In 1996, the Texas A&M University System bought East Texas State University. The institution had fallen on hard times from an enrollment standpoint and the school was quickly becoming an afterthought to many future college students. Most of the students from the Metroplex and the surrounding North Texas area were deciding to go to schools closer to their homes and the East Texas students who had gone to the Northwest to Commerce saw schools like U-Texas-Tyler and other JUCO’s in East Texas as viable educational options. As the great Bob Dylan said, the times were a-changin.’
Then, the school known as East Texas State was changed to Texas A&M-Commerce. The A&M System sought to change the name to “more accurately describe the region the school is associated with.” Basically meaning that they felt having a school with the name East Texas that was actually in North Texas would help with a name change. That was not received well by alums and boosters who felt it was insulting to the school to have its name of 107 years changed simply to create a more accurate geographic description.
It had an effect on the Football program as well. After a 7-4 season in 1996, Coach Eddie Vowell’s last two years saw back to back 3-8 records. Vowell retired and former Stephen F, Austin Offensive Coordinator Eddie Brister became the head coach. From 1999-2003, the times got tougher. Brister had one winning season in 2001 with a 7-4 record, but only won 12 games over the course of the other 4 seasons he was in Commerce, hitting a low point of a 1-10 season in 2003, including a winless LSC record. Football under the A&M-Commerce banner had been a dumpster fire. Only 2 winning seasons in 7 years and a record of 32-51 since East Texas had left the names of the Lions uniforms. Respectability and an upward trend was now the goal, not simply winning.
After Brister left Commerce after the disastrous 2003 season, the Lions did not have to look very far for a new head coach. Scott Conley was a graduate of ETSU after he had played football for Texas A&M in 1966 during his freshman year, and had coached in many programs, ranging from Division I to JUCO teams and successful high school teams. Known as a successful offensive coach, he could recruit, and he could find talent. His alma mater needed help, and he came to help to restore it.
Conley had a tough job to do. He went 4-6 his first season, and then posted back to back 5-5 seasons in 2005 and 2006, but there was a feeling that the tide was turning to get Lion Football back on track. Conley’s 2006 defense was a top ten ranked defense nationally, but the offense had zero consistency was sputtering all the time, even finding a stable quarterback was a tough proposition. Conley brought his Shotgun Spread offense to Commerce and had won a National Title running it at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. He found his trigger man in a 29 year old former pro Baseball player who was the highest ranked JUCO QB in 2007, Terry Mayo. The defense was set and there were plenty of weapons on offense. It was time to make a run.
The 2007 season had the Lions aligned in the LSC North Division. TAMUC would be facing off with teams mainly from Oklahoma with the occasional Texas team thrown in the mix. The LSC North Title was certainly a realistic goal.
The season kicked off in exciting fashion as the Lions got to visit an old friend in Pittsburg State in Kansas, the fifth ranked team in the country. The game was on CBS and got to showcase the two teams. The Gorillas ran out to a 14-0 lead, but Mayo hit JaMichael Palmer on a 50 yard touchdown pass to pull the Lions within 7 at the half. The Gorillas responded, but the Lions did as well pulling to 21-14 late in the third. The Lion offense collected almost 500 yards of total offense but could not convert the drives into points, and PSU tacked on 7 more to cap the game and hold off the Lions 28-14. It felt like a game that got away, but the polls put the Lions in the Division II top 25 for the first time since 2001, checking them in at 17th heading into match up with Ouachita Baptist.
The Lions hosted the Tigers the next week in Commerce and from the start, the Lion defense looked stunned as to how to defend OBU’s spread offense attack. The Tigers ran out to a 20-7 lead before the Lions came back to take the lead late in the fourth at 27-26. OBU had not timeouts left with under 2 to go but worked their way down the field into field goal range. On the play that got the Tigers down to the Lion 32 yard line, the Tigers had to hurry and spike the ball quickly to get a shot. It seemed that time would run out but the Tiger QB clocked it just in time for a field goal try. The 49 yarder was good and would have been good from 59 yards as the Tigers dropped the Lions in a huge and disappointing loss.
The next week things cleared up a bit as the Lions took on Texas A&M-Kingsville in Commerce and hoisted the Chennault Cup as they took down the Javelinas 24-7. It was the first win over the rivals from South Texas since 2001. Two straight road trips against ranked rivals saw tougher losses. The Lions were sacked in Canyon by a top 5 West Texas A&M 45-14 and then beaten by a ranked Tarleton State 24-7 in Stephenville. To top it all off, Central Oklahoma came to Commerce and took the Lions to overtime. In the first Overtime, The Lions scored quickly, but missed the extra point, meaning all the Bronchos would have to do is score and have their PAT converted, and that is what happened. Halfway through the season, the Lions were down. A 1-5 start put a damper on the great expectations people had been hoping for.
Then, the late season surge started. Traveling 70 miles up the road to Durant, the Lions took down rival Southeastern Oklahoma 14-13. Back in Commerce The Lions soundly defeated Northeastern Oklahoma 30-3. The next week the Lions hosted Angelo State for homecoming and celebrated with a 20-17 win. Traveling to Ada, Oklahoma the Lions would be playing for something they had not been playing for since 1990, a share of a conference divisional title. Beating East Central would guarantee the Lions at least a share of the title, and the Lions played their best game of the year as they defeated ECU 43-21. The next week was simple, defeat Southwestern Oklahoma State on the road and claim the LSC North outright, or settle for a tie. The Lions had a huge letdown as their offense sputtered all day long as they lost to SWOSU 21-14.
The season was not by any means a failure. It raised expectations for Lion football. By winning 4 of their last 5 and getting a share of the North Division, the hopes were high for a future with Conley at the helm. Unfortunately, Conley was dealt a tough hand. He worked for 3 athletic directors in 5 seasons. He went 5-5 the following season and was dismissed. Conley may not have been brought Championship football, but he helped bring Lion Football back to a competitive level and should be remembered for his work in Commerce. He now works for the North Texas Football athletic department.
First Team All-LSC- Alex Contreras, Nabil El-Amin, Foaki Fifita, AJ Johnson, Elliot Jones, Deveon McKinney, Chris Miller, JaMichael Palmer, Luis Salazar, Darron Sheppard, Garnet Smith, Marcus Smith.
Second Team All-LSC- Terry Mayo, Daniel Swaim.
Honorable Mention All LSC- Trae Grimes
Personal Note: This was my final semester in Commerce. I graduated in December of 2007 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. This semester I made of lot of memories, as I attended every home game except one (Kingsville) and watched the Pitt State game on CBS with my Dad (a Commerce Grad) and made the trip to East Central with the campus BSM students and then drove to Southeastern and Southwestern with some great friends and great times I will never forget.