Entering the second week of November, 1955, University of Texas football fans were still hopeful for a Southwest Conference title and a date at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. The lackluster Longhorns were 4-4 overall, and 3-3 against SWC opponents, but league leading Texas A & M was on probation for recruiting violations, and wasn’t eligible for post-season play. If Texas could win out, a trip to Dallas was in their future. But their next opponent was nationally ranked TCU, coming to Austin to play on Saturday afternoon, November 12.
The week before the game, the Texas faithful did all they could to ensure an upset win. Red candles, first used in 1941 to “hex” the Texas A & M Aggies, were lit in homes all over Austin, and appeared in the store-front windows of businesses around the campus and downtown. Impromptu football rallies were held almost every night, either at the Texas Union or in front of the Moore-Hill residence hall, where the male student-athletes lived.
It was also the week of the Campus Chest, an annual University-wide fundraising drive for charity. The drive usually culminated with a variety show and a collection of cash donations.
Harley Clark, UT’s head cheerleader, was busy planning the official football pep rally, set for Friday night, November 11 in Gregory Gym. Clark received a call from fellow student Gordon Wynne, who was heading up the Campus Chest program. Wynne suggested they pool their resources and combine the rally with the variety show. Clark agreed. The theme of the night would be along the lines of an old-time revival, but it would be a revival of the Longhorn Spirit.
On Friday evening, a torchlight parade of several thousand students set out from the northwest corner of campus, south on Guadalupe, east on 21st Street and over to Gregory Gym. In the 1950s, parades always preceded football rallies, though this one was led by a flat-bed truck with a Dixieland band.
At the gym, the variety show opened the program with songs, skits, dances, and a Campus Chest student “preacher” who urged the crowd to “Git the Spirit!” Near the end of the variety acts, the Texas Cowboys passed around empty chicken buckets as collection plates, while the preacher called for a “sea of green,” and for those attending to donate all they could to the Campus Chest fund.
After the variety show, it was time for the football rally. But after the songs by the Longhorn Band, yells by the cheerleaders, and spirited talks by Dean Arno Nowotny, coaches and football captains, Harley Clark decided to introduce something new.
A few days earlier, while in the Texas Union, Clark was talking with classmate Henry “HK” Pitts, who suggested that the hand sign with the index and little fingers extended, looked a bit like a longhorn, and might be fun to do at rallies and football games. The Texas Aggies had their “Gig ‘em” thumbs-up sign, inspired while playing the TCU Horned Frogs. With a big Texas vs. TCU game coming up on Saturday, why can’t Texas fans have their own hand signal?
Clark liked the idea, and decided to introduce it at Gregory Gym rally. He demonstrated the sign to the crowd, and declared, “This is the official hand sign of the University of Texas, to be used whenever and wherever Longhorns gather.”
Immediately after the rally, Clark was confronted by a furious Dean Nowotny. How could Clark declare the hand sign as official? Had this been approved by the University administration? “And, growled Nowotny, “do you know what that hand sign means in Sicily?!!”
Clark later recounted the story. “Dean,” he pleaded, “I’m only nineteen. I don’t know anything.” Nowotny walked away unhappy, but the deed was done. The next day, the stadium was full of “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signs. And while TCU won the day (47-20) the University of Texas had a new tradition it would cherish for decades to come.