The Scene: Pure Bedlam..
On a cold evening at Texas A&M-Commerce’s Memorial Stadium on Ernest Hawkins field, students and fans rushed the field to celebrate something they have not celebrated in 45 years. Their team was going to the National Championship. In fact, that very day marked 45 years since The Lions lifted the N.A.I.A Division I National Championship Trophy in Commerce, Texas. It was the largest crowd in the history of Memorial Stadium, an overflow crowd of over 13,000 fans saw the Lions clinch a spot in the NCAA Division II national title game.
At the center of the melee is the Lion’s head coach, 41 year old Colby Carthel. Carthel, holding his 3 year old son Major in his arm while giving kudos for his team for their run to the national title is standing by a man that has literally and figuratively been at his side during his very successful 5 years in Commerce. He is also the last head coach to be in this position. 90 year old Ernest Hawkins stands, waiting for his role in a beloved post game tradition, the roll call. Carthel orders his players up, and Hawkins takes the center, raising this hands and directing the singing. Before you know it, nearly 80 football players and scores of fans belt out the chorus of the traditional church hymn When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. After the song chorus fades, Hawkins and Carthel embrace. Hawkins had waited for years to embrace a successor in the joy that he would be going to his own national title, and finally got that. Then, the players and fans turn towards the Lion Pride Marching Band to sing the alma mater. With the Northeast Texas Blackland Prairie wind swirling, the fans face the press box with reads ERNEST HAWKINS FIELD at the top. This field was named after the man that literally built it.
A Cotton Pickin’ Time-
Hawkins road to local folk hero started in the West Texas town of Lamesa. The son of sharecroppers in the Texas Panhandle, Hawkins excelled in virtually everything in school at Lamesa High. He picked cotton and other crops when school was out, and excelled on the field and in the classroom when school was in. Graduating in 1944 from Lamesa High School as salutatorian. After his school boy days were done, he headed straight to Lubbock to attend Texas Tech University on a Football scholarship. His athletic prowess also earned him a spot on the Tech Basketball team, but in 1945, duty to his Country called as World War II was in full mode. Joining the United States Armed Forces, he spent two years in the US Navy on an aircraft carrier that was stationed in the Carribean. After the war had ended, he returned back to the South Plains and also to Tech. Rather than just play Basketball, he also joined the Track team and became the starting quarterback for the Tech Football team from 1947-1949.
Viva The Matadors-
Tech head coach Dell Morgan was the definition of a conventional football coach, but he was not afraid to try new things. Throwing the football was one of those things. Like his quarterback, Morgan played and coached other sports than Football. He had coached Basketball at Tech and later coached Baseball at Auburn and Rice. Morgan saw that he possessed a well rounded athlete calling the signals for his offense, and let him take extra chances. One of those chances came in the Fall of 1948. On the 25th of September, Morgan took his Red Raiders from the South Plains to the Brazos Valley in East Central Texas to take on an up and coming Texas A&M Aggie team. The game was always a huge game with bitter rivals always knocking heads in an intense fashion. Morgan let Hawkins throw, and it throw he did, enough for Dell’s Raiders to take down their rivals 20-14. It was one of the biggest wins in Morgan’s tenure and certainly an added sweetness on their way to their second of three Border Conference Championships.
When Hawkins graduated from Tech in 1950, he had played 3 sports, QB’d the Raiders to three conference titles, and had married his high school sweetheart Margaret in addition to serving his country for 2 years. Nearly 500 miles across the state, a local community college would be having to restock a Football program in the Northeast Texas town of Paris. Hawkins was offered a job as assistant head coach and offensive backs coach for the Paris Green Dragons, in addition to coaching the college’s Basketball team. His reputation as a championship winning quarterback had preceded him, but it helped having a fellow Tech grad that had been named head coach at PJC. Bob Baillio, had played Football with Hawkins at Tech and the two had known each other for years. Hawkins took the chance and moved his family to Northeast Texas to start his coaching career. After 3 seasons as an assistant and a Paris Dragon program brought back to respectability, Baillio left and Hawkins became the head coach at PJC in 1954. By that time, he had started a family with two daughters LuAnne and Kathy, and a son, Ray. In three years as head coach, Hawkins led the Dragons to a 32-20-1 record from 1954-1956 with a conference title in 1954. It was also at that time, Hawkins had enrolled as a graduate student at East Texas State College in Commerce, a town 40 miles to the southwest that also had come to national prominence as a small college power. Two Tangerine Bowl apperances and over a dozen conference titles in the Lone Star Conference had created a program that was feared and respected. However, the 1956 season was a huge letdown for the Lions who went 2-8 with a woeful offense that was one dimensional. Lions head coach J.V. Sikes knew of this young offensive minded coach who was attending ETSC’s graduate school. He sought him out and asked him to come along to Commerce to help get the Lion offense rolling again after he finished his graduate studies. He accepted, and the success that followed was immense.
