By Ryan Sprayberry
Rice has played football since 1912, the first year the school held classes. Over those years the Owls have seen plenty of ups and downs. In those 100-plus years, Rice has posted upsets over Texas and other SWC foes, as well as, big bowl wins against Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina. Even with all those wins, perhaps the biggest game and biggest upset in Texas college football history would be the 1957 Rice-Texas A&M game.
In 1957, Texas A&M was led by legendary head coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant. The team was filled with exceptional players and the group was headlined by future Heisman winner, John David Crow. From the beginning of the 1956 season to the match versus Rice, Texas A&M was an astounding 17-0-1. Over that same period Rice was a mere 8-9.
Not surprisingly, with the Aggies working on a second straight undefeated season, they were ranked as the number one team in the country. Fortunately, the Rice Owls were led by a great coach in his own right, Jess Neely, and their own star player, quarterback King Hill.
With an Aggie national championship in sight, “the little school on South Main” was overwhelmed with members of Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets and other A&M fans. A crowd of at least 72,000 was on hand to create a raucous environment on the warm, windy day.
The Owl offense was led by dynamic quarterbacks King Hill and Frank Ryan, both of whom would go on to lengthy NFL careers. This was especially important, as free substation was not allowed in 1957, so teams depended on a platoon system. In the case of Rice, Hill would start a quarter, the Owls would then use their platoon substitution midway through the period and Ryan would finish the quarter off.
Midway through the first, Ryan entered to give Hill a rest. Ryan was on a hot streak and led the Owls to the one-yard line. Hill reentered the game to start the second quarter and punched the ball in for a touchdown on a quarterback keeper. Hill then kicked the extra point and Rice was up on the number one team in the nation, 7-0.
Expectedly, A&M fought back. The Aggies went on to score in the third, but missed the extra point and remained down, 7-6 (Texas A&M was kicking into a 28 mile per hour wind).
The teams battled back-and-forth, until midway through the fourth quarter when some last minute drama began to unfold. Faced with a fourth-and-one at the Texas A&M 30, Coach Neely ignored the Rice fans cheering for the team to go for it. Instead, Neely had Hill punt to a chorus of Rice boos. Hill executed the kick perfectly, pinning TAMU at their own one-yard line. The stage was set. A&M would have to drive 99 yards to save their perfect season and their hopes for a national title.
While Texas A&M’s Crow had been contained for most of the day, Bryant and the Aggie offense would lean on him here. Their faith paid off. The very first play, Crow broke through the line and scampered for 18 yards. If not for a one-on-one tackle in the Rice secondary, Crow would have easily scored and written another chapter into his legend.
The Aggies continued to churn out yardage. The stadium grew to a deafening volume. Even as Texas A&M claimed a majority of the backers, Rice had a solid group of supporters as well. As time wound down, fans from both sides grew frenzied.
With one minute to go, A&M was on the verge of field goal range. On the Owls’ 23-yard line, the decision to attempt a field goal or go for it arose. At the time, field goal posts were considerably narrower and by no means was a field goal a certainty from that distance. Coach Bryant opted to go for it with his passing quarterback, Jim Wright.
On the pass attempt, Rice’s all-SWC guard and co-captain Matt Gorges burst through the A&M line and threw Wright to the ground. A&M turned the ball over on downs and Rice took over. The Owls easily ran out the clock and claimed victory, 7-6.
A few days later, Bryant was interviewed for TV and summed his feelings up briefly, “Well, I may be smiling on the outside, but I guarantee you I’m bleeding on the inside.”
Hill, to celebrate his great game, returned to the locker room, cleaned and dressed. Scarcely an hour later, Hill returned to the football field to lead cheers as the Owl freshman team played.
Neely proudly said of his star player, “There’s not a better college football player in America than that boy right there. I don’t care who it is. He does everything, and does everything well.”
Rice’s upset also allowed the Owls to win the SWC outright and play Navy in the Cotton Bowl. The Wednesday before the Rice game, Bryant announced his intentions to leave A&M to return to Alabama. The Aggies glorious season came completely unraveled and after losing to Rice, TAMU lost to Texas in their following game, 7-9, before dropping their bowl game against Tennessee, 0-3.
In 2012, Rice wore throwback uniforms to celebrate the 1957 team’s incredible accomplishment. You can view one of these throwbacks, as well as, other objects from Rice’s history and the 1958 Cotton Bowl here at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. We hope you’ll visit us to learn more about this portion of Texas sports history and many, many others!
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director of Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame