As we close the decade out on this era of Lion football, those of us at the Wire and also at those of us who either witnessed great football teams like my colleagues Russ and Billy did or like me, watched very mediocre if not bad football during my college days want to look at how far we have come. Either way, the turnaround started in late 2012 and since then, we have won 70 games over a period of 7 years with 3 conference championships, a bowl win, 10 postseaon wins, and an NCAA Division II National Championship. A lot of players, coaches, boosters, and adminstrators have played a role in the restoration of this storied program. Today, we are looking at 10 specific individuals or groups of individuals who are responsible for restoring the program and taking it to new heights as well. Let’s get to it.
10. Guy Morriss
Now, I know what you are thinking. How in the world did a guy who only won 10 games over a period of 4 seasons, which led to the need for a new coach make the list for guys responsible for the success we are now facing? Boys and girls, it is time you knew in case you did not know already. First, let’s take a look at what he was PREVENTED from doing. When Morriss took the job, the athletic department was the worst our school ever had, we also had the lowest alumni engagement ever, he was frequently micromanaged as to how to run his football program from what coaches he could hire to how he could deal with players, and engaged fundraisers only to have them run off by other administrators. Here is what he did do. He played a large part in the project to renovate Memorial Stadium by raising capital and funds for 3,500 new seats on the east side of the stadium, a brand new press box, a brand new locker room, new concessions and restrooms, and a video scoreboard that was the largest in all of NCAA Division II athletics when built. He brought back the tradition of wearing East Texas State jerseys for big games and homecomings, won an LSC North title in 2009, upset a ranked Texas A&M-Kingsville team in 2012 to start the 8 game winning streak we have against the Higgins now, he reached out to former Lion players who had gone pro to encourage his current team during the season. I could go on and on about the good things he did do. However, it generally boils down to two things that he did. First, he said when he got to Commerce that “we not only can win big here, we SHOULD win here.” He wanted to be here and wanted to lead this team to championship quality football. He didn’t though, because he was never allowed to do things his way for the reasons stated above. His Father was a student here in the late 50’s and a walk-on for J.V. Sikes. He knew the tradition. The biggest impact he had was after he resigned immediately following his final game as head coach. He could have taken his final check and put Commerce in his rearview mirror, but did not. He offered to stay at the school and said he would do whatever it took to help onboard the next athletic director and next football coach with no expectation of any kind of promotion or position on either staff, and wanted to do that to set it up for success. I know this because he personally told me that in 2013. He also stayed on because he knew what had worked and what not worked with the ENTIRE athletic program, and not just the football program. He vouched for certain players that he felt would be able to survive the infamous Carthel boot camp and set them up for success. Finally, he took a position as an assistant in the athletic office once Ryan Ivey was hired in late 2012 and true to his word, told Ivey what had worked and what needed dire attention. He stayed on for a good part of Ivey’s tenure until he saw that his successors had the ship going in the right direction and then left to go back to Kentucky. What had to be the toughest part for Morriss was probably fans blaming him exclusively and when the new staff came in, people talking about the former regime while he was still here. He showed himself to be a man of character and fortitude by helping out to create championship culture in other roles, and that is why he belongs on this list.
9. Ernest Hawkins & The Hawkins Family.
Ernest Hawkins was an institution for East Texas State University. 8 years as an assistant coach in a very successful era, 21 years as head coach with multiple kinds of championships. For a half a century, this man gave his life to a University and community. For the first time since the 1990’s players coming into Commerce knew who Ernest Hawkins was and what he embodied. His family did everything they could to keep him as visible as possible in the program. He was last coach to win a national championship, and we also needed an icon for the football program. He was that icon. Naming the stadium Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium was a major charge to the program and a jolt to people who did not know or realize that there was success, a pride and tradition before this most recent 5-6 years of football. His family had to share him with literally hundreds of athletes for most of their lives, yet they did so willingly with understanding that their Dad was special. He dedicated his life to Lion football, and knowing that any coach should try to live up to the success he had was a large part of his impact.
