So after 5 days of votes and polls, the results are in and here we have the top 10 teams in Lion History. I mainly let the former players and program historians vote on it but also did my own research. A lot of the criteria also had to do with the impact that the respective teams had on the program. Also, thanks to all of those who gave me permission to use their photos. This was a hotly contested set of votes, and I thank all of the people who voted for voting. So, let’s get right to it.
10. 1992 Lions
Coach: Eddie Vowell
Season Results: 8-3, Lone Star Conference Runner Up.
Notable Players: Clint Dolezel, Anthony Brooks, Curtis Buckley, Michael Hightower, Billy Minor, Eric Turner, Billy Watkins.
I will admit I had a hard lobby for this team to be top 10 until I got into a two hour conversation with a lifelong Commerce resident and TAMUC alum who gave me a history lesson on this team. He told me that this team that had a plethora of talent and that I should watch some film of some of the games. I did, and it had me convinced. I also spoke with a former coach who said that the most heartbreaking day in his entire coaching career was the selection Sunday when ET’s number was not called. Looking at the team’s entire body of work with only three losses, one to the eventual national finalist and a national quarter-finalist, this was a team that absolutely should have gone to the playoffs based on their body of work and sheer amount of talent, and does deserve recognition as one of the best teams in school history. Led by a future Arena League All Star and two NFL players, it was a team that had it all and got stiffed again by a playoff committee.
9. 2015 Lions
Coach: Colby Carthel
Season Results: 8-4, Lone Star Conference Champions, NCAA Playoffs First Round
Notable Players: Richard Cooper, Harrison Stewart, Theo Wofford, Cole Pitts, Chase Thrasher, Shane Thompson, Devarus Shores, Toni Pulu.
Heading into the 2015 season, most people predicted that the Lions would tough to contend with, but had just lost too much firepower on offense with names like Tyrik Rollison, Joe Bergeron, Deric Davis, Vernon Davis, and Seth Smith. A lot of people felt that the team was a 6 win team. The 2015 team found that not only could they pass, they could run as well too. The defense stepped up to lead the conference in turnovers and the offense put up the points and was the best offense in the conference for the second straight year. Quietly and efficiently the 2015 team continued to perform at a high level. Highlight wins include shutting out rival Tarleton 63-0, beating a ranked Angelo State team 38-35, and knocking off Midwestern State 27-14 to clinch the second straight conference championship. The conference playoffs once again saw heartbreak in the final minutes of the tournament championship game. However the Lions had already clinched a playoff spot. Taking the 7th seed in Super Region 4, the Lions made a return trip to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in 20 years, where they led their opponent at the half, but eventually bowed out to the number one ranked team in country, the Ferris State Bulldogs led by reigning Harlon Hill winner Jason VanderLaan. Richard Cooper set school and conference rushing records and Harrison Stewart had the second most passing yards in a season with over 3,000 yards and All-American Toni Pulu etched his name among names to be heard in the country. It was a team that under promised and over delivered and gave fans more than they bargained for.
8. 1969 Lions
Coach: Ernest Hawkins
Season Results: 7-3, Lone Star Conference Co-Champions.
Notable Players: Jim Dietz, Arthur James, George Daskalakes, Jack Herrington, Don Hynds, Dwight White.
The 1969 ETSU Lions were a team that started the upward climb of the program after the program had started to plateau. Few people knew how good the team was, and the lone conference loss was to the National Champion Texas A&I. The two other losses were to a very good Abilene Christian team and an equally good Texas-Arlington team. This was another team that was a few breaks from being 10-0 and winning a national title. It also featured the best running back in school history in Arthur James and gave Coach Ernest Hawkins his second of 5 conference titles.
7. 1983 Lions
Coach: Ernest Hawkins
Season Results-8-2, Lone Star Conference Co-Champions
Notable Players: Kyle Mackey, Alan Veingrad, Ricky Dierks, Javier Cardenas, Wes Smith.
The 1983 Lions were the first team to capture a conference title as a member of the NCAA in program history. 1981 was the last year for Old ET to compete in the NAIA. The Lions had to share the honor with Southwest Texas State. Despite losing to the Bobcats, the Lions had beaten SFA earlier in the year, a team that would dump SWT a week later. Once again, and as we have seen before, the playoff committee chose SWT, but this is one of two great Lion teams that did not get to sniff the playoffs due to who knows what. The offense was guided by two future NFL starters in QB Kyle Mackey, OL Alan Veingrad and future pro Wes Smith. The two crown jewel wins were a 35-24 win over Kingsville in front of a sold out Memorial Stadium, followed by another win over SFA 27-24 in front of another capacity crowd. It was yet another team that should have gone to the post season, but one that has a ring to prove they were among the best in the country, and most certainly the best in school history.
6. 1980 Lions
Coach: Ernest Hawkins
Season Results: 8-3-1, first in Conference among NAIA schools, NAIA National Semi-Finalists.
Notable Players: Wade Wilson, Carey Noiel, Danny Kirk, Curtis Ray, Ron Trammell.
