Passing Revolution: The 1965 Texas Western "Flying" Miners

*The Roundup is examining the shift in offensive football by going back in time and through the lens of the revolution that occurred here in the state both at the high school and collegiate levels,  starting with the dark ages of aerial assaults, the 1960's and moving into the modern era of Air Raids and Spreads.

Were it not for a shortsighted front office decision by the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders a West Texas renaissance may never have occurred. The decision the Stampeders made was to pass over head coach Bobby Dobbs' and instead promote one of his assistant coaches to the position of general manager.

The year was 1964, and without a press release or a press conference or a tweet, Dobbs quietly resigned his post and headed south to then named Texas Western to take over a winless Miner football program. Such was Dobbs' style, understated, but principled and committed. All Dobbs had done was take Calgary, a franchise that hadn't had a winning record the preceding decade, and win 31 of his 48 games at the helm. After the 1964 season, Calgary filled its GM position not by its highly successful head coach, but rather by one of his former assistants. Dobbs was off to El Paso, and El Paso took off. 

Dobbs was no stranger to winning football. He had played at Army for legendary coach Red Blaik. At West Point, he started next to two Heisman winners, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. After his service to his country, Dobbs returned to West Point to coach for Blaik and the legendary Vince Lombardi. Tulsa then called Dobbs to take over their program that had gone 0-10 the previous season. Dobbs proved up to the task winning seven games in his first two seasons. 

 Texas Western's Bobby Dobbs

Texas Western's Bobby Dobbs

He left Tulsa to head north to take over the Stampeders, and the CFL opened Dobbs eyes to the effectiveness and entertainment of pro-style, passing offense. Even after being passed over for the general manager position, Dobbs still counted his time in the frozen north as invaluable to his development as a coach. He was introduced to a wide-open game that emphasized offense on a 110 yard long, 65-yard wide field. 

"My offensive philosophy on football changed after four years in the pro league," Dobbs said, "at Tulsa we were basically a running team and attempted, on an average, fifteen passes per game. But at Calgary we had the ball in the air 30 times a game."   

Dobbs took the job at Texas Western in part to aid his wife who was suffering from an illness and needed to live in a  warmer climate. At the time Texas Western was attempting to gain admittance into the Western Athletic Conference which at the time included BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, and Wyoming among others. Administrators and alums were nervous that Texas Western's unsuccessful recent football history would hinder their ability to join the young league. Dobbs had a trump card up his sleeve; he was about to introduce Texas Western to the "Flying Miners."

From his initial interview, Dobbs let it be known that the days of conservative, orthodox, ball control football were over at Texas Western. He was going to bring a pro-style offense, specifically a Canadian pro-style, to El Paso. 

"Chunk the ball"

 Billy Stevens

Billy Stevens

Dobbs believed that football should be entertaining and at the center of that philosophy was the long ball, a philosophy long eschewed by the conventional thinkers in the game. But the CFL molded Dobbs pass-first philosophy, far from the stale incubator of the college game of the 1960s. Upon his arrival at Texas Western Dobbs called his shot, "we will run from a pro-type offense, we plan to use a split end and a flanker and chunk the ball."

Chunking the ball was a risky proposition. The heavy weights of the college football universe weren't doing it much and the rules of the game skewed against it. Linemen couldn't use their hands to protect, hands had to be kept inside the frame of the body and arms couldn't be extended. Plus, high school coaches that taught the passing game were scarce. The stigma attached to passing also hindered its development.

At the time, every level of football was run first and pass second only if you had to but mostly just don't pass. The powers that be adhered to the commonly held wisdom of Darrell Royal who famously said that passing leads to three possible outcomes and two of those outcomes are bad. Texas was winning games on the ground, and so were the blue bloods of the era. They had their pick of high school, blue-chip talent and they stockpiled it thanks to liberal signing policies. They could stockpile talent, not so much for their program, but so other programs couldn't get their hands on it. They created a monopoly and to win in the face of that monopoly forward-thinking coaches had to take advantage of market inefficiencies. For coaches like Bobby Dobbs that meant using perceived riskier tactics and finding overlooked and underutilized athletes.  

At Texas Western Dobbs paired with a lanky Galveston High product named Billy Stevens. 6'3 and 190 pounds, Stevens played all of six high school games, five of them at running back. He arrived on Texas Western's campus in 1964 and was relegated to the freshman team while the varsity squad went winless using a conventional, run-first attack, all that changed with Dobbs' arrival. 

