30 football seasons ago, one of the best group of football players strapped on the blue and gold of then-East Texas State and for the second straight year and third time in 4 years, made a run for the NCAA National Championship in Division II. Expectations were high, as the previous year ET had gone 10-3 and went undefeated in conference play by going 7-0. Eddie Vowell’s first two seasons were rough, but he had found a way to return ET back to it’s winning ways. From the 1988-1990, he had gone 22-11 and won two LSC Coach of the Year awards. He had brought back a mean defense and a potent offense led by All-American and Lion great Bob Bounds. He also had found some JUCO transfers that would become great Lions and eventual NFL players like Curtis Buckley. This group is one of the best to ever represent our football program, and a team that easily could have been national champions.
On Offense, the Lions had not just one, but two tremendous Quarterbacks. Bob Bounds had proven himself as the main man, but his backup was the always ready Mike Meador, who as a backup, was named all conference. The running game of Gary Perry and David Chapman, the receiving core was explosive led by Brian Harp, Eddie Tennison, Billy Minor, and Aaron Postert. The Offensive line was led by the greats Jim White and Dwayne Phorne, and also solid lineman such as David Gaskamp, Earl Bell, and Joseph Showell. This offense was totally loaded.
The defense was led a truly stout and amazing group of talent. Eric Turner, Micah Haley, Curtis Buckley, Joe Brookins, Jimmy Hooker, Finis Turner, Duane Hicks, Kevin Oblander, and Terrance Tolliver. Those guys were an absolute terror on defense and one of the best to ever wear the Blue Gang moniker, all led by the great Defensive Coordinator Mark Copeland. It was a top 5 defense in the nation for all 13 weeks they played.
Special teams had Lion great Billy Watkins, who had proved himself as a Freshman and was a sure thing on field goals regardless of distance and also on PAT’s.
The Lions started out the season by blowing out Livingston 44-6, then the Pittsburg State Gorillas, defending national finalists with a 56 game regular season winning streak, came to Commerce. All it took was two touchdown runs by Gary Perry and David Chapman, two field goals by Billy Watkins, and Curtis Buckley knocking out Pitt State QB Brian Hutchins with a broken collar bone to take down the top ranked Gorillas. The Lions vaulted to # 4, but then dropped two heartbreakers, once to a Division I Northwestern Louisiana State, and