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Ode to the Case: Baylor Football in the 1980's, Another Trip to the Cotton Bowl

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In the midst of unprecedented success on the football field and the imminent opening of shiny new McLane stadium, it is fitting to take a walk down memory lane to remember the good times (and some not so good times) from Baylor’s 64 years at Floyd Casey Stadium. This multi-part series looks at Baylor football through the eyes of a fan who was in the stands for the first game, the last game and all in between.

Football in the 1980's - Another Trip to the Cotton Bowl

There was excitement in the air for the 1980 season.  Baylor's Peach Bowl victory in '79 was the first in 17 years and only the second bowl appearance in that time period.  Baylor also had Mike Singletary at middle linebacker and Walter Abercrombie at running back, both of which had All-American buzz and were as dynamic at their positions as anyone in the conference.

The '80 season was to open in Beaumont, against the up-and-coming Lamar Cardinal squad.  This game was only a twenty-minute drive from our home in Orange.  Given that we normally drove over 4 hours to the games it was a certainty that we would attend this one.  Lamar was pumped up about the game and had a legitimate right to be.  Larry Kennan was in his second year as head coach and, like Baylor, was coming off of a solid '79 campaign finishing 6-3-2.  Larry had been the offensive coordinator at SMU prior to going to Lamar and had solid coaching credentials.  As we were walking in to the stadium, my 11-year-old son was carrying a gold, Baylor growl towel.  A Lamar fan yelled out that before the game was over he would be using it as a crying towel.  Baylor kicked off to Lamar and they returned it all the way to the Baylor 5 yard line.  In the back of my head, I was wondering if the Lamar fan might be right after all.  My thoughts changed quickly though.  On the very first play from scrimmage, I saw one of the greatest defensive plays I've ever witnessed.  Mike Singletary crashed through the offensive line and met both the QB and the running back about 5 yards deep in the Lamar backfield as they were attempting a routine hand off.  The ball went straight up into the air and started bouncing backwards up field.  After a mad scramble, Lamar recovered and was faced with second and goal from the 25.  At that point it was game-over.  Lamar never really recovered from that opening drive and realized they had something on their hands that they could not handle.  Baylor went on to win that game 42-7.

Although there were many memories of the 1980 SWC championship season, to me there were three games that stood out:  The come from behind victory against SMU, the season finale against Texas, and the ignominious let-down against San Jose State.

The SMU game was the fifth game of the season and it was unbelievable.  SMU was undefeated, carried an AP #20 rank and was a dangerous opponent.   Baylor opened the game in terrible fashion, down 21 point at the end of the first quarter.  Baylor started to recover as the game went on, but were still down 21-14 at half and 28-14 deep into the third quarter.  At the beginning of the second quarter my 7-year-old daughter started to cry.  I wasn't in any mood for that and I ask her just what was her problem.  She pointed and said, "have you looked at that scoreboard?"  I had and to be honest, I wanted to cry as well.  The Jay Jeffrey architected fourth quarter comeback that lead to a 32-28 win changed those emotions though.  At that point I knew that Baylor had something special going that year.

The game against San Jose State was very memorable for all of the wrong reasons.  Baylor was 7-0, ranked #10 and were planning to absolutely hammer a 4-3 team that really didn't belong on the same field with Baylor.  Waco was excited and Baylor Stadium had a big crowd ready to see the slaughter.  I guess that is why they play the games though.  Baylor lost 30-22 in its poorest performance of the year by far.  It just goes to prove the old adage that on any given Saturday any team can beat another.  Enough said about that.  I actually think it served as a bit of a wakeup call though.  The Bears seemed more focused after having been brought back to earth.  Two weeks later we drove to Houston to see Baylor play Rice. The Marching Owl Band, better known as the MOB, played "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" at halftime. It was a terrible reminder for Baylor fans but a clever jab from the Rice band. It actually was kind of funny.  During that game Walter Ambercrombie broke an 80-yard run seemingly for a touchdown.  He ran out of gas though and got stopped just short of the goal line.  Even though Baylor won that game 16-6, the MOB had gotten the better of us at halftime.

