impact, and fostering a change in culture, we don’t think that any sporting event, in any sport, might have been as impactful as the January 1, 1965 Orange Bowl clash between Alabama and Texas. While Crimson Tide-Longhorns would prove an “instant classic”- type of battle on the field that night in Miami, the ramifications of that Orange Bowl would effectively change the course of televised sport...and, to a certain degree, society habits in general.

Let’s rewind back to more than a half-century ago, into 1964. After acquiring the rights to televise the Orange Bowl, NBC, along with the directors of the Miami event, had decided to break with tradition and move the annual New Year’s Day classic on the upcoming January 1 to nighttime and prime-time TV. College football fans could not believe their luck, as the New Year’s bowl lineup would now eliminate a usual early logjam involving the Orange (through 1964 an ABC property), Sugar (in those days telecast by NBC), and Cotton (a long-time CBS property until recent years) Bowls that would all take place at roughly the same time before the Rose Bowl, also telecast by NBC. Moving the Orange Bowl to the prime-time slot created an unprecedented back-to-back-to-back gridiron bonanza covering roughly 10 hours of choice holiday TV time. For the honor of convincing the Orange Bowl Committee to switch networks and participate in the prime time-TV experiment, NBC would pay a then-astronomical sum of $600,000, and allowing “The Peacock” to almost corner the college football market on New Year’s Day. We’ll return to these important dynamics after reviewing what was one of the more riveting bowl games in memory.

In those days when almost all of the bowl matchups (save the Rose and its AAWU-Big Ten pairing, and the Cotton, with the Southwest Conference champ always as host) were not pre-determined, the major bowls would often have to gamble and lock in their best matchups before the end of the regular season. The Orange would often battle the Sugar and the Cotton (which would seek one high-ranked foe to face off vs. the SWC champ in Dallas) for the top teams, but each of the major bowls would usually have to nervously await the conclusion of the regular season in hopes of their matchup being the best for New Year’s.

As the 1964 season progressed, the Orange Bowl was not looking as if it would be in a position to promote the primo matchup of the year for its prime-time debut on NBC. Defending national champ Texas, which would have been bound for a return trip to the Cotton Bowl, where it had beaten Roger Staubach and Navy by a 28-6 count in a 1-2 matchup on New Year’s Day ‘64, had topped the polls into mid-October before getting stunned by an aroused Arkansas side, 14-13, the margin of victory determined by a missed Longhorn 2-point conversion try with 1:27 to play. The unbeaten Razorbacks thus became the favorite to win the SWC, and the polls would replace Texas with Woody Hayes’ Ohio State as the number one team. Only for a few weeks, however, as the Buckeyes would get ambushed by Penn State in early November, catapulting Ara Parseghian’s surprising Notre Dame, which finished 2-7 the previous year under Hugh Devore, into the top spot in the polls.

The Fighting Irish, however, were still adhering to their own no-bowl policy in those days, so the distinct possibility arose that the national champion team would not be participating in any of the postseason classics. The Orange, looking for the best matchup it could, pegged unbeaten Alabama, second in the polls into late November, against the defending national champion Longhorns, who had not lost since the mid-October setback vs. Arkansas, which was still unbeaten as it winged its way into the Cotton Bowl.

The Orange Bowl Committee thus issued its invitations to Bama and Texas, and crossed its fingers that the sides would not lose in their final regular-season games vs. old and bitter rivals in a pair of Thanksgiving games. The Longhorns were not expected to have much trouble with a 1-8 Texas A&M side, and Texas did not, pasting the Aggies 26-7, though the Crimson Tide would be in far tougher vs. a fired-up Auburn side in that year’s edition of the Iron Bowl at Birmingham. Outgained by Shug Jordan’s Tigers, the Tide would nonetheless repel an Auburn drive at the Bama 1 in the 3rd Q in what would be the decisive sequence of the game, holding on to a 14-7 lead in the process and keying an eventual 21-14 win.

The Orange Bowl Committee would sigh in relief as its preferred matchup stayed in tact. But two days later, on Saturday, November 28, the Orange Bowl got an unexpected early Christmas gift from an unlikely Santa Claus, John McKay’s Southern Cal Trojans, who dramatically rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit at the LA Coliseum to beat Notre Dame, 20-17, and deny the Fighting Irish their unbeaten season and almost certain anointment as national champion by the AP and UPI polls!

