We're dredging up the kind of history no one wants to remember. We owe it you, our valued readers, to give a thorough and complete accounting of such history, the good, the bad, and most certainly the ugly. Welcome to our new series, Bad Beats, the epic beatdowns in the history of Texas College football. Relax, everyone gets a turn.
You wait 39 years to win a conference title and better make the most of it. When your ravenous fans snap up tickets like they're the last chicken nuggets on the party tray, you might as well give them their money's worth. When you strap it on in front of a National TV audience, it's important to make a good accounting of yourself.
When you get your teeth kicked in instead, that's a bad beat. We proudly present, the 1995 Cotton Bowl, a Texas Tech bad beat.
The 1994 SWC race was weird. The league was on the verge of folding, Texas A&M was in timeout for another of their many NCAA run-ins, and five teams, yes, five, tied for the SWC crown. Texas A&M finished the season 10-0-1, their one semi-blemish was a tie against SMU in a home game for SMU played at the Alamodome. SMU finished the 1994 season 1-9-1 and almost beat the 8th ranked team in college football at a neutral site. Yes, the 1994 season was weird.
While A&M and its band of mercenaries were running roughshod over the league, the rest of the SWC's band of merry misfits were stumbling their way to mediocrity. Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, Texas, and Rice tied for the SWC crown, each finishing at 4-3 in league play.
Texas Tech had a chance to win the league outright with a victory over TCU in the last game of the season but lost to the Frogs and that giant killer Max Knake. Back then the tie breaker was "last appearance rule," and while TCU hadn't played in the Cotton Bowl as a SWC champion since 1959, Tech's having never appeared guaranteed the Red Raiders a dream New Year's Day Matchup in East Dallas. Well, not New Year's day exactly, January 2nd was game day as college football continued to bow to NFL Sunday football.
Rice snuck into the mix by beating winless Houston on the last Saturday of the regular season. Let Rice hang a championship banner damn it; they were the only school in the bunch that wasn't violating some myriad of NCAA rules.
While Texas Tech never represented the SWC in a Cotton Bowl Classic, they appeared as a member of the Border Conference way back in 1939 against St. Mary's. The defunct football program that's now accustomed to making deep runs in the NIT tourney.
Zebbie, Spike, and the Thomas Brothers
The 1994 Red Raiders were a lovable bunch, led by the great, and we mean great, Zebbie Lethridge. Lethridge out of Lubbock Estacado alternated at quarterback in 1994 until finally winning the job full-time during a thrashing of Texas. Tech featured a thoroughbred running back, Byron Hanspard, then a true freshman from DeSoto.
The Red Raider defense found its leader in perhaps the greatest SWC linebacker this side of Tommy Nobis, the undersized tackling machine Zach Thomas. Zach and his brother Bart both made All-SWC in 1994.
Proving it's not how you start but how you finish, Tech opened their 1994 campaign 2-4. As Tech coach Spike Dykes said later, the Red Raiders were approaching "Molly get the mop" time. Dykes was cut from a cloth that rarely exists any longer, his homespun anecdotes and no holds barred assessments of his team kept writers and fans entertained, even if the Red Raiders' slow start caused consternation across the South Plains.
Tech led A&M 17-7 at the half in College Station, where the Aggies protected a 22 game winning streak, only to lose 23-17. The loss wasn't a turning point, a week later Tech fell to Rice in Houston, 24-21. Six games in and two wins to show for it, Dykes was in the cross-hairs. Three of those four losses came to ranked teams, but the Rice debacle was inexcusable and revealed the issues with Tech’s young team. Facing back-to-back win or pack it in contests against Baylor and Texas, Dykes' prepped his young team for a rough ride. The Red Raiders didn't fold, instead they climbed back into the SWC race and then on top of it with a four-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 144 to 23 and clinching a Cotton Bowl bid with a shutout of Houston.
USC awaited the Red Raiders, blue bloods trying to rebound after limping in down the stretch with a loss to rival UCLA and a tie against Notre Dame. John Robinson's Trojans went from Rose Bowl hopes to a cross-country trip to take on a Red Raider team that would allegedly give them all they could handle.
USC boasted Rob Johnson at quarterback, Keyshawn Johnson at receiver and Tony Boselli at tackle. Johnson was a classic California kid, perpetually tan, undeterred by the chaos around him, chaos that Boselli, one of the greatest tackles in college football history, managed. Johnson, before he made his living with ice cold takes, was one of the best receivers in college football and a can't miss pro.
Six Point Spread
Vegas tabbed the Trojans a six-point favorite over the Red Raiders, but many journalists and fans saw Tech as a upstart that could play with USC. The men of Troy, after all, were heading east to play in front of a partisan Tech crowd. Most expected Tech to cover, some even called on the Red Raiders to win outright.
Still, in the days leading up to the game, detractors forced Tech to defend their participation and their title. Surely Tech would admit that A&M won the SWC on the field and Tech was a paper champion? Zach Thomas wouldn't have any of it, "They cheated and we're here, it's no fluke." Tech saw mighty USC as their chance to stake claim to the legitimacy of their league crown and on CBS to boot.
A win over the Men of Troy would also help a struggling league by capturing a Cotton Bowl title for the first time in seven seasons. The 1995 Cotton Bowl would be the last where a SWC champion would defend the honor of the great state of Texas. The 1995 league champion would be at the whim of a new system based on computer polling data, the BCS. A champion’s fate decided by spreadsheets? Oh hell no. Tech went to Dallas to give USC a game and restore the league to respectability.
USC wouldn't have any of that.
"All those jokes they made are true."
The most memorable dust-up of the afternoon came when Raider Red, Tech's Yosemite Sam-like mascot, squared off with a saxophone player from USC's band. Apparently, the USC band grew tired of Tech fans pelting them with tortillas, or perhaps ran out of rice and beans, and took the law into their own hands. Those scoring the fight credited Raider Red for driving the action, but ultimately a direct shot to Red’s giant, foam nose tilted the fight in USC's favor.
The game on the field wouldn't go to a decision.
USC rambled off 21 points in 76 seconds to establish their presence with authority and put Tech's fragile ego on full display.
USC didn't stop there, by the end of the first they led 28-0, and Tech fans began gathering their things. Most waited til after the Going Band From Raiderland gave a stirring halftime performance, we assume it must've included taps or American crooner Ronnie Dove's "Let's Start Over Again." Time would not grant Tech a second chance.
The Tech sideline offered little comfort, Tech defensive lineman Damon Wickware said "[o]nce we got down 21-0 people on our sideline were saying 'it's over, we can't beat USC.' " Those people were right, but they're still assholes.
USC outgained Tech 235-17 in the first quarter, led 41-0 with nine minutes to play in the third quarter, when they sat Rob Johnson and inserted their backups. Johnson's assessment was the Tech, though looking better defensively on film, weren't used to playing a team of USC's caliber.
The Trojans led 48-0 before Tech lit up the scoreboard at all. A late Tech score prevented Tech from playing the punching bag in the worst loss in Cotton Bowl history. Nope, that title still belongs to the Texas Longhorns who lost by 43 to Miami in 1991. USC set a Cotton Bowl record with 578 yards on offense. Keyshawn Johnson caught eight passes for 222 yards and three scores.
Zach Thomas sat frustrated in outside his locker. The day that would lead to Tech's greatest triumph instead turned into Tech's worst nightmare, "[m]aybe all the jokes they made on ESPN were true."
As the afternoon sunset over East Dallas, a sparse crowd headed for the exits as USC celebrated their decisive victory. Somewhere in the bowels of the Cotton Bowl, Raider Red was asking for a rematch with that son-bitch saxophone player.