23 Texas A&M-Commerce Teams can call themselves conference champions, 3 more can call themselves Division Champions, 4 can call themselves Bowl Champions, but only one call itself a National Champion, and it was the 1972 Lions.
In the previous 2 seasons, Ernest Hawkins squad had gone 12-12 from 1970-1971, so expectations were not particularly high for the Lions heading into the 1972 season, in fact, the media picked the Lions to finish fourth in the LSC and had Texas A&I winning the conference. They would be in for a big surprise.
After looking at the team that won it all, it is easy to see in hindsight how they did. The offense featured a classic and accurate signal caller in Will Cureton, a stacked backfield with Nelson Robinson and Kenneth Parks, outstanding receivers such as Tim Collier and Dudley Slice, and a line on offense that was down and dirty led by captain Denver Crawley and Curtis Wester. The defense featured future NFL stars Harvey Martin and Autry Beamon. This was a loaded squad.
At first, the season did not start out like a championship season would have. Traveling to Abilene to take on the NCAA’s Abilene Christian Wildcats, the ACU Wildcats stifled the Lion offense all day and gave ET a 14-12 loss. The next week traveling to Ada, Ok the Lions got their season and offense back on track by routing East Central 37-14 and then shutting out Sam Houston 23-0 in Huntsville. Four weeks into the season the Lions finally had their first home game and they did not disappoint their fans as they soundly beat Howard Payne 35-15.
The next three weeks would essentially define the season. Hosting Texas A&I, the Lions offense put up the most points that A&I had allowed in nearly 3 years as they defeated the Javelinas 29-17. Heading down to Deep East Texas again, The Lions faced a tough SFA squad. The ET defense suffocated the Jacks on offense and were efficient and powerful on offense in a 21-9 win. ET came back home to face the team that was at the top of the LSC standings with them, Southwest Texas State. In a contest where the Lions never trailed the entire game, they pulled out just enough gutso to taken down the Bobcats 32-29. After that game, the Lions climbed to number 4 in the NAIA polls. They stood at 6-1 with the one loss being to a very good ACU team. However, ACU was not in the NAIA nor in the LSC, as far as the NAIA was concerned, the Lions might be the best team in the nation.
The next week dealt a terrible setback. In a game that nobody can truly explain except for just poor play, the Lions were dealt a 15-14 loss by Sul Ross State in Alpine. The Lobos of SRSU had gained a reputation as a team that would derail a leading LSC team’s hopes by beating them in Alpine. Knocking the Lions back to number 5 put them just outside of the NAIA national playoffs.
The next week the Lions did themselves a huge favor by beating a 14th ranked Angelo State team in Commerce, moving them up one more spot to # 5. The Lions finished off the regular season by defeating Tarleton State in Stephenville 27-6. Whether it would be enough to be the in playoffs would be up to the NAIA coaches to decide.
When the NAIA playoff teams were announced, it saw 2nd ranked Carson-Newman hosting 3rd ranked Livingston (West Alabama) and top ranked Central Oklahoma traveling to Commerce to play East Texas State. The reason for the host to be given to ET was to guarantee whoever came out of the 4 vs. 1 bracket would be the host for the title game, and since the Lions had only played 4 home games, it was determined that Commerce would host the first round of the NAIA playoffs.
In front of a large Memorial Stadium crowd, ET shocked the nation as they routed Central Oklahoma 54-0. The Lions scored in every way possible en route to a 54-0 shellacking of the Bronchos. The Lions racked up 519 yards of total offense and broke or tied 8 NAIA playoff records. To say that nobody saw this coming would have been a huge understatement. The Lions would face Carson-Newman in the NAIA national title game, as the Eagles won a 7-7 game against Livingston on penetrations past the 20 yard line. (No overtime back then)
On the Saturday after the last day of class for the Fall 1972 semester, 5,000 ET students ran into Memorial Stadium in addition to many other locals to see the Lions get their first real shot at a national title.
With 8:37 left in the second quarter, fullback Nelson Robinson plunged in from 2 yards to put the Lions up 7-0. Carson-Newman responded with a Skip Jones 2 yard run to pull within 1 at 7-6 as the kick was blocked. Just before halftime, the Eagles speedy wideout Tim George got behind the Lion defense to haul in a 47 yard touchdown from Jimmy Sullivan. The second conversion attempt again failed and the Lions went into the locker room down 12-7.
With 6:54 left in the third, The Lions put together a long drive on the back of Kenneth Parks that resulted in Will Cureton sneaking in from one yard out to put the Lions back on top 14-12. Two possessions later, the Eagles struck right back as Tim George again got open for another 18 yard TD pass fro Sullivan. The conversion again failed as Autry Beamon intercepted the attempted 2 point conversion in the end zone.
Starting the final frame behind 18-14, the Lions once again called upon Kenneth Parks to carry the load, and carry the load he did. With just over 8 minutes in the game, he put the Lions up for good with a 3 yard run to make the score 21-18. The Eagles took the ball and drove down to the Lion 11 yard line with 6 minutes to go, when Sullivan’s passed was intercepted by safety Ricky Earle killing the drive. The final 4 minutes were intense as could be. Hawkins kept calling for Parks to be fed the ball and with the Lions driving further downfield, they faced a 3rd down and 4 when Carson-Newman called a timeout.
Hawkins knew what play to call. He knew that CN was counting on either Parks to run it or Cureton to bootleg and keep the ball. Nobody would pass in this situation. Nobody but Ernest Hawkins.
The Lions lined up in the Slot-I, baiting the Eagles into crashing the line to stop the run. Cureton took the snap, faked a handoff to Parks and hit tight end Calvin Harris on a crossing route for 6 yards and a first down. All ET had to do was take 3 knees as the game was now under 2 minutes. The Lions were at last, national champions.
The students stormed the field and the NAIA national title trophy was lifted high in the sky by Parks, who was named MVP of the NAIA Champions Bowl. It was the season that is remembered best in Commerce. 10-2 Final record. Hawkins was named national coach of the year by the Associated Press and the Lions were named Team of the Year by Grantland Football magazine.
The Lions placed 6 members on the All-American Team, 8 on the LSC First Team, 2 on the LSC Second team, and 5 on the Honorable Mention team.
All-Americans-Curtis Wester, Kenneth Parks, Harvey Martin, Autry Beamon, Denver Crawley, Ricky Earle.
LSC First Team-Curtis Wester, Will Cureton, Dudley Slice, Doug Walker, Kenneth Parks, Harvey Martin, Autry Beamon, Denver Crawley, Ricky Earle.
LSC Second Team-Calvin Harris, LeRoy Johnson.
LSC Honorable Mention-Kenneth Brown, Nelson Robinson, James Talbot, Jim Talley, Jackie Woods.