Old School: Chris Gilbert

"Old School" is a new weekly feature here at InsideTexas.com. Today, Bert Hancock looks at the Texas career of Chris Gilbert. Future editions will include looks at other Longhorn greats as well as interesting stories from the program's storied past.

Chris Gilbert, a highly touted runner from Spring Branch, signed with Texas in 1965, right after the Longhorns took the Orange Bowl from top-ranked Alabama. Over the previous four seasons, Darrell Royal had led the program to a record of 40-3-1, with four top five finishes and a national championship.

Yet, during Chris Gilbert’s Shorthorns’ (the UT freshman team) season, he watched the varsity drop to a 6-4 mark, shocking many across the country, and especially in Austin. Teaming with blue-chip quarterback "Super Bill" Bradley, he was part of an exciting sophomore class expected to get UT back to the top in '66.

Before his varsity career could begin, he dealt with rumors Royal, an already near-legendary head coach, might just travel back the short distance to Oklahoma to resurrect the Sooners’ sagging program. DKR, to the immense relief of Gilbert and other Orangebloods, stayed in Austin, citing his love of the school. Gilbert didn’t realize staying the course would be so trying in general.

On the coaching front, though Royal remained, OL coach Jim Pittman, with Darrell since 1954, left to take on Tulane’s head job. This led to a staff shuffle that brought in 27-year old Arkansas grad Fred Akers to coach Gilbert and the backs. Further change affecting the runners came when Royal elected to scrap his Wing-T formation for the I, which Arkansas had used so well in recent seasons.

Chris didn’t start his first game against ninth-ranked USC on national television, but with the Horns down 10-0 after a poor first half offensive showing, he got the nod to trot out on the field to open the second half. And his opening signified a standout career, ripping off runs of 12 and 14 yards against the powerful Trojans’ defense. Texas came up short, falling to USC 10-6, but Gilbert had wooed with 103 yards on 14 rushes.

Injuries in abundance, including to starting signal-caller Bill Bradley, took an immense toll on the squad that signed a mammoth 67-man class in 1964, but whose numbers had dwindled to very few real contributors. As such, there was very little quality depth, and it showed in a repeat of the 6-4 record of 1965. The offense struggled much of the time, but did receive some life when Gilbert was assigned the full-time tailback job midway through the year.

Indicative of his first two seasons with the varsity, Gilbert’s 74-yard touchdown and 152 yards rushing were lost in a 13-12 defeat to SMU.

His biggest highlight during the regular season was a school-record 245 yards versus Baylor, including 55- and 65-yard dashes, in a 26-14 Longhorn victory. Such wins occurred too infrequently, though, for the back who broke the school’s single season rushing record with 1,080 yards.

A frustrating, injury-marred season for the team and Chris ended with promise for the upcoming season. UT defeated Ole Miss 19-0 in the Bluebonnet Bowl, as Gilbert was voted the game’s most valuable back with 156 yards on 26 carries. My father, in the stands at the time, overheard several Rebels’ fans proclaim how they, winners of their last six and losing only to highly-rated Alabama and Georgia (only one loss combined), shouldn’t have to stoop to play a lousy Texas team. That vocal nature became very subdued after Gilbert popped 50 yards early on a trap play, followed by Bradley streaking the remaining 25 yards for the first score. Only Georgia had rushed for over 100 yards all season on the Ole Miss defense, but the Horns ripped the Rebels for 283.

Gilbert’s low-to-earth running style earned him the term "Lizard." Many fans and coaches marveled over his abilities. "Watching Chris run is like looking at a filmstrip with several frames missing," Coach Royal said. "You see him hit a hole here and all of a sudden he’s way over there...(and) He has such great balance that Chris can be accused of having more than two legs."

With bumper stickers proclaiming "'67, Year of the Horns," excitement again rolled across the Forty Acres. The return of Gilbert and Bradley, along with the addition of more outstanding sophs like running back Ted Koy and linebacker Glen Halsell fueled that optimism. But Gilbert was given a hint of possible trouble his upcoming junior season when his head coach asserted: "We’re back in the herd, but we don’t have enough strong players in the senior class. Picking us for ’68 would be much more logical."

