The mood of the capacity crowd at the Cotton Bowl on December 3, 1949 was gloomy. Top ranked, undefeated Notre Dame had come to town. What chance did SMU have against the mighty Irish. Doak Walker was not going to be able to play. Thus, there annihilation was almost assured for the Mustangs. Coach Frank Leahy’s Fighting Irish had not been beaten in four years, and this year they were led by Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart. However, by the end of the day, Kyle Rote had made this game one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
When the team doctors benched Walker for his final game as a Mustang, sportswriters made SMU 28-point underdogs. However, SMU was by no means empty handed. They still had Kyle Rote. He went up to Coach Matty Bell “Don’t worry coach. We won’t let you down!” Bell was retiring as coach after the game, so the mood was sad. But Rote lightened things up. He shook Bell’s hand, only he had hidden a gag buzzer in his palm. The practical joke livened up the Mustangs’ spirits, leaving them smiling as they headed on to the field.
For the first nine minutes of the game, the short-handed Mustangs held the national champions scoreless. The Irish finally broke through when quarterback Bob Williams found a receiver sneak behind the Mustang secondary for a long touchdown pass. Shortly before halftime, Williams had a pass deflected and end up in Ernie Zaleksi’s arms for a touchdown. However, the extra point was no good and the Mustangs found themselves trailing 13-0 at the half.
As the second half got underway, SMU found that they could move the ball on the Irish. Rote put the offense on their back and moved the Mustangs 44 yards to the Notre Dame 3. Rote finished the drive by powering over the Notre Dame defensive line and into the end zone. Bill Sullivan added the extra point and the Mustangs were back in the game, 13-7.
Unfortunately, the Irish stopped the Mustangs on their next drive as Rote was intercepted by Jim Mutscheller at the SMU 22-yard line. Williams and Hart moved the Irish quickly to another score, stretching the lead back to 13 points heading into the fourth quarter. The capacity crowd of 75,457 did not know that in the final fifteen minutes they were about to see the gutsiest performance by a football player in the history of the game.
Rusty Russell, Jr. entered the game at quarterback allowing Rote to move to halfback. The Irish geared up to stop Rote at all costs. The Mustangs used this to their advantage. Russell handed to Rote just as Notre Dame expected. However, as the Irish defenders closed on Rote, he flipped the ball to Johnny Champion at the SMU 34, Champion carried the ball all the way to the Notre Dame one. Rote scored on the very next play. SMU was back breathing down Notre Dame’s neck.
The Mustangs forced the Irish to punt on their next set of downs. Billy Richards returned the ball back to the Notre Dame 14. It only took Rote two plays to find the end zone for the third time. The extra point was blocked, and SMU was tied with the best team in the nation.
Desperate to change the flow of the game, Leahy moved Hart from end to fullback, riding the 260-pounder 57 yards for the go ahead score. Bill Barrett scored from six yards away to give Notre Dame a 27-20 lead. The Mustangs, however, put up one last charge. With only seconds remaining, Rote had a fourth down play deep in Notre Dame territory. Unfortunately, an Irish defender was able to make a great play to prevent Champion from catching Rote’s desperation pass in the end zone. Notre Dame had escaped, 27-20.
In defeat, the Mustangs had impressed an entire nation. A nine-minute newsreel titled Football’s Mighty Mustangs was shown in movie theatres across the country in 1950. Matty Bell noted, “It was the greatest effort I ever had a bunch of boys give.” Kyle Rote had given the performance of a lifetime. He rushed for 115 yards, completed 10 of 24 passes for 146 yards, punted for a 48-yard average, and scored three touchdowns. Texas sportswriters voted his performance that day as the best by a Texas athlete in the first half of the twentieth century. It truly was one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.