On a wet gloomy day the season finale was against Texas in Waco.  Texas had been ranked as high #2 that season and was a formidable foe as they always were.  They had lost 2 conference games though and were in Waco not to win the championship but to spoil Baylor's chances.  Cloudy and in a light rain Baylor went to work and came out with a hard fought 16-0 victory.  The game was of interest all over the state and late in the fourth quarter two news helicopters appeared out of the clouds and hovered over the scoreboard at the south end zone.  You could do that in 1980, but not now.  It was a great day to be a Baylor Bear, we were singing that Good Old Baylor Line in Baylor Stadium as South West Conference champions.

Even after losing the Cotton Bowl to a Bear Bryant lead Alabama squad, there were great expectations for the '81 season.  Baylor was coming off a 10-2 season and a Southwest Conference championship.  Then Lamar came to Waco and exacted revenge for the loss that we had handed them the year before.  On the last play of the game, Lamar kicked a field goal to win 18-17. What a bummer.  One of the only good things that came out of the '81 season was the fact that we beat A&M in Waco.  Beating A&M somehow made the rest of the mediocre season acceptable.

Speaking of bummer games, two others come to mind. The '86 game against USC in Waco is near the top of the list.  Baylor completely outplayed USC throughout the game but several key plays conspired against the Bears.  Just before halftime, the short yardage offense came in to drive in a touchdown to take a 14-0 lead.  Instead a goal line fumble was returned 99.5 yards to tie the game.  I still have images of Matt Clark trying to run down that defensive back that ended up with the ball.  He dove at about the 10 yard line on the north side of the stadium and missed.  Later in the game a driving rainstorm came in.  SC was able to score a late touchdown and then drive into position for field goal late.  With 1 second to go another field goal split the up rights giving USC a 17-14 victory.

The granddaddy of all bummer games in Floyd Casey though was Kevin Steele's '99 loss to UNLV.  Baylor had the game won late in the fourth quarter and only needed to execute one victory formation play to kill the clock.  The Bears were on the UNLV 1 yard line with 12 seconds left.  So lets just tack on another score and show the world what a scoring machine Baylor has.  Instead of scoring a meaningless touchdown in the north end zone, an extremely meaningful one was scored in the south.  There was a fumble going into the end zone and a UNLV player picked up the ball and ran 100+ yards for the game winner with no time on the clock. Baylor lost the game that only 12 seconds earlier was in the bag by a score of 27-24.  That was one the quietest times I had ever heard the stadium during a game.  Everyone was in complete shock and utterly quiet except for the handful of fans from Las Vegas.

The BYU game that opened the '83 season was one to remember. Steve Young, future NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl Champion came into Waco thinking of an easy victory.  Teaff had his team ready and when the night was over Baylor came away with a 40-36 victory.  BYU didn't lose another game the whole season and finished up ranked in the top 10.  Baylor had Cody Carlson, Alfred Anderson and Gerald McNeil carrying the load that night.  Anderson went over 100 yards on the ground and scored with less than a minute left in the game to seal the win.  It was a great game.

To close out the 1983 season, Baylor was invited to play in the Bluebonnet bowl at the Houston Astrodome.  We drove over to Houston to see the Baylor play Oklahoma State coached by Jimmy Johnson.  With a 7-3-1 season behind us I felt sure that we would come away with a victory over Okie State.  It wasn't to be though.  The Cowboys controlled the entire game and ended up winning 21-14.

Throughout the back half of the ‘80's Baylor played Texas really tough, winning four of the last 6 meetings of the decade ('84, '86, '88, '89).  Although I was always happy to see Baylor beat Texas, the 1989 game against the Horns still ranks as one of my all time favorite games and I wasn't even there to see it given that the game was played in Austin.   The last time that Baylor had a victory in Austin was 1951.  On this late November afternoon Baylor rose up the occasion and gave Texas a good old country licking.  The final score was 50-7.  What a wonderful way to finish the season.  I have a picture of the scoreboard showing the final score hanging in my workshop to this day to remind of that outstanding result.

Next up:  Ode to the Case:  Baylor Football in the Modern Era, From Despair to Heisman