8. David Bailiff
David Bailiff has only been head coach for one year and this would have been the second, but the world lost it’s mind and the NCAA said that there would be no playoffs or no national championships this year. That being said, when David Bailiff got the job, there was a lot of anxiety about whether or not he would duplicate the success of Colby Carthel. The answer was a resounding yes. He embraced this small but football crazy town where citizens would corner him at the gas station or in front of the frozen pizzas at the grocery store and ask him how sure he was that we would be making a national title run. He was tasked with putting a product on the field that was at least as good as his predecessor’s and that is just the way it is. Oh, and he had to implement a completely new offensive and defensive strategy with a first year defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator who only had NAIA experience calling plays. The result was a team that was literally one bad game away from possibly going back to the National Championship for the second time in 3 years. And no, Bailiff did not just plug in all players from the previous staff, he found Miklo Smalls to lead the offense and became one of the best quarterbacks in the country and the defense adjusted to Xaiver Adibi’s new 4-2-5 scheme. It may have only been one year so far, but to this point he has kept his task and surpassed expectations.
7. Luis Perez
Now, I wanted to keep any individual player off of the list, but Luis Perez did so much for the program in his 3 years on the team and his 2 years as a starter. Luis Perez was not like any other star college football quarterback in America. He never took a snap at quarterback in high school. He quit to become a bowler, and then after graduating, realized he should have been a quarterback all along. He walks on at JUCO power program Southwestern Junior College, is found out by Colby Carthel, who brings him to Commerce. He quarterbacks our first National Championship team in 45 years and wins the award given to the best football player in NCAA Division II. His story that I just laid out got so much coverage from so many media outlets that were wondering just what was going on in this small town between Dallas and Oklahoma. They wanted to know why the San Diego native had not chosen USC, UCLA, or Berkley to go play. Why the heck was he in Commerce, Texas? Well, it got the right media coverage and what it exposed was a program that was winning a lot and winning big. How he went from 9th on a JUCO depth chart to playing for the LA Rams is a long story that puts Lion football right in the middle of one of the best college football stories ever told or lived.
6. Former Lion Football Players
Blake Cooper. Dudley Slice. Will Cureton. Mark Copeland. Terry Skinner. Cary Noiel, Bob Bounds, Billy Watkins, Gary Compton, Billy Minor, Jim White, Chris Flynn, Clint Dolezel, Alan Veingrad, Allen Roulette, Autry Beamon, Coach Eddie Vowell, and so many more. Men that have worn the Blue and Gold and told the young men currently wearing it now what it means to be a Lion, whether it be East Texas or Texas A&M-Commerce. Guys that emphasize the tradition that they helped build needs to be protected and expanded. Guys that honor their past and are proud of their acheivements, but root for the future and are just as proud when this generation of players makes their mark on the program. These guys are essential to the success or the program because so many went through what these current guys go through.
5. The 35 (or so) that survivied.
When Colby Carthel took over and before spring practice even started, he threw a good old fashioned boot camp. 80 plus players showed up and roughly 35 remained when it was all said and done. That is the base that Carthel would use to build his new program on. Sure there were big transfers, but before building that house you needed a foundation, and he had that. He had Deric Davis, Tevin Godfrey, Cameron Frosch, Matt Claggett, Alan Beatty, Tevin Moore, and Marcus Fore among other guys who would survive and thrive. Some would see championship seasons, others would end their career in a Bowl game with a winning record, and some would break school and conference records. Having these guys showed the fortitude that was needed and what it took to truly call themself a Lion.