Waking The Lion-
From 1957-1959, the Lions went 28-3, won three Lone Star Conference Championships in addition to two Tangerine Bowl Championships. The 1958 Tangerine Bowl victory was marked as a special win, as the Lions from ETSC were the only college team from Texas to win their Bowl game that season. It was also during this time that the roll call tradition was born. JV Sikes believed that the earlier the practices, the more time he had to prepare his team mentally and physically. The team found itself not exactly being fully awake, so a player (still not identified to this day) insisted they sing a toe tapping version of the gospel church song. After a win over Abilene Christian, the players started to sing the song. It became a tradition that after every win, the chorus was sung. Hawkins embraced it so much that he led the roll calls even as an assistant. It was also during this time that he tutored a very talented Lion QB named Sam McCord. “Stumblin Sam”, as he was known, took his game to the next level by learning to run Sikes’ power T formation and became an efficient passer. That got him drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the 1960 NFL draft. Things were good in Commerce. Then in a unexpected way, things changed forever.
The News printed across all of the country in major outlets had reported that J.V. Sikes, the head of the potent ETSC Lion Football program, had collapsed and died after a round of golf with some friends at the University golf course. In less than two weeks, Hawkins was named the head football coach. He had a tall order. The Lions had not been the dominating force they had been in the past, and that needed to change fast, but with so many changes coming to the both the school and football program, this was a time when someone extraordinary would be needed. On top of that, East Texas State was finally about follow a court ordered mandate to fully integrate and admit Black students that had already met admission standards. While most in the administration in Commerce were rubbing their heads about the possible issues that could arise from something as messy as integration in a town that was in excess of 95 percent white, Hawkins was ready to recruit Black players. Lion tailback Curtis Guyton, the first Black All-American in Lion football history once said “I was kind of careful about going to Commerce, but when everyone was seeing Black and White, Coach Hawk was one of the first colorblind White Men I had ever met. He could not have cared less about me being a different skin color, he saw I worked hard and could play, and he treated me fairly.”
James Thrower was also one of the early Black Athletes that played for Hawkins. Now a successful businessman that spent some time in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, Thrower came to Commerce to play Basketball, but ended up playing Football also. He recalls a time when the Lions were on the road and walked into a restaurant where the ownership said they would either serve only the White players, or the Black players could eat outside while the rest of the players could eat inside. Hawkins turned to his coaches and without thinking walked his team out. “Our coaches would not stand for that kind of behavior or thinking.” said Thrower.
Hawkins first season in Commerce was rough. The Lions had their worst record since the 1956 season, going 2-7 only defeating Southeastern Louisiana and Howard Payne. Virtually all losses were close, but the Lions were a young team. Many of the players that had experience had either transferred or left school all together. Also, Hawkins was implementing his offense fully and was looking for a group of players who could execute it. In the meantime, explosive players like Guyton were a saving grace who could help stop some of the pains of growing into a new offense. The next season, the Lions went 4-5 with an improved defense and an improved offense. 1966 would be the season to breath life back into the storied program.
In 1966, East Texas State College had become East Texas State University. It came at a perfect time. That season, Hawkins and the Lions won the Lone Star Conference title outright for the first time since 1959. For the first time in his Career he defeated the legendary Coach Gil Steinke who coached Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) and won 6 national titles. Despite going 4-6 the next year, Hawkins went 7-2-1 in 1968 and then won a share of the LSC title in 1969. After 6 seasons, Hawkins was 29-26-3 with two conference titles and 3 winning seasons, and ET was back to being a contender for the Lone Star Conference title.
By the time the 1970’s had started, most of the social change that had engulfed most of the world was calming down in Northeast Texas. Hawkins had his Lions in the running every year. He had inherited a young set of players for the 1970 and 1971 season. Again, not horrible results, but some were wondering if the shine of the Golden fifties was ever going to come back.
