By Ryan Sprayberry
You probably don’t expect to hear much, if anything, about the University of Tulsa while going through the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Most of you – especially our younger guests – have probably never even heard of Jerry Rhome or Howard Twilley. These Texans two-stepped their way through the college football landscape, revolutionizing the game and passing their way into the record books.
“If you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad.”
Most of you have probably seen, read or even used this quote when discussing college football. On par with “Win one for the Gipper,” this might be one of the most overly used quotes in sports history. The origin of the quote is up for debate (although it either belongs to Darrell K. Royal or Woody Hayes), but what isn’t up for debate, is this was the prevailing sentiment in college football during the mid-20th century.
In 1964, that all changed. Led by the offensive genius of Coach Glenn Dobbs, Tulsa broke 20 NCAA records for total offense, passing, receiving and scoring. Dobbs two instruments of destruction were senior quarterback Jerry Rhome and junior split-end Howard Twilley.
After his coaching career was over, Dobbs reflected on the history of the passing game in college football, “They were very careful about it. Everybody waited until third and long to throw. That’s why nobody paid much attention to the pass, because even our mothers knew how to play defense against it on third and long. It just didn’t work very well.”
Dobbs implemented his sophisticated passing scheme and the Hurricanes proceeded to lead the nation in passing for five consecutive seasons from 1962-66. None of those seasons was nearly as impressive as 1964.
Jerry Rhome was born in Dallas and played for Sunset High School where his dad was the head coach. Rhome also excelled in basketball and baseball before receiving a scholarship offer to play for Southern Methodist University. Rhome accepted the offer and led the SWC in passing in 1961, but after SMU hired Hayden Fry (a run-oriented coach) in 1962, Rhome transferred to Tulsa after being sold on Dobbs’ pass offense.
Howard Twilley was even more unlikely to end up at Tulsa. In fact, it was highly unlikely Twilley ended up college football at all. Born in Houston, Twilley was a 141-pound junior playing guard for Galena Park High School. During a scrimmage against the varsity, all the ends went down with injury. When the coaches asked sometime to volunteer to play end, Twilley stepped up:
“I had never caught a pass in organized football in my life until that day. Anyway, I caught six or seven passes and scored a couple of touchdowns. The coaches moved me from guard to end. It completely changed my life.”
With such limited experience and exposure, Twilley received exactly two scholarship offers. One to the NAIA’s Tarleton State and the other to Tulsa. Twilley accepted the offer to Tulsa along with a bunch of other under-recruited players. Many of these players weren’t under-recruited because they were bad players, but because they were best suited for a passing offense – small, quick and agile, not the big-maulers of the common ground-and-pound offense.
Twilley and Rhome made their Hurricane debut in 1963 helping Tulsa defend their national passing title by averaging almost 245 yards per game. Compared to 1964, that was mere child’s play.
In 1964, Tulsa became the first school in NCAA history to average over 300 yards passing per game at 317.9. Rhome completed 224 passes for 2,870 yards and 32 touchdowns. He completed 68.7% of his passes and threw 198 consecutive passes without an interception. All of these were national records.
Twilley did his own part catching 95 passes for 1,178 yards shattering the previous record.
To put all of this in perspective, the average team in 1964 completed 8.5 passes per game for 110 yards – Tulsa tripled that on a weekly basis. In 1964, the average team passed on 29% of its play – Tulsa threw on 52% of their plays. In 1964, the average game featured 36 pass attempts – Tulsa averaged 37.7 pass attempts by themselves. In 1964, Tulsa led the nation with 384 points – no other school broke the 300 point barrier.
The attack led to incredible success. The game that really put Tulsa on the map was against a highly favored Oklahoma State squad. Rhome would complete 35 of 43 passes for 488 yards and four touchdowns. Twilley would chip in with 15 receptions for 217 yards and two scores. All together Tulsa ended up routing OSU 61-14.
It wasn’t the only major victory over that season. Tulsa beat Southern Illinois 63-7, Louisville 58-0 and North Texas State 47-0. The Hurricanes’ only losses came to Cincinnati (28-23) and Arkansas (31-22) who would finish the season 11-0, win the SWC title and a portion of the national title (Alabama received the AP national title, but lost to Texas in their bowl game – a team Arkansas beat in Austin earlier in the year).
Tulsa, at 8-2, received an at-large bid to the Bluebonnet Bowl were they defeated Ole Miss 14-7. Rhome was recognized for his great season, finishing second in Heisman voting by a mere 74 points – one of the closest final votes in Heisman Trophy history (Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte won). After graduating, Rhome went to play for the Dallas Cowboys from 1965-68 serving as the primary back up to “Dandy” Don Meredith. Rhome would play a total of seven years in the NFL.
Tulsa would improve upon many of their offensive marks in 1965, thanks primarily to the receiving capabilities of Twilley who broke his own record from the year before, catching 134 passes for 1,779 yards and 16 touchdowns – a yardage record that lasted until 1995 when it was broken by Nevada’s Alex Van Dyke. Twilley’s receptions and touchdown records were broken by Houston’s Emmanuel Hazard in 1989.
For his efforts in 1965, Twilley would finish second in Heisman voting himself behind USC halfback Mike Garrett. Twilley also entered the professional ranks playing for the Miami Dolphins (after being drafted 209th overall in the 14th round) from 1966-76. Twilley was the only original member of the 1966 Miami team to play for the Dolphins when they won Super Bowl VII in 1972.
Jerry Rhome joined the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998 and Howard Twilley was inducted in 1992. Not bad for a couple little guys from Texas. Although they might have been slight in stature (Rhome was 6’ 0”, 181-pounds and Tilley was 5’10”, 180 pounds) the marks these two Texans made on college football are unforgettable. The 1964 Tulsa season should be viewed as the college football renaissance, launching offensive system out of the dark ages and into modern times.
“If we’d broken records in the mid-‘70s or early ‘80s, it wouldn’t have been nearly as significant as doing it in 1964,” recalled Rhome. “And we didn’t just break them – we destroyed them. We jumped everything by huge margins. We did things nobody had come close to doing.”
“I knew we were doing something better than anybody else had done, or was doing, or would be doing for quite a long while,” Dobbs said. “But it was so normal to us that we didn’t understand why people thought it was unusual. We just knew it would win games for us better than any other method. We really didn’t think of it as that big a deal.”
All we can say today, is we’re awfully grateful for all of these men’s contributions to the game we love.
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director of Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame