There are four teams that will tell you that all that low-hanging retrospective fruit about the 1957 Auburn Tigers knowing only how to tackle doesn’t really reflect their personal experience — and none more loudly than the Houston Cougars.
Heading into the Oct. 26 game a 12-point underdog, you could make out a little hope if you squinted hard enough. Auburn was No. 5, but the Cougars had already held their own and then some against ranked opponents. They’d opened the season by shocking No. 14 Miami, 7-0. The next week, they’d lost by just a touchdown to No. 11 Baylor, then bounced back with a 7-0 win over Cincinnati. The 24-6 road loss to Texas A&M was their worst, but the Aggies were No. 3, maybe even tougher than the Auburn team flying into town, who knew…
The Tigers had the best defense in the country, sure. But which team had the second best? Oklahoma State.
Which team had Houston just tied 6-6? Oklahoma State.
Then, of course, there were the intangibles. The week had started with that feeling in the air, the kind aligned for the sort of Saturday you’d tell your grandkids about. First, there was the revenge factor. They’d lost by 12-0 to Auburn in 1956, in a game that was way more embarrassing than the score indicated. Though they’d somehow held the Alabamians to just two touchdowns, the Tigers had spent the game practically camped in Houston’s red-zone. Vengeance under the lights of giant Rice Stadium would make it all go away — especially on homecoming.
Yes, homecoming! At night — 8 p.m., as night as it came. The crowd — they were expecting up to 50,000 — would surely be a huge factor. All the students feeling no pain! All the old timers wanting to feel like students again! A homecoming upset over a Top 5 team? Why not? The previous Saturday had been a Top 5 bloodbath. No. 1 Michigan State had gone down to unranked Purdue. No. 4 Minnesota had gone down to unranked Illinois.
On Monday, Houston over Auburn actually seemed somewhat possible.
On Tuesday, it seemed less possible. The damn registrar finally noticed that fullback Owen Mulholland, their top-ground gainer even with only three games under his belt, had dropped too many classes to keep his scholarship. He was supposed to be back from a rib injury, better than ever. Now he wasn’t even on the team. Thanks to other injuries, Sammy Blount, the Missouri Valley Conference’s leading passer, wouldn’t have a single starter behind him. Still, as a whole, the Cougars were going to be healthier than they’d been all year.
Which is one reason why it was so sickening.
It was one thing to lose on homecoming. It was another thing entirely to be humiliated, to be dominated, from the very first play from scrimmage. Lloyd Nix, the quarterback in name only, the man supposedly unable to throw a football, faked a handoff to Jimmy “Red” Phillips and then hit him perfectly in stride on a 40 yard pass. The All-American caught it in stride at the Houston 30 and outran the closest defenders like a teenager showing off for toddlers. And that was the ballgame. You could feel it. Auburn scored 16 points in the first 16 minutes — two touchdowns and a safety. It only got worse.
Between the safety and PATs and even a 35-yard touchdown run by second string QB Bryant Harvard, nine Auburn Tigers scored points in the game. Houston’s lone score was an interception returned 89-yards for a touchdown just before half. They gained 106 yards. And two homecoming queens.
Yes, plural. It was a tie. That’s all the yearbook wanted to remember about the day. It was a lovely spread. Went on for pages. Lovely pictures of lovely floats and lovely bonfires upon which lovely cheerleaders burned Auburn players in effigy and lovely Jan Ellis and lovely Nancy Stanley, both with the exact same number of votes.
As for the game itself, the 1958 Houstonian kept it short and simple.
“Houston did good to win the coin toss against Auburn…”