It is mid-September in 1968. The University of Houston Cougar football team, after a national break-out year in 1967, has opened it's season by defeating Tulane 54-7. But the game long awaited is on for September 21 against Texas in Austin. Not since 1953 has the U of H and UT met on the football field.
Tickets are in heavy demand. They become available to students that week and one of the most prized possessions in Houston is the U of H activity book whose coupon entitles a student to two tickets to U of H events. Students camp-out in the Hofheinz parking lot the night before tickets go on sale to insure their place in the ticket line. By 8:00am the next morning, a long line of students wind around the Hof parking lot seeking the hottest ticket in town. There will be an early sell-out of 66,397 that will witness this showdown the following Saturday night.
Talk around town is that the U of H is in for a rude awakening. Yeah, they had quite a success in 1967, but they now have a new QB in Ken Bailey, McVea is gone from the potent Veer that had destroyed Michigan State a year earlier, and it was doubtful that Paul Gibson would be able to run against the dreaded UT defense. And there just was no way that Bill Yeoman could coach at the same level as the SWC icons of Darrel Royal and Frank Broyles. After all, UT has a team capable of the National Championship with Chris Gilbert at RB and a multi-talented QB in Super Bill Bradley, a kid that could do everything. Why, Bill threw from either hand and could also punt from either foot, hence the name Super Bill. He could do it all!
Around 6:30pm on game night, the crowd of 66,397 began to take their places in the stands. Although a count of Cougars was difficult to determine, many more were left in Houston because they could not get tickets. Every seat alloted to the U of H was filled and their emotion and enthusiasm would often drown-out the much larger group of orange faithful.
The University of Houston marching band entered one corner of the stadium marching to their drum roll and playing the U of H fight song. Following the band was Shasta in her cage, lying still with that serene, calm, cool, and collected look that would become one of the most beautiful mascot images among college athletics. As the band and Shasta made their way around the perimeter of Memorial Stadium, Cougar eyes became mist and hearts fluttered as the scarlett and white paraded by.
The football game itself would set a standard tough to equal or beat in future years. Chris Gilbert and Paul Gibson would become the work horses of their respective offenses. Gipson would rush for 173 yards and Gilbert for 159. For the first time in history, Royal would unlease the "wishbone" offense. Yeoman and his defensive staff, confused by what they saw, would frantically try to adjust the U of H defense to control this new monster. Through some luck and the fact that UT was running the offense for the first time, U of H managed to keep the wishbone under control. Also, Super Bill turned-out to be mortal, although certainly talented as an athlete. The first half would end in a virtual tie 7-7 as both teams played tremendous defense.
The second half was even more intense. UT scored first and took the lead 14-7, but two plays and 18 seconds later, Mr. Gibson sped 66 yards to knot the score again at 14-14. The Cougar defense then took control and with an interception by Charlie Hall, went ahead 20-14. The conversion attempt went wide. Then it was UT's defense who took control and recovered a U of H fumble at the U of H 20. With about one minute gone in the 4th quarter, UT tied the game at 20-20. But as fate would have it, UT's extra point attempt failed, and with almost a quarter to go, the game remained tied at 20-20.
The Cougars controlled the fourth quarter and ran 30 plays to 12 by UT. But the UT defense was resolute in keeping the Cougars out of their end-zone. With three minutes to play, U of H had fourth and inches at UT's goal line. Gibson took the handoff and the Cougar faithful watched him crash into the orange defense and break that magical plane that separates nothing from points. The Orange faithful and the refs saw him stopped for no gain. UT took over and ran the clock out refusing to punt from their own end of the field. And the 20-20 standoff went down in history.
As fans filed out of Memorial Stadium, the Cougars were dismayed because they felt the game had been stolen from them because of the refs not calling Gibson's last carry a TD. Orange fans were muttering "well, at least they did not beat us", a rather weak statement, given that they were heavy favorites going into the game. Darrel Royal, for only the second time in his coaching history, would visit the Houston dressing room, and offer his congratulations for a great game.
The aftermath would shape U of H tradition and history. The press and public now recognized that a new and formidable program existed on Cullen Blvd and could compete with the best in Texas, namely UT. Darrel Royal would soon support U of H's entry into the SWC although insisting that they wait for five years before competing for the title to allow equalization time for the other SWC schools. U of H and UT would not meet again until 1976 as SWC members. That game at Memorial Stadium would also have it's place in history, but deserves it's own place in the "Best of the Story" series.
And now, thirty two years later, almost to the day, the U of H and UT will meet again, in a non-conference battle on September 23, 2000, long after the history of the SWC. That game also likely will have an important place in our continuing tradition and history and no doubt will command it's own set of "Best Stories" yet to be told.