1972 changed everything. Entering his 9th season with a 40-37-3 record, Hawkins led his team an 8-2 regular season record and a # 4 ranking in the N.A.I.A Division I polls. That final spot got the Lions back into the post season for the first time in 14 years. Fans were nervous though, they had to face off with number one team in the country in the national semifinal. The Central Oklahoma State Bronchos were undefeated and had not faced a team that could beat them. In front of a full Memorial Stadium crowd, The Lions destroyed UCO 54-0. The next week, the Lions made history, taking down Carson-Newman 21-18 in the national title game. That team featured future Super Bowl MVP Harvey Martin and future NFL players Will Cureton, Autry Beamon, Tim Collier, and Aundra Thompson. 7 players from that team went on to have NFL careers, most of them were NFL starters. Cureton, who played Quarterback for that team said “we had a tremendous amount of talent on that team, and the amount of players that we put into the NFL during that those year was impressive by anyone’s standards.”
From that point on, the Lions were in the upper echelon of the Lone Star Conference. From 1970-1979, The Lions were 64-43-2, notching 8 winning seasons that decade, all of them at least 7 win seasons. As the new decade came, Hawkins would lead the Lions to one last streak of success.
Hawkins had an attitude when it came to offense that was ahead of his time. He loved to throw the ball. Cary Noiel, an All-American tailback for Hawkins said about the game plan; “He saw the pass as just an important part of an offensive attack as the run. We ran and threw depending on which one was going to score the most points, not what because we could only do one or the other. We were playing chess and everyone else was playing checkers.”
Hawkins had recruited a quarterback that played his high school football on the same field that he coached on. Wade Wilson had led Commerce High School to it’s best season in school history as a Senior in 1976. Wilson was everything Hawkins wanted in a quarterback. A strong arm, well built, and a commanding confidence when he was huddle. “When Wade was in the huddle, you knew he was in charge.” said Noiel.
In 1980, The Lions had another run at the national title. Wilson had shown himself to be the best Quarterback in the NAIA. After knocking off the number one ranked team in the country, the Central Arkansas Bears, the Lions returned home to face Elon College. The stage was set for the Lions to head back to the national title. Bobby Wolfe, who played as a Freshman on the 1980 team remembers “The talk around town was about how we were going knock out Elon and play a Northeastern Oklahoma team that was not that strong. A lot of people had basically expected us to run through them both. With the way Wade was throwing and the way were running and defense had been playing, most of us thought that.”
The semifinal game was a disaster. Wade Wilson threw 5 interceptions, more than he had thrown in the previous 11 games. Also, the Lions turned the ball over 7 times, including on what could have been the game tying drive. The Lions lost their first postseason game in program history 14-6. The Lions finished ranked sixth in the country with an 8-3-1 record. Elon went on to easily beat Northeastern Oklahoma the next week to win the National Title.
The final stretch of Hawkins head coaching career did not see a lack of winning or championships. From 1980-1985 he had 4 winning records, one conference title, one finish as national semifinalists, and multiple players that went into the NFL. In his final 6 years, he was 39-23-1. Hawkins also stewarded the movement of Lion Football from the only confines they had known in the N.A.I.A to the NCAA Division II in 1982. After a year, they won 8 games and a Lone Star conference title. Their lone loss in conference that year was to eventual National Champion Southwest Texas State. It was the fifth time in his career that Hawkins had lost to an eventual National Champion. He retired from coaching at the end of the 1985 season.
The Time: Not Ready to Finish Yet.
Hawkins became an associate athletic director after coaching, serving in that role from 1986-1995. His successor to run the Lion Football team was about as different as he could be. A young and intense coach from Oklahoma named Eddie Vowell had been running the Lion defense for 3 years, and Hawkins had recommended him for the job. Hawkins had to watch the team he had been the head of for over 2 decades fall to back to back 2-9 seasons. He knew why, because he had experienced it. Many players either transferred or left school because of the coaching change. It was not long where saw the Lions be resurrected by Vowell in the same way he had done two decades earlier. An assistant who served under Hawkins and Vowell noted that “Coach Hawk knew that Coach Vowell had what it took to turn it around. He knew it was going to be tough at the start, and it took a gritty confidence and a hard nosed approach, that is why he told the school that he should be the guy to take over for him.” Under Vowell, the success continued, as the Lions made runs for the National title in 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1995. Ranked in all those seasons at the end of the year, those seasons under Vowell were the last bit of success that Lion football would have for almost two decades.
