Miracle on the Brazos: 1974 SWC champs stand tall in Baylor football history

A general view of Floyd Casey Stadium before a game between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Baylor Bears on November 19, 2011 in Waco. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

By Pranay Malempati | Contributor

Fans sprung out of their cars, which were carelessly strewn around the parking lot, and poured back into the outskirts of Baylor Stadium. They wanted to see their beloved Baylor Football team make a seemingly miraculous comeback, the likes of which they had not seen. As the defense continued making stops and creating turnovers, the crowd would get louder and louder. And every time the offense scored, including after a last minute field goal to ice the game, the fans erupted. Baylor football had done something incredible, something which no word could describe.

That is not a description of the scene at the incredible comeback against TCU in 2014, although it could have been. That was college football reporter Dave Campbell’s depiction of the 1974 Baylor Football team’s comeback against the University of Texas, fittingly named the Miracle on the Brazos.

“I used the words ‘nice,’ ‘fantastic,’ ‘intrepid,’ ‘absolutely mind-boggling.’ But really there is still no word to describe what happened that day,” Campbell said.

In the game against UT 45 years ago, Baylor was down 24-7 at halftime. They stormed back in the second half in dominant fashion to win 34-24. The comeback was a microcosm of the entire season. That year, coach Grant Teaff’s Baylor team won the Southwest Conference Championship for the first time in 50 years. The season before, they had gone a miserable 2-9 with zero conference victories.

Linebacker Derrel Luce, a senior All-American linebacker in 1974 and an eventual NFL starter for the Baltimore Colts, said the drastic turnaround from 1973 made the championship all the more sweet.

“The year before we didn’t win a single conference game. That was the more amazing thing, going from last to first,” Luce said.

According to wide receiver Ricky Thompson, who would go on to play in the NFL for the Washington Redskins, a major challenge that year was listening to doubts from the outside. Before their season opener against Oklahoma, the eventual national champs, Baylor opened as a “forty or fifty point underdog … and in the fourth quarter [the score] was 7-5.”

Oklahoma eventually pulled away, but the game left an impression on Sooners head coach Barry Switzer. Thompson said that Switzer visited Baylor’s locker room after the game, praising their efforts and telling them Baylor was “going to beat a lot of people.”

And beat a lot of people they did. After losing to Missouri and falling to 0-2, Baylor would lose only one more regular season game. It started with a top 10 victory against Oklahoma State, which was ranked number eight at the time. Then, they beat Florida State and Arkansas in back to back road games. The game against Florida State was one of the more memorable occasions from that year, according to kicker David “Bubba” Hicks. Baylor was down 17-0 at halftime. What made the Baylor players and coaches even more frustrated was that Florida State was having a homecoming and “halftime took literally half an hour longer than normal.” That frustration created a bonding experience. The Baylor players stormed onto the field while the band was still playing and took matters into their own hands.

“We had one player, Leslie Benson, who grabbed [their conductor], threw him over his shoulder, walked down the stairs and threw him down,” Hicks said. “I don’t know if that was a catalyst but we storm them and steam them in the second half and win 21-17. That was one of the early victories that bonded the team.”

After winning three games in a row, Baylor lost to Texas A&M at home, their lone conference loss that season. Texas A&M was undefeated and led the conference at that point. Baylor then defeated TCU before playing Texas in that famous game, the Miracle on the Brazos. Down 24-7 at halftime, Baylor’s hopes were not looking great. They had not defeated UT in 19 seasons, and this would have been simply another loss.

But Hicks remembers that as they were walking out of the locker room, quarterback Neal Jeffery told him, “We got them right where we want them.” That kind of confidence can do wonders for a team and shows the faith the players had in each other. According to Teaff, there was a backstory to Jeffery saying that. Teaff said he was perplexed as they were walking upstairs to the locker room after the first half because Jeffery “had a big grin on his face.”

“[Jeffery] said ‘Coach think about this. Everything we planned has worked. We’ve had a turnover. There was a time when I threw a bad pass. But everything we planned has worked. We’re going to win this game.’ So I said, Neal, when we get to the locker room, you go left and I’ll go right. Shake everybody’s hand and tell them we got them right where we want them,” Teaff said.

Teaff said that that kind of belief, both in their game-plan and in each other, was a core part of that team’s success. But he said that while belief is important, it is still only a part of success because, “you also must have preparation, the right planning and execution.”

Baylor used that belief and preparation to completely turn the game around and dominate Texas in the second half. The Bears started the third quarter off with a blocked punt and scored a touchdown on the successive drive. After another defensive stop, Thompson took a 54-yard catch and run for a touchdown. Not only did Baylor keep scoring touchdowns and field goals, but the defense also continued to shut down the Texas offense.

Luce partially attributed this monumental defensive turnaround to defensive coordinator Corky Nelson. Baylor had just hired Nelson to be their coordinator in the previous offseason, replacing Pat Culpepper. Luce said Texas was known for their wishbone offense, which spread defenses out and then ran the football down opposing teams’ throats. He said Nelson made a simple adjustment in the second half by putting seven men on the line of scrimmage and forming a wall up front. They also implemented a new cornerback blitz “since [Texas] didn’t hardly ever pass.” Luce said that cornerback blitz resulted in multiple free hits on the quarterback as well as a forced fumble.

Eventually up 31-24 with about 40 seconds left, Baylor had a fourth down near UT’s goal-line. Hicks said Teaff’s original intention was to go for it and try to get the first down.

“I will actually give myself credit for talking [Teaff] into kicking it,” Hicks recalled. “I said, ‘Coach, if he bobbles it, I’ll dive on it myself. But if it’s a clean hold, we might as well kick it and the game’s over and we win.”

Clean snap. Clean hold. Hicks made the kick and the game was over and Baylor won. According to Thompson, that was the game that made many of the players realize they really had an opportunity to win the conference championship. He said after the game, everybody “could tell that team was for real.”

In fact, Hicks said during that game, the stadium announced that Texas A&M had just lost to SMU. So after Baylor won, the two teams were tied for the conference lead. However, because head-to-head was the tiebreaker and Baylor had already lost to A&M, they needed A&M to lose another game.

Teaff said after the game Baylor received another postgame visit from another opposing coach, this time from Texas head coach Darrell Royal. According to Teaff, Royal told the team their victory over Texas was no fluke, and that they beat his team severely.

“Royal told the Baylor players, ‘Now go on and win the championship. We’ll take care of A&M,’” Teaff said.

Royal’s Texas team did indeed take care of A&M, handing them their second conference loss of the season. This put Baylor in the driver’s seat for the Southwest Conference Championship. They took advantage by defeating Texas Tech, SMU, and Rice to finish off the regular season. And with those victories, Baylor clinched the conference championship.

To the victor go the spoils. Teaff won AFCA National Coach of the Year. Luce and center Aubrey Schulz both made the All-American team. Six players made the All-Southwest Conference team. And most importantly, Baylor earned a berth to the Cotton Bowl against Penn State. Although they lost that game 42-20, the players still remember that game because of its atmosphere. Thompson, who caught two touchdowns in that game, said it would have been sweeter if they won. But “it was still a day not many people would forget.”

Teaff said when he was became Baylor’s head coach in 1972, there were no facilities at all, not even a weight room. “I came from Angelo State and our facilities were a hundred times better than Baylor’s.” Yet, Teaff made a bold claim to the entire freshman class in his first season as head coach. He told them that before they graduated, they would witness Baylor win a Southwest Conference Championship in football.

Teaff and the players still celebrate that championship. Just a few weeks ago, members of that team met up for a reunion in Waco. Teaff said that he and his wife hosted the families at his house. Then, he said, many of the families attended Baylor football’s annual spring scrimmage.

The 1974 season was Teaff’s third as head coach of the Baylor football team. This fall, during the 2019 season, Matt Rhule will be entering his third year as the head coach of the Baylor football team. The team followed up a 1-11 campaign during Rhule’s first season with 7-6 record and a victory in the Texas Bowl during his second season. Many Bears are hoping he can mirror Teaff’s third season and bring home a Big 12 conference championship.