The Cougars began the 1965 season in the sparkling-new Houston Astrodome. But nothing else seemed to go right after running onto the field against Tulsa in the opener. Shut out at home by the Hurricane and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, UH didn’t score their first points of the season until the second quarter of week 3, a game against Cincinnati. Quarterback Bo Burris connected with Kenny Hebert to finally get UH on the board.
After the win over the Bearcats, the Cougars started to sputter again, scoring 7 and 12, respectively, in losses at Texas A&M and Miami. Burris told Jerry Wizig in Eat Em Up, Cougars that the Miami game was the lowest point of his career.
“The first series, we fumbled two or three times, and coach put in Dick Woodall at quarterback,” Burris related to Wizig. Despite being a “magician with the football,” as Warren McVea called him, Burris found himself practicing with the defense in the week leading up to the Tennessee game. Everything was out of sorts for the former Brazosport star. But after flying home from Miami and before facing a week of turmoil on campus, head coach Bill Yeoman made a decisive move. He would implement a triple-option attack that would become known as the Houston Veer or the Veer-T.
“I’d drawn it on paper and practiced it in the spring of 1965,” Yeoman said about his offense in 1973. “But I didn’t have the guts to go to it until midseason when it looked as if we were all about to be fired.”
Here Comes The Veer
Heading into the October 23rd game at Tennessee, UH had scored just 40 points in 5 games (1-4 record). After putting in his new offense, Yeoman re-inserted Burris at QB just hours before the noon kickoff in Knoxville.
“It was the night before we played Tennessee,” Burris said to author Robert D. Jacobus in the book Houston Cougars in the 1960s. “Coach Yeoman pulled us all together and said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to run the Veer, and Bo Burris is my quarterback.'”
That afternoon, the University of Houston made history in another way as McVea, UH’s prized recruit from the summer before, became the first African-American to play on an SEC campus. McVea struggled in the game, dropping four passes, but his coach did not seem troubled.
“Don’t worry about McVea,” Yeoman said. “He’s going to be a great one.” The man responsible for integrating football in Texas had also helped McVea break the color barrier in the SEC. Then-Tennessee professor Richard Marius characterized UT fan behavior towards McVea as “awful” and said he was called “every name in the book.” Tennessee newspapers that covered the game all noted the seminal moment.
But the game had another lasting benefit: acknowledging that Knoxville public schools had been integrated in 1964, along with McVea’s appearance in ’65 and the advantage that other schools now had by recruiting black athletes, Tennessee announced in February of 1966 that they would recruit and sign players regardless of race. Finally, blacks would begin to take their rightful place in major southern football programs.
On the other side of the field, the Tennessee squad was dealing with tragedy: assistant coaches Bob Jones, Charley Rash, and Bill Majors were killed on the Monday morning commute when their vehicle was struck by a train. Majors was the brother of Tennessee legend Johnny Majors who died earlier this week. Dickey flew to Waco for Jones’ funeral on Wednesday, just hours after letting UH know the game would be played as scheduled. Yeoman and staff were told Monday that the game may be canceled.
When asked about the grieving UT players after the game, Yeoman refused to accept the question.
“These kids have gone through enough already, and I’d rather not add anything to it,” the Kingsport Times-News quoted him at the time.
The Coogs played well on defense, especially in the first half. The game’s first pass was tipped by UH’s Paul Otis and intercepted by Joe Rafter. Shortly after that, Tom Paciorek picked off a ball that hit a receiver and bounced away. Tennessee was 0/8 passing in the first half with two interceptions. UT quarterback Charlie Fulton called the Houston defense “real tough” after the Vols were held to just 194 yards in the game.
But UH made three significant mistakes that doomed them: the first was a 15-yard penalty that kept a third-quarter Vol drive alive, ultimately leading to a field goal, the game’s first score. On the next play from scrimmage, Bo Burris threw a pick-six, and, in the fourth quarter, Dick Spratt fumbled a punt at the 23. The ensuing Tennessee score put them ahead 17-0.
In the game’s final drive, the Cougar offense clicked as UH went 77 yards in five plays to score. Burris connected on four passes: Ken Hebert for 34 yards, McVea for 12 more, Dick Post caught one for 16, and Tom Beer caught a pass from the six-yard line for UH’s only touchdown. Beer also hauled in the two-point conversion. Final score: Volunteers 17, Cougars 8. Video from the last drive:
When is a game more than a game?
For the University of Tennessee, the Houston game was the first step towards healing after the sudden loss of three football coaches. And when a black man took the field in an SEC stadium for the first time, it became a watershed event for Southern football. Even in a loss, Wonderous Warren had won.
The game at Neyland Stadium also represents the beginning of a total shift in college football offensive strategy. The debut of the Veer did not result in a win for the Cougars, but it set the stage for 20 years of prominence. “We got beat, but we were competitive,” Burris says. He calls the Tennesee game the turning point in UH football history.
The Cougars racked up points the following week (40-7 win over Chattanooga) and then beat Ole Miss for the first time in 13 tries. UH cruised to a 17-3 win over the Rebs, setting up the offense’s coming out party in 1966.