In January 1960, an undefeated Syracuse team whipped Texas, 23-14, in the Cotton Bowl. [See rare photos from the game here.] But it wasn't especially pretty, as LIFE magazine reported in its Jan. 11, 1960, issue:
As the game moved back and forth and the normal tensions of the players were increased by the body-crunching fury of the play, an ugly undercurrent of racial bitterness began to spread — with shocking results.
At first in the game, the Syracuse players outdid themselves in showing what good sports they were, helping blocked Texans off the ground and slapping their rumps for friendly good measure. But this was short-lived. "Texas was really dirty," said one Syracuse player afterward. "We've never met a bunch like that before."
What enraged them most was that much of Texas' dirty play seemed to be directed toward Syracuse's Negro players. Once when he was plowing through the line, said Negro fullback Art Baker, "one of them spit right in my face."
John Brown, a Negro lineman, played nose to nose against 235-pound Texas tackle Larry Stephens. To goad him off balance, Brown claimed, Stephens kept calling him "a big black dirty nigger." Finally, Brown warned him not to call him that again. When Stephens did, Brown swung.
Afterward Stephens apologized to Brown. But Brown had already forgiven him. "That Texas boy was just excited," he said. "Let's forget it."
Much of this on-field race-baiting was dramatized in The Express, the lukewarmly received 2008 film about Syracuse running back Ernie Davis' life. (Davis was the first black Heisman winner and the 1960 Cotton Bowl MVP who died of acute monocytic leukemia in 1963, at just 23 years old). Former Texas players have stated in the years since that no racial animus at all was on display in that Cotton Bowl, and that the Davis film itself was something of a factually challenged abomination; a number of Syracuse players, meanwhile, respectfully disagree with that neat, clean version of the game's history and have confirmed that, yeah, some decidedly ugly stuff went down on the field.
What's pretty clear from LIFE's reporting, though, even if it is a necessarily imperfect "first draft of history," is that something set those players off all those years ago — and we feel pretty confident that snide remarks about, say, the cultural shortfalls of upstate Onondaga County, New York, versus the glories of eastern Texas probably played very little if any role in the ruckus.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly, and occasionally more frequent, feature for The Stacks and Deadspin.
Photo Credit: Robert W. Kelley—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images