1980 was an odd year. Changes were on the horizon for the teams of the Lone Star Conference, in fact, many of them had been looming for a while. Two members of the LSC, Southwest Texas State and Texas A&I, had joined the NCAA and left the NAIA. The rest of the members of the LSC stayed in the NAIA. The NAIA saw what was happening, and also saw the fact that more likely the LSC would be joining the NCAA in a short time. However for the 1980 season, it threw a large grey cloud into understanding who would even win the conference. The conference was given the right to name it’s champion, but for postseason play, that would not mean anything as only NAIA schools would get into NAIA postseason play.
For Coach Ernest Hawkins, it had been 8 seasons since he had taken the Lions to the national title. The seasons after had been solid from 73-77 as Will Cureton returned for his Senior season and then Terry Skinner came in to give ET an All-American performance. The Lions played in the 1974 Florida Central Classic Bowl against a very talented Bethune-Cookman team and tied them 7-7. The last two seasons of the 70’s were not as great as the Lions stumbled to a 4-7 season in 1978, but rebounded with a local boy leading the offense in future NFL All-Pro Wade Wilson in 1979 to take second place in the conference. The had also beaten A&I, the eventual national Champion. The 1980 season was one that many feel the Lions could make noise in, it was by far their most talented team since 1972.
The season started out about as well as one could ask for. Kicking off the season north of the Red River, The Lions took down the Cameron Aggies 35-20. The next week against a ranked and very good Southern Arkansas team, Wilson showed off his golden arm as the Lions won a big game against the Muleriders 21-14. The Lions trekked back up to Oklahoma to take on Central Oklahoma State, and it was the Cary Noiel show as he rushed for 167 yards and 3 touchdowns before Hawkins mercifully pulled him at the end of the first half en route to a 33-7 Lions win. A trip to Huntsville yielded a 41-7 blowout win against Sam Houston, then followed by a 28-14 win over Howard Payne at home. The Wildcats of Abilene Christian hosted the red hot Lions at Shotwell Stadium and were handed a 24-14 loss.
Halfway through the season, the Lions were undefeated and averaging 30.3 a game. The next game would be against Southwest Texas. Both squads were undefeated in conference play and the Bobcats had fared well so far in the NCAA checking in at 5-2. With the game being in Commerce and Wilson and the offense playing well and the defense playing lights out, many believed an ET win was very possible if not likely.
However, it was apparent that ET was not playing on a level playing field as they gave a good fight, but in the end the depth of the Bobcats was just too much to overcome as they lost their first game of the year, 37-26.
The next game would be yet another big test with Texas A&I visiting Commerce. The Javelinas were also in their first NCAA season and doing somewhat well in it. The Lion defense played exceptional, but it was the offense that sputtered and put a season low of 7 points on the board as the Hoggies took one from the Lions 14-7. After starting the season off in such a promising fashion, it was demoralized to have lost 2 against teams that had more players and more resources.
ET rebounded the next week by hammering Stephen F. Austin 44-7, setting them up with the only NAIA conference team they had to really worry about, Angelo State. The Lions had clinched an NAIA birth after beating SFA, of their 7 games against NAIA schools, they were 7-0. Angelo had also been in the top 4 of the NAIA, this game was going to be for seeding in the NAIA playoffs and top NAIA team in the LSC.
Battling at Memorial Stadium, the two squads finished off the regular season in a 13-13 tie. The game was as intense as could be, but neither could keep the upper hand. It was a tie in the truest sense of the word.
