The glory days of Texas Longhorns football came when the great Darrel Royal was on the sidelines. Royal came to Austin in 1957. He won a national title in 1963. And by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the program was peaking. Another national championship came in 1969. The Longhorns won an outright league title in the old Southwest Conference each year from 1969-72. The 1973 Texas football team continued that streak and made it five straight outright conference titles. But losses in big national showcases foreshadowed a decline that was just around the corner.
A potent running game was the key to Longhorn success. Roosevelt Leaks ran for over 1,400 yards in a schedule that had just ten regular season games. Leaks averaged better than six yards a pop. His offensive line was anchored by Bill Wyman, the best center in the country. Bob Simmons at tackle and Don Crosslin at guard were each All-SWC performers.
Texas didn’t throw the football all that much—quarterbacks Marty Akin and Mike Presley only combined to throw 102 passes the entire season. But they completed 51 of those passes, and in this era, a 50 percent completion rate was respectable More to the point though, they didn’t need to. The Longhorn running attack was powerful enough for Texas to finish ninth in the nation for points scored.
The defense had some good players, led by Malcolm Minnick and Doug English up front, and Jay Arnold in the secondary. But this was not a great unit, finishing 25th nationally.
Expectations were, as usual, sky-high, and Texas came out ranked #3 in the preseason polls. But the season took an immediate bad turn. The Longhorns opened on a Friday night in Miami, facing a mediocre Hurricanes team. They lost 20-15 and fell to #14 in the rankings.
There was no time to lose in getting things turned around. Texas Tech was up next. While the Red Raiders were unranked, they had been competitive in 1972. And, as things turned out, this would be the biggest game in the Southwest Conference for 1973.
An early touchdown from Leaks gave Texas an early 7-0 lead. The running game then settled in and delivered a long 86-yard drive for another TD and a 14-zip cushion. The Red Raiders bounced back and scored two touchdowns of their own. But a missed extra point was followed by a missed two-point conversion and the Longhorns maintained a 14-12 edge in the fourth quarter.
Even though Texas fumbled five times, they only lost one. The Longhorns also intercepted two passes. In the fourth quarter, they got a big touchdown to go ahead 21-12, then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff in the end zone. The game was closer than the score makes it sound, but UT had a nice 28-12 win.
That was followed up by a 41-0 thumping of lowly Wake Forest. It was time for the annual rivalry battle with Oklahoma. The Sooners were ranked #6 and undefeated. Under first-year coach Barry Switzer, they were also on probation and unable to play in a bowl game. OU would have to treat each marquee game as their opportunity for a national showcase. And that’s what happened here. The Longhorns were crushed, 52-13, and went tumbling out of the polls.
The season was shaping up as a disaster, at least by Royal’s standards. But both losses had taken place in non-conference games. The final six games were Texas’ opportunity to turn it around and demonstrate their hold on the SWC.
Texas and Arkansas played some big games in their days as league rivals. This year’s Razorback team was more pedestrian, and the ‘Horns went on the road and won a 34-6 blowout. They went to Rice and blew out a subpar team, 55-13. SMU was a respectable opponent that would finish with a winning record. Texas hammered the Mustangs 42-14. In a home game against lowly Baylor, Texas rolled to a 42-6 win.
The Longhorns had nudged back to #11 in the polls with two games to go. Texas Tech was keeping pace, having not lost since the September game in Austin. Texas blew out TCU 52-7, an outcome that assured a tie for first place and a trip to the Cotton Bowl, the league’s showcase prize.
There was still the matter of the outright conference championship. And even though Texas A&M was a mediocre team, this was still a big rivalry game that was played on Thanksgiving Day. After one quarter, the Longhorns and Aggies were tied 7-7.
In the second quarter, that Texas offensive line started taking over. Drives of 90 yards and 62 yards were both capped off by short touchdown runs from Raymo Clayborn. In control at 21-7, the Longhorns got the ball to start the second half and went on a 18-play/80-yard touchdown drive. At 28-7, it was all but over. Texas closed out the 42-13 win and another Southwest Conference crown.
The ‘Horns were also back up to #8 in the polls. Their Cotton Bowl date with 12th-ranked Nebraska was an opportunity. A victory would seal a high national ranking and be the signature non-conference win that was missing.
But the game did not go the way anyone in Austin was hoping. A great goal-line stand by the Texas defense maintained a 3-3 tie just before halftime. But the running game couldn’t get untracked. Leaks was held to 48 yards. Nebraska took over in the second half and won 19-3. The Longhorns finished the season ranked #14 in the final poll.
This 1973 season proved to be the end of a glory era. Over the next three seasons, Texas only shared the conference championship in 1975. Royal retired after 1976. His successor, Fred Akers, produced great teams in 1977 and 1983. Both of those teams suffered Cotton Bowl defeats that cost them national championships. But otherwise, the SWC was becoming more balanced. The 1973 Texas Longhorns were a good football team, to be sure. But their shortcomings proved foreshadowing of things to come.