Former sports editor reflects on 1956 season

Nick Johnson

Longhorns fans everywhere are painfully aware that Texas is in the midst of its worst start since 1956, at four losses and a single win. The 1956 squad went on to finish the season with a 1-9 record, its only win a second-week victory over Tulane.

But the 1956 team — which holds the dishonor of Texas’ worst season record in history — played the year yours truly was sports editor of The Daily Texan. And there are eerie reminders of 1956’s gridiron woes to those few of us who watched the TCU games in both 1956 and 2015.

Last week’s 50-7 loss was too much like the 1956 team’s loss to the Horned Frogs. The score then was 46-0 — even worse than last week’s 43-point embarrassment. TCU then won the Southwest Conference title and played in the Cotton Bowl, while Texas compiled its worst-ever season record of 1-9.

The two teams have parallels, but there are also abundant dissimilarities.

Texas fans who remember 1956, as I do, hope those in Dallas on Saturday don’t suffer through an OU game like the Burnt Orange suffered on that mid-’50s day. The Sooners intercepted five passes and dispatched the Longhorns, 45-0. Small wonder. The Sooners boasted four first-team All-Americans in 1956, with receiver Tommy McDonald, linebacker Jerry Tubbs and offensive guards Ed Gray and Bill Krisher. Their coach was legend Bud Wilkinson, and his Sooners set a record for the longest winning streak in D-I history with 47 straight victories. OU won the national championship that year.

Texas’ coach was the gentleman Ed Price. He neared the end of his coaching career for a Texas team that had lots of scoreboard success before 1956. His record entering his last season was 32-18-1. In his first three seasons, Price led the Horns to three winning seasons and two SWC titles. As one might expect, after consecutive seasons of 5-5 and 4-5-1 (Texas’ first losing season in 15 years) and 1956’s 1-9 record, Price lost his head-coaching job. He remained at the University in the physical education department and later, as assistant dean of students.

There were no all-Americans at Texas in 1956, but there was talent, especially at the skill positions.

The heir to the Humble Oil/Exxon fortune, then-junior Walter Fondren, led the team in rushing, all-purpose yards and scoring en route to winning the first-ever George Hook McCullough MVP Award. Fondren opted to attend the University despite family ties to Rice and SMU — where Fondren Libraries existed — because of what he deemed Texas’ superior geology program. Fondren’s teammate that year was quarterback Joe Clements, who led the conference in passes completed, completion percentage and (alas) interceptions.

One glaring difference between now and Texas’ doormat 1956 season, though, was its lack of experience and leadership. Only three seniors were on the roster that year as dropouts, flunkouts, quitters, illnesses and scholastic problems plagued the 1953 recruiting class. This year’s Texas roster lists 18 seniors.

Oklahoma jumped on the young Longhorns for 502 yards in the 1956 matchup, an amazing total in those days. OU’s fans, players and hangers-on were their usual selves, eager to trash-mouth the Horns. OU quarterback Jimmy Harris told reporters after the game, “I kept thinking I’d sure hate to be playing for Texas and take this kind of humiliating beating.”

Texas assistant coach Mike Michalske said, “We were just out of our league.”

Most Texas fans dutifully remained faithful, though disappointed, throughout the season. They didn’t know until season’s end that Coach Price was on his way out, and the new coach would never suffer anything like a 1-9 season. That new coach just happened to be Darrell K Royal.

Nick Johnson was the Daily Texan sports editor in fall 1956.