The improbable result was a bitter pill for the Wildcats to swallow, and was followed by a lackluster loss the following week before one of the quietest crowds you’ve ever seen at Homecoming back in Abilene. ACU recovered to finish the season 11-1-1 and win the national title, and although it’s had some talented individuals and teams since, has yet to do so again.
This weekend, longtime fans who remember that last championship in 1977 may rediscover some deja vu memories of one wild and crazy night in South Texas.
The 1977 game was a showdown between defending NAIA Division I national champ and No. 1-ranked Texas A&I (the university’s name changed to Texas A&M-Kingsville in 1993) and No. 2-ranked ACU.
Tonight, the Wildcats are ranked No. 5 in NCAA Division II, and the Javelinas are No. 6, powered by suffocating defenses. And this year, as in 1977, the Lone Star Conference has four teams ranked in the nation’s top 10 the week of this showdown, led by these same two rivals.
I still get a kick out of the pseudonym used by ACU chancellor emeritus Dr. William J. Teague for the 1970s-era Javelinas, who pillaged opponents on their way to three straight undefeated seasons (1974-76), with another national title thrown in for good measure in 1979. “Babylonians,” he called them, a reference to the King Nebuchadnezzar-led bullies who destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and kidnapped its leaders. Today, 42 straight football wins does not a Mesopotamian empire make, but you get the point: the Javs were one bad (in a good way) outfit.
The Hoggies, as their fans like to call them, didn’t take many prisoners in those days and for 18 of 19 seasons (1966-84), had at least one player drafted each year by the NFL, including six in 1978. There is not a more prolific small-college factory of professional football players on the planet.
In 1977-78, I was on my first tour of duty as editor of ACU’s student newspaper, The Optimist, taking notes on the sideline that warm, muggy, breezy night in Kingsville. So was a classmate serving as a student sideline reporter for the Wildcats’ radio broadcast team. You now know him as Lance Barrow, the multiple Emmy Award-winning coordinating producer of golf and lead game producer of NFL football for CBS Sports.
The Wildcats came up with a superhero effort that evening, holding the Javs, who were averaging 310 yards rushing a game, to just 18. They led 12-0 at halftime and 25-0 after three quarters, when Abilene Reporter-News sportswriter Mark McDonald had half his game story written in the pressbox high above the visitors’ bench. It led with something about ACU players taking apart the Kingsville dynasty with their bare hands, and he was pretty proud of the prose. Fifteen minutes later, he was tearing it up and starting over.
The largest crowd in LSC history – 18,500 – saw the Javs convert three fourth-quarter ACU turnovers into 25 points, the last three on a 35-yard field goal after one of the most disputed play calls in Wildcat history.
With about five minutes left in the game and the Javs on the ACU 19-yard-line, A&I quarterback Martin Stroman ran the Javelina veer option to the left, but was met by ACU linebacker Reuben Mason. The ball popped into the air as Mason collided with the quarterback, and was recovered by the Wildcats after a scuffle. However, an official ruled it an incomplete pass, despite the fact that Stroman, who is right-handed, was carrying the ball down the line of scrimmage in his left hand and made no motion to throw the ball before Mason’s tackle. A&I’s drive stalled, but Bobbie Spencer’s field goal evened the score.
As time on the scoreboard expired, some angry Wildcat players dropped to the turf, and a few hurled their helmets in disgust.
If a tie “is like kissing your sister,” as Michigan State University head coach Duffy Daugherty said in 1966 after his team played rival Notre Dame University to a 10-10 stalemate of national powers, then this 25-25 affair was just as deflating. It also was a classic. In the mid-1970s, either the Wildcats or Javs won all but one NAIA national championship between 1973 and 1979 – two legitimate small-college behemoths (with apologies to George Carlin for the oxymoron) for the ages.
Tonight, A&M-Kingsville is not the defending national champion but it beat Northwest Missouri State, which is, in the season opener. The Javs rank No. 1 nationally in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense.
As they did in 1977, the Wildcats have a young backfield and experienced receivers. They are ranked No. 3 in the nation in scoring (47.3 points per game), and are are anchored by a strong defense that leads the nation in turnover margin, with special teams units full of game-changing performers.
The 1977 officiating crew won’t be on the field, so that’s a moral victory. Absent some unforeseen events more befitting the spooky holiday later this month, it could be another game worth talking about far down the road.