Many call it the “Game of Century,” but Marble Falls orthodontist Mike Dean, a former right guard for the University of Texas football team, calls it one of the Longhorns’ worst performances, despite it being a win.
And he’s never quit apologizing for it.
The clash between two titans, Texas and the University of Arkansas, marks its 50th anniversary on December 6. Before the 1969 game, President Richard Nixon said he would decide the college football national champion based on the outcome.
The Longhorns won 15-14 on an improbable pass completion in a game where very little went right for Dean’s offensive unit.
“The main thing I think about,” he said, “when you have six turnovers and still win the game, you had to be very fortunate and very lucky.”
Ohio State, which had been the nation’s top-ranked team, lost 24-12 to rival Michigan on November 22, pushing the Longhorns to the No. 1 spot.
Arkansas, on a 15-game winning streak, was No. 2 and headed into a home game against the Longhorns.
Texas dug itself into a 14-0 hole against the Razorbacks. Arkansas scored on a 1-yard leap by running back Bill Burnett in the first quarter and a 29-yard catch by wide receiver Chuck Dicus from quarterback Bill Montgomery in the third.
“Bill was the top quarterback in the nation,” Dean said. “Bill looked exactly like (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady. He was dangerous and had a quick release.”
The Longhorns struggled to find an offensive rhythm, evidenced by their six turnovers.
Dean noted that Razorback Stadium had synthetic turf. The Longhorns were used to the natural grass at Memorial Stadium in Austin.
“Every time you stepped out, your back foot flew out from behind you,” he said.
To Dean, one of the unsung heroes that day was the equipment manager. The Longhorns switched between half-inch and 1-inch cleats throughout the season, depending on the type of field and conditions. In Arkansas, players put on three-quarter-inch cleats.
Texas scored on the first play of the final quarter when quarterback James Street scrambled for a 43-yard touchdown. Legendary Longhorns coach Darrell Royal had decided before the contest that Texas would go for a two-point conversion to avoid a tie. On the try, Street dove into the end zone to trim the deficit to 14-8.
On Arkansas’s next possession, Montgomery guided his team to the Texas 7-yard line, but the Razorbacks didn’t score. Longhorn Danny Lester intercepted Montgomery’s pass in the end zone.
Then, the Longhorns began their extraordinary march into burnt orange history.
On fourth-and-3 from its own 43, Texas called a timeout with 4 minutes 47 seconds left in the contest. Street walked toward Royal, got the play, and turned back toward the huddle but stopped and double checked with the coach to make sure it was what Royal wanted: Right 53 Veer pass, a long throw to the tight end.
In the huddle, Street looked at split end Cotton Speyrer but told his teammates the play was going to tight end Randy Peschel. Street knew the defense was watching him to see who he was looking at in the huddle as a clue to who was getting the ball.
Though no one was allowed to talk in the huddle except Street, unless the quarterback asked a question, Dean said the unit had strong opinions about the play.
“I looked over at Bob McKay, my right tackle. We both rolled our eyes,” he recalled. “Randy was a good blocking tight end. Our best pass receiver was Deryl Comer. We didn’t have a drop-back pass play. We had a run look in every pass play.”
The two linemen weren’t the only ones with doubts. Defensive coordinator Mike Campbell was standing near Royal and Street and heard the play selection.
“He turned to the bench and says, ‘Defense, get ready to go in,’” Dean said with a laugh.
The rest is history.
Street took the snap, faked the handoff as he moved slightly to his left to drop back and throw to Peschel, who was lined up on the left side. He ran a go route with a step in front of two Razorbacks and caught the perfectly thrown ball over his left shoulder for a first down on the Arkansas 13-yard line.
“Everybody on the bench exploded and ran down the field,” Dean said.
Running back Jim Bertelsen scored two plays later, and kicker Happy Feller added the point-after for 15-14 Texas lead with 3:58 remaining.
The Longhorns secured the win when Tom Campbell, the defensive coordinator’s son, intercepted an Arkansas pass on the Texas 21-yard line.
After the game, Dean found the Razorback he blocked throughout the contest, middle linebacker Cliff Powell. The two men shook hands, and Dean apologized for winning.
“We respected Arkansas,” Dean said. “We had no animosity against them. They were clean players. I was so relieved to get out of the cold.”
Nixon watched the game in person, along with then-U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush of Texas.
After the game, the president went to the Texas locker room, showed them the national championship trophy, and said he was going back to Washington, D.C., to put the University of Texas’ name on it.
He made the championship-crowning promise before the New Year’s Day bowl games, which, at the time, was usually when a national title was decided.
Even then, Texas proved their worthiness of the title.
The Longhorns defeated the University of Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1970, in what Dean called a perfect game: no penalties and only one turnover. Each team had 25 first downs. Texas had 438 yards of total offense to Notre Dame’s 410.
Dean is incredibly proud of the Longhorns’ performance in that contest.
But he understands why fans point to the Game of the Century as the determining factor in the 1969 national championship. Dean recalled seeing Powell a second time, years later, when the two met again for the premier of a documentary about the contest. This time, they hugged, and Dean confessed to the former Razorback that he still felt badly about the outcome.
Powell looked Dean in the eye and said, “Don’t you ever feel that way. You had the guts and integrity to come back and win that game. A lot of teams would have given up. That’s why y’all are champions.”