Instead, when the final polls were announced on Monday, it would be none other than Bear Bryant’s Alabama on top of the rankings, declared as the national champ by the wire services as was common practice in that era, before the bowls (the following year, the AP would delay its final poll until after the bowl games, while the UPI coaches poll would stick with its pre-bowl final rankings for a few more years). Suddenly the Orange Bowl had the dream matchup it wanted, featuring the defending and current national title sides!

There was plenty of glamour in the Orange Bowl matchup, too, because it would also feature the most colorful character of the college season, Bama QB Joe Namath, who had established himself as a household name in the college football world the previous two seasons with his dash and panache while leading the Tide to bowl wins in the Orange (vs. Oklahoma) and Sugar (vs. Ole Miss). But the stylish Namath, by this time already donning his trademark white shoes, had also endured a bumpy ‘64 campaign due to a knee injury suffered in an October 10 win over NC State, and reinjuring it two weeks later vs. Florida; the famous photos of Joe Willie on the Bama sideline with a heavily bandaged knee as he stood next to the Bear would become some of the more enduring images of that college season. Capable backup Steve Sloan would relieve Namath for much of the campaign and complete the wins over NC State and Florida, plus an early November showdown vs. LSU to clinch the SEC crown, though a limping Namath would return in the final regular-season games vs. Georgia Tech and Auburn.

(While most recollections of Namath are of his post–knee injury days, Joe Willie was in fact a superb athlete and a dangerous runner in his college career before the knee problems would arise.)

Meanwhile, while not as colorful as Bama, Texas was its usual rugged and functional self, with a star coach in Royal and one of the top defensive forces in college football, LB Tommy Nobis.

Namath, however, was the main attraction in the run-up tp the game. And he could not avoid the news as the Orange Bowl approached, either, the subject of a bidding war between the NFL St. Louis Cardinals and the AFL New York Jets, in the days when each league would conduct drafts before the bowl games. Rumors were flying around Miami that Namath was about to become “Broadway Joe” and sign a mega-deal with Sonny Werblin’s Jets, perhaps as soon as the final gun would fire at the Orange Bowl.

The prospect of a healthier Namath on New Year’s Night had added some extra hype to the already-tantalizing Bama-Texas matchup, but at practice a few days before the game, Namath would reinjure his knee, jeopardizing his status. Namath had just come off two excellent workouts when the accident happened. Turning back to the huddle after running a play in practice, Namath suddenly cried out and fell writhing to the ground. There was cartilage damage in Namath's right knee that would require surgery to remove. "I'll play," Joe Willie said on Monday afternoon, four days before the game, but no one agreed with him for the next three days. Alabama Trainer Jim Goosetree would apply ice packs and made certain Namath hardly flexed the knee at all. After 24 hours, the critical period, there was no swelling and by Friday there was hope he might play some as a spot man behind Sloan. The pointspread, which had assumed Namath’s availability and opened with Bama as a 6-point favorite, quickly dropped to Tide -3, and even closer to pick ‘em in Texas, where the Longhorn money would flow.

As always, Miami provided a great backdrop for the Orange Bowl. The city opened its arms for the teams, which were entertained continuously, including the customary floor shows at the most-swanky Miami Beach hotels. Still, there had been no New Year's Eve partying for either coach, nor for their staffs, and not much more for the players. Royal would say that restrictions were not rigidly enforced, "but, then, if these were the type boys we had to worry about they wouldn't be here. They'd be home watching television. I'll tell you something: there's no company or party that's going to mean much to any of us if we get our tails whipped."

Still, there were always various unrealities of the Orange Bowl game itself, considering the airy qualities of the fantasyland in which the game was hosted. Miami had always fancied itself as the sun center of the universe, but with this game to be played for the first time at night, the staging would be particularly magnificent, complete with rockets and fireworks and a multiplicity of bands. Fresh oranges were carefully Scotch-taped to the orange trees in the east end zone, and bathing beauties lounged on coral rocks, waiting, presumably, to retrieve field-goal attempts.

With Namath opening the game on the sideline, however, Bama started slowly, and in the early going, the game appeared as if it could turn into a Texas rout.