His first spring game Dobbs gave Miner fans a glimpse of what was to come. 4,000 interested spectators came out to the Sun Bowl and saw a foreign Miner offense that threw the ball 112 times and frequently used flankers and split ends for more than just blocking. Stevens threw 57 times for an eye-opening 448 yards in the spring game. Eddie Vargas added 55 throws. They did indeed chunk the ball.  

Stevens just needed an opportunity and to stay healthy. Back and collarbone injuries sidelined him for his high school career and were it not for an assistant coach begging Texas Western to take him on, Stevens was without any options. Two practices into Dobbs first spring in El Paso and he knew he'd found his quarterback.  Not only did Stevens have the physical tools, but the maturity as well.  

Dobbs set about acquiring the skill talent that he and Stevens would need to be successful. He lured a 6'2 200 flyer named Bob Wallace from Phoenix Junior College with the promise that there'd be balls flying everywhere. He found a scrawny junior from Abilene named Chuck Hughes who caught everything thrown near him. He went to Detroit to secure the services of tight end Chuck Anderson. To protect Stevens Dobbs drafted defensive linemen and converted a couple to the offensive line. 

As the 1965 season started, it was time to put Dobbs new entertaining offense on display. 

"I'm still in a state of shock"

You can't help but compare Texas Western in 1964 to the 1965 version. It's an amazing side by side. For example, North Texas came to El Paso for the season opener in 1965, just a year before TWC traveled to Denton to open the 1964 season and the two teams tied 0-0. In 1965 there would be no tie, and there would be scoring. 

Texas Western jumped all over the Eagles, winning 61-15. In 1964 Texas Western's leading passer threw for 308 yards. Total. Before he was removed from the game, in an act of mercy by his coach, Stevens had thrown for 500 yards. In three quarters. Stevens 500 yards was a new NCAA record, surpassing Tulsa quarterback Jerry Rhome's previous best by twelve yards. 

Stevens completed 21 of his 35 attempts vs. North Texas. In 1964 it took Texas Western quarterbacks four games to attempt 35 passes and nine games to reach 21 completions. It was a new day in El Paso. All told, the Miners torched North Texas for 634 yards through the air, easily a new NCAA mark. Hughes caught ten passes for an NCAA record 349 yards and three scores. 

Was it pretty? Not exactly, Stevens threw two touchdowns but added two interceptions as well. Stevens would throw a total of 31 interceptions in 1965, leading the NCAA. But while those numbers grew, so did others, most notably wins. 

A week later Texas Western took its show on the road for the first time to Albuquerque to face New Mexico. The Lobos were a nine-win team in 1964, including a win over Texas Western in El Paso and they were the top pass defending team in the Western Athletic Conference in '64. In the '65 contest, Stevens threw for 297 yards and another five scores in a 35-14 route. New Mexico coach Bill Weeks had a hard time comprehending Dobbs' Miner rebuild; "I'm still in a state of shock, but I've become a believer."

Rival New Mexico State traveled to El Paso, and Aggie Coach Warren Woodson had heard just about enough about Dobbs and his Miner crew; "You don't think I've come down here to lose to these punks?" But that's exactly what happened. A sell-out and Sun Bowl record 30,000 fans turned out and saw the Miners fall behind 6-0 until Wallace gave Texas Western its first lead and Hughes extended it with an 85-yard punt return. Wallace then put the cherry on top with a 41-yard strike from Stevens. For those keeping score it was Punks 21 Aggies 6. 

Through three games Billy "The Kid" Stevens had topped an eleven hundred yards with nine touchdowns. Stevens had thrown for the fourth most single-season passing yards of any Texas Western quarterback in history. After three games.

A week later the Miners would improve to 4-0 with a win over Colorado State. In week five two things happened, first the Miners lost to Wyoming and second Stevens became Texas Western's single-season passing record holder - five games in. 

Already Dobbs' great entertainment experiment was a success. The Miners sat at 4-1 and were playing as exciting a brand of football as any in the country. Texas Western raised its scoring average from 6.4 in 1964 to 32 points per game. The Miners went on a three-game skid with losses to Wyoming, Arizona State, and Arizona. They were competitive in the latter two games. Arizona State came from two touchdowns behind to beat the Miners. Chuck Hughes set a single-game receptions record vs. Sun Devils that still stand with seventeen grabs. 

The Miners were already having a good season when the college football Gods sprinkled a little magic on their season. 

The Turning Point

On November 13, 1965, Texas Western took on the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City. A year earlier in El Paso the Utes and run around, over and through the Miners on their way to a 41-0 win. The Miners were battling a three-game losing streak as they took the field in '65. 

