Ever since I can remember, I have loved looking at stadiums across Texas. I remember when I was a kid the first stadium I ever saw was Canton’s Norris Birdwell Stadium. I was born in Dallas and my family would drive through the smaller towns to get to East Texas when were moving from the Metroplex to East Texas. We would pass through towns like Terrell and Kaufman, but to me there was something about Canton’s stadium that just grabbed my attention. It seemed to big to me, mainly because I was such a small kid. Then, I remember the first football game I attended was at Tyler’s Rose Stadium when I was in elementary school, I was amazed at this 14,000 plus seat stadium and it’s sloped bowl shape. Being just a kid, I was amazed at this because to me, stadiums showed the character of towns and schools. Regardless of whatever part of Texas I went through, I always wanted to see the stadium.
My first experience of Commerce’s Memorial Stadium goes back to my high school days. I was a Freshman when our Track Coach scheduled a last second track meet. Most everyone was out of town for spring break, but I wanted to run, and getting the chance to run on a college track was something I wanted to experience. I had never been to Commerce and wanted to go where my Dad had gone to college and compete on that same track. After about an hour and a half drive, we pulled up and I thought “whoa, there is one side, but it is huge.” I ran distance, so the track seemed so large on side and short on the other. Anyway, I returned to Commerce 3 years later as a Senior competing in academic UIL. I saw the stadium from a patio outside the old student center. I really thought it had a lot of potential if the program put something towards it, and sure enough, that would happen.
Memorial Stadium was started as a project of the East Texas State Ex Students Association. They had helped raise money to build a new stadium in addition to an arena for Basketball and other events, this of course being the Fieldhouse of today. The funds raised were enough to get the State of Texas to appropriate funds to complete the project. The entire stadium would cost about 325,000 dollars (equal to about 3.6 million dollars today, adjusted for inflation). The stadium would feature a main concourse of 10,000 seats and then an additional 2,000 seats made of wood and supported by metal beams on the opposite side. Ground broke in the fall of 1949, the final season the Lions would play at the old College field. The Stadium opened in the fall of 1950, which the Lions faced off with North Texas State and lost 42-20 in front of 12,000 fans packed to the brim in the stadium. Originally, the stadium was going to be a one sided stadium only, however, the University athletic department would often bring the additional seats for big games and homecoming events. There was also a track added around, right off the bat, the new facility at East Texas State won rave reviews from outside observers. The Stadium was simply named Memorial Stadium in honor of the ET students that were killed during World War II. A plaque that is still there today, has a quote by General Douglas MacArthur: “Upon the fields of friendly strife, are sown the seeds that, Upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”
Though MacArthur was not there for the dedication, he wrote to University President James Gee that he was “delighted and honored” to have his quote fixed to that plaque. In attendance that day was US Speaker of the House and ET alum Sam Rayburn and Texas Lt. Governor Walter Woodul.
History was made in November of 1972 as the first postseason game was played at Memorial Stadium. The NAIA National Semifinals saw the ET Lions route the top ranked Central Oklahoma Bronchos 54-0. The next week, the Lions won their first National Championship at Memorial Stadium by defeating Carson-Newman 21-18. At this point, the school started to keep the stadium’s west side up permanently due to the sheer amount of success the Lions would have in the 1970’s and the community involvement. Homecoming usually saw packed crowds and when Commerce’s population reached it’s zenith at 9,600 residents in 1974. The enrollment of ETSU was also hovering around 9,000. The team had just won a national championship and the Lone Star Conference was full of good rivalries.
Then, in the late 1970’s, the school decided to make Memorial Stadium one sided permanently unless there was need to bring additional seating in the case of the postseason play. This allowed for the construction of tennis courts on the east side of the field, as the school wanted to allow for the hosting of the NAIA national tennis tournament. The school would win a National Championship in Tennis in both the 1972 and 1978 season and it appeared that is the way things would be. Despite having that one side, it was full just about every Saturday.
In 1980, the Lions hosted the NAIA Division I National Semifinals again, this time, losing a postseason game for the first time in school history, 14-6. However, that did not stop the Lions from winning nearly .700 percent of their games at home, giving them true home field advantage.
In 1991, The Lions once again made history by hosting the first NCAA event at Memorial Stadium, a 36-15 win over Grand Valley State in the NCAA Division II playoffs first round. Mild changes came from time to time, however, the stadium continued to age. Despite the support of the students and boosters, money was in short supply. This continued and the continued success of the program seemed to have little bearing on the stadium.
The first set of changes came before the 2006 season. The grass field that had been there for 55 years. Also, the chain link fence that had created the barrier was replaced by a cast iron fence and the red cinder track would all be replaced by more modern amenities. The scoreboard, which had not been replaced in 20 years, was finally getting a digital scoreboard. All of this would take place before the 2006 season.
In 2009, Guy Morriss was hired as head football coach and Dr. Dan Jones became the new University President. Teaming up with then-Athletic Director Carlton Cooper, the plans were in the works to reconstruct the east side stands in addition to adding an east side press box, a stadium wide wifi network, and a new locker room for the Football program. In 2010, the project was completed that extended the capacity to 13,500 fans and the new video jumbotron was at one point, the second largest in all of Division II athletics. After 3 seasons, the Lion was resurrected.
Ryan Ivey became athletic director in late 2012 and Colby Carthel became head football coach in early 2013. Then, the field became a press clipping for those who were intrigued by the world record sized mascot head.
The Field created a sense of character for Memorial Stadium. Not only did the giant Lion Head bring a character to the field, but the painted end zones and the enhancements around the stadium that created a modern feel but also made the stadium a personal stadium to Texas A&M-Commerce with the character in color and shape. However, it was lacking just one more thing.
“What is in a name?” As Shakespeare once asked back in the 1500’s. For Memorial Stadium, it became a Lion legend personified. Ernest Hawkins was the only coach in the storied history of Lion football that had won a national title, and also the winningest coach in program history, had this new and splendid field named after him in November of 2017. No longer just Memorial Stadium, but Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium.