The 1990 Texas football team was looking to get back onto the national radar. The proud program hadn’t won a national title since 1969. They hadn’t made a serious run at the top since 1983. The Longhorns fired Fred Akers following a sub-.500 season in 1986, but the first three years under new coach David McWilliams didn’t get any better, with a cumulative 16-17 record. In 1990, Texas broke through and got back on the national stage…before an utter disaster on that stage marred a good season and sent them back to square one.
Peter Gardere was an efficient quarterback for the ’90 Longhorns, completing 56 percent of his passes (a solid number in this era) for 7.6 yards-per attempt. A balanced running game spread the ball between Phil Brown, Butch Hadnot, Adrian Walker and Chris Samuels. All averaged at least 4.5 yards-per-carry.
Johnny Walker was a big-play threat at receiver and the Cash twins—Keith and Kerry—were good tight ends. Texas finished the season ranked 24th in the nation in points scored. The defense didn’t have name players and finished 31st nationally. But in the old Southwest Conference, a once-proud league that was slowly fading into the sunset, greatness wasn’t required to be a contender.
The Longhorns’ loss of stature was shown when they were unranked to begin the season. But a road trip to #21 Penn State provided an immediate opportunity to prove critics wrong. Trailing 7-6 at the half, Walker returned the opening second-half kickoff 88 yards. That set up a quick touchdown and two-point conversion. Texas stretched the lead to 17-7 by the end of the third quarter.
Penn State scored early in the fourth quarter. In this era before overtime was instituted, teams had to think ahead and the Lions were not interested in playing for a tie. They went for two and Texas came up with a big stop. That proved decisive when the Lions drove to the Longhorn 27-yard line late in the game. Texas defensive back Stanley Richard batted down a fourth down pass into the end zone and the ‘Horns had a badly needed 17-13 win.
After a week off, a challenging non-conference schedule saw Texas host Colorado. The Buffs had played for the national championship in 1989, but already suffered a loss and a tie early in 1990. The Longhorns took a 22-14 lead into the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter though, the Texas rush defense was exposed. Colorado won 29-22 and began to work their way back into the national picture.
Rice was a conference opponent in the SWC and Texas churned out a 26-10 win. That set the stage for the annual Red River Rivalry with Oklahoma. The Sooners were ranked fourth in the nation and led 13-7 into the fourth quarter. Gardere then led UT on the best drive of his career, a 91-yard march that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Keith Cash on fourth down. Oklahoma got a shot at a 46-yard field goal to win it, but the kick sailed wide. The Longhorns won and were ranked #19 in the polls.
A soft part of the SWC schedule was up next. Arkansas, still a couple years from bolting for the SEC, was a bad team and Texas cruised, 49-17. The Longhorns hammered woeful SMU 52-3. And they beat up subpar Texas Tech 41-22 in Lubbock.
The stage was a set for a visit for undefeated and third-ranked Houston. The Cougars were on probation and ineligible for the Cotton Bowl bid that came with the SWC title. But their high-octane offense, led by quarterback David Klingler, was the talk of the nation. And in a year where favorites were falling left and right, there was even the possibility that an undefeated Houston team could win an outlaw national title in the final polling.
This was Texas’ opportunity in a nationally televised game. After spotting Klingler an early touchdown pass, the Longhorns took over. Gardere went 20/28 for 322 yards and completely outplayed the Heisman candidate on the opposing team. Hadnot rushed for 136 yards. The running game as a whole simply overwhelmed Houston, piling up over 300 yards. By the time the fourth quarter began, Texas was ahead 42-10, the party was on in Austin and only some garbage time points from Houston made the final nominally respectable, at 45-24.
Now the Longhorns were up to #7 in the country. They went to mediocre TCU and won 38-10. There were two games remaining, one at Baylor and another at home against Texas A&M. The Bears and Aggies were each in the hunt to catch Texas for the Cotton Bowl bid, but the Longhorns only needed one win to clinch.
They got it on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Waco, knocking off Baylor 23-13. The rivalry game with A&M was a little more hair-raising, but Texas pulled it out, 28-27. They closed the regular season at 10-1 and ranked #3 in the polls.
A national title was now very much on the table. The crazy up and down year of 1990 had seen Colorado come all the way back to be at #1. The Buffaloes would play Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. Georgia Tech was an even more unlikely national contender, ranked #2 and slated to play Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl. If both of those teams lost—and there was every reason to think they might—then the Cotton Bowl had the #3 and #4 teams with Texas and Miami.
All the top bowls were played on New Year’s Day. The Cotton and Citrus would go early in the day and the Orange Bowl in prime-time. In the social group I was in, we made our picks for the big games. The way I had events breaking down, Texas would win the national championship. But as it turns out, this would just be one more vivid example of why I never made it as a gambler.
Georgia Tech and Colorado, both won. But more to the point for this article, Texas was an utter disaster. The Longhorns lost 46-3 in a game where the score says it all. This comes in spite of Miami piling up over 200 yards in penalties, mostly coming on unsportsmanlike flags for their dramatic celebrations.
The national media came down hard on Miami for their behavior. From the Texas standpoint, the bigger problem was why the Hurricanes had so much cause to be celebrating. Losing a game like this put a black mark on an otherwise very nice season. And it set the tone for the Longhorns to come further back to earth in 1991 when another sub-.500 season spelled the end of McWilliams.