30 years ago Texas A&M-Commerce (formerly East Texas State University) made our inaugural appearance in the NCAA playoffs and what a ride it was. The 1990 team came into the season not expected to do much of anything coming off an injury riddled 4-6 campaign in the 1989 season. That in itself was a huge letdown after coming so close in 88 and the #2 NCAA ranking attained then.
After a resounding trouncing of Livingston and East Central by a combined 87-6 we were riding high. Then came back to back losses to those pesky Southern Arkansas Muleriders (who named them that anyway?) and Division I-AA Northwest Louisiana which brought the team back down to earth. At 2-2 the team was somewhat at that point where the season could have gone a variety of ways. Heading into conference play, the rest of the league did not believe we were a contender for the LSC title as we traveled up to Edmond, Oklahoma to face an always tough Broncho team. We escaped with a 17-10 win. The next week would be the big challenge as we hosted perennial power Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville). Last time they came to Commerce we had won in a shootout. This time our defense led by the great Hall of fame member Terry Bagsby flexed their strength while the offense did more than enough to upset the highly favored Little Piggies from down south. Led by All-American and all time receiving leader Gary Compton and Quarterback Bobby Bounds who would become the school’s all time leading passer as well, this team went on a roll from there on out. Sporting a flawless conference record and finishing the deal with a 59-0 thrashing of Cameron to seal the deal and give Hall of Fame coach Eddie Vowell his first LSC Championship.
Now for the first time in school history we would be playing NCAA Division 2 playoff football. Grand Valley State, from Michigan, who had made several consecutive playoff appearances would be our opponent. It was a chilly November afternoon but we left Allendale with a very satisfying 20-14 win and earned a trip to Pittsburgh State the following week. Our miracle season came to an end there but memories and bonds were made that have will last a lifetime. There were so many greats that were a part of that team and several that have made the TAMUC Athletic Hall Of Fame. The offense averaged over 36 points a game with all conference linemen all across it led by Jim White and Dwayne Phorne. Bounds had proven to be the best QB statistically in school history even with a back up all conference player in Mike Meador. Compton showed he was the GOAT when it came to Lion receivers, and he had 2 other guys playing receiver who would finish top 10 in school history as well. The RBs were a 3-headed monster that averaged over 200 yards a game also with Jarrod Owens leaving as a top 10 rusher. Defensively they were just as equal as Bagsby was a freight train coming and Sophomore Eric Turner was a interception machine. Micah Haley anchored a dominant D-line. This team won a conference ring for the first time in 7 years, and the first NCAA playoff game in school history and no one else can say that. Statistically we were unmatched. The chemistry we had could be directly attributed to the leadership we had that season. The selfless play and everyone uplifting each other was a beautiful work of art. The articulation the coordinators Mark Copeland and Tinker Ratliff displayed was phenomenal and how could we have made it without Coach Henry Ross’s influence all over the field? We all had different minds, beliefs and thoughts but we all came together for one common goal that season and we got that goal. Personally I had what was a somewhat successful career in Commerce but our teams finished runner up in 3 of those seasons. But only once did we win the LSC…God Bless the 1990 team and all my teammates who were a part of it. RIP to Coach Tinker Ratliff, Terry Bagsby, Dwayne Phorne, Kevin Oblander, Rod “Bo” Lee and any other teammates I may have missed. This was a Hall of Fame team and one of arguably the greatest in school history. Definitely is one of my favorites and I would match us up against any other and feel very confident in doing so, with all due respect to the other great Lion teams to don the blue and gold.
Editor’s Note: The 1990 East Texas State Lions became the first team in school history to qualify for the NCAA playoffs since becoming an NCAA member in 1982. Their 10-3 record is one of the best as well as their 7-0 conference record being something that only a handful of great Lion teams ever accomplished. It was the Lions first National Quarterfinalist finish in school history, followed up by that same result in 1991 and in 2019. Three of the best receivers in school history (Gary Compton, Brian Harp, and Billy Minor) played on this team, along with a top 3 Lion QB in Bob Bounds and perhaps the 2nd or 3rd best defender ever in Terry Bagsby, along with a Freshman from Sulphur Springs named Billy Watkins who would become the school’s all time scoring leader and retain that award for almost 25 years. The Lions lost to eventual national finalist Pittsburg State and finished ranked # 7 in the country.
Managing Editor Brian Pate contributed to this article.