High hopes were the hallmark of college football’s centenary anniversary season opener between Texas and California at Memorial Stadium in Berkley, CA. The teams harbored aspirations fueled by the breakthrough successes of their 1968 campaigns. For both the outcome of the Sept. 20, 1969 game had been planted a year-and-a-half prior.
The summer of 1968 had been anything but lovely for the University of Texas football team. After a trio of four-loss seasons, the Longhorn’s national championship of 1963 already seemed part of a bygone era. As head coach Darrell Royal prepared for his 12th season in charge in Austin, he found himself looking for ways to restore the program’s vitality.
His solution was a staff shake up that included naming 40-year-old linebackers coach Emory Bellard the Offensive Coordinator. Soon after Bellard proposed a switch to an unorthodox offense he'd been tinkering with for more than a decade. After watching a group of former players run through the scheme Royal gave it his OK and the Wishbone-era of college football had begun.
The inauguration was inauspicious: a 20-20 tie to Houston and a 31-22 drubbing at the hands of Texas Tech. At that point Royal tweaked the attack by moving the placement of the tailback and named James Street the starting quarterback. Almost immediately it all started to click. The Longhorns went on a nine-game win streak capped by a 36-13 victory over Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.
Texas finished 1968 ranked No. 3 in the final AP poll of the year, behind Penn State and National Champion Ohio State.
The wishbone had electrified the Longhorns’ offensive attack. Texas averaged 34 points and 447 yards a game over the season. With the entire offensive backfield returning in 1969, sportswriters predicted the Longhorns would again have one of the most potent offenses in the nation.
Closer to the heart of the cultural revolution, the football fortunes in Berkeley seemed to be on the upswing as well. After five years of mediocre-at-best performances, Ray Willsey’s California squad had finally broken through in 1968.
The former defensive back for the Golden Bears had taken over at his alma mater in 1964 and lead the team to alternating 3-7 and 5-5 seasons. Yet Cal’s powerful “Bear Minimum” defense had finally taken a step forward in 1968 and the result was a 7-3-1 record and a third-place finish in the Pac 8 conference.
The Golden Bears had accomplished the feat by shutting down opposing rushing attacks and forcing turnovers when those teams took to the air. Cal allowed just 109 yards rushing per game over the course of the entire 1968 season. The only opponent to score more than 20 points against them was eventual Pac-8 champion USC, led by Heisman Trophy-winning running back O.J. Simpson.
The 1969 race for the Pac-8 crown seemed wide open with The Juice departed for the pros and the bulk of the Golden Bear’s defense returning. Yet the first they had to face the stiff test of Texas and the powerful Wishbone offense.
On Sept. 20, 1969 more than 31,000 were on hand in a fog-shrouded Memorial Stadium in Berkeley for the highly-anticipated intra-conference clash.
While the Longhorns were favored by 10 points, there were concerns whether Texas would be able to absorb the loss of All-American running back Chris Gilbert, who graduated the year before. Those were put to rest on the Longhorn’s second drive of the game when Jim Bertelsen made his dramatic debut.
Led by the sophomore tailback, Texas drove 70 yards down the field in 11 plays. Bertelsen scored on an 11 yards run around the right end and the Longhorns were on the scoreboard. Texas struck again halfway through the second quarter, when Street added another score on a five-yard keeper. At the half, the Longhorns lead 14-0.
The Golden Bear defense would clamp down in the second half and Texas only able to tack on a field goal midway through the third quarter. The Longhorns’ defense, which had stymied the Cal attack all afternoon, seemed to crack in the final three minutes of the game.
The Golden Bears’ Bob Darby ripped off a 45-yard run all the way to the 21-yard-line – a gain that proved to be more than a third of the team’s rushing total for the afternoon. But the Longhorn defense stiffened and forced the ball over on downs, ending Cal’s hopes of avoiding the shutout. Texas took the season opener 17-0.
Cal held the Longhorns to 311 yards of total offense, a total that seemed paltry in the wake of the loss but proved to be one of the most resilient defensive stands against the Wishbone attack that seasons. Texas finished 1969 averaging 472.1 yards of total offense per game - a total they wouldn’t eclipse until the 2005 National Championship season (512.1 yards per game).
The 17 points were the fewest Texas scored against any team that season save the powerful Arkansas squad in the final game of the season.
For the Golden Bears, the loss would set the tone for a disappointing season. Cal would stumble to another 5-5 season while only managing to win two conference games versus Washington and Washington State who finished in the cellar of the Pac-8. USC retained the conference crown while UCLA and Stanford rounded out the trio of traditional West Coast powers.
Willsey would lead Cal to a pair of 6-5 records in both 1970 and 1971, finishing tied for 2nd and 3rd in the Pac-8, respectively. He then retired from college ball.
The victory launched the Longhorns on one of the most successful seasons in the program’s storied history. Texas tore through the competition and reached the season finale against Arkansas undefeated. The clash against the No.1 ranked Longhorns and the No. 2 ranked Razorbacks proved to be the game of the year.
President Richard Nixon, who was on hand for the game in Fayetteville, Ark., declared the contest the de facto national championship. When Texas rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the final quarter to win 15-14, poll voters proved inclined to agree. The Longhorns then downed No. 9 Notre Dame 21-17 in the Cotton Bowl, retained the No. 1 ranking and claimed the 1969 National Championship.