Bob Wallace was a flyer, allegedly with 9.7 speed in the 100. When he first arrived in El Paso, Stevens didn't anticipate Wallace's speed. He under-threw Wallace consistently in practice until one day he finally let one fly seemingly out of reach of his transfer receiver and watched Wallace turn on his jets, glide under it and make the catch. From that point, Stevens and Wallace became one of the best big-play duos in college football. That came in handy in Salt Lake City. 

Wallace started the scoring with an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave the Miners a 7-0 lead. Utah used three second-half Miners turnovers and the running of Ben Woodson to go on a 19-0 run. 

El Paso Herald-Post, November 16, 1965

Stevens took the Miners 76 yards in the fourth quarter including three long completions to Wallace to set up a touchdown that made it a one-score game, 19-13. Then the magic happened.

First Utah drove the ball all the way down to the Miner eight-yard line but with just 24 seconds remaining, rather than kicking a field goal to salt the game away; the Utes went for it on fourth down and the Miner defense held. 

Stevens then had sixteen seconds and 92 yards to make something happen. Stevens dropped back into his own end zone looking for Hughes, but the Utes had him bracketed, as Stevens went through his progression when saw the 6'2 Wallace and lofted a ball to him. Wallace ran under it at the 48 and streaked down the left sideline in front of a stunned 8,000 Ute fans as time expired. Joe Cook knocked the point after through, and Texas Western had an improbable, season-defining moment. 

The moment was memorialized in a painting by noted El Paso artist Tom Lea entitled "Turning Point" that hangs in the Larry K. Durham Athletic Center today. Wallace's 92-yard catch is still the longest play in UTEP history and was part of his four catch 164-yard day. 

 The Turning Point

The Turning Point

The Turning Point also proved to be the turning point of the Miner's season. The next week Texas Western took on 8-1 Xavier in the Sun Bowl. In front of 20,000 spectators, the Miners didn't let the Musketeers breath - scoring 21 points before Xavier recorded a first down and 24 total first-quarter points. The Miners led 37-0 at halftime and hung 57 on the Musketeers, handing them just their second loss. 

A week later in the regular season finale, Stevens used his 6'4 tight end Chuck Anderson who caught nine passes for 126 yards to pull away from West Texas State at the Sun Bowl. The Buffaloes blitzed Stevens to try and slow down one of the most prolific offenses in the country. The Miner counter was to use screens and check downs to burn the Buffalo scheme. Stevens completed 29 of 56 passes for 355 yards. The Miners were 7-3 and headed to the postseason for the first time 1957.

The Miners next turned their attention to the Sun Bowl and Southwest Conference foe Abe Martin's TCU Horned Frogs. Texas Western's high flying offense was taking on a defensive juggernaut. The Frogs allowed 14 points a game and finished with a 5-2 Southwest Conference record, good enough to tie for second. 

Martin drilled his defense to defend the pass in the weeks leading up to the game, and it seemed to pay off as TCU jumped out to 10-0 halftime lead. Texas Western helped the Frogs with three first-half interceptions. TCU ran 47 first half plays to just 20 for the Miners. 

In the second half, Texas Western turned the tide, picking off three TCU passes. The Miners capitalized as  Stevens hit Hughes for a 35-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 10-7. From there  TCU turnovers led to two Joe Cook field goals and the deciding points. 

Stevens set a Sun Bowl record with 21 completions and was named the Most Valuable Player. 

Rewriting the Record Book

No one remembers the second man on the moon. 

In 1965 Billy Stevens became one of the first two quarterbacks in NCAA history to throw for 3,000 yards or more. The other was Bill Anderson from Tulsa who was coached by Glenn Dobbs, the older brother of Bobby. The older Dobbs was the athletic director at Tulsa and gave his Bobby his first head coaching job. He also shared Bobby's enthusiasm for the passing. While Stevens was throwing the ball around at a record pace in El Paso, Anderson was doing the same in Tulsa. Glenn coached Jerry Rhome at Tulsa who became the set the record for most passing yards in a season in 1964 and finished second in Heisman voting. Anderson eclipsed that mark by almost 600 yards and Billy the Kid Stevens beat the mark by 400 yards. 

Glenn's 1965 Tulsa team went to the Bluebonnet Bowl where they lost to Tennessee in front of 40,000 spectators. Anderson and Billy Stevens would both eclipse the NCAA attempts record by nearly 150 passes and complete the first and third most passes in NCAA history. Tulsa led the NCAA in passing for five straight years from 1962 to 1966. The pass was becoming the equalizer, and the Dobbs brothers were on the cutting edge of the movement. 