With Sloan at QB, Alabama did not make a first down, much less get near the end zone, in the first quarter, yet the defense twice blunted Texas thrusts. But then the Tide “D” guessed wrong on a stunting movement and Texas RB Ernie Koy sliced, cut back through the vacancy left at right tackle and was suddenly free on a 79-yard touchdown run, the longest by a Texas back in four years, and almost 60 yards longer than any Longhorn TD run in 1964. Sloan, helped by a 41-yard pass to HB Ray Ogden, would then march the Tide into Horn territory early in the 2nd Q, but PK David Ray missed a short field goal.

Things did not go Bama’s way the rest of the first half, either. The first of several unusual developments came as Texas prepared to punt on fourth down at its 26. During the time-out that preceded the play, Bryant substituted his offensive team. Center Gaylon McCullough lined up at defensive right tackle, misread the line of scrimmage and was called offside. The punt was nullified and Texas retained possession with a first down on the 31. On the very next play, backup QB Jim Hudson, who was the starter early in the season before his own injury, replaced starter Marvin Kristynik, a lesser passer, but the Tide defense did not notice the change until ti was too late and Hudson had lofted a long pass to WR George Sauer, Jr., who ran a straight fly pattern and sped past 'Bama's defense for a 69-yard TD play and a 14-0 lead. All of this from a normally-conservative Texas offense that had not featured a TD play of more than 25 yards all season!

(If the names of Hudson and Sauer sound familiar, they should, as both would be longtime teammates of Namath with the Jets, and play key roles in the Super Bowl III upset over the Colts on the same field four years later, Hudson, by then a DB,  with a key interception on Baltimore’s aborted flea-flicker pass at the end of the first half, and Sauer as the receiving star of the game.)

With the score now 14-0, Bryant decided to replace Sloan with Namath, whose knee was heavily bound. Joe Willie also wore soccer shoes with small cleats to prevent them from grabbing turf. He could not run, but could certainly pass, and quickly whipped the Tide downfield, covering 83 of the 87 yards on the drive thru the air via six completions, including a seven-yarder to End Wayne Trimble for the score.

Not long thereafter came another jolt of misfortune for Bama. Having detected an opening at left end when Texas lined up for a field-goal try, the Tide sent DE Creed Gilmer ripping across the unprotected zone. Gilmer blocked the kick at the Alabama 28-yard line, and David Ray (also a back as well as kicker) picked the ball up to run for Alabama. But Ray fumbled away possession as he was hit on the 38, returning the ball to the Longhorns. A downfield holding penalty on the Tide would eventually put Texas on the Alabama 13, and three plays later, with clock ticking inside of a minute remaining in the half, Koy slanted in to make it 21-7 at intermission.

The second half, however, would belong to Namath, who was beginning to pick apart a Longhorn defense that was effectively deployed in a “soft” cover 2-scheme, keeping receivers in front of the DBs. Namath’s quick release, however, negated the Texas pass rush as Joe Willie proceeded to dissect the Horn "D" with a succession of medium-range passes.

Coach Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets, watching from the press box, bubbled over every move as Namath took Alabama 63 yards for one score, getting the touchdown on a 20-yard pass to SE Ray Perkins (eventually to be Bryant’s successor as Bama coach) thrown sharply between two Texas defenders. "Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous," sang Ewbank, who had a contract ready for Namath to sign. "Reminds me of Unitas. He doesn't have to be tutored. He could take a pro team right now."

In the fourth quarter Namath worked Alabama into scoring range again, this time for a field goal by PK Ray to cut the deficit to 21-17, and after an interception by Tide LB Jim Fuller set up Bama at the Texas 34 midway thru the 4th Q, the Tide looked ready to take the lead. Namath quickly pitched Bama to the Texas 6. From there, three fullback plunges by Steve Bowman reached the Longhorn one, setting up a 4th-and-goal for the ages.

At the line of scrimmage on fourth down Namath thought he saw a trace of daylight at right guard. He ignored his knee trouble and disappeared in a cascade of white-and-orange jerseys, appearing to be stopped, but eventually emerging across the goal line. Longhorn DT Fred Bedrick penetrated low from the side and Nobis came in high to wrap him up. Nobis said the Horns heard the whistle blow the play dead, let up and that's when Namath fell into the endzone. Of course to this day Namath claims he scored, though the referees did not agree. "One official said it was a score, but the referee said no," Namath said, and was livid. "I guess you know whose side I was on."