4. Tim McMurray
Our current athletic director took a football program and overall athletic program that was trending upward and made it skyrocket. National Championships, badly needed rennovations to the stadium, community outreach, alumni engagement, and so many other things. Tim McMurray showed up in 2015 and let all the talk about him being “just another SMU guy” slide off his back and has done nothing but great things for all programs but especially football. He has given the program EVERYTHING they have needed and wanted, and dare I say more. He has also made sure that gameday is an experience that all 10,000 plus fans can cherish and be made happy about. His mantra is “Best In Class.” He means it and that is how he runs the programs. He faced his largest test thus far when his very succesful and proven Head coach took a bigger and better paying job. He had to make sure that he got the right hire in. He nailed it with David Bailiff. In addition, he has made our home, “The Hawk.” New videoboard, a new football facility that is top of the line, and improvements in every way, shape and form. If I could talk about all the good things this guy has done in the past 4 years, I would be here for about 4 years, but everyone in Lion nation knows. His work speaks for itself in the form of winning and championships.
3. Ryan Ivey
Ryan Ivey was the guy who really got it going. First thing, he hired Colby Carthel. Second, he broughT the largest mascot head in world history (that is not a joke) to Commerce, Texas. Finally, he made it a point to get Lion Football back to the business of winning. From everyone he hired to the people he consulted with, he did whatever was necessary to clean up the mess that he walked into. Something else that reveals how Ivey helped right the ship was his relationship with Guy Morriss. As I wrote earlier, Morriss offered to stay and help, so Ivey took him up on that offer and asked him what had worked and what had not worked. He had been there for 4 years, why could or would we not win? Ivey could have cut all the cords from the previous staff, but he kept people around who knew what it was going to take. Ivey restructed the way the entire athletic departement was going to be run and it was a necessary restructuring. When he hired Colby Carthel, he gave him all the tools that were needed to be successful and let him know that he had his back, and that he was this for the long haul. Bottom line is that he hired Colby Carthel, and the rest we all know is history. He took a chance on the guy that many Lone Star Conference schools for some reason would not take a chance on and it took us all the way to the top, restoring us to former glory and creating a new set of accomplishments.
2. Colby Carthel
Colby Carthel took a program that was completely in the dumps in just about every way, shape, and form. He said something at LSC media days in 2013 that I still do not know if it was a joke or not when asked what the goals were for 2013, he said “double our win total, which means win 2 games.” Either way, Colby Carthel put together a staff, a roster, and a culture that won, won a lot, and won the right way. He knew he had detractors from that school out west that wanted to see him fail. He knew that this program had not been taken seriously in over 15 years. He knew he was going to have purge the program from some bad habits. He took the reigns and in 5 years, Lion football went from Lone Star conference chumps to NCAA Division II Champs. His recruiting, his game management, the way he ran the program, the way he promoted and represented the program, and the way he left the program to his successor speaks volumes about the kind of coach he was in Commerce. He may not have as many wins as Hawkins, or as many conference titles as J.V. Sikes, but every year that he was in charge, Lion football was ready to compete for championships, and he was the man to restore it back to where it had been for so long, at the top.
- Dr. Dan Jones
“It starts at the top.”
When I was starting Business Graduate school in 2011, the professor of my strategy class came into the classroom after making his introduction and wrote those words on the board. In any business or organization or any kind of structure really, it starts at the top. Dr Dan Jones had lost an athletic director and a head football coach in the same month. He had never held a leadership position at a school where they had actually had an athletic department. He was in a tough situation in late 2012. However, he used his superior leadership skills, the one that got our Business School and Education schools highly ranked and our entire University record enrollment, to find the right person to lead the athletic department.
He hired Ryan Ivey.
He then got with Ryan Ivey to find a football coach who could and would win in the Lone Star conference and so in the right way. They hired Colby Carthel.
Then, the success and championships started and didnt stop coming. Perhaps no other President in recent TAMUC history had so much impact for the good of the school that Dan Jones did. He made crucial decisions that could have either advanced us or set us back. He made decisions that started a domino effect of good things that went so far beyond having a good football program. It starts at the top for both success and failure, and all the success started at the top, and at that top was Dr. Dan Jones.