If Hayden Fry was going to get SMU over the hump and win the SWC, the Mustangs would have to break a trend. Since 1959 either Arkansas or Texas had won the league, each taking home three titles in a six-year span. Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal maintained a firm grip on the league, and their annual bloodletting typically decided the fate of the Cotton Bowl.
The Year of the Horse
For Fry, he'd been building the Mustangs to compete, but his efforts hadn't yielded a winning record or anything close as evidenced by his 11-29-1 record. Ever the optimist, Fry thought his '66 squad should be in the mix in a wide open SWC race. In the preseason, the prognosticators thought any of five teams could compete for the league. Arkansas, Baylor, Texas, TCU, and yes SMU were in a grab bag of favorites but unseating the Arkansas/Texas juggernaut still seemed unlikely.
Fry's team returned quarterback Mac White and a running back tandem of Larry Jernigan and Jim Hagle. On defense, many considered John LaGrone, an All-American candidate, he paired with Ronnye Medlen up front, and hard-hitting Billy Bob Stewart would help solidify the Pony D at linebacker. Fry's Mustangs were contenders if only they could avoid the rash of injuries that stifled previous SMU teams. Already in preseason Hagle was hobbled by a hamstring injury, limiting the tested runner.
The fact that SMU could contend for the league title was a welcome development. SMU had been ineligible for the title or a bowl game in 1964 and 1965 due to NCAA probation, a predicament the university would become quite familiar.
Fry took inspiration from the knowledge that the Chinese Zodiac calendar marked 1966 as the "Year of the Horse." "I consider that a good omen," Fry told groups as he made his rounds in the preseason. A better omen, he hoped, what that his "smorgasbord offense" might be capable of showing the same ruggedness as his defense. As Fry measured the SWC race, he saw it wide open and coming down to to the wire. "I'll bet a field goal will decide four or five games, that's how close it looks to me," Fry said. Little did he know how true that statement would turn out to be.
The Mustangs would get an early test against Illinois to start the season. A year before the Illini battered the Mustangs 42-0 in Champaign-Urbana. Their high octane offense would pose a test for SMU right out of the block.
When the SMU offense took the field against the Illini Mac White and his charges wanted to make a statement, four plays and 55 yards later they did just that as White found the endzone from 20 yards out. SMU wouldn't let up, beating the favored Illini 26-7 behind White and the Mustangs newly minted weapon Jerry Levias, the first African-American to play in the SWC. Levias made himself right at home with a 60-yard touchdown reception. He later hauled in a twelve-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to seal the scoring.
A week later dual threat Mac "the Knife" White led the Mustangs to their fifth win over Navy in six games. Levias didn't find the end zone, but he dazzled the 58,000 in attendance with several long punt returns and athleticism Mustang patrons hadn't seen since Doak Walker. Fry's Mustangs were off to a 2-0 start, better than most suspected especially given the retribution served up to Illinois in week one.
In week three Purdue served up a dose of reality as the Boilermakers beat the Mustangs in West Lafayette behind the passing of Bob Griese or better yet the threat of Griese's passing. The well-rounded defeat saw Purdue score on the opening kickoff, on a pick-six, and on a halfback pass. SMU turned to backup Mike Livingston after White was injured early in the game and while the Mustangs rallied, they couldn't make up the deficit.
Frank vs. Darrell
The Mustangs entered their bye week with doubt, doubt that would need to be resolved before the real season began. The SWC slate was around the corner.
As SMU prepped for Rice, down I-35 Darrell Royal and Texas prepped for their annual showdown with Arkansas. Texas entered the game in an unusual position have lost two of their first four including the Red River Shootout a week before. Arkansas, on the other hand, proved to be human with a league-opening loss to Baylor in Fayetteville. Still, the game in Austin, most felt, would still determine the fate of the league and as SMU slipped past Rice thanks to a 90-yard drive engineered by White as time expired, Arkansas put the Longhorns out of their misery. The promised wide-open league race had come, and all bets were off.
For SMU a critical juncture in the schedule was on the horizon, consecutive road trips to Texas Tech and a wounded tiger in Texas, followed by A&M at home before a trip to Arkansas. Survive the gauntlet and SMU might stand a shot at its first Cotton Bowl in almost twenty years.
The Mustangs took advantage of three Red Raider turnovers to beat Tech for the first time in four seasons. White, Levias and a healthy Hagel sent the homecoming crowd home disappointed after 24-7 Mustang win. Levias caught his fifth touchdown pass in as many games. Now came Austin and Darrell Royal.
For Fry and the rest of the SWC, the Longhorns were the landmark. By 1966 Royal was in the midst of a dynastic run including a National Title in 1963 and another in 1969. Starting in '61 Texas won the conference title nine times in thirteen years, losing in the league just thirteen times in that stretch.
For Johnny-come-lately SMU, Memorial Stadium was a fortress inhabited by giants, but the Mustangs would need to conquer it to have any hope of a league title. If Hayden Fry wanted his offense to play as ruggedly as his defense, the 1966 Texas game surely did him proud. Texas led 6-0 when Jerry Levias continued his run of finding endzones. Levias' sixth score of the year gave SMU a 7-6 lead. Texas scored twice on field goals to lead 12-7 heading into the last frame.
