Old School: James Street--From Unsung to Legend

"Old School" is a new weekly feature here at InsideTexas.com. Today, Bert Hancock looks at QB James Street, another of UT's legendary performers who engineered the ultimate title takeover at signal-caller. Future editions will include looks at other Longhorn greats as well as interesting stories from the program's storied past.

If you’re fortunate enough, like myself, James Street helped provide you with some great memories of a kind of gridiron success Texas hasn’t experienced in about three-and-a-half decades. He left The University as the only undefeated quarterback (20-0) in Longhorn annals and with a national title. He had a hand in some of the most important plays not just in UT’s history, but during the history of the entire Southwest Conference.

But, as a high school pitching star from Longview, Street almost opted to ignore football in college, and few schools recruited him. Buried with the other 47 signees in 1966 (no scholarship limits) was his name alongside Randy Peschel’s as two quarterbacks Texas took that year. The Longhorns had lassoed "Super Bill" Bradley the previous winter as their quarterback of the future, one expected to continue the Darrell Royal regime dominance. The Horns surprised nearly everyone by faltering to 6-4 in Bradley’s freshman year, but now as a varsity squad member (freshmen weren’t eligible), Bradley was expected to become the savior of sorts.

Playing all of 20 minutes his sophomore season while Super Bill continued as the team’s top quarterback, Street wasn’t expected to see a lot of action going into 1968, and his missing spring drills while participating in baseball didn’t help his cause.

Events outside your control, however, can work to your benefit. Following a third straight 6-4 season that had many speculating if Darrell Royal had lost his legendary touch, UT’s head coach opted to change offenses before the team returned for the fall of '68. He hadn’t been satisfied with spring developments, so he called upon assistant coach Emory Bellard to figure a way to get all three of his fantastic running backs–Chris Gilbert, Steve Worster, and Ted Koy–into the game at the same time. He also liked the basics of the triple option already utilized by Bill Yeoman at Houston.

This kind of attack fit perfectly with James Street’s quick, heady, and competitive on-field aptitudes. But the incumbent Bradley, almost completely recovered from knee injuries, would get the starting shot again. Street, an almost defiantly upbeat type, would need to continue his positive thinking while waiting for his chance.

It didn’t take long. After a narrow escape with a tie against Yeoman’s Cougars in Austin, 20-20, the Longhorns looked dead in Lubbock against Texas Tech. Down 28-6 and sagging more by every third quarter minute, Royal quipped to Street, "You can’t do any worse, get in there." Street remembered, "I kept saying to myself on the sidelines, ‘I’m going to get my chance before this ball game is over’."

For practical purposes, it was about over when he entered, but he nearly led an incredible comeback. Texas fell short, 31-22, but Street had warranted the starting job. Two weeks later, he’d become the undisputed leader.

Though the Longhorns finally got their first win the following contest, over Oklahoma State, the Wishbone’s true test came the next week in the annual Cotton Bowl battle with OU. The Sooners would finish 11th in the nation behind the leadership of eventual Heisman-winning fullback Steve Owens, quarterback Bob Warmack, and end Steve Zabel. The game swung back and forth, with OU leapfrogging slightly ahead, 20-19, and Texas 85 yards away from paydirt with just 2:37 left on the clock. The ground-gobbling Wishbone went aerial, as Street hit several passes in succession, marching the Longhorns down the field, while my dad and his friends hollered "Hook ‘em ‘Horns!" with each moment. As the clock bore down to zeroes, super sophomore Worster burst the remaining 21 yards on two runs, diving over for the game-winning score.

Afterward, in the jubilant dressing room, Royal said, "Taking the team 85 yards has got to do something for a boy and a team. I know it does something for a coach." Royal proved right on.

James Street finished a remarkable junior season by throwing 78- and 79-yard bombs to wide receiver Cotton Speyrer in the Longhorns’ 36-13 Cotton Bowl thrashing of Tennessee. Texas not only had won its first conference title in five years, but also concluded #3 in the nation under Street’s quarterbacking.