In 1996, East Texas State became Texas A&M-Commerce and Hawkins retired fully from his position as associate AD. He had served East Texas State for 38 years of his life, and then he began to enjoy his post working days. His wife Margaret, who had seen him work tirelessly to take a program that had slumped and create one of the best small college programs in the nation, was now the center of his attention. The two started to travel the world with one another, enjoy their grandchildren, and their time together. According to their son Ray, it was the first time the two had the ability to solely focus on one another. Hawkins loved to fish and became even more active in his Church and in his Community. In 2012, his beloved Margaret passed away. Former player Russell McLean recounted;”I thought maybe he might go down a little after losing the wife he was married to for 63 years, but he kept staying active in that community. He still had a purpose, and a sense that he was needed for things on this earth.”
Hawkins was not going anywhere while he was still needed in Commerce, especially with other coaches coming in trying to make the Lions a winner again.
Guy Morriss became the head coach at Texas A&M-Commerce in 2009. Morriss said about Hawkins; “He was always there, and while part of you knew you wanted to impress him because this guy was the most successful coach in the program’s history, him being there was this reassurance that you had his support, and I thought, what better guy to have your back than the best coach in the program history? He was active and he wanted us to win, and whenever I needed or wanted to talk to him, he was always there. That meant a lot to me.”
The Day of Honor-
It was a day that many thought might not come while Hawkins was still living. On a beautiful fall day in Commerce where Seniors were being honored and the Military being honored, Colby Carthel is on the field along with TAMUC President Dr. Ray Keck, and Athletic Director Tim McMurray. This was the day that Memorial Stadium would have a name enhancement. Today, it would become Ernest Hawkins Field. The tarp fell off the top of the upper part of the west side press box, and on the eastern side, the same thing happened. ERNEST HAWKINS FIELD was revealed. The crowd roared with approval. This was bigger than naming the field after a man who deserved it, it was about an identity that had been lost but now was found after nearly 2 decades of mediocre performances not just in Football, but in many areas of the University. That day, what was found again was identity in hard work, toughness, determination, education, and goodness to your fellow man. Ernest Hawkins was the embodiment of that identity.
At a family member’s home in North Texas, Hawkins is watching Lion Quarterback Luis Perez take the final knee to run out the clock. It had been exactly 45 years and 7 days since he ordered Will Cureton to take that knee to run out the clock on a bitterly cold North Texas day in 1972. Hawkins got up out of his comfortable chair and led the roll call with his family. They were all smiles, at last, Ernest Hawkins had seen his beloved Lions win another national title. While the Television is talking about the NFL prospects for the Lions current QB, the focus switches to what Hawkins did with many of his own Signal callers. Hawkins is one of a handful of coaches on ANY level in College Football that placed more than one starting Quarterbacks in the NFL. He coached 4 of them.
It is a chilly Saturday Morning in Commerce. Cars are parked all over and around the block of Main Street and Washington Street that surround First Baptist Church of Commerce, where Hawkins and his family had worshiped for almost 50 years. Former players see each other and hug. Some not that they have not been back to Commerce in years, while others poke fun at each other’s graying hair and weight gain that comes with getting older. Today is not a sad day, that is not what Ernest Hawkins would have wanted on his funeral day. It is a day where a family can rest in the love that is being shown to them, a day where players can recall some of the best days of their lives and a man who was important to those days being so special. A day where a University and a Community understands what they have gained because of the efforts of just one man. Everyone sees him as a different person. To his children, he is simply Dad, to players, he will always be Coach, to community and church members, he will be Ernest. As I depart back to Dallas, I drive down Live Oak Street, and pass Memorial Stadium. In two weeks, Colby Carthel and his Lions will start spring practice on that field. The one thing that sticks out is the press box on the west side that reads in bold Letters; “ERNEST HAWKINS FIELD, HOME OF THE LIONS.
I pull over to the east side parking and get out of my car. The sun is shining for just a moment, and the backland prairie breeze blows as it always does in a town closer to Oklahoma than to Dallas. Then I realize something. Ernest Hawkins is there. He never left. He never left when he handed the reigns over to Vowell. He never left when he fully retired. He never left when a new coach from West Texas came into town to befriend him.
Ernest Hawkins was there. His spirit lives on in the field that carries his name. Every team after him and every group that comes after will play on Ernest Hawkins Field will be a part of that great legacy. His name lives on, his legacy lives on, his spirit lives on. That spirit includes every good thing that a man could possibly be.
Ernest Hawkins life was temporary, but his good name will live forever. In the The Book of Proverbs a verse reads that, “a good name is better than riches” and his name is one of those good names. A name that will always be there.
Ernest Hawkins will always be there.
Now you know who Ernest Hawkins is.
The Greatest Coach You Never Heard Of.