The Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners will face each other on Saturday with two brand new coaches on the Cotton Bowl sidelines. This hasn’t happened since 1947. And if this matchup of Tom Herman vs. Lincoln Riley is to outdo its predecessor in fireworks, nothing short of a full-on civil war will do.
The Red River Shootout of seventy years ago teetered on the brink of a full-scale riot—today’s equivalent could only be found on soccer pitches across the pond or south of the border. It is no exaggeration to say that were it not for the swift, firm, and violent actions of the Dallas Police Department in the aftermath of the 1947 game, one or more of the officials might have been killed by enraged Sooner fans.
Building on the success of mentor Dana X. Bible’s 1946 team and riding a seven-game winning streak against the Sooners, Blair Cherry’s Horns were ranked third in the nation. Swashbuckling quarterback Bobby Layne led the burnt orange attack with both his legs and, unusually for the time in that run-heavy era, also his arm. Layne’s backfield sported another future NFL Hall of Famer: fullback Tom Landry.
With the soon-to-be-legendary coach Bud Wilkinson stalking the sidelines, fifteenth-ranked Oklahoma’s offense was led by speedy QB Jack Mitchell, its defense anchored by ball-hawking back Darrell Royal, who, like Landry, doubled on offense and tripled on special teams.
The teams traded early touchdowns, with Texas scoring on a Statue of Liberty play and Oklahoma answering with a three-yard Mitchell plunge with 3:45 left in the half. Texas marched down the field to the Oklahoma two, where the drive stalled. With twenty seconds left on the clock, Longhorn back Randall Clay managed only one yard. The Horns hastily lined up and Clay got the call one more time. In spite of the fact that the Sooners stuffed Clay for no gain, referee Jack Sisco threw his hands in the air, signaling a touchdown. Once the dog pile was untangled, it became clear to all 50,000 fans—and Sisco—that Clay had not scored. The ref negated the touchdown, but Sisco claimed that someone in the pile had signaled for a timeout with three seconds left on the clock he had in his hand.
Sisco later explained that because he had initially signaled a touchdown, he didn’t have time to signal to the stadium’s clock operator that a timeout had been called, and in those days, referees did not have microphones that enabled them to explain themselves to the fans over the stadium’s PA system. At any rate, his clock showed three seconds, but the stadium clock showed zero, and OU coaches and fans had no idea why the Horns were being allowed to run one last play with no time left.
A chorus of boos rained down from the Cotton Bowl’s crimson-and-cream contingent, and those only intensified when Longhorn back Jim Canady slammed into the Sooner line and fumbled. The ball squirted backward to a kneeling Layne, who scooped it up as he rose to his feet and pitched it back to Clay, who scooted around two dumbfounded Oklahoma defenders for a touchdown. The Sooners had thought that one of Layne’s knees had been on the ground when he picked up the ball, thus rendering the play dead and the half over, but Sisco disagreed. (Back then, you had to wait a couple of days to see replays, and by Tuesday, newspapers were reporting that the game film showed that Layne had, in fact, been down when he pitched the ball to Clay.)
So it appeared the Longhorns had been awarded a free play, and then handed an illegal touchdown. Wilkinson was irate. As the teams headed toward the locker rooms, the coach dashed his fedora to the ground and barreled onto the field to give Sisco a piece of his mind, accidentally flattening a Longhorn marching band piccolo player en route. Amid Sooner boos and catcalls, the half came to a close. (In reading about this litany of bad calls, Longhorn fans can’t help but be reminded of the outright travesty that was the 2015 Oklahoma State game.)
Much of the third quarter proceeded without scoring or controversy, but then a Darrell Royal return of a Tom Landry punt was called back thanks to a ticky-tack clipping penalty, bringing more howls of outrage from the Sooners. Instead of starting their next drive in the relative comfort of their own 25, the Sooners found themselves pinned down at the one-yard line. A short punt ensued, and Texas took advantage of the short field to score another TD and go up 21-7.
Taking over at their own 20, the Sooners struck back on their first play from scrimmage, when Mitchell snagged a lateral from a halfback and raced 72 yards untouched to the end zone, bringing the score to 21-14 after Royal’s extra point. (There wasn’t a lot Darrell Royal didn’t do for the Sooners.)
After the kickoff, Texas took over at the 16 and quickly marched to the Oklahoma 38, where Royal—there he is again—picked off an errant Layne pass, giving the Sooners the ball and a chance to tie.
Or not. In yet another close call, Sisco flagged an OU lineman for roughing Layne, giving the ball back to the Horns at the Oklahoma 23. In the stands, Sooner rage was approaching seismic levels, and it erupted when Sisco’s crew awarded Clay a touchdown, after they let play continue long after it appeared his forward progress had been stopped at the one-yard line. That’s a second potential goal-line stand negated.
First a single soda bottle came flying down from the stands. Then a couple more. Next a hip flask or three and the odd whiskey bottle, and then a deluge of many more glass projectiles, not to mention seat cushions and anything else not bolted down. Sooners and Horns alike rushed to the middle of the field to get out of range. Fistfights rippled through the grandstands wherever Oklahomans and Texans were in proximity. Wilkinson and the Oklahoma cheerleaders urged the fans to stop the barrage to no avail—there would be no ceasefire until they ran out of ammo. Finally, Longhorn and Sooner cheerleaders cleared the debris and the game continued, with the Horns rattling off 13 unanswered points and the game going in the books as a 34-14 stomping.