At the end of the regular season, the LSC Standings looked like this:
- Southwest Texas, 8-3 Overall, 6-1 Conference
- Angelo State, 8-1-1 Overall, 5-1-1 Conference
- Texas A&I, 7-4-0 Overall, 5-2-0 Conference
- East Texas 7-2-1 Overall, 4-2-1 Conference
- Stephen F. Austin, 4-6-0 Overall, 4-3-0 Conference
- Sam Houston State, 3-7-0 Overall, 2-5-0 Conference
- Abilene Christian, 2-8-0 Overall, 1-6-0 Conference
- Howard Payne, 1-8-1 Overall, 0-7-0 Conference
However, since the NAIA polls only counted performance against NAIA teams, this how the NAIA ranked the teams in the conference-
T-1. East Texas, 7-2-1 Overall, 4-0-1 Conference, Angelo State, 8-1-1 Overall, 4-0-1 Conference
3.Stephen F. Austin, 4-6-0 Overall, 4-1-0 Conference
4.Sam Houston State, 3-7-0 Overall, 2-3-0 Conference
5. Abilene Christian, 2-8-0 Overall, 1-4-0 Conference
6. Howard Payne, 1-8-1 Overall, 0-5-0 Conference
The fact the Lions had lost to A&I and that ASU had beaten A&I got the Rams a higher seed, but that did not seem to matter in the end. By that team, the NAIA had expanded to 8 teams for a playoff field.
The Lions drew the # 1 ranked NAIA team in the country, the Central Arkansas Bears. UCA was 10-0 and was primed to make a run at the National title. The Lions went into Conway, Arkansas with no fear and quickly established themselves as a team that was there to compete. With 10:51 in the first quarter, Wade Wilson took the QB keeper from a yard out to put ET up 6-0 after the kick was blocked. UCA got the lead when Phil Calwell ran for 1 yard to put UCA up 7-6. It was the final time the Bears would lead the Lions the rest of the way.
With 11:46 left in the second quarter, Cary Noiel scored on a 1 yard TD run and scored the two point conversion on the next play to put the Lions up 14-7. On the next drive, Wilson hit Randy Smith from 28 yards out to make the score 21-7 Lions. The Bears would score right before the half to pull within 7 at 21-14.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Bears tied the game on a 49 yard TD reception from Randy Huffstickler to Nakita Robinson. The Lions then went on a drive that sealed the doom of the top ranked team. Working their way down the field and the clock, the Lions burned a lot of time that resulted on a 3rd down trap call that saw Cary Noiel get his second touchdown of the day to seal the win. The Lion defense would stop the Bears final attempt, and the Lions collected their huge win and hardware and headed back to Commerce.
The Lions would face third ranked Elon College, who had beaten second ranked Concord 17-14 at Memorial Stadium in Commerce. The town was abuzz, would the Lions win again? If so, they would host the winner of Kearny State and Northeastern State in the National Title game in Commerce. All they had to do was get past Elon.
The 1980 NAIA semifinal game was a disaster for the Lions. Wade Wilson threw 4 interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. Charles Womack of Elon picked a Wilson pass in the first quarter to get Elon on the board first. Neither offense could do anything in the second quarter. The next score would not happen until Wilson hit Ron Trammell from 10 yards out to pull within 7-6. The kick was no good, really putting the Lions in a bind.
Early in the fourth, Elon was ready to punt the ball back to the Lions, but a roughing the punter call on ET gave The Phoenix a first down at the ET 33. Fred Jordan took a handoff and exploded for a 33 yard touchdown run to make the score 14-6. The Lions got inside the 20 yard line twice but stalled twice in the 4th. The Lions had one more chance and got down to the 3 yard line, but failed on 4th and goal with 24 seconds left. It was a defensive struggle for both teams, but the Lions had not done anything to help their cause. They turned the ball over 7 times, 4 interceptions and 3 fumbles. The next week Elon would cruise to a national title win over Northeastern Oklahoma State 30-10. One might wonder if the Lions should have lifted the crown had the played the way they had against UCA.
However, the 1980 team is still one of the best in school history. 8-3-1 and finished at number 5 in the country. The team was inducted into the A&M-Commerce Athletic Hall of Fame two decades later.
All-Americans-Danny Kirk & Wade Wilson (NAIA First Team)
LSC First Team-Danny Kirk, Cary Noiel, Curtis Ray, Wade Wilson, Ron Trammell.
LSC Second Team-Jimmy Buster, Blake Cooper, Anthony Freeman, David Midolo, Randy Smith.
LSC Honorable Mention-Vic Combs, Dennis Hagen, David Lowe, Bishop Spencer.