Royal proved prophetic. Chris, despite doing his part and then some, would have to wait yet another season before he could relish such regular victories he was accustomed to from watching UT while a Houston-area prep star. One game during 1967 symbolized Gilbert’s first two years at Texas: despite busting a conference record (never broken) 96-yard touchdown run on his way to a 202-yard day against TCU, the Frogs upended the Horns 24-17. This setback became part of yet another 6-4 campaign.

Perhaps the most frustrating of all moments during the year came in the last game at Kyle Field versus Texas A&M. With 51 yards rushing at halftime, Gilbert, already banged up from a shoulder injury sustained a few weeks before, suffered a hip-pointer on the second half kickoff. He never returned, while the Aggies clinched their first conference crown in over a decade, 10-7. Gilbert had again tormented opposing defenses with regularity, finishing with over 1,000 yards for the second straight season. But he felt emptiness rather than contentment.

1968 arrived with Texas again expected to win the conference, this time with more rationale behind the optimism. The Horns returned 17 starters, a strong-looking defense, a finally healthy Bill Bradley at quarterback, and several outstanding running backs–headlined, of course, by Chris Gilbert. Unfazed by his stats, Gilbert understood the bigger picture as an upcoming senior. "I’ve made over 1,000 yards the past two seasons but we’ve been 6-4…To me 6-4 is a losing season. I’m fed up with it, the coaches are fed up with it, the players are fed up and the trainers are, too. I think we have the material and the potential not only to win the conference but also the national championship."

But, with a newfangled triple option attack featuring a full house backfield, Texas stumbled badly from the blocks, first being tied by Houston, 20-20 and then losing for the second straight year to Texas Tech, 31-22. Fans’ grumbling became volcanic, and Gilbert perhaps started wondering if his dream of playing on anything but a "loser" Longhorn team would come true. One glimmer of hope came in a backup quarterback with minimal experience–James Street. While just short of overcoming the lopsided deficit against the Red Raiders, Street had provided a spark, and hope to Gilbert and the Horns that soon became justified.

Gilbert, though sharing more ball-toting duties than ever before, got his yards and, more importantly, his wins–nine of them in a row, in fact–to finalize his magnificent career.

Along the way, he broke the all-time SWC career mark for rushing yardage during a 213-yard explosion versus Rice. He had a 76-yard run in the surprising 38-7 romp over co-leader SMU. He followed that with 212 ground yards during a 47-26 victory at Baylor, a game in which the Longhorns broke conference records with 557 rushing yards and 657 total yards. A 35-14 rout and revenge of Texas A&M guaranteed Gilbert his first conference championship and Cotton Bowl experience.

Battling traditionally strong Tennessee, also 8-1-1 going in, Texas crushed the Volunteers in a 36-13 triumph that wasn’t even as close as the final score showed. With Gilbert, James Street, Steve Worster, Ted Koy, and Cotton Speyrer, the Vols’ highly ranked defense proved no match. Texas blew to a 28-0 halftime lead while outgaining Tennessee 324 to 31 and ended up tallying 513 yards–double what the Vols had allowed on average for the season–with the starters on the bench.

Texas ended #3 in the country, and few could have convincingly argued anyone else was better.

Gilbert, in the victors’ dressing room, exclaimed, "When I first came here, one of my ambitions was to play for one of the finest teams in the nation. That’s exactly the way it has been, especially today. A football player couldn’t ask for much more."

Nor could fans have asked for any more of Chris Gilbert. He departed as the all-time SWC rushing leader and the first back in the history of NCAA football to compile 1,000-yard seasons all three years of eligibility. He also left with the Texas scoring record, the school’s top three-season rushing totals, and averaged 5.4 yards per carry (6.2 his last season).

And, perhaps most importantly, his and his teammates' work paved the path toward a conference record 30 consecutive victories and back-to-back national titles.

Bert Hancock has owned two college football-related web sites and was designated "Lead Writer" of one of the first independent web sites dedicated strictly to UT sports. At The University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Business degree, his area of specialty was in statistics and probabilities. His "Strength In Numbers" column has appeared on InsideTexas.com and in the Inside Texas magazine since 2002 and his new, recurring feature "Old School" is scheduled to appear weekly on InsideTexas.com.

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