When The Circus Came To Town
Hixson Let It All Air Out For SMU In ‘68
DALLAS – SMU’s Chuck Hixson led the nation in passing forty years ago this fall, a feat no other Mustang quarterback had or has since accomplished. Hixson scorched the airways in 1968 for 265 completions and 3,103 yards – both Southwest Conference records at the time.
And, no, it didn’t come against a slate of barber colleges.
The gaudy numbers came against the likes of No. 1 Ohio State, No. 3 Texas, No. 6 Arkansas and a good Auburn team. Hixson and the Mustangs topped it off with a win over Big 8 co-champ Oklahoma in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl to finish 8-3, No. 14 in the country.
A sophomore, Hixson accounted for 27 of SMU’s 32 touchdowns that year - 21 by air - and he went on to set career school records that stand today: 7,179 passing yards, 642 completions, 1,115 attempts and eight 300-yard games.
Hixson led the SWC in passing and total yards three straight years and was ranked second and fourth nationally his final two seasons, respectively, though missing two games as a senior due to injury.
“Looking back, I wish I could have played more,” Hixson said last week. “I ended up playing only 29 games, because our schedules were shorter in those days.”
Hixson credits his success to “a great supporting cast, not only of players, but coaches.”
As ringmaster of head coach Hayden Fry’s aerial circus, Hixson averaged 24 completions per game over his career. In ’68, he and senior All-American Jerry LeVias teamed up 80 times for 1,131 yards. All-SWC tailback Mike Richardson and tight end Ken Fleming were also favorite targets.
Amazingly, Hixson was not voted All-American in ’68. That went to Notre Dame senior Terry Hanratty, whose yards and completions were half of Hixson’s totals.
“I’d like to ask the question,” Hixson chuckled, “‘How in the heck did I not get voted at least All-SWC?”
Another senior, Edd Hargett of Texas A&M, won that. Hargett finished nearly 800 yards back of Hixson but was coming off a SWC championship and Cotton Bowl win over Alabama. (For what it’s worth, Hixson and the Mustangs dumped the Aggies, 36-23, in ’68.)
Hixson made first-team All-SWC the following year.
Hixson was recruited out of Class 5A San Antonio Highlands in ’66.
“We threw the ball more than a number of high school teams back then,” he said, “although I only played one year because we had a really good program.”
That single season was enough. Hixson was recruited by seventeen schools before narrowing the list to Arkansas and SMU. Dallas and Coach Fry, he said, were the difference. “[Fry] was a very innovative, forward-thinking coach. And his staff was for the most part young and very capable.”
Jerry Moore, now head coach of FCS national champion Appalachian State, was receivers coach. Ray Utley coached quarterbacks.
“[Hixson] could put the ball on a line on an 18-yard out as well as anyone at that time,” Utley said, by phone. “And we were one of the early people to throw ‘hot routes.’ Chuck was one of the best at reading a ‘hot route.’”
Another key, said Utley, was the experience of senior tailbacks Richardson and Pinky Clements. They were allowed to vary their pre-snap positions depending on angles needed for blitz protection.
“We left a lot of it to the discretion of the backs,” Utley said. “Everyone thought we ran millions of offensive sets but a lot of it was just the backs moving in different areas.”
“We had a lot of good games that year,” said Richardson, also by phone. “I think we had a good balance.” While Hixson aired it out, Richardson bulldozed for over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in school history. (He also nabbed 49 passes.)
In Hixson’s first start the Mustangs upset Auburn on the road, 32-28. Hixson threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns. The tone was set.
Next came top-ranked Ohio State at Columbus.
The famous horseshoe stadium was packed and the weather was perfect, Hixson recalled. Strolling the OSU sideline were head coach Woody Hayes and a staff that included Lou Holtz and Bo Schembechler. “I mean, it was just top-notch college football,” Hixson said, adding the Mustangs weren’t intimidated.
“We approached it with a gleam in our eye.”
The Buckeyes’ lineup boasted All-Americans Jim Stillwagon at nose tackle and Jack Tatum at safety. Future NFL No. 1 draft picks Dave Foley and Rufus Mays anchored the offensive line. Running back John Brockington hadn’t yet cracked the starting lineup.
