Heading into the ’53 season, the Lions of East Texas State Teacher’s College were riding high off an unprecedented 19 game winning streak, an undefeated season, and the program’s first ever postseason win. It was a dominating performance in every way, shape and form. The stands at Commerce’s Memorial Stadium were filled the brim every Saturday, as the locals were getting used to watching this powerful machine that a barely 40 year old coach had built. Commerce had success before, but not on this level, and not like this. The Lions were an elite LSC program in the 30’s and 40’s, now they were on the doorstep of being an elite national power.
This would be one of the final seasons that the Lions would be affiliated with the NCAA. Starting in 1956, the Lone Star Conference would be an NAIA conference as many smaller schools felt that simply due to their size or not having enough booster money, they were not getting a fair shake at a national title, and the arguments for that were solid.
There was still football to play, and the season started off without missing a beat. The Lions opened with a ranked Abilene Christian team in Commerce and outfought the Wildcats 28-27. The next week, ET traveled down to San Antonio for another date with the Trinity Tigers and living on the edge again, stole a win from TU 20-19. While Smith’s crew had beaten two tough teams, he was afraid that the team was afraid of the win streak being broken, so Smith decided to do the unthinkable. He gave his players two days off a week from football. Sundays he instructed them to “go worship with your community or eat a good noon time meal.” He also gave them Wednesdays off in the middle of the week and every Friday as well. His new approach was questioned, but it seemed to do the trick. The next week, the Lions blew out Southwestern Louisiana 41-7 on the road, thumping Lamar 32-13, and defeating Tennessee-Chatanooga 19-7. The win against TUC was huge as they were in the Ohio Valley conference, and there was a chance that they Lions would face another OVC team again. Which one would be the question.
Conference play started with a trip to Huntsville as the Lions downed Sam Houston 32-6. Then a record setting game happened in Commerce as the Lions massacred Northwestern Oklahoma State 80-0. To this day, no Lion team has broken that record. The closest any team has come was a 78 point win in 2014 over McMurray. Another shutout was issued in Commerce as the Lions took down the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin 39-0 to close the home schedule out. The final two games saw smaller scores but essentially the same results, a 40-19 win over Southwest Texas State in San Marcos and a 27-7 win over Sul Ross State in Alpine. For the second straight season, the Lions had a perfect record and their unbeaten streak was stretched to 29 straight wins. The Lions then received an invite to play in Orlando again, this time against a surprising pick, the Arkansas State Indians. Again, many saw it as a national title game for the smaller NCAA schools.
The 1954 Tangerine Bowl saw a crowd of over 12,300 flow into Orlando’s Stadium. The Indians of Arkansas State came ready for Catfish Smith’s powerful Lion offense, snuffing out Draws and flares that were what gave the potent Lion offense it’s fuel. State also scored first as Ark. State QB Bobby Spann connected with James Turley to put The Indians up 7-0. The Lion offense was woeful but with 9 minutes left in the game, the offense under the command of Bobby Fox marched 61 yards on 9 plays and Fullback Billy Ray Norris plunged in from 1 yard out to put the Lions of ET on the board. The conversion was good, and it appeared the Lions had all the momentum. The next Indian drive saw a stalled drive and shanked punt that put the ball at the ET 46 yard line with just over 3 minutes to go. The Lions worked their way closer and closer to victory, but on second down at the 24 yard line, Fox’s pass was picked off and Arkansas State ran it back to their own 44 yard line. The Indians tried to score but only went backwards. When the final gun sounded, it was the first tie in Tangerine Bowl history, and the 29 game winning streak, the longest in the nation, came to an end.
The Lions of that year had nothing to be ashamed over. Jim Gray and Bruno Ashley repeated as All-Americans while Guy Broussard, Madison Knight, and George Riley joined Gray on the LSC first team. George Hartman and Judd Ramsey were on the LSC Second Team, and Bob Lundy and Jerry Lytle were LSC Honorable Mention.
It was Milburn Smith’s final year in Commerce. Despite his immense success, Smith decided to return to East Texas in Longview as he took the head coaching job at LHS.