Texas Western had tried to play a conventional game before Dobbs arrival but won just seven games in the previous three years. In the three years after his arrival, the Miners averaged seven wins a year. Passing became the means for Texas Western to compete at a high level.

Though Stevens finished just behind Anderson in most passing categories, he and the rest of the 1965 Flying Miners rewrote the NCAA and Texas Western record book. Stevens almost doubled Texas Western's season passing mark and became one of the first two quarterbacks in NCAA history to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark. At 342 yards per game, the Flying Miners blew the previous best of 149 yards a game away. Chuck Hughes 80 catches doubled the previous Miner best, and his 1,519 receiving yards was over 900 yards better than any prior Miner season. 

Off the field, the Miners were winning as well. In 1964 the winless Miners averaged 10,000 fans, filling a third of the then 30,000 seat Sun Bowl. Dobbs and the Flying Miners would capture the attention of El Paso, averaging 22,683 per game. By 1967, the Miners were averaging nearly a sell out a game at 29,309. 

Billy Stevens, he of the one college offer, became one of the most frightening weapons in college football. Injuries cut into his production the next two seasons. Even in his 1965 campaign, he suffered from broken ribs, a wrist injury and other nagging issues. In 1967 Stevens injured his knee on a keeper against New Mexico and spent time in the hospital due to an infection. He split time with Brooks Dawson, and his number fell by half. 

 Stevens holding his 2nd Sun Bowl MVP Trophy

Stevens holding his 2nd Sun Bowl MVP Trophy

Still, Stevens left Texas Western as a two-time All-American, a two-time Sun Bowl winner and two-time Most Valuable Player of the Sun Bowl leading the Miners to a win over Ole Miss in 1967. He also left as the NCAA career leader in passing yards and touchdowns. The Green Bay Packers selected Stevens in the third round of the NFL draft. He later returned to his alma mater to coach receivers and running backs. 

Chuck Hughes, Stevens' favorite target, deserves a final mention here as well. Hughes caught a school record 86 passes in 1965. He left after the 1966 season, drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. Hughes moved on to the Lions in 1970 in the hopes of seeing more playing time. Tragically, during a game against Chicago in 1971, Hughes suffered a heart attack and died on the field. He holds the horrible distinction of being the only NFL player to die on the field during a game. 

"Never look back"

Bobby Dobbs is nothing if not a man of principle. Just ask Calgary. He was such a man of principle that he turned down what for many would have been a dream job, to take over at West Point, his alma mater. In 1966 he wrote Vince Lombardi to explain his decision to stay in El Paso “ … we were in the middle of spring practice, and all my coaches wanted to go with me. The program here (at Texas Western) could have been hurt severely, and for this reason, I could not leave with a clear conscious. In any event, I made the decision the way I thought was right.  I feel that my decision will be vindicated, and I will never look back or second guess."

 Bobby Dobbs

Bobby Dobbs

Such was the level of conviction of Dobbs. It's no surprise then that Dobbs' exit was a matter of principle. Dobbs coached the Miners to great heights in the late 60s, guided them into the Western Athletic Conference, and even as the University became know at UTEP. Dobbs' 1972 Miners were off to a 1-4 start, and the team needed either a jolt or a new voice. So Dobbs announced to his team that if the Miners didn't defeat New Mexico at the Sun Bowl two days later, he would resign immediately. He doubled down and announced his decision to the press. 

In Dobbs' estimation, a new coach should bring renewed enthusiasm to the Miners, something they sorely needed. To attempt to kick-start the Miners Dobbs brought in 38 junior college players before the '72 season. The Miners never got rolling, and after New Mexico blew out his squad at the Sun Bowl, true to his word, Dobbs walked away.

A rather unceremonious exit for a coach that rebuilt the Texas Western program into an aerial juggernaut. The Miners became a pipeline to the NFL, more so than ever before or since. They knocked off Southwest Conference and SEC squads rewrote record books and filled the Sun Bowl. 

More than that Dobbs won while delivering on the promise to bring an exciting brand of football to El Paso. It wasn't just through Billy Stevens, triggermen like Brooks Dawson, Bill Craigo, and Gary Keithly all either led or were among the leaders in national passing statistics from 1965 to 1972. He was Mike Leach before Mike Leach, interchanging quarterbacks and skill position players year to year while airing it out. 

He left UTEP as the second-winningest coach in school history in just 7.5 years in charge. Dobbs was among the trailblazers to usher in an offensive revolution as he shocked the college football world by leveling the playing field through offensive innovation. 

The Passing Revolution Series