It was Sept. 16, 1989, a hot Texas night when Southern Methodist University discovered that, yes, there was life after the death penalty. To this day, they call what happened at Ownby Stadium, "The Miracle on Mockingbird."
For quarterback Matt DeGennaro and the rest of the UConn football team it was no miracle. Devastating, is the word he still uses.
"I don't know what to say," DeGennaro whispered moments after SMU had scored 17 unanswered points in the last five minutes and the winning touchdown with time expired to beat the Huskies, 31-30. "It just hurts too much."
Mockingbird Lane, and its extensions, West and East Mockingbird, run for miles north of downtown Dallas. It was there, 50 years ago next weekend, that the motorcade carrying John F. Kennedy began its route from Love Field and ended in a national tragedy. It is there that Gerald J. Ford Stadium stands on the site of Ownby. Gerald J. Ford, a billionaire banker who funded most of the construction, is not to be confused with former President Gerald R. Ford. Nor, of course, is the profound national heartache of 1963 to be confused in any way with the athletic disappointment of losing a football game in shocking fashion.
Still, for DeGennaro and a bunch of college boys "The Miracle On Mockingbird" remains a hurt they can feel 24 years later.
"It was one of the most disappointing losses I had in my entire life," DeGennaro said Thursday as his alma mater prepared its first return to SMU for an American Athletic Conference game, a conference nobody could have dreamed would exist in 1989. "Last play. No time on the clock. [Mike] Romo scrambled around, tossed the ball backward over his head. Touchdown. That's all I can remember. I can't remember any other plays."
Given the long, storied history of SMU football, Doak Walker, Don Meredith, Raymond Berry, Eric Dickerson, and given the brief history of I-A UConn football, it might seem absurd to the uninitiated that a I-AA UConn team could have been considered any kind of a favorite against a Southwest Conference opponent in 1989.
That's how far SMU had fallen into the depths of college football hell. The school was found to have committed massive NCAA violations, the worst a slush fund to pay players under the table over several years. SMU was hit with a "death penalty," to this day the harshest sanction ever imposed on a D-I program. The 1987 season was canceled. Deciding it could not field anything resembling a competitive team, SMU canceled the 1988 season, too.
When SMU returned in 1989, the Mustangs did it with 73 freshmen among their 89 players. They had 41 players on scholarship, 38 had never played major college football. Forrest Gregg, the great Green Bay Packer, was asked by acting president William Stalcup to bring the program back from the ashes. He agreed out of loyalty to his school.
"The Courant sent me down early to do a story on SMU coming back from the death penalty and I remember sitting in Forrest Gregg's office," said Mike Arace, now a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch. "It was the first long road trip of my career, first time in Dallas. But what I really remember is my running story. I must have filed 60 inches. I had written all this stuff about UConn taking a big lead, but SMU kept coming back and back and back. It was unbelievable. I remember almost nothing about the game except for trying to survive deadline."
Arace wasn't the only one making his first long road trip. It not only was UConn's longest football road trip, it was the first time the Huskies had played west of the Mississippi. It was the Huskies' first night game. It also was 81 degrees at kickoff.
The Huskies had a 23-7 lead at halftime. DeGennaro, 25-for-37 and 339 yards, ran for one touchdown and threw another to Mike Nolan. That pass tied him with Ken Sweitzer atop the all-time UConn list with 37 touchdowns, and DeGennaro would go onto to throw 73 in his record-smashing career.
SMU scored on the first drive of the second half, but UConn appeared to have the game locked up, 30-14, when Kevin Wesley scored on a 9-yard run with 7:31 left. Some of the 20,544 SMU fans left Ownby, the site of SMU's second game since 1948. SMU had moved to the Cotton Bowl and later Texas Stadium for its home games. In the return to Ownby two weeks earlier, SMU had been clobbered 35-6 by Rice.
"We knew we needed to play absolutely our finest game to win," Gregg said in the aftermath of the game.
"We had the big lead, things were going great," DeGennaro said Thursday. "Then things just turned against us."
The comeback started with 5:05 left when Romo, no relation to Tony, finished off an 87-yard drive by finding Mitchell Glieber, son of former Cowboys announcer Frank Glieber, for a 43-yard touchdown pass. Romo then found Jason Wolf with a two-point conversion. The Mustangs recovered an ensuing onside kick and Lyndon Johnson told Terry Price of the Courant in 2002 that he still blamed himself for not recovering the ball.
``I learned you can go across the line and recover the ball,'' said Johnson, an outstanding lineman at UConn and a long-time assistant under Randy Edsall at UConn and Maryland. ``I thought it had to go 10 yards. That could have changed a lot of things for us."
Johnson's full name, coincidentally enough, given this Texas angle is Lyndon Fitzgerald Johnson. He was named after two presidents LBJ and JFK. A request Thursday to speak with Johnson was denied. Maryland, under HCRE, does not make assistant coaches available for phone interviews, not even to bear witness to "The Miracle on Mockingbird."
"We're all still kicking ourselves," DeGennaro said. "There's one play a lot of guys should have made — including me — that changes that game and that whole season."
A 43-yard field goal by Matt Lomenick made it 30-25 with 3:14 left. Fans began to flood back. The Mustangs defense, riled, stuffed UConn and got the ball back with 2:21 left. Romo would take SMU 55 yards in 13 plays. SMU converted on two fourth-down plays. With 11 seconds left, Romo completed a 16-yard pass to the UConn 4.