At the conclusion of the 1953 season, Milburn Smith, who had won 30 games and won 29 of them in a row, decided to leave the collegiate ranks and return to East Texas to coach at Longview High School. The decision was just as much of a head scratcher then as it would be now. The administration of ETSTC, headed by University President James Gee immediately started a search for a new coach. The job at ET was coveted as it was a place that had players that could win and and a championship culture. One candidate stood out above the rest.
Jules Verne Sikes, or J.V. Sikes as he would be known, had the blood of a successful coach and athlete inside of him. With major college experience, he had also coached the ETSU Lion Basketball team from 1931-1935. An old school coach with an old school approach, Sikes was all about discipline and execution.
The first thing Sikes did was change the offense. The ball would not be in the air nearly as much under a Sikes coached team. He brought back the Power T formation and rather than using space and a vertical attack, he would be using power running and the option on offense and preach an aggressive defense that would stay on the attack. The opinion was split on how the approach would work and if the success would be duplicated. Sikes had his players practice at 5 AM until 7, just in time to get back to the dorms and get ready for class. This fact would be a part in establishing a long beloved Lion football tradition in just a handful of years. No doubt there was a new sheriff in town.
With new faces on offense and defense, the Lions headed to Abilene Christian and were beaten soundly 41-19. The Lions had not been beaten like that in almost a decade. The next week things seemed to upswing with a win over Southwestern Louisiana 33-13, but that was followed by a shutout loss, the first in over 2 decades, to Trinity 6-0. A weak Lamar team visited Commerce and almost got the Lions, but ET did just enough to pull off a 16-14 win. A road trip to the Deep South saw the Lions again get blasted by Chattanooga College 41-7. Halfway through the season, the Lions were averaging a fraction of the offense they had been putting up and were 2-3 overall and 1-0 in LSC play.
The natives around Commerce were starting to wonder, was Sikes the best they could do? Or was it the talent pool? Questions abound as did anxiety regarding the team and the direction of the program.
Sikes never wavered in his approach. Stressing executing the Power T offense and getting tougher on defense, The Lions hosted Sam Houston State and took down the Bearkats 20-14. The next week ET headed down to Hoggie country to take on Texas A&I and defeated the Javelinas 26-6, which put the Lions over .500 for the year, but most importantly 3-0 in the LSC and tied with Southwest Texas for first place. The next week saw the Lions face off against SFA yet again in the Piney Woods and take another hard fought game from the Lumberjacks 25-21. Southwest Texas State had also won, setting the stage for game in which one team was going to walk away undefeated and sole possession of first place, and the other with second place.
Or would it be that way?
In front of a crowd of over 9,000 fans in Commerce, the Lions and Bobcats switched game opening scores to tie it early 7-7. The day would be saved by the Lion defense, as the Lion offense sputtered terribly, but the defense stopped 5 SWT drives that got inside the ET 30, holding off the Bobcats from scoring. The game ended in a tie, and both teams walked away with a tie for first place. Though Sikes was disappointed in the lack of offensive execution, he stressed to his team that beating Sul Ross State the next week would give them a share of the LSC title and a winning record, something that seemed improbably just 5 weeks earlier.
In the final week of the season, the Lion faithful turned out for another standing room only crowd on a cold November day as Lions of Old ET defeated Sul Ross State 27-6 to grab a share of the LSC title. After starting the year 2-3, they finished the rest of the year going 4-0-1. Sikes was seen as different, but capable of doing what he had to do to win. A 6-3-1 season with an LSC title was not exactly a terrible season, especially with 4 straight conference titles.
Lion Quarterback Bobby Fox was named Associated Press All-American. He was seen as the total opposite of Jim Gray, a runner and not a passer, a hard nosed leader rather than the finesse player Gray was, but he ran the Power T very well.
Fox Was joined on the LSC First team by Kenneth Braden, Waylon Buchanan, and George Hartman. Larry Kemp and Donald Yates were named to the LSC Second team, while Bob Lundy and Jerry Lytle were All-LSC Honorable Mentions.