Denny Duron: The heart of LA Tech’s two-time champs
RUSTON – Slot Left, P 26 Belly, X Corner.
It looks silly, just sitting there. “Slot Left, P 26 Belly, X Corner.” But this pass play, installed halfway through Louisiana Tech’s 1973 football season and called with the Bulldogs trailing by three points with time running out in the Division II Semifinals, was money in the bank down the stretch, the winning play in a 38-34 victory over Boise State and what quarterback Denny Duron calls “one of the most important plays of that national championship season.”
“And the most memorable play of my football career,” said Duron. That’s saying something since his career is packed with memorable plays, games, teams, and mostly memorable teammates on his way to the Tech Athletics Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2017.
And what a bunch of teams and teammates they were. Duron was a freshman on a Tech team that finished 2-8 in 1970, hardly foreshadowing what would become the best decade in Tech football history. The next four years, the Bulldogs went 44-4 with a mix of all-star talent, unity, coaching brilliance, maybe even a little something extra.
“As a team, we felt like we had divine intervention,” said Gerald Eddings, starting guard for the national champs. “We had four ministers on the team; for any team, that’s unusual. Then some became ministers after college.”
“I don’t think there could ever have been better recruiting classes than in 1970 and ’71,” Duron said. “Some of it was just luck of the draw; I would call it God’s providence.”
Whether or not those Bulldogs were granted heavenly favor in terms of final scores is a theological question. But any fan who witnessed them play will tell you they were a blessing to watch.
In 1971, the Bulldogs went 9-2, beat Eastern Michigan in the Pioneer Bowl in Wichita Falls, Texas, and were named NCAA College Division Midwest Region Champions. The next two years, with Duron at quarterback, Tech went 12-0 and 12-1 to become back-to-back NCAA College Division National Champions. The 1974 team – Duron had graduated and was then in his first of two season with Birmingham of the World Football League before going into ministry full time — went 12-1, its only loss coming in the national championship semifinals.
That’s 44-4 in four years. The Golden Era. Duron, the Offensive Pla
yer of the Year in the Southland Conference as a senior in ’73, was at its heart.
“We all know that my being inducted into our Hall of Fame is really about me being one of the team captains,” Duron said. “This is really about those two teams, those two incredible football teams. The proudest part of this for me is that I’m going to have a few minutes to talk about them and represent them that night at the induction.
“We’re still a family,” Duron said. “We’re still a team. We didn’t stop being a team when we stopped having games.”
When they did have games, “we just found a way,” Duron said. “Like when we were playing Boise and we had that touchdown pass with 12 seconds left to win…”
The Bulldogs would whitewash Western Kentucky, 34-0, to win the title the next weekend in Sacramento, Calif. But first, trailing 34-31 in the semifinals, they had to beat Boise State.
December 8, 1973. Memorial Stadium, Wichita Falls. Boise State had taken the lead on a touchdown with 3:42 left in the game. But now the Bulldogs were 21 yards from the goal line, right hash, and had just quarterbacked-sneaked their way to a first down. Less than 30 seconds…
Duron trotted to the near sideline to get the play called down from offensive coordinator Mickey Slaughter. “Slot Left, P 26 Belly, X Corner.” Duron jogged back to the huddle.
“We break and they’re going crazy on the sideline, pointing at the clock,”
Duron said, who thought the clock had stopped on the first down play. It hadn’t.
“I called the play quickly and we hurried to the line and I looked at the clock and thought I was going to have a heart attack,” Duron said.
Slaughter was looking for a Boise blitz, so the play call was for maximum protection. Future All-Pro fullback Roland Harper picked up a linebacker two yards into the backfield, and Charles “Quick 6” McDaniel got the defensive end.
“Our offensive line has played four tough quarters, the game is on the line, and the best football team we’d ever played rushes seven, and they pick those guys up,” Duron said. “I thought the left end was gonna hit me before I got the ball off, but Quick 6 darts across and cuts the guy off and the rest is history.”
And “good” history, because future All-Pro Roger Carr and all that speed was wide on the left side; his route was an 18-yard post, then cut back to the corner. In the slot was another future All-Pro receiver in Pat Tilley, who would run a short out route to occupy the cornerback and be an option. But when Duron saw the blitz as he quickly dropped back and read that the safety was man-to-man with Carr, “it was Roger all the way,” Duron said.
“Coach Slaughter put that play in about halfway through the year,” said Carr, pastor for the past seven years at Chapel By The Sea in Cherry Grove, S.C. “I remember several times we scored on that play. In pro ball it was a great route for me and Bert (Jones, with the Baltimore Colts).”
The whole thing took three seconds, maybe a bit more. Carr made the catch four yards past the trailing safety, who was turned around after Carr cut outside. “I don’t even remember seeing him,” Carr said.
“You’re going to try and cover Roger with one guy?” said Huey Kirby, Tech’s tight end and Duron’s college roommate. “Forget that.”
