Texas Football Rewind: Undefeated 1918 season in midst of Influenza

A rewind very far back into the history of the Texas football program to 1918, brings us to a time when influenza didn’t stop an undefeated Horns season.

There are some truly legendary seasons put together in the 118-year history of the Texas football program. Texas is one of the true blue bloods in college football, and their tradition of success dates back beyond a full century. One of their best seasons early in the program’s history came after the end of World War I and in the midst of the Influenza or “Spanish Flu”.

Maybe one of the most trying times in terms of outside influences in the history of the Texas Longhorns football program came in 1918. The effects of influenza and World War I eliminated most of the scheduled games for the 1918 college football season, but the Longhorns still got to play in nine games. That was certainly something to help distract from what the city of Austin was going through for that entire year.

An Austin-American Statesman piece from earlier this month detailed how the city of Austin shut down for around a full month when influenza stuck the world in 1918. The influenza killed around 200 Austinites, which is much more than were lost in the entire state of Texas from novel coronavirus as of March 24 (per Johns Hopkins global research).

The University of Texas-Austin itself was also shut down for around a month due to the influenza. This was obviously a stalwart to any usual operation within the city of Austin throughout the entirety of 1918. The influenza would also impact the entire United States for more than a decade after 1918.

The football team had to fill out their schedule with a few teams formed at military bases and academies. That was a commonality in 1918 since the influenza and World War I ravaged a number of college football rosters that year.

Texas only played against five actual colleges in the fall of 1918. They opened the season against the TCU Horned Frogs, but had to fill in their schedule after with other opponents like Penn Radio School and Camp Mabry.

The only game that the Longhorns would play away from home (home field at the time was Clark Field in Austin) came against the Rice Owls at Rice Field in Houston. Rice Field (now known as Holloway Field) is now used for Owls athletic teams like soccer and track and field.

The four Southwest Conference opponents that Texas would face in 1918 were the Oklahoma A&M Aggies (now Oklahoma State Cowboys), SMU Mustangs, Texas A&M Aggies, and Rice. TCU was independent at the time.

Texas beat each of their SWC opponents in 1918, including handing Texas A&M their only loss of the season. SMU and Oklahoma A&M had one of their two losses each way coming at the hands of the Longhorns too.

This was actually the year where the Lone Star Showdown became a traditional Thanksgiving rivalry. Texas took down Texas A&M by the final score of 7-0 in 1918. Most years back then saw Texas cap their season with the SWC rival Arkansas Razorbacks. But the influenza cancelled out the game that Texas and Arkansas were supposed to play in 1918.

However, shutting out opponents was a common feat for Texas in 1918. Texas A&M was one of six games where the Longhorns shut out their opposition that season. They only allowed 14 points total in those nine games. Oklahoma A&M, Penn Radio School, and Camp Mabry were the only teams to get on the board against that stifling Longhorns defense.

Texas also beat three of their four conference opponents by a double-digit margin.

Some of the usual conference foes that Texas played year in and year out weren’t on the schedule in 1918. Texas didn’t get to play the Oklahoma Sooners, Baylor Bears, and Arkansas in 1918. That is a shame because Oklahoma and Texas were the only two undefeated teams in the SWC in this season.

In 1918, Oklahoma only played in six games. But they were very impressive in the process, including an unbelievable 103-0 win over Arkansas in their season opener. They cleared through their 1918 slate undefeated, shutting out all but one of their opponents in the process.

According to Sports-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), Oklahoma finished up as the No. 4 ranked team in the country in 1918. The SRS would rank Texas No. 8. Tip Top 25 ranked out the best teams in the country in 1918, and placed Oklahoma at No. 13 and Texas at No. 11.

The 1918 National Champion goes down in history to both the Pitt Panthers and Michigan Wolverines. That’s at least what the NCAA history books read. Although, Michigan does rank higher in the SRS than Pitt does.

Nonetheless, who knows what would’ve happened in 1918 if head coach William Juneau and the Longhorns were able to play a full season. The 1918 season would be Juneau’s best during his three year coaching career with the Longhorns. He finished up the 1919 season with a record of 6-3 (4-2 SWC), good for fourth place in the conference standings. The 1918 season was the only SWC crown he would win while coaching up Texas.

This would be the second undefeated season for the Longhorns in their program history. The next wouldn’t come too far in the future, with Texas finishing up the 1920 season with a record of 9-0 (5-0 SWC) and with another conference title under their belts.

This story should offer a bit of hope and positivity for any Texas football, or college football, fans around the country. There is a domestic challenge the country is facing right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but influenza was a very difficult time that the United States got through.

And for more information on COVID-19, you can visit the CDC’s website.