Many coaches who take over programs do so under situations that are not ideal. For Ernest Hawkins, taking over for the East Texas State Lions came in a hard time not only for the Football team, but for the entire nation as well.
At the beginning of the 1960’s, the Lions were not the dominant force they had been during the previous decade, but were still one of the top teams in the Lone Star Conference and in the entire nation. The national reputation was established as a small college power and JV Sikes continued to have winning records, but had not won a title since 1959. Things started to go south for the Lions on May 20, 1964. Sikes had been playing golf with coaches and friends at the then-existent University Golf Course when he collapsed and died shortly thereafter due to heart disease. The shockwaves were sent across the country and certainly among the Commerce community. News of his passing was printed in newspapers as far away and as well known as The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The University President and Board of Regents had to act quickly to replace Sikes, and did so with a man who had been with the program for 7 seasons and knew the ins and outs of the program and it’s culture and expectations. Ernest Hawkins was named head coach less than 2 weeks after Sikes was buried.
Hawkins took over in what was the toughest situation anyone could be in. Many players left the program, and some transferred or just stopped attending school. He would also have to contend with another looming situation. ET would be integrating in the fall of 1964.
Most coaches in Texas and the South did not take well to integration. Even when their schools had been forced to admit Black students, the coaches would refuse to take Black players. Hawkins was different. He recruited the first Black players in school history and saw the potential they had to help with a switch to a new offensive strategy. He also knew amazing talent when he saw it. Curtis Gutyon and Arthur James were two of those men. Guyton recalled his time under Hawkins as a man before his time in regards to race relations. “Coach Hawkins was one of maybe a handful of coaches in the entire country who wanted Black kids to play for him, and he did not see color on the field. If you were a white kid who missed a block for a black teammate he would chew their butt out just as hard if me or any other black guy had missed a block or messed up on a play. We knew he wanted to execute the game plan and win. The color of the skin did not matter one bit to him.”
After two very disappointing seasons in 1964 and 1965, Hawkins saw something in his 1966 squad that was promising. He was interviewed by Sports Illustrated and said he believed that “This team is the best I have had since I became head coach. I believe we are good enough to win this conference.”
The season started in a fashion that had some hits and misses. Traveling to Abilene to open agains the ACU Wildcats, Hawkins offense sputtered to a 7-0 loss. The next week was the polar opposite as the Lions shut out Texas Lutheran 42-0. The next week at Arlington State (now UT-Arlington) the offense again sputtered in a 27-10 loss. The season was going in the direction that it had been going previous years, but the popular support was behind Hawkins. “Just give the man time to get his players and his system going” was the thought. Sure enough, it happened.
Conference play opened with a 17-11 win over McMurry in Commerce. The next week, a ranked Texas A&I team came to Commerce. The two rivals battled it out. Two legends were across the sidelines, Gil Steinke, who led A&I to 6 national titles, and Hawkins, who was making his mark in Commerce. On a game to be remembered, the Lions were down 24-18 with under 4 minutes to go. The Lion offense worked efficiently to get the ball down inside the 10, but were stifled and forced into third and long. Lion QB Benny Kirkland, who had struggled all year long, called a play action snap and rolled left and let an awkward looking pass go. Wobbling in the air, it was pulled down by tight end Tom Black at the very back of the end zone with under a minute left to go. The extra point was good and the Lions walked away with a win against A&I, their first since 1960. Lionland was very happy.
The Lions then trekked down to Alpine once again to face Sul Ross State. The Lobos and Lions fought to a 14-14 tie, but despite that, there was no negative affect as the Lions had first place in the LSC. On Homecoming, The Lions downed Howard Payne 10-7 to push their record to 4-2-1. The next game was huge, against Sam Houston State in Huntsville. A win would guarantee the Lions a share of the LSC title.
In front a large Stone Stadium crowd, The Lions used the clock, a powerful running game and an efficient passing game to take down the Bearkats 17-13. Stephen F. Austin had been neck and neck with the Lions in the standings, but a loss to Texas State gave the Jacks no hope of a title. The Lions had not lost a conference game yet and all they needed to do was tie the next game and the title would be theirs.
Hosting Southwest Texas State in Commerce, The Lions did exactly that. They tied a SWT team that was a head shoulders better with talent, but a gritty Lion defense carried the day and ended in a 14-14 tie. No other team had fewer than 2 conference losses. Hawkins was carried off the field and the Commerce fans celebrated their first title in 7 seasons. ET’s absence from the Champions circle even got them noticed in national papers as many large outlets ran a story on the Lions clinching their first title since the 1959 season.
The year did end on a sour note as the Lions went to SFA and were soundly beaten by the Lumberjacks 24-7. Injuries and attrition had taken it’s toll on the young team, but it was a group that willed itself to a LSC title with a 5-3-2 record and a 4-1-2 record in conference play.
Running Back Curtis Guyton was the first Black player in ET history to nab All-American Honors, and was named to the NAIA All-American team. He was also the only Lion on the LSC First Team that season.
LSC Second Team Honors went to Sam Walton, Charles Froneberger, Bill Garner, David McKay, Mike Venable, and Ronald Zwernnermann.
Honorable Mention All LSC were Tommy Briscoe, Leo Rhodes, and Tim Smith.