Years later, Bear Bryant had this to say about the 4th down play.

"Tommy Nobis met him (Namath) head on. Our guys thought he scored. Afterward, one of the writers asked me who called the play. I said I had (I always call the ones that don't work.) He said, 'How can a $12,000-a-year coach call the plays for a $400,000 quarterback?' I admitted he had a point."

Alabama had a couple of more chances in the finals minute, but Longhorn LB Pete Lammons (another future Jet!) stopped the first drive with an interception, and Texas pressured Namath into four straight incompletions to end the game. Joe Willie finished the contest 18 for 37 thru the air with 255 yards and two touchdowns.

Texas never got past midfield in the second half, and made only four first downs as Alabama overshifted to the strong side to adjust to the power sweeps of Koy. But for all the momentum Namath provided, Texas had won the game in the first half and preserved it with its defense, first on the goal line, and then on the final two Bama drives.

Namath, of course, would go on to his storied pro career, but that Bama team also included WR Perkins, who played several years in the NFL before becoming a HC at the NFL level (Giants and Bucs) as well as succeeding Bryant at Tuscaloosa, while another member of that Bama team was a LB named Jackie Sherrill.  Along with backup QB Sloan, a future HC at Vandy, Texas Tech, Ole Miss, and Duke, three '64 Bama players would eventually become head coaches of note.

Overall, fourteen members of the 1964 Tide squad would be drafted by the NFL or AFL. And the ‘64 Texas squad had more NFL talent than any other Royal team up to that time. Ten players off of that team would be drafted, and eight would have productive careers in the NFL.

The Orange Bowl was also the first NBC assignment for play-by-play legend Curt Gowdy, who brought his AFL partner Paul Christman with him from ABC, where they had worked the Nebraska-Auburn Orange Bowl the previous year.

The next morning Namath went through the formalities of a press conference in which he signed a Jet contract that amounted at the time to a record $400,000 deal. Then he went celebrating with Ewbank at Tropical Park, a racetrack where Namath once was nabbed for gambling as a minor. And the Namath legacy was just beginning.

As were the repercussions from the Orange Bowl, though they had more to do with the enormous TV ratings. To that point, only boxing, among major sports, had been able to infiltrate prime-time TV network programming, while football, baseball, basketball, and hockey were consumed either on local or syndicated programming. Alabama-Texas proved that football was ready to break that mold as the Orange Bowl planted the seed for team sports to become part of prime-time network fare.

As for NBC, it saw some other value in effectively cornering the New Year’s Day football market and using it to heavily promote its upcoming programming schedule, which needed a boost after falling well behind CBS in the Nielsen ratings of the day. NBC’s New Year’s strategy also created a future template used by networks that would eventually bid billions of dollars for the rights to events like the Olympics and Super Bowl, the latter still a couple of years away in 1965, to effectively do the same sort of cross-promoting that NBC first envisioned a half-century ago. Not to mention giving other entities like MLB the idea to move prime events, like the World Series, to nighttime. And giving pro football an idea that nighttime national TV games might work, too. Pete Rozelle would soon begin experimenting with the prime-time idea with a handful of NFL Monday Night specials later in the decade before the merger, a prelude to the landmark Monday Night Football package that Roone Arledge and ABC signed on for in 1970.

Not everyone, however, thought that all-day football on TV was a good thing. Indeed, there was a chorus, echoed by Jack Gould, then the TV critic for the New York Times, that believed sports, and college football in particular, had finally reached a TV saturation point. “A (TV) set owner last night had visions of football...prospering to the point of extinction,” said Gould in his column the day after the ‘65 Orange Bowl thriller. “The human mind does have a saturation point. NBC, in conspirational liaison with Orange Bowl officials and the city fathers of Miami, made the longest New Year’s in the history of football.”

Of course, Gould would be proven wrong several times over throughout the succeeding years. By the early ‘80s, when colleges went to court to regain their TV rights (remember the CFA?), there would be at least ten hours of college football on video sets every Saturday. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for televised sport, which could always point back to that Orange Bowl on New Year’s Night, 1965, as the beginning point of a new era of sports media coverage that continues to expand to this day.  Indeed, no game would ever change the trajectory and context of televised sport as would the 1965 Orange Bowl. 

That’s quite a legacy for Bama-Texas...even beyond the game that was an instant classic!


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