Old School: Title Takeovers At QB

"Old School" is a new weekly feature here at InsideTexas.com. Today, Bert Hancock looks at two popular signal-callers who stepped in and led Texas to titles. Future editions will include looks at other Longhorn greats as well as interesting stories from the program's storied past.

Vince Young’s emergence over the second half of 2003 reminds of other Longhorn signal-callers who started seasons as subs but led their squads to new heights after taking the reins. Perhaps, like these predecessors, he’ll lead Texas to title turf in '04.

Most Horn fans recall the way James Brown delayed John Mackovic’s golf course designing days for a few seasons when he vaulted past a banged-up and ineffective Shea Morenz. Morenz, widely considered the top prep quarterback in the country, arrived in 1992 with Mackovic and the likes of receivers Lovell Pinkney and Mike "The Missile" Adams, and was expected to catapult the Texas offense into the Star Wars realm.

But as Shea attempted to win the hearts of Orangebloods, he lost his starting job to James Brown, the first black quarterback to make it big at Texas. Donnie Little, in the late 1970’s, had broken that color barrier and created a few highlights in the process. But, like his Godfather of Soul namesake, J.B. made Texas fans "feel good" many times during his record-setting career.

The redshirt freshman showed his promise in 1994 when he first started against none other than Oklahoma. His veteran-like performance (17 of 22, 148 yards, one TD passing, 51 yards and another TD rushing) and Stonie Clark’s heroic goal-line tackle gave Texas a 17-10 triumph. Morenz returned a week later as the starter, but Mackovic’s squad sagged. It lost embarrassingly to Rice (first loss in 29 years to the Owls), Texas Tech, 33-9, and Texas A&M, 34-10, a game in which the Ags finished the Horns off early in Austin and played the merciful role the remainder of the game.

As pressure mounted on the callous Mackovic, his survival instinct kicked in, and James Brown was ready to step back in for Morenz. First, he fired darts all over the field to wipe out Houston, 48-13. Next came Baylor in dreaded Waco. Texas had found the Bears to be horrible hosts, losing eight of the prior ten at Floyd Casey. Many speculated a Texas defeat might "flush the John," as the UT coach could barely peak over the .500 mark in almost three full seasons, had begun to alienate several high school coaches, and already fired long time and admired defensive coordinator Leon Fuller.

Instead, Texas had Bear for Thanksgiving, and J.B. did all the cooking: 18 of 25 for 289 yards and a school-record five touchdowns. In a brief one-and-a-half quarter segment, the Longhorns stampeded to 35 straight points on the path to a 63-35 blowout. Brown had become the team’s "godfather" and Mackovic was on his way to being "King John" for awhile.

Under James Brown, Texas gained a piece (along with four other teams) of one conference title and the full pie of two others. These included claiming the last Southwest Conference trophy with an inspiring victory over Texas A&M at Kyle Field on a terribly sprained ankle, and a walk the talk upset over heavily-favored Nebraska in the inaugural Big XII title game in 1996. His famous "Roll Left" lob to Derek Lewis chained the Huskers to defeat.

Brown, though not as esteemed in the recruiters’ eyes as Shea Morenz, still ranked high among Lone Star State prepsters. But one guy some years before during the Fred Akers era came in so unheralded he even walked on. He would unseat the vastly more acclaimed and gun-for-an-arm starter, win several big games along the way and lead Texas to its best AP poll finish since 1969, when it won the national crown. Out of Richardson High, Robert Brewer started his UT career well down the depth chart. Most figured, at best, he would someday serve as a handoff guy in the final moments of a blowout.

But Brewer believed otherwise. Sure, he did see action in a blowout–a stunning 42-11 defeat at Arkansas when Texas held the top ranking in mid-1981. The only end zone trip, though, came courtesy of Robert and the reserves. Insignificant as it seemed at the time, it foretold of many more touchdowns under his leadership.

A narrow escape against a standout SMU team followed by a whipping of Texas Tech cooled the critics of starter Rick McIvor for the moment. Meanwhile, Brewer bided his time, working religiously just in case. His next shining moment came in the Astrodome against a potent Houston squad. The Cougars had given the Longhorns fits since entering the conference in 1976, and this game looked much the same. Bill Yeoman’s Houston squad opened up a 14-0 lead largely due to destructive miscues by UT’s McIvor.

Enter Robert Brewer: he not only turned the team psyche around, he led the Horns to two field goals, a touchdown, and a two-point conversion while the defense clamped and kept the Cougars out of the end zone for the rest of the day. Texas came away with a 14-14 tie but more importantly, a quarterback the team had faith in. Rather than play like a spinning wheel not knowing where they’d stop, the now focused Horns won the rest of the way out.

As conference champs representing the SWC (with SMU on probation–small-time compared to what awaited), Texas faced Bear Bryant and Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. As the scoreboard’s fourth-quarter clock shrunk while revealing UT on the short side, Brewer, with his No. 16 jersey, rekindled memories of James Street by stunning the Crimson Tide with a 30-yard quarterback draw for a rock-the-stadium score. He so surprised Bryant’s defense, the Tide failed to lay a hand on him.

A game-winning 80-yard drive a bit later showed Robert to be a more effective passer–at least in the clutch–than the cannon-armed McIvor he had relegated to the bench. His play left Crimson Tide players and coaches alike jaw-dropped.

Much like Alan Lowry several years before (1973 Cotton Bowl), Brewer’s high-pressured heroics denied Bear Bryant from ever defeating Texas while coaching Alabama. Meanwhile, Texas climbed to #2 in the final AP poll, still its highest finish since the national championship days of '69-'70.

Other than when he inherited Earl Campbell and Johnny "Lam" Jones his first year, Fred Akers’ offenses cured most cases of insomnia–except for one year: 1982. Though Brewer’s senior season fell largely a fluke pass by SMU from being a conference title year, the Longhorns played exciting football and were compared by some to the 1968 squad at regular season’s end.

With Brewer handing off to Daryl Clark (UT’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Earl) and Ervin Davis (goal-line specialist) and unleashing bombs to mercurial Herkie Walls, the offense couldn’t be stopped. After coming up shy against miracle man Bobby Leach and the Ponies, Texas reeled off six victories, several of the blowout variety (e.g. 50-0 over Houston and 53-16 over Texas A&M) while averaging nearly 40 points.

Robert Brewer may not have come away with a national title. But, like James Street–the legendary #16 of the 30-game winning streak–he pulled a near-comeback win in his first meaningful action off the bench, gave a talented but lost football team real direction, and won out the rest of the year, topped by a Cotton Bowl victory over one of the most prestigious teams in the nation. With Brewer behind center, the Horns never were out of the game. Like with Bobby Layne on rare occasions, time just ran out.

As for the king of signal-calling saviors, James Street, his story deserves its own column. Stay tuned.

[Editor's note: For more on Robert Brewer, see Michael Pearle's in-depth feature on the former Longhorn QB in the September 2003 edition of the Inside Texas magazine.]

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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