For years, especially recently, the question has been raised “What ET/Commerce team is the greatest in school history?” In my opinion, this team that will be featured is without a doubt the greatest in school history, but before I give you the rationale for that, let me tell the story of arguably the greatest team in the history of a great and storied Lion program.
The Lions had closed out their previous season on an 8 game winning streak and had won most of their games in dominating fashion. Milburn Smith had taken an approach of creating space out of tight formations and had a dandy signal caller in Jim Grey and a stacked backfield full of playmakers who could run, catch, block, and execute Smith’s plan of attack. Most expected the Lions to be good, and those people got more than they bargained for.
The Lions kicked off the ’52 campaign by knocking off Abilene Christian in Abilene, a team that the Lions had not had a lot of success against up to that point. The Lions issued statement number one by beating the Wildcats 21-0. The next week the Lions lit up the scoreboard with a 54-34 shootout win over Trinity. Then, three straight games that basically defined the season occurred. The Lions travelled to Southwestern Oklahoma State and scored the largest margin of victory in school history, 65-0. The next week, was the essentially the same result in Southeast Texas as ET whacked Lamar 48-0. The following game, same song different verse as the Lions throttled Midwestern State 48-0 in a game played at a neutral site in Vernon, Texas.
The next week Sam Houston State travelled to Commerce and again, the Bearkats left Commerce with a loss. The 33 points the Kats put up were not nearly enough to counter the 57 Smith’s offense put up. The next matchup in Deep East Texas saw the Lions route the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin 54-7.
The last 3 games of the season were all played in Commerce and all blowout wins. 63-23 over Southwest Texas State, 61-7 over Austin College, and 27-7 over Sul Ross State. A 10-0 record, an undefeated season, something that had not been seen in 15 years. It put the entire country on notice about little East Texas State out of Commerce, Tx, and the country took notice.
Prior to 1956, The Lions were not tied to the NAIA as they were not yet sponsoring Football, and had a loose affiliation with NCAA. The Lone Star Conference was essentially a league of it’s own and the Lions played out of conference games against teams from now defunct conferences such as the Border Conference.
The Tangerine Bowl started in 1947 and had a conference tie in to the Ohio Valley Conference. Essentially how it worked was that the OVC would pledge its conference champion if invited, but the Tangerine Bowl’s goal was to take the two best teams in the South and the Lower Midwest. The Bowl extended an invitation to Tennessee Tech, the OVC Champion, and the powerful Lions of East Texas State College. The Lion football team was now out to see if they belonged with the national powers.
That question was answered on New Year’s Day 1953 in Orlando, Florida. In front of a crowd of 12,340 fans, the Lions routed Tech’s Golden Eagles 33-0, taking the Tangerine Bowl Championship. Halfback Marvin Brown was named Game MVP. The next day in Newspapers all across America universally crowed about how the Lions of Little East Texas State might be the very best non-NCAA team in the country, and no team had come close (or at least within 20 points) of proving them wrong.
Jim Grey and Bruno Ashley were First Team All-American, while they put a staggering 9 players on the LSC First Team and another 4 on the LSC Second team and 6 made the first Honorable Mention/LSC Third Team. A whopping 19 All-LSC players.
The Lions extended their win streak to 18 games and scored a staggering 496 points and shutting out 6 opponents. Most College Football historians agree had the Lions been in a formal post season set, they would no doubt have been national champions, and that the Tangerine Bowl was in essence a defect national championship game for non-NCAA teams.
To me, the greatest team of all time.