“That gives you some indication of how loaded they were,” Hixson said.
SMU lost, 35-14, but “Hixson-to-LeVias” turned plenty of heads. Hixson blew up for 417 yards passing, his eventual career-high, and LeVias’ 15 catches remains a school record today.
“We were ready to play and we thought we could play with them,” Hixson said. “And we did for the most part.”
At Home In The ‘Dome
The Dallas Morning News’ account called it “one of the greatest post-season games in history.” SMU and OU combined for 823 yards of total offense and 45 first downs in the ‘68 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.
“I’ve heard more comments about that game, just the excitement of it,” Richardson said. “We weren’t given much of a chance.”
The two-touchdown favorite Sooners controlled things early, scoring on their first possession - a short run by quarterback Bob Warmack. As Hixson and the offense struggled, SMU’s defense kept it close, producing a hard-hitting stand-off.
Warmack and defensive end Steve Zabel left the game with injuries before halftime. SMU lost linebacker Joe Stutts in the first quarter.
At the break, the Mustangs trailed just 7-0. “Personally, I was surprised, yes,” Hixson laughed, “because I remember taking some serious shots in the first quarter. Our guys were doing well defensively, but their defense was overwhelming at times.”
“They were putting on just a tremendous rush,” Hixson said. “Bill Jackson, our great offensive tackle, and Terry May, our other great offensive tackle, they had their hands full, needless to say. And they were fighting them nose-to-nose the whole way.”
With OU leading, 14-6, in the fourth quarter SMU erupted for 22 points.
Hixson found LeVias for an 11-yard touchdown and Clements caught the two-point conversion pass to tie. “Pinky Clements made a great catch,” Hixson said, “and then did a great job to hold onto to the ball because he got blasted as soon as he caught it.”
On SMU’s next possession, Richardson galloped 18 yards to put the Mustangs up for the first time, 21-14, before OU tied it again on a fourth-and-ten touchdown pass by Mickey Ripley.
Linebacker Bruce Portillo’s interception set up SMU’s game-winner: Hixson to Fleming for 19 yards with Bicky Lesser’s PAT.
Ripley then found Texan Johnny Barr for a late 30-yard touchdown, but the two-point run attempt by Ripley was snuffed by defensive end Mike Mitchell. A Sooner last-gasp field goal try missed and SMU had its first bowl win since ’49.
Hixson said SMU’s defense came up big the whole game, noting MVP nose guard Rufus Cormier, Portillo, Mitchell and others.
Hixson was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in ’71 and retired from football two years later. He’s been in real estate ever since and is now a vice president with Westdale Asset Management of Dallas.
Hixson and his wife of 41 years, Roxanne, have three grown daughters.
Today, SMU’s two-year starter, Justin Willis, has a shot at Hixson’s records, though Willis could potentially play 20 more games than Hixson. (Willis has already surpassed Hixson in career and season touchdown passes.)
Hixson’s take on Willis’ game?
“I think he’s an athlete,” Hixson said. “I don’t necessarily know if he’s going to be a [coach] June Jones quarterback.”
Willis versus incoming talent?
“Accuracy is a big thing for Coach Jones and I think if Justin Willis steps up his game and plays within himself, and certainly plays within the confines of the offense, then he’ll have a chance.”
“The program’s in great hands with [AD] Steve Orsini - and hopefully we can keep Steve Orsini,” Hixson said, referring to Orsini’s possible hire by Notre Dame. “June Jones is going to be great. There’s no question.”
“We’ll win seven games this season.”
Was there a greatest moment or game for Hixson at SMU?
“No,” he said, after a pause. “Just because the three years were so good.”
“I just remember … it was such an opportunity and just so overwhelming to be in that whole environment.”
SMU’s ’68 football marketing campaign, Excitement ’68, caught some folks off-guard - including Hixson. He remembers returning to Dallas for August two-a-days and seeing a huge billboard touting the Mustangs’ upcoming season.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen SMU football advertised on billboards,” Hixson said.
“Whoa,” he remembers thinking. “We’re big-time, I guess.”
“At least we thought we were going to be big-time,” he said. “That was the plan, huh?”
Mission accomplished, Chuck.