Kicking persisted in the dark ages of football in 1966. Most teams didn't recruit kickers, but rather trotted out some lineman to punch extra points over the goal post. The position certainly wasn't specialized. SMU, however, boasted one of the best kickers in college football in Cameron born Dennis Partee. The Mustangs used Partee to their advantage throughout the '66 season and perhaps never more than in Austin. Partee's first field goal brought SMU within two of the Longhorns 12-10. Texas still held the advantage and the ball. Bill Bradley and the Texas offense moved into SMU territory and appeared in control when Billy Bob Stewart jarred the ball loose, and the Mustangs recovered. White then moved the Mustangs into Texas territory using a short passing game and some timely runs. With eight seconds left Partee lined up a 38-yard kick that rang true and sent Royal into misery again.
The Mustangs were now clearly in the hunt for the Cotton Bowl, 3-0 in league with a Texas A&M coming to town. The Aggies came out firing, taking a 14-0 lead. SMU scrambled to stay in the game intercepting four Aggie passes, including two in the end zone. Wayne Rape returned one pick to the end zone as SMU roared back with 21 unanswered, the last of which came on an 83-yard punt return by Jerry Levias to send the Mustangs to 4-0 in the conference. Three of their four wins came via fourth-quarter comeback, and now the Cardiac Mustangs traveled to Arkansas.
If Darrell Royal and Texas had anything approaching an equal in the league, it was Frank Broyles' Razorback war machine. Broyles arrived in Fayetteville in 1958 and promptly won or shared three SWC titles in four tries. His teams finished in the Final AP Top 10 eight times in his nineteen years run at Arkansas including the 1964 National Title. As Texas wracked up league titles, Arkansas was always right there either in the rearview mirror or poaching a few for themselves. In '64 and '65 his teams went a combined 21-1 and 14-0 in league play.
The upstart Mustangs ran into a buzz saw in Fayetteville and his name was David Dickey. Dickey outgained and outscored the Mustangs all by himself, rushing for 133 on 38 carries, both SWC records at the time. The Palestine, Texas native outran the Mustang offense by a full seventeen yards in a 22-0 bludgeoning. The assembled press crowned the Razorbacks kings and scoffed at an SMU team that appeared "frozen against Arkansas, and hardly played up to their reputation." While Arkansas had bloodied the Mustangs' nose, the crown was far from claimed.
After a disheartening loss, with two games left, and Arkansas holding the tie-breaker SMU would need to win out and get help to get to the Cotton Bowl. A week later they'd get help.
Salvation from Lubbock
Living up to their reputation, SMU would need a daring comeback and a last-second kick from Partee to beat Baylor. This time however it was SMU who blew a lead after Levias returned a third-quarter kickoff 100 yards, the Mustangs led 21-0. Baylor then scored 22 straight to take a one-point lead behind the passing of Terry Southall. The Mustangs didn't fold up shop, and with less than two minutes to play backup quarterback Mike Livingston connected with Levias twice to get the Mustangs to within field goal range, where Partee booted home the winner.
As significantly for SMU was what happened 350 miles away in Lubbock, where heavy favorites Arkansas found their Cotton Bowl reservations premature as lowly three-win Texas Tech upset the sixth-ranked Razorbacks 21-16. The win was Tech first over Arkansas in ten tries and set up SMU with a chance to win the league title outright with a win over crosstown rival TCU the next week. Beating TCU in Fort Worth wasn't something Pony fans were accustomed to. SMU hadn't pulled off a win on the road against the Frogs since 1947 and hadn't beaten TCU at all since '58.
Rumors of death threats directed at Levias began to pop on during game week. The threats themselves were nothing new, Levias endured unspeakable abuse from opposing fans as he broke the color barrier. Levias received threatening phone calls the week of the Arkansas game, some directing threats at his parents, opponents spat in his face, and was brought to tears after the Baylor game based on the verbal abuse he received. Fry had his secretary screen Levias' mail and gave him an unlisted phone number to try and stem the tide. Still, for the TCU game, the Police Intelligence Department put extra security on Levias due to what they believed to be a credible assassination threat.
All that ugliness came in the midst of SMU's historic season. For all the drama surrounding the TCU game, the Mustangs, for one of the few times in 1966, left nothing to chance in a 21-0 route of the Horned Frogs. Levias scored on a 68-yard touchdown pass and scouts from Georgia, SMU's Cotton Bowl opponent, were on hand as well.
They turned out in droves for the Cotton Bowl to see the Mustangs in the Dawgs. Georgia was 9-1, SEC co-champs with their lone loss coming at the hands of Miami. The Bulldogs boasted a talented young coach, Vince Dooley, and a stifling defense that allowed just 8 points a game.
Weather forced Fry to adjust his practice schedule, moving indoors. Whether the adjustments effected the Mustangs is anyone's guess. Fry said all along that Georgia was the best team his squad would face. On January 1, 1967, Fry's assessment proved correct as Georgia suffocated the wide-eyed Mustangs 24-9.
But the loss didn't damper Mustang fans who celebrated the year of the horse, twenty years of frustration turned into one magical season.