As many of you know, the 1980 season was a strange one in many ways. The NCAA and the NAIA had fractured the Lone Star Conference and two schools, Texas State and Texas A&I, had become members. Long story short, the Lions started off the year 6-0 before finishing off 1-2-1. This team featured future NFL All-Pro Wade Wilson who was first team NAIA All-American, and Cary Noiel who was a top conference running back with a combo of power and speed. Despite the 2 losses, the Lions went into the NAIA playoffs as the 8th ranked team in the country. This drew a match-up with # 1 Central Arkansas in Conway. ET ran out to a 21-7 lead before holding off a UCA rally and putting the final nail in the coffin with a Noiel touchdown run in the final minutes to knock off the number one team in the country at home 27-21. This sent a message to the country and all of college football. The next game had the Lions taking on Elon College in Commerce. The fans were not treated to a win, but rather to a turnover fest that resulted in the Lions bowing out to the eventual national champion. It was another Lion team that was a score and just a few turnovers away from possibly winning a National Championship. The team was loaded with play makers and as far as this guy is concerned, should be recognized as conference champions, as they were the best NAIA team in the LSC. They are not in the Hall of Fame for no reason, as they say.
5. 1991 Lions
Coach: Eddie Vowell
Results: 8-4-1, Lone Star Conference Runner-Up, NCAA National Quarter-finalists
Notable Players: Bob Bounds, Eric Turner, Jim White, Curtis Buckley, Derrick Crawford, Mike Meador, Gary Perry, Billy Wakins.
The 1991 team simply repeated what the 1990 team had done. Well, almost, but defense was the name of the game for the 91 squad. Everyone will remember two games in this season; the 20-13 win over Pittsburg State. The Gorillas came to Commerce with their typical PSU chests puffed out riding a 56 game winning streak. Too bad for them it ended on a humid night in Commerce, America. The other was a road win against Texas A&M-Kingsville, a gritty 24-22 win in Kingsville, the first in almost ten years. The possibility of a national championship run looked to become more and more like a reality had it not been for two setbacks, a 17-14 loss to Eastern New Mexico, and a 39-39 tie against Angelo State. Still, only 3 points separated the Lions from the back to back conference titles. However, that was an afterthought after the NCAA committee passed on ENMU and picked the Lions to go to the playoffs. In front of a full Memorial Stadium crowd in Commerce, the Lions ran by Grand Valley State, setting up a match-up with eventual national champion Pittsburg State. The Gorillas took a 24-0 lead before ET roared back to pull within 3 at 31-28, but 3 costly turnovers gave the game, and the national title to the Gorillas. I have never met a former Lion or coach who does not believe had they gotten past PSU, the national title would have been theirs for the taking, and there is a strong case for that to be made.
4. 1995 Lions
Coach: Eddie Vowell
Season Results: 8-4 overall, Lone Star Conference Runner-Up, NCAA National Quarter-finalists.
Notable Players: Kevin Mathis, Darryl Anderson, David Dell, Jason Smith, Cole Cayce, Chandler Evans.
The Lions of 1995 were the last team to play under the ET moniker, and the last team to make the playoffs until this past season. The offensive unit of this team was one of the best in school history and after receiving a consensus of votes from both ex players and those close to the program, this team is one of the best ever in program history. I also am aware of the playoff game against a Portland State team that was good, but was tainted by terrible officiating. I watched film of the game about 3 years ago, right before I started this blog. This is a team that could have won it all. This team showed how good the program was from 88-95. The team notched big wins over Angelo State and Eastern New Mexico. The lone conference loss was to an undefeated A&I Hoggie team that would make their own push for a national title. This team also featured a future NFL starting corner-back in Kevin Mathis. Injuries played a part at the QB position between Cole Cayce (who I saw play once and was a fantastic passer) and Chandler Evans. The playoff game saw the Lions down by as much as 41-14 in Portland before pulling within 6 points, but two PSU scores late put the Lions down for good. The immense amount of talent on this team had what it took and was the last team to wear East Texas on their chest, and did the school and program proud.
3. 1990 Lions
Coach: Eddie Vowell
Season Results: 10-3 record, Lone Star Conference Champions, NCAA Division II Quarterfinalists.
Notable Players: Bobby Bounds, Gary Compton, Terry Bagsby, Eric Turner, Billy Watkins.
The 1990 version of the Lions were coach Eddie Vowell’s first and only conference championship team, and it was loaded with firepower and great players on all sides of the ball. Bobby Bounds and Gary Compton became a devastating threat playing catch all afternoon against conference defenses, while Terry Bagsby did the dirty work of shedding opponent blocking and also playing bad guy for the pass rush game. Eric Turner became one of the best defensive backs in the nation and in school history and got the NFL scouts to keep coming to Commerce, and a young Sophomore named Billy Watkins from 30 minutes down Highway 11 made the ET kicking game as solid as you can get. The Lions only lost 3 games and finished conference a perfect 7-0. The 3 losses were to Division I Northeastern Louisiana State, Southern Arkansas, and in the NCAA Division II Quarterfinals to eventual national finalist Pittsburg State. Until 2013, this was the best offensive unit in school history and 3 of the players on the team are still record holders for the program today (Bounds, Compton, Watkins). The wins were not tough wins, but total butt kickings they handed the competition. After winning the conference for the first time in 7 years, the NCAA playoffs began with the Lions taking a trip north to Grand Rapids, Michigan where they stunned Grand Valley State 20-14. The next game would have the Lions run into a potent team that they would come to know very well over the next 3 seasons in the Pittsburg State Gorillas, as the Lions were knocked off 60-28. That team laid the groundwork for next decade of mostly success that would follow and define the last days of Old ET Football.
