This Saturday when the Lions take the field against Texas-Permian Basin, they will be the first team to run onto Ernest Hawkins Field. For close to a half decade, there has been a serious push to have some kind of honor for Coach Hawkins, the winningest coach in Lion football history. He did many very important things for the program, the school, and the town, but here are the ten most important things that the greatest coach in the history of the program has done.
- He established a tradition of winning and excellence. There was success before Hawkins and success after Hawkins, but it was what he did in the 21 years as head coach that is what created the Lion pride you see today. When predecessor JV Sikes passed away, Lion football was on a little bit of a slump. Hawkins was forced into a nearly impossible situation, but he was about winning and making sure that this group of hard nosed and smart players from the teacher’s college in Commerce, TX would continue to succeed and win championships, and that is what he did. Everyone knew who East Texas State was when he became head coach, and he was an amazing steward of the position, but he did not just play gatekeeper. He raised the bar by winning championships, and enhancing the tradition of winning that he inherited.
- Integration-The 1960’s was a tough time to be alive, as societal norms were changing. It was tough enough forcing schools that wanted to stay all White to integrate, it was even tougher to force white coaches to recruit and play Black players. Some refused to the point of being outright hostile to any Black students. Ernest Hawkins did not just accept Black players, he recruited them and welcomed them to Commerce. He signed and recruited the first Black players in school history and he found some jewels in players like Curtis Guyton, Arthur James, and Dwight White. Longtime rival and former Texas A&I head coach Gil Stienke said about Hawkins; “What he is doing, it is not an easy thing, but doing the right thing never is. Black and White boys can fight wars together now, they sure as heck should be able to play football together. It’s a shame more can’t see it that way.”
- Offensive Innovation-Blake Cooper played for ET from 78-82. I remember asking him what kind of offense they ran under Hawkins, and he said “Slot-I.” I remember thinking (and saying) “slot I?” Coach Cooper replied “Yes sir, he was a coach ahead of him time.” Cary Noiel, an All-American tailback said “when it came to offense, we were playing chess when everyone else was playing checkers, the offense was always a move ahead of most of the defenses we played.” It was one thing to throw the ball more than average back then, it was another thing to essentially say by your offensive plan of attack that passing was not a necessary evil, but it was just necessary. Hawkins brought Lion football into the modern age when it was before his time, just like he was.
- National Championship-There are many great college programs that win constantly but have never won a national title. Hawkins took care of that in only his 9th year as head coach. The Lions were picked to finish 5th that year in the conference, but Hawkins said before that year he felt the Lions “are better than that, in fact, quite a bit better.” That National title season was one where the Lions proved they did belong among the great programs in the nation. Routing the number 1 ranked team and the next week beating a very good Carson-Newman team was the cherry on top. Few teams can say without a doubt they were the best in the land, and the 1972 Lions can without a doubt they were.
- NFL Players-During Hawkins tenure, he produced 3, that is right, 3 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Will Cureton started for the Browns in 1974, Wade Wilson was an All-Pro started for 3 teams, and Kyle Mackey Started for both the Cardinals and the Jets in the 1980’s. Dwight White, a three time pro bowler, Super Bowl MVP Harvey Martin, and Lineman Sam Walton are just the pick of the very abundant crop of Lions that went to the NFL. That does not include NFL starters such as Autry Beamon, Tim Collier, and Aundra Thompson and the numerous draft picks that played for various teams.
- Winning Big Games-The measure of a coach is how well his team plays in big games. The Lions had a lot of big games under Hawkins, and won a lot of them. Whether it was defeating an A&I team in 1966, a very good SFA team in 1969 to win a share of the LSC title, winning 4 straight games to win the national title in 1972, shattering A&I’s win streak in 1977, and handing them a 3-0 loss in 1979. The 1980’s were the same thing. The 1980 Lions defeated 2 ranked teams in the regular season before knocking off # 1 and previously undefeated Central Arkansas to gain a berth in the national semi-finals, and then to top it off in 1983 by beating both SFA and Angelo State to get a share of the LSC title. Hawkins always had his team prepared.
- Coaching Staffs-Hawkins built great coaching staffs, and always credited his assistants for the success of the Lions. “Coach Hawk was a master delegator. He let his coaches coach but he had a firm print to make sure that his agenda for the team was going to get done. It allowed him to focus on the big picture.” With coaches like Boley Crawford, Bobby Fox, Sam McCord, and Charles Goodall, Hawkins had a fantastic set of coaches around him and never was shy about sharing success with them.
- Community Involvement-After retiring, Hawkins made it clear he wanted to stay in Commerce and be a part of the community. He would drive just a few minutes outside of town to meet up with friends at a local fishing hole and see everyone on Sunday mornings at First Baptist Church in Commerce. He also attended games for all sports, not just football. He could be seen walking around campus just to stop and say hi the Football players and the coaches. Hawkins loves Commerce, and Commerce loves Hawkins.
- Mentorship-I remember the 2009 game against Texas A&M-Kingsville. The Javelinas were very good that year, and it was Guy Morriss’s first year. The Lions had won 2 straight games and had gone back and forth with a very talented Javelina team, but could not quite get the win. After the game, Coach Morriss was disappointed, but I remember Coach Hawkins walking over to him, shaking his hand, and putting his arm around him and saying; “Coach, I am going to tell you something, you are not going to lose anymore this year. Just keep doing what you are doing.” He was right, the Lions won 3 straight to finish the year and win the LSC north title. Hawkins had been in that situation before almost 40 years prior, and he was doing what he could to make sure that he helped in every way possible.
- Identity-Every school has a coach that it can tie it’s identity to. It is only fitting that field that will have the namesake of a larger than life coach has a larger than life mascot head. It is rare and unique. On that field have been many fine victories, and some tough defeats, but always at the end, those who love the blue and gold would turn, face the band with the lucky lion sign, and close the school song with a simple but powerful line, “ALL HAIL TO ET!” That identity was made that much better by Ernest Ray Hawkins.
Ernest Hawkins Field, what a great name.