This is Part 3 in a Multi-Part series of the great traditions of our Alma Mater.
In sports, the old saying goes that “defense wins championships.” Personally I have not bought totally into that, I prefer that “the best defense is an unstoppable offense.” That being said, nobody can doubt that a team that plays championship level defense can beat any team on any given day or night. Many times a defense has had to carry a team physically, mentally, and emotionally to give them a victory. The University of Nebraska Cornhusker Football program is known for the “Blackshirts” defensive unit, Texas A&M is of course known for their wrecking crew defense, especially during the 1980’s and 1990’s. For the better part of 40 years, in Commerce, America, it has has been “The Blue Gang Defense.”
In 1971, Lion Head Coach Ernest Hawkins brought a young assistant coach to be the head of the Lion defense who was a proven winner. His name was Bobby Fox. He had played quarterback at East Texas State College from 1952-1955 and had won 4 straight Lone Star Conference Championships, two Tangerine Bowls, drafted by the Baltimore Colts, and was an All-American Quarterback his Senior year. Bobby Fox came in and gave the Lion football team something needed. The Lion offense could score, but in the Lone Star Conference hard nosed and physical defense was needed to be successful. The name “Blue Gang Defense” came when local photographers would snap pictures of “a gang of blue jerseys” swarming defenders. The nickname stuck. Fox brought that swagger to Commerce and in only his second year, that defense was instrumental in winning a National Championship during the 1972 season. That Lion defense featured future NFL starters Harvey Martin, Autry Beamon, and Tim Collier. From 1971-1982, The Lions won some huge games that were low scoring affairs, non bigger than in 1977 and 1979 when the Lions defeated two powerful Texas A&I squads 7-6 in 1977 and 3-0 in 1979. Few teams could score on the Lions with great success back then. Defense won those games.
Coach Fox left Commerce for rival Tarleton State in 1982. In 1983, Eddie Vowell showed up as a young and thriving assistant coach for the Lions from Gainesville, Texas. Hawkins was impressed, and decided to make him the defensive play caller He had played football at Southwest Oklahoma State and had a reputation of being a tough as nails coach. He got the most out of his players in his 3 seasons as defensive coordinator, helping the Lions to winning a LSC title in 1983. After 3 seasons, Vowell became head coach after Hawkins retired. It was time for a new leader of The Blue Gang.
Fortunately, Vowell did not have to look far. In his first two years, he tasked a well schooled coach in Henry Ross to take over the defense. Coach Ross had a tough task with being a new defensive coordinator with limited resources. In 1986 and 1987, the Lions finished 2-9 both times. However, even in those trying seasons, the Blue Gang mentality was still there. In the 1986 season, Coach Ross’s group gutted out performances that got the Lions their wins by shutting down Livingston 9-2, and then allowing an improved Lion offense to score, while holding Howard Payne to 16 points. So many of the games during those two years were kept close due to hard nosed defense.
After those two seasons, Ross decided to turn over the reigns of defensive coordinator back to Vowell who called defense during a resurgent 1988 season. Vowell needed someone familiar with the Blue Gang mentality from a player’s perspective. He had his man in a young Mark Copeland, who had played for Vowell’s defense, having been a two time All LSC performer and also had helped out with the defensive game plan in 1988. Copeland took over in 1989, and then took off. The 1985 J.V. Sikes Award winner, Copeland remained a key figure with the Lion football team, coaching the defensive unit from 1989-98 while spending nine years as the defensive coordinator. Under Copeland, East Texas State ranked among the top-20 in total defense seven times, including being ranked second nationally in 1992, while coaching multiple All-Americans. Copeland’s guidance helped the Lions to a conference title in 1990 and NCAA D2 playoff appearances in 1990, 1991, and 1995, however his 1992 defense may have been his best as they were statically the second best in the entire country from yards and points per game allowed. Copeland left in 1998, and the Lion football program waned for the better part of 15 years, but when Colby Carthel came in 2013, he brought a young and intense coach named Justin Deason to put the Blue Gang mentality back into action.
Under Deason, the Lions defense improved drastically in his his first year and then won conference titles in 2014, 2015, and 2016, before winning it all in 2017. That is when Championship level defense came back to Commerce. Aggressive, hard hitting, fast, and making plays that turned games around. Under Deason, the immense amount of success and talent the Lions had would have matched any time during Lion history. His success landed him in Division I at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, where became the defensive coordinator on Eric Morris’s staff after his tremendous 5 year run.
When Deason left, there was a tremendous hole that needed to be filled, but Colby Carthel found his man with a coach who had almost shut down the potent Lion offense of 2017. Scott Power had coached up a tremendous defense at Central Washington University, and Colby Carthel wanted him. The 2018 season saw the Lion offense struggle, but in games against Eastern New Mexico, William Jewell, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Midwestern State, Western New Mexico, and UT-Permian Basin, the Lion defense stepped up to played true championship level defense and serve as the anchor to the 2018 season, and Power continued in that tradition.
When Colby Carthel became head coach at Stephen F. Austin, David Bailiff came in to keep up the winning tradition of Lion football. Bailiff new all about the Blue Gang defense, he had played against them playing for Jim Wacker’s Southwest Texas State Bobcats in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He selected former Virginia Tech All-American and Houston Texans player Xavier Adibi to become the defensive coordinator. His 2019 defense was one of the best statistically, and the performance in the last 6 weeks of the season will not be forgotten, and as Adibi returns for 2020, the tradition of the Blue Gang rests in his good hands.
While the coaches that have stewarded this tradition are important mention, just as much are the Men who made the Blue Gang defense what they are. Some of the most notable players are:
Danny Huckaby and Jalon Edwards-Cooper
A “Gang of Blue Jerseys” led by Alex Shallow and Neema Behbahani.
Jimmy Buster (L) and Curtis Ray (R)
Paul Berry (L) and Terry Bagsby (R)
Vs. Wayne State in 1991
Tevin Moore, All Time Sacks Leader
Israel Hughes, Freshman All-American 2009
“A Blue Gang of Jerseys.”
Defense shuts down Southern Arkansas in 1992.
Israel Hughes (20) and Danny Mason (21)
Vs. Wayne State 1991
L-R-Gus Gonzalez, Glenn Blackard, Danny Kirk
Tough, Fearless, and relentless. The Lion Blue Gang Defense.