As I write this article, it is hard to believe that yet another college basketball season has come and gone. Thankfully, this one was the bridge to normal given everything that has happened.
This past season was a down year for the Lion Men’s program, while the Women continued their sure and steady progress as a national power, something that was unthinkable a decade ago. There has only been one team that been called the best, and that is the 1954-1955 East Texas State Lions.
On campus the 1950’s were truly a golden time to be a Lion. The Football program, track, tennis, and golf programs were all thriving and just 5 years earlier, the University under the leadership of James Gee and athletic coordinator Milburn Smith had built a super modern Fieldhouse for Basketball, much like the arenas of the great Midwest Basketball programs like Kansas and Indiana. The Lion program had come close and heading into the 1954-55 season, the Lions had won the Lone Star Conference 9 times and had been to the NAIA national tournament 6 times. At the helm of the program was Bob Rogers, a truly once in a lifetime coach. He was in Commerce for five remarkable seasons and led the Lions to the NAIA semifinals in 1953 and the quarterfinals in 1954, but this year, this would be all about winning the big one.
The Lions started off their season 8-3 before going onto an incredible 11 out 12 win streak. The Lions only lost 2 LSC games, one to Southwest Texas State, and the other to Stephen F. Austin, claiming the Lone Star Conference crown for the 10th time and invited to the NAIA District playoffs, where they would have a first round matchup with Southwest Texas State.
Unlike the tournament settings of today, the NAIA created districts (much like today’s regions), but instead of tying the districts with the tournaments like the NCAA does today, the NAIA invited 4 teams from each district. After those district playoffs, only those who won their district tournaments were guaranteed an invitation in the 32 team NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, while the rest were at large. That basically gave NAIA schools 64 teams in the district, and then after, it gave them a field of 32. The Lions were the top seed from District 4 and upon arrival to Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, showed the nation that East Texas State was not just a football school. In the first round of the round of the final 32, The Lions Blitzed Portland State 68-55, then put up an almost unheard of 94 points as they cruised past Southwestern Kansas State 94-78. In the National Quarterfinals, Beloit College from Wisconsin gave the the Lions some early trouble before the hot shooting Lions sent them packing in the second half 66-57. That placed the Lions back where they had fallen just two years earlier in the national semifinals (the NAIA final four). The hot shooting Lions continued their high scoring ways scoring an 81-66 win over Arkansas Tech, setting them up with future rival Southeastern Oklahoma State in the NAIA Championship game. The Lions were the better team from opening tip to final buzzer, and Lions lifted the trophy with a 71-54 victory. It was the ticket for Bob Rogers to land a future job at Texas A&M as head coach for the Aggies after the 1957 season. Jim Miller was named NAIA first team All-American while Clarence Lynch and Shelby Metcalf were NAIA second team.
Since then, the Lions have made serious title runs in the NAIA during 1958 under Norman Pilgrim and 1977 and 1978 (Elite 8 and Final 4, respectively) under Jim Gudger, and in the NCAA as Elite 8 finishers in 1998 under Paul Peek and 2005 under Sam Walker. Some great basketball has been played in Commerce, and the last 4 seasons has produced 2 NCAA round of 32 appearances, an LSC tournament championship game appearance, and LSC North Division title in 2020. One day, another Lion team will lift the trophy.
Until then, this group of Men from 66 years ago will still be the gold standard.