Early Longhorns off to their best start in football in 45 years
Remember 1976? It was only 45 years ago.
The United States was celebrating its 200th birthday or bicentennial. The highest-grossing movie was the original “Rocky.” The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl X, with Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach as the starting quarterbacks.
Gasoline was 59 cents a gallon. Men wore polyester leisure suits. Women lined up at the hair salon for a Farrah Fawcett-Majors feather cut.
1976 also was the last time the Early Longhorns started 5-0 in football. Until now. This year’s Longhorns are 5-0 and have a bye this week before opening district. To put in perspective how long it has been since Early was 5-0, consider that 40-year-old Longhorns head coach Daniel Price wasn’t born until 1980.
“To be part of a history-making season is a very good feeling,” Price said this week. “Forty-five years, that’s a whole lot of life. When we beat Comanche (58-14 on Sept. 10), people started asking when the last time we were 3-0. Then it was 4-0 and 5-0. To be honest, I didn’t know until somebody told me last week.”
Many just assumed Early started 5-0 at least once during a nice run from 2005-2007. In 2007, Early advanced to the state semifinals, but started 0-3. In 2006, the Longhorns went to the state quarterfinals, but started 1-1 after a loss to Crawford. In 2005, the Longhorns advanced to the state semifinals, but lost their opener to Cisco.
Other than those three years, you’d have to go back to 1958 to find a deep playoff run for the Longhorns. They went 46 years without making the postseason between 1958 and 2005.
It often gets overlooked, but in 1976, Early started 7-0 with nondistrict wins over Rising Star, Jim Ned, Eden and Millsap; and district wins over Goldthwaite, Bangs and Ranger.
But then the 1976 Longhorns ran into De Leon, the reigning Class 1A state champion. The Bearcats, who eventually finished as the state runner-up in 1976, beat the Longhorns 28-0.
Early rebounded from the De Leon loss with dominating wins over Dublin and Cross Plains and finished 9-1. It was a great season, but it ended there. In 1976, only the district champion qualified for the playoffs. The Early coaches, players and fans had to be satisfied with 9-1 and moved on to basketball season.
“That would be tough to only lose one game and be out of the playoffs,” said Price, a Sweetwater native who was born two years before Texas high school playoff expansion began in 1982.
In addition to the undefeated starts, there’s another coincidence between Early’s 1976 and 2021 seasons. The 1976 season-opening seven-game win streak was snapped by the reigning state champs from De Leon. The current Longhorns will put their season-opening five-game win streak on the line Oct. 8 against the reigning state champs from Jim Ned.
“Opening with the state champions is a good opportunity for us to see where we stand,” Price said. “It’s a chance to see the bigger picture of the entire state. But to be honest with you, it’ll be what happens after Jim Ned that will be the telltale sign about our program.”
Interesting point. If Early upsets No. 1-ranked Jim Ned, how will the Longhorns handle success with four District 3-3A Division I games to play? If Jim Ned bursts Early’s undefeated bubble, how do the Longhorns deal with that adversity with Breckenridge, Clyde, San Angelo TLCA and Wall left to play and a playoff berth on the line?
“The best part is that, regardless of what happens against Jim Ned, it’s not the end of our season like it was for the 1976 team,” Price said. “If the 1976 team could have gone on to the playoffs, they might have gotten another shot at De Leon. If we lose to Jim Ned, but go on and have success, we could get another shot at them.
“When you get in the playoffs, you never know what will happen.”
This year’s Longhorns outscored five nondistrict opponents by an average of 47-11. The offense, averaging 413 yards per game, is led by quarterback Jaxyn Price, who’s completing 62 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and just one interception. Receivers Jeremy Brown and John-Stewart Gordon have combined for 43 catches and six TDs. Running back Tre Beam has rushed for nine scores.
“Last year we were under center in the I-formation most of the time,” Coach Price said. “We had to rush for 200 yards a game to be successful, and when district teams like Jim Ned, Wall and Clyde stopped the run, we didn’t have the passing game to play with them.
“This year we’re in a spread set, and the quarterback is getting the ball out of his hands quickly to our playmakers. That’s made a big difference.”
Defensively, the Longhorns have allowed no opponent more than 16 points so far. Caleb McCullough, with 55 tackles, and Kaleb Ozuna solidified the front, while safety Tucker Hale with 49 tackles and Gordon with five interceptions have led the back end of the defense.
Whether or not the historic start continues, the Longhorns’ goal has been clear since last year when they ended an 11-year playoff drought but, as a No 4 playoff seed, lost to state-ranked Brock in bidistrict.
“We want to get back to that bidistrict game, but this time, we want to win it,” Price said. “We want to win a gold football and put a banner up. To do that, we need to finish higher in our district and have a more favorable bidistrict matchup.”
But even if the Longhorns lose a district game, it won’t end their season like it did for the tough-luck 1976 team.
Mike Lee writes a weekly high school football column for the USA Today Network's Texas newspapers. Contact him at email@example.com.