“Funny how open he was,” Duron said. “I thought I’d overthrown him. He just turned on the jets and it hit him right in the chest.”
“When you get two folks like that, Roger and Denny, that sort of All-America status, guys who are able to read each other and ‘know,’ you understand why a play like that happened,” said Kirby, for the past 34 years a pastor on the staff at New Hope Baptist in Fayetteville, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta; he ran a deep slant to draw a safety and linebacker on the Duron-to-Carr game winner.
“Not surprising,” Kirby said, “that those two hooked up on the most pivotal play of the game.”
“You would ask about that play,” Eddings said. “I didn’t get my best block. I remember afterward I said to Russell (Bates, Tech’s center), ‘I missed my block,’ and Russell just smiled and put his hand on my shoulder pad and said, ‘Yeah, but I got him.’ And that’s the kind of team we had, right there. We played for each other. We were one.”
“Those teams had fabulous players and coaches,” Duron said. “But that play says as much as anything about those teams: just everybody doing what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it, and with all their heart. I can’t say enough about those guys.”
His teammates can’t say enough about him.
“Denny is a true born leader,” Eddings said. “He’s not one of those guys who has to talk about things, because everything he did was in his actions. He never had to raise his voice. He worked so hard and was always such a good person, he made everyone around him want to work harder and be better. We worked together as a team to a large extent because he was the one who just kept everyone together.”
“When he takes charge and says ‘Get ‘er done,’ he gets it done,” Kirby said. “He exemplifies meekness. Power under control…He taught meekness without teaching it because he was just living it out.”
“Denny’s got this disease called character,” said Mike Barber, a second-round pick in the 1976 NFL draft and a pro tight end for 10 seasons. “Talent’s great, but you win with character. Denny was the best.”
“Everybody respected Denny,” said Terry Slack, a redshirt freshman in ’73, the state director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes today. “Often after practice the coaches would leave and the team would take a knee around Denny and he’d share a few words. Nothing long. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how I felt. And that no one said a word. All those guys, young and loud, tired at the end of practice, and we were all quiet when Denny spoke.”
“I remember those moments,” Duron said. “They weren’t planned; I just spoke out of my heart. Those are my brothers. I’d share a devotional thought, very short, and pray for them, pray for all of us. On that team, the freshmen were treated just like the upperclassmen. There were no favorites. It was a very rare season of life to see that kind of love that was shared between a group of young men and their coaches.”
John Causey was a walk-on in 1969 but an all-conference defensive back as a junior and senior on the two title teams.
“I got there and was scared to death,” he said. “We were around some tough guys. I was lost. Then here come two ordained ministers and in the next couple of years, the whole feeling changed. We’d had good guys and good teams, but this was a whole different feeling.”
“Our motto was ‘Unity is our strength.’ Really, it was,” said Carr. “Guys from all walks of life thrown in there together. When I was a freshman and we were 2-8, we weren’t very good and we didn’t act very good. If there was unity, I didn’t feel it. I wanted out of that dorm.
“But here came Huey and (halfback Glen) Berteau and Denny, and all those guys started to come together,” Carr said. “I can’t tell you exactly how it happens, but I know it when it works. And I’ll tell you, that’s not a normal thing.”
The last piece of the puzzle was moving Duron from receiver to quarterback the spring before his junior season. “I got it by forfeit, you know,” he said. “I started out fourth string.”
The first-stringer left in the middle of a practice. “Third-string then,” Duron said.
The new first-stringer left in the middle of the night “to be a bartender in Austin, Texas,” Duron said. “Now I’m second string.”
Slaughter and head coach Maxie Lambright wanted to run the speed option, and Duron could get to the edge faster than Bobby Benard, “so I’m first-string, really by default.” And then the show began.
“Denny was such a leader for us – no way we go 24-1 those two seasons without him – that he doesn’t get credit for being such an athlete,” Carr said. “Great hands. Tremendous eye-hand coordination. Decent speed. He could have played several positions.”
“My friend Denny could put a zip on the ball that would make the Earth stand still,” Tilley said.
“The thing I loved about him was that he could read any defense and he always knew where all of us were,” Kirby said. “I made a catch on this crazy crucial third-down play against Boise to keep the drive going and when you look at it on film — two linebackers, a defensive back, and me — there’s no way Denny could have threaded it in there. Except…he did.”
Add all that together, include defenders who “played like their hair was on fire,” Duron said, and you’ve got the best back-to-back seasons in Tech football history.
“Those two years with Denny as our quarterback were such fun to coach and the results were obvious,” Slaughter said. “Our defense was rock solid and very seldom gave up many points. We were so fortunate to have a really good offensive line and a whole sack full of great athletes who all could make plays. Then there was Denny, who tied it all together with his positive personality, his never-give-up attitude, his great ability as a quarterback, and his influence on practically every single one of our players that led to their being better people.
“Could we please do it all over again?”
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