At the beginning of the 1979 season, there was an air of rebuilding around the Lion program. Coming off a rare losing season of 4-7 the year before, Coach Ernest Hawkins and his crew were determined to improve. It was going to take a lot of work. Texas A&I (the eventual 1979 NAIA National Champion), Angelo State(NAIA National Semifinalist), and Central Oklahoma (NAIA National Finalist)were all on the schedule.
The 1979 season was one of fits and starts. A three game losing streak to begin the season, including a 17-6 loss to Central Oklahoma, may have had some wondering….had the venerable Ernest Hawkins lost his touch ? Was the magic gone?
The answer was a resounding no. The Lions rebounded, and ripped off three straight wins over Sam Houston State, Howard Payne, and Abilene Christian at Homecoming. Then came Southwest Texas. The Bobcats were on the verge of moving up to the NCAA. They were big, they were fast, and they were deep. And they gave the Lions a beating, 45-14. As if the sting of defeat weren’t enough, when the defensive players reported for practice Monday, every one of them, starters or not, found a reminder on their helmets, courtesy of coaches Bobby Fox and Ron Newsome. Red smiley face stickers. When asked, Coach Newsome responded that “We killed them with kindness!” The players who staffed the Blue Gang were a proud group, and they took this gesture personally. It was one that would prove to have the desired effect.
The Javaleinas came to Commerce undefeated and with a high national ranking. They were a championship contender. And they knew it. Led by such All Americans as Durwood Roquemore, Jafus White. Don Washington, Martin Stroman, Robert Pool, and John Herrrera, they were on a roll, The Lions were just another stop on the road to a title. For them, it was a chance to enjoy a nice drive, lay a beat down on a .500 Lion team, and resume chasing bigger goals. The Lions, however, had other plans.
It was a quiet and nervous locker room. Coach Hawkins was never the sort for the big pregame pep talk. The one memory that stands out was Bobby Fox addressing his defense. Long past the previous week’s criticism, now was the time for praise and inspiration. There wasn’t much to say, except a simple direction:
“We’re gonna run 71 Knife at them and get after their ass!!” Bobby Fox
And get after the Piggies, they did. The defense that killed the Southwest Texas Bobcats with kindness the previous week, instead on this brisk November evening, took out all that anger on the crew from Kingsville. They took it personally. Each play was a street fight. Every yard was contested to the extreme. To a man, they made the decision that they were not going to allow a score. At all.
On the other side of the ball, the Lion offense, while moving efficiently between the 20 yard lines, struggled inside the Piggies red zone. Fumble, interception, penalty, broken assignment, there always seemed to be something that kept the Lions out of the end zone. It was a mounting frustration, one that finally boiled over in Ernest Hawkins yelling at his offensive coordinator and line coach, Boley Crawford;
“If we get down there again, I’m kicking the darned thing!!!”
It would take a while, but behind the golden arm of Wade Wilson, and the tough running of Cary Noiel, the Lions eventually would drive back inside the 20, and true to his word, Hawkins called for the field goal. This time, the determination paid off, and the Lions clung precariously to a 3-0 lead.
It was a lead they would make hold up. Behind a ball control offense, and the continued grit of the Blue Gang, Texas A&I would leave Commerce that November night with a loss. It would prove to be their only loss en route to a National Title.
If you look at the history books, a 5-5 record in 1979 would be kind of ho hum. Look a little deeper, though, and you will find a conference record of 5-2, and continuing what was another Lion tradition with a 4-1 home record: PROTECT THIS HOUSE.
It was a lesson that, on this November night in Commerce, that the Piggies (Thank You, Billy Minor!)would learn the hard way.