Approaching his 78th birthday, Fred Akers spends much of his time watching cattle and horses on his ranch near Austin.
But during fall afternoons, Akers often stops by University of Texas football practices to see Charlie Strong’s teams go through drills.
Akers feels a bond with Strong since they’ve both been head football coaches for the Longhorns and hail from small Arkansas towns. Akers is a native of Blytheville while Strong is from Batesville.
“Who would have thought that two coaches for the University of Texas would have come from there?” Akers said. “I like Coach Strong. I think he’s got a heart for football and he will get the attention of people here before long. He’ll do well for the university.”
Akers will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 2, more than 25 years after he coached his last college game for Purdue in 1990.
But the era he’s most known for was when he was the head coach at Texas from 1977-86. Akers compiled an 86-31-2 record for the Longhorns in those 10 seasons and came close to winning national championships in 1977 and 1983.
“I had known Coach Akers since he was an assistant at Texas and had high respect for him,” former Baylor coach Grant Teaff said. “When he got the (head) job at Texas, I thought he’d do an excellent job. He had a deep love for Texas and that carries through to people you’re recruiting. His teams were always very physical, aggressive and played hard football. They always played with integrity.”
Akers can empathize with Strong because they both followed Longhorn coaching legends. Strong replaced Mack Brown who led Texas for 16 years and won the 2005 national championship. Akers replaced an even more revered figure in Longhorn lore when he stepped in for Darrell Royal who led Texas to three national championships in his 20 seasons.
After serving as an assistant under Royal from 1966-74, Akers took the head-coaching job at Wyoming for two years before coming back to Austin as head coach heading into the 1977 season.
The pressure was enormous. But with Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell leading the way, the Longhorns roared through the regular season with an 11-0 record.
“I don’t want to say Earl Campbell was the greatest player ever, but he was to us I tell you,” Akers said. “There were some good guys, don’t get me wrong. But if you compare them to Earl, no one else came close. He might make a mistake, but he would look beautiful making a mistake.”
Akers had seen Campbell run for Texas as a freshman in 1974 when he rushed for 928 yards. But Campbell was coming off an injury plagued junior year in 1976 when the Longhorns finished just 5-5-1.
After Royal ran the wishbone offense for nearly a decade, Akers switched to the I formation. He wanted Campbell to be the centerpiece of the offense, but asked him to drop his weight from 245 to 227 to handle the work load.
“He was a no-nonsense guy who was all about football and doing it right,” Campbell said. “He knew what he wanted from the start on the day he took over. He took me to the top of Memorial Stadium and said, ‘You see that field? You’re going to have to carry the ball 25 or 30 times because we’re going to the I, and you can’t be 245 pounds.”
Campbell made Akers’ weight goal and ran roughshod over defenders all season as he racked up 1,744 yards rushing. It was the most in Southwest Conference history until Texas Tech’s Byron Morris rushed for 1,752 yards in 1993.
The Longhorns won the SWC title and were ranked No. 1 in the country heading into the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame. But the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish hammered Texas, 38-10, to earn the final No. 1 ranking.
“I wish we would have won the thing,” Campbell said. “That’s the only thing we didn’t achieve my senior year. We had everything except a national championship. Coach Akers was a great coach and a great leader.”
Though the Longhorns continued to compete for SWC titles the next five seasons, they didn’t win another until 1983, when they again went 11-0 during the regular season.
Led by All-America linebacker Jeff Leiding and safety Jerry Gray, that Texas team featured one of the best defenses in the country as they allowed just 114 points all season.
“We had a great defense,” Akers said. “A lot of people just couldn’t believe how good our defense was. I’m not trying to brag, but that was an outstanding football team.”
But once again the Longhorns were denied a national championship when they dropped a 10-9 decision to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl.
A muffed punt late in the game led to the decisive Bulldogs touchdown.
Since Miami upset No. 1 Nebraska, Texas would have been in line for the national title with a win over the Bulldogs.
“We had mistakes that really hurt us in that game,” Akers said. “Our opponent had mistakes, too, but just not in the same area of the field.”
Three years later, Akers was fired following a 5-6 season. Though Akers finished with a .731 winning percentage and two SWC titles, a national title would elude the Longhorns until Brown’s 2005 team broke through.
It was quite a rise to fame for a guy who grew up in tough circumstances in a small Arkansas town near the Mississippi Delta. As the father of nine children, money wasn’t plentiful in O.H. Akers’ household.
Fred remembers being enamored by football as a child in Blytheville.
“When I was 4, I remember my dad bringing home a football that looked like a pumpkin,” Akers said. “My older brother played for the Blytheville Chickasaws. I’d get out there and play with the older boys and it was fun.”
Akers became a star halfback and defensive back for Blytheville and earned a scholarship to the University of Arkansas.
“We had a lot of farm boys and we were tough,” Akers said. “We didn’t back off anybody. We’d go out and play bigger schools in Little Rock and El Dorado. Those guys were physical and loved to play football, but we gave them a fit.”
Akers made his name as a defensive back and kicker, lettering in 1958-59 for the Razorbacks. He knew he wanted to coach since he was in junior high and studied how Russell Mosley coached at Blytheville and Frank Broyles coached at Arkansas.
Akers went to South Texas to land his first head coaching job in Edinburg in 1963. Like his high school days in Blytheville, Akers wasn’t afraid to travel long distances to face tough competition during his two years as Edinburg’s head coach.
“We went to Norman, Okla., on a school bus,” Akers said. “We had 20 players and a huge group of fans. They beat us 21-20. It seemed like half of Norman’s program went to the the University of Oklahoma. But our guys were always ready to play bigger teams than us.”
After a year at Lubbock High School, Akers got his break into college coaching when Royal hired him on his staff in 1966. Akers said Texas defensive coach Mike Campbell helped him move up to the college ranks as a 28-year-old coach.
“Mike said he had spent months talking to a young guy coaching at Lubbock High School who really had some good ideas,” Akers said. “I always thought Darrell (Royal) was one of a handful of guys who would allow me to be an assistant coach. He was always laughing, and I’d laugh right with him.”
Akers was an offensive assistant for Texas’ 1969-70 national championship teams. Though the Longhorns signed tons of high school players before the era of restricted scholarships, Akers said it was still a fight to land the state’s top recruits.
“A lot of people thought the Texas coaches didn’t have to do anything but show up and they’ll come and play for us,” Akers said. “But that was nonsense. We had a fierce recruiting effort every year. It was fun to sort out the top players we could find.”
One of Texas’ young assistants during that era was Spike Dykes, who later went to become Texas Tech’s head coach. He recalls how focused and driven Akers was during his tenure as a Longhorns assistant.
“I was just sort of a flunky and he was offensive coordinator,” Dykes said. “He was a guy who was highly involved with what was going on. Fred worked hard and spent a lot of time with the quarterbacks. He had a good solid background as a high school coach and that was important to Coach Royal.”
Akers was finally inducted into the Texas Longhorns Hall of Honor last fall, and Earl Campbell believes the recognition was long overdue.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” Campbell said. “I’m not very proud that we waited that long.
“It should have been done 10 or 15 years ago. I know how much he loved it when we put him in the Longhorns Hall of Honor.”
A 2008 inductee in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, Dykes is happy to have Akers join the club.
“I think it’s great,” Dykes said. “You really learn to appreciate what some of these people have done. It’s a privilege to be there, no question about it. Fred was a good recruiter and a good football coach and certainly a guy with a wonderful record.”