In 1960, an undefeated (11-0) Syracuse football team throughly whipped Texas, 23-14, in the Cotton Bowl to win the 1959 college national championship. The Syracuse team featured at least one genuine star: eventual Heisman winner Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the trophy, who would score twice in the Cotton Bowl and was voted the game’s MVP. Both teams, it turns out, were as tough as any that have ever played for the national title. As LIFE magazine noted in its Jan. 11, 1060, issue, in an article titled “A Brawling Battle of the Hard-Noses”:
“If you’re not a hitter, you’re not a hard-nose,” said a Syracuse football player, “and if you’re not a hard-nose, you don’t play for Benny.”
Benny is Floyd B. Schwartzwalder, an ex-paratrooper who had developed Syracuse into the the best college team of 1959, maybe the best team in a decade. He coaches as though getting the team ready for a full-scale invasion — climbing 20-foot ropes and sprinting half-miles.
Last week after annihilating every team they met during the regular season, the hard-noses from Syracuse ran into some hard-noses from Texas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas — and some tough and bitter things began to happen. Each snap of the ball became a signal for a brawl. A near-free–for-all brought Benny out on the field to defend his men and avert an honest-to-goodness fight.
But LIFE also reported that “as the game moved back and forth on the field and the normal tensions of the players were increased by the body-crunching fury of the play, an ugly undercurrent of racial bitterness began to spread — with shocking results.”
“At first in the game, the Syracuse players outdid themselves in showing what good sports they were, helping blocked Texans off the ground and slapping their rumps for friendly good measure. But this was short-lived. “Texas was really dirty,” said one Syracuse player afterward. “We’ve never met a bunch like that before.”
What enraged them most was that much of Texas’ dirty play seemed to be directed toward Syracuse’s Negro players. Once when he was plowing through the line, said Negro fullback Art Baker, “one of them spit right in my face.”
John Brown, a Negro lineman, played nose to nose against 235-pound Texas tackle Larry Stephens. To goad him off balance, Brown claimed, Stephens kept calling him “a big black dirty nigger.” Finally, Brown warned him not to call him that again. When Stephens did, Brown swung.
Afterward Stephens apologized to Brown. But Brown had already forgiven him. “That Texas boy was just excited,” he said. “Let’s forget it.”
Much of this back-and-forth was dramatized in The Express, the largely fanciful 2008 film about Ernie Davis’ life. (Davis died of acute monocytic leukemia in 1963, at just 23 years old, before getting a chance to play in the NFL). Both Syracuse and Texas players have noted that quite a bit in the film was pure fiction, and many Texas players have stated in the years since that there was little racial animus on display during that long-ago Cotton Bowl.
A number of Syracuse players, meanwhile, respectfully disagree with their Longhorn counterparts’ version of the game — even as Brown himself long-argued that many of the racially charged scenarios depicted in The Express were embellished, or even wholly made up.