2. 1972 Lions
Coach: Ernest Hawkins
Season Results: 10-2, Lone Star Conference Champions, NAIA Division I National Champions.
Notable Players: Harvey Martin, Autry Beamon, Will Cureton, Kenneth Parks, Curtis Wester, Denver Crawley.
Now, I know what you are probably thinking. What in the heck are you doing placing the only team in your program history that has won a national championship as your second best team? Very simply, 2 losses and a lot more star power than the ’52 team. When you look at the 1972 team, you have a future NFL starting QB (Will Cureton), a future Super Bowl MVP (Harvey Martin), a future NFL Starter (Autry Beamon), and workhouse backs Nelson Robinson and Kenneth Parks. The 1972 season started with a tough loss to Abilene Christian, but then the Lions won the Lone Star Conference outright posting a 7-1 record. The lone loss almost cost the Lions a shot at the national playoffs, but with only 3 points separating an 8-2 team from a 10-0 team, the Lions went into the National playoffs as the 4th seeded team. The Lions hosted the # 1 Central Oklahoma Bronchos at Memorial Stadium in Commerce and sent a strong message by blowing out UCO 54-0. The stage was then set for a match-up with second ranked Carson-Newman College in Commerce. Carson-Newman had been battle tested and won a 7-7 game against West Alabama College on total penetrations. In front of much of Northeast Texas, the Lions would grind out a gritty 21-18 win on a bitterly cold December day with the northern blackland wind gusting that entire day. What made this team so special was that they had the fortitude to overcome tough losses and hard fought wins throughout the entire year. This team finally got the grand prize and did so in an era where Abilene Christian and Texas A&M-Kingsville were so dominant and in their hey day. This was one of those once in a generation teams that put it all together despite two losses and a bottom seed in the playoff seeding. The case can easily be made that this group had more to overcome and that is what would make them better than the ’52 team, and that case is valid indeed, but that is why the votes were so close.
Coach: Milburn Smith
Season Results: 11-0, Lone Star Conference Champions, Tangerine Bowl Champions
Notable Players: Bruno Ashley, Marv Brown, Jim Gray.
The team voted best in program history won narrowly, but this was the team that really put ET football on the map. I can see how this team gets the top spot. 11 wins, undefeated, the closest game was a 20 point win over Sam Houston State, and then an invite to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando where they dominated Tennessee Tech 33-0. If you took a look at the record of this team, this was by far the most dominant, unstoppable, and loaded team in regards to their competition. It is very hard to win 11 games in College Football, it is even harder to win them all convincingly, and this group did. What gives this team the edge over the team that won the National Championship is this. Back in the early 50’s the Tangerine Bowl was from time to time the de-facto national championship game for smaller colleges. The NAIA had not undertaken Football yet as a sanctioned sport, and the NCAA had not yet put a sanctioned bowl system together, so to decide champions the NAIA and NCAA worked hand in hand. The Sun Bowl determined Mid-Sized schools champions, and the Gator Bowl was the equivalent of a modern day BCS Bowl, so the Tangerine Bowl was considered the top bowl for small schools. The Tangerine Bowl foundation board called it “the game in which the best small college from the South and the best small college from the Midwestern part of this great nation will do battle in Orlando Stadium.” That year, they picked two southern teams, and the Coach Catfish’s boys from the Blacklands capped off an iconic year that would lay the groundwork for 50 years of gridiron success, making the 1952 Lions the greatest team in school history.
The rest of the best, and in no particular order.
1934- 8-0, Conference Champions, recorded 7 shut-outs and allowed 6 points the entire year, statistically is the best defense in school history by only allowing 0.75 point per game. Every game was a dominating victory.
1957- 9-1, Conference Champions, Tangerine Bowl Champions. This team also holds the special distinction of being the only college team in Texas to win a bowl game during the 1957-58 bowl season by beating Southern Mississippi 10-9.
2014- 9-3, Conference Champions, Heart of Texas Bowl Champions, Best Offense in the Nation. Set Division II record for most yards and point in a game in season opening win against East Texas Baptist.
1988- 8-3, Conference Runner Up. Was ranked number 2 in the country and was headed straight for a shot a national title before injuries derailed the season with blowout losses to eventual NAIA national champion Cameron and Angelo State.
1953- 9-1, Conference Champions, Tangerine Bowl Co-Champions. (Tied with Arkansas State 7-7).
1958- 10-1, Conference Champions, Tangerine Bowl Champions.