Going into 1969, Street's senior season, Texas was expected to attain another conference crown and ranked #4 in the pre-season polls. Ohio State, national champs in ’68, was favored to defend its title. Street, a gamer in all ways, had to have his fun at the (indirect) expense of Royal on occasion. During UT’s Press Day, Street, wearing a bandage, told writers, who were lapping it up like canines, that "a dog bit me, and now they’re checking it for rabies and they’re a little worried that I may go mad." "Slick" Street had pulled one over on them, though he failed to humor Coach Royal.

After starting with three straight wins and vaulting to #2 in the country, Street and the Horns again faced Steve Owens and the Sooners. Behind the Heisman winning fullback, OU stunned Texas by taking a 14-0 lead. UT and its quarterback, facing a nine-man front, couldn’t move the football. Like the year before when called upon, James delivered through the air, hitting favorite target Speyrer for plays of 34 and 49 yards and running back Jim Bertelsen for 55 during the rally. He finished 9 of 18 for 215 yards passing as Texas overcame and fought off Oklahoma, 27-17. That would be the most difficult test until December 6.

Texas, blowing through the rest of its opponents, found itself the top ranked team in the nation after Michigan shattered Ohio State’s hopes of repeating. Meanwhile, as the college football "brain trust" had hoped, Arkansas rose to #2, creating the "Big Shootout"–a perfectly planned showdown to end the college football season, with the winner claiming at least part of the national championship.

Like against Oklahoma, Texas found itself down 14-0, only this time it was in hostile territory–the hills of Arkansas–and into the fourth quarter. The Hogs, only having lost to Texas over the past two seasons, wanted nothing more than to whip the hated Horns, and their confidence grew by the minute.

But, in one play, James Street completely changed the score and the tone of the contest. Not blessed with sprinter speed, he fled fast enough to pass a field of Razorbacks for 42 yards and a touchdown. [When asked a few years back how he felt after that score, he smiled and said, "tired!"] He followed that score with a standout quarterback keeper for two points. Texas, seemingly unable to score anything, now stood only six points down, 14-8. Behind other key plays that held the Hogs from scoring again, UT then encountered a 4th and 3 on its own 43-yard line.

Though the Wishbone hadn’t generated its normal offensive explosion, most figured with Street and its strengths, Darrell Royal would call a run or rollout of some kind. But, remember that other little-known quarterback recruit in 1966 with James Street, Randy Peschel? He became the primary target for the most important play in SWC history. As with his footspeed, Street’s throws (his fullback Worster deemed them "a wounded duck") were highly "mortal," but he delivered a perfect 44-yard strike to Peschel, setting up the Horns on the Arkansas 13 for the winning touchdown.

Frank Broyles, Arkansas’ own legendary coach on the opposite sideline from Royal, calls the bomb to the little-used tight end "a brilliant call," but sums up Arkansas’ main problems this way: "He (Street) was the killer."

James Street’s magic continued for one more game, his last as a Longhorn. Against a mighty Notre Dame squad that broke its 45-year self-imposed bowl drought, Texas found itself in another hole early, 10-0. But, against the Irish–featuring several pro prospects–the Longhorns’ Wishbone began to crank up, and it never stopped. As fullback Steve Worster butchered them with 155 yards on 20 carries, Street supplied some crucial pass plays.

Again, late in the game and behind, James Street, with the scoreboard showing 2:26 and 4th and 2 at the Notre Dame 10 in the famous picture conferring with Darrell Royal, needed a big play. Once again, the ground-oriented team with a coach who seemingly despised the pass, relied on it to convert and win the game. Street notes he slipped as he backpedaled in the pocket, but managed to complete an eight-yard pass to Cotton Speyrer, who made a fantastic diving, behind-him reception at the two-yard line.

Once more, James Street, the formerly little known signal-caller, had come out on top.

[James Street lives in the Austin area and has a highly-successful business, The James Street Group. His company specializes in structured settlements of lawsuits on the plaintiff side. One of his five sons, Huston, is becoming a somewhat famous Longhorn athlete in his own right–on the baseball field, where James also excelled. And this fall, two more of Street's sons–Jordan and Juston–will don the Orange and White for Augie Garrido.]

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.

*Photos courtesy of UT Athletics*

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