By the time the whistle blew, Sooner fans had replenished their stocks and opened up a second barrage. Neither Sooner nor Longhorn was safe from the indiscriminate fusillade. Years later, Royal would remember that he had to put his helmet on the head of his future wife, Edith, and hustle her off the field to the safety of a Cotton Bowl tunnel.
Many of these players had seen more than most. And yet even they were alarmed. “A lot of us were war veterans,” remembered Landry. “But I guarantee you we were scared.”
In addition to the aerial assault, the Sooner blitzkrieg featured an infantry attack. A number of Oklahoma fans—dozens, if not hundreds—stormed the field with the aim of getting to Sisco and likely tearing him from limb from limb. “They would have killed him, if they could have gotten to him,” Oklahoma lineman Merle Dinkins said, years later.
One fan did get to Sisco, but the former football star decked him with a single punch. Just then, a Dallas police car sped on to the field and Sisco and his crew were hustled inside, moments ahead of the main body of the Sooner mob. “They were beating on the windows of that car while it left the field,” remembered OU halfback Tommy Gray. Meanwhile, nightstick-wielding Dallas cops were whacking Sooner skulls all over the glass-strewn Cotton Bowl turf, and finally, order was restored in the Cotton Bowl, if not the city of Dallas, where irate Sooners rampaged through downtown, smashing store windows and hurling furniture out of hotel rooms, injuring a few innocent bystanders along the way.
Meanwhile, in Norman, a thousand Sooners gathered in front the university’s administration building and hung an effigy of Sisco, while singing “Don’t Send My Boy to Texas.”
They had planned to burn the mock-referee once they had cut it down, but somebody stole “the body,” so they had a do-over the following night. This time, 3,000 Sooners came to watch as a new Sisco effigy was set on fire in a campus parking light. As the referee’s likeness crackled in the flames, the crowd sang “Jack Sisco’s body lies a’smoldering in the grave,” and then, as a reporter put it, “they trampled on the embers and went home.”
None of which is even the slightest bit disturbing. Nope, not at all.
Though the game is all but forgotten today, there were a few lasting effects. For a time, the verb “to Sisco” was Oklahoma vernacular for “to be swindled,” as in “I sure got Sisco’d on that leaky-roofed double-wide I bought for me and Earlene an’ ‘em.”
And the game changed the nationwide fan experience in a small way: In the aftermath, the Cotton Bowl banned glass bottles, a move that was nearly universally emulated across all American sports. (Keep in mind, this was before plastics had become ubiquitous, so it ushered in the era of flimsy paper cups.)
Though there was some talk of suspending the Red River Shootout in the aftermath of this game, athletic directors from Texas and Oklahoma nipped that notion in the bud. In retrospect, Texas probably wished they had left Oklahoma alone for the next few years, as Wilkinson’s juggernaut Sooners would win nine of the next ten games in the rivalry. Fortune would not consistently favor the Horns again until they hired Darrell Royal, that would-be Sooner hero of the 1948 riot game, as their coach.
Now, Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman each hold the other’s fate in his hands. Victory in this game can sweeten all but the sourest seasons, and an extended run of dominance can end the other’s tenure.
Cherry’s teams lost an unprecedented four straight games to the Sooners, and his inability to defeat the hated Okies played no small part in his decision to step down after five seasons, even though his last Longhorn eleven finished 10-1 and ranked in the top five. By then Cherry was suffering from ulcers and insomnia, ailments he attributed to the toxic media and fan environment in Austin.
Royal’s Horns dominated the Sooners from 1958 through the 1960s, and his five-game winning streak over Wilkinson, his old mentor, likely played a role in Wilkinson’s decision to retire at age 47, no matter what the official story says. It was certainly a factor when Royal was pressured into retiring after the 1976 season – in four attempts, he never defeated Barry Switzer’s Sooners, and that litany of defeat included a painful 52-13 drubbing.
Shellackings like that became all-too-common in the Mack Brown era, and even though he had returned the program to glories not seen in over a decade, the air around the early 2000s Longhorn program was as poisonous as it had been in Cherry’s day. Brown simply could not beat Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops—with equal or greater talent, Brown’s teams lost five straight to the Sooners, including a 12-0 shutout (when the Horns had both Vince Young and Cedric Benson in the backfield) and apocalyptic 63-14 and 65-14 beatdowns. It didn’t matter that Brown’s teams almost always won at least ten games a year—the fact that Brown was utterly owned by his Norman nemesis for so long had thousands of Orangebloods calling for Brown’s head every October, a state of affairs that came perilously close to boiling over until VY finally took the Horns to the promised land in 2005. Though Brown won five of his final nine games against Stoops, the perception remains that the Sooners utterly dominated the Horns with rare exception from 2000 onward, and all those blowout losses remain the deepest blemishes on Brown’s legacy.
For Herman and Riley, the honeymoon is already over. Herman’s season-opening loss to Maryland saw to that, just as mighty mite Iowa State’s stunning upset of Riley’s Sooners on their home field last Saturday did for him. Should Herman’s underdog Horns take down Riley’s Sooners, more than a few Sooner fans will wonder if Riley has what it takes, especially following the Iowa State debacle. Should Riley’s Sooners abuse the Horns Stoops-style, some of the more hot-headed Texas fans will start demanding that UT “money-whip” someone like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer to Austin.
Neither Herman nor Riley is going anywhere after this season, but patience with coaches is at an all-time low, and Saturday’s match-up could well set one of them on the path to glory and the other on the road to perdition.