In his 5th season as the head coach at East Texas State, Ernest Hawkins had brought the Lions back from mediocrity to being LSC contenders. Having won his first title in 1966 and followed with a 7-2-1 season in 1968, things were looking up for the 1969 season. Hawkins said prior that season there “was no reason we cannot win this conference again.”
Kicking off the season against Abilene Christian in Commerce, the Lions once again stumbled out of the gates in a 38-23 loss. The next week ET traveled to Southwestern Louisiana and redeemed themselves in a 24-13 win. Once again the Lions fell to a strong and formidable Arlington State team in Commerce. The next week it was back to an even record as the Lions took down McMurry in Abilene to start LSC play.
The matchup the next week was one that the NAIA scene had their eye on. ET versus a Gil Steinke led Texas A&I squad. The Lions had beaten the Javelinas the previous year and many felt this would determine the LSC title in only week 5. In front of a sold out Javelina Stadium, the Lions and Javs battled to a 14-14 tie to head into the final quarter, but A&I pulled away with two late touchdowns while holding ET’s offense at bay the rest of the game.
The second half of the season saw a surge and 5 game winning streak. Dumping Sul Ross State 42-21 the next week was great, but the next weekend was even better as the Lions went to Brownwood to beat Howard Payne 49-14 that Saturday. The Sunday newspapers gave the Lions great news, Sul Ross State shocked Texas A&I 13-12 to put the Lions back into a tie with Javelinas. The Lions cruised to wins over Sam Houston State 42-28 and Southwest Texas State 26-6, setting them up with Stephen F. Austin State in Commerce.
SFA was a very strong squad and in the exact same situation as the Lions were in. Whoever won this game would be Co-Champions of the LSC with A&I. Both teams battled back and forth all game long in a high scoring affair. The Lions featured the running of All-American Arthur James and the passing of the efficient Jim Dietz during the game that came down to one final drive.
With just under 4 minutes remaining and down 35-28, the Lions methodically worked their way down to the 7 yard line. SFA seemed ready as they stuffed James on the first play. A second attempt to score resulted in a two yard gain to Terry Smith on a crossing route to put the ball at the 5. James was given the ball again and gained one yard. With two timeouts left, Hawkins called a timeout.
On 4th down and goal, Dietz took the snap, faked the handoff to James and rolled right and released the pass to the right corner of the end zone, where George Daskalakes hauled in the pass to tie the game at 35. The roughly 9,200 Memorial Stadium fans erupted, but Hawkins knew he had a decision to make. A tie would get the Lions nothing. No LSC title. It was kick the extra point and tie SFA for second place, or go for two and tie A&I for the title. Ernest Hawkins went for the win. He always went for the win.
After calling his final timeout, he dialed up a play that the Lions had run multiple times in practice. It was one of Coach Hawk’s famous “run it again” plays where he stressed repetition in practice and game time execution. The Jacks believed that Arthur James would get the call and that is what Hawkins was counting on. Dietz took the snap and the Jacks defense came after James coming out out the backfield. In what seemed like only a second, Dietz zipped a bullet to a wide open Daskalakes in the end zone where the linebackers had left and the Memorial Stadium crowd erupted as the Lions carried Hawkins off the field and the roll call was loud and proud.
The loss to A&I was tougher to swallow as the Javelinas won the national championship 3 weeks later, cruising to easy victories. Despite the loss to Sul Ross, the NAIA had ranked the Javelinas as the top ranked team and the other teams selected for the NAIA playoff all had no more than one loss and the Lions had 3. However, the team had nothing to hang their heads over. It was a 7-3 season, a conference title, a number 9 final ranking, and contender status.
Arthur James was named first team All-American by the NAIA and Second Team by the Associated Press. He left Commerce as the best runner in Lion history. He was joined on the AP All-American team by Jack Herrington and Don Hynds.
LSC First team selections were James, Herrington, Hynds along with Dub Lewis and George Daskalakes.
Second Team selections were Bill Allison, Grady Ivy, Mike Kingcaid, and the great Dwight White.
Jim Dietz was also named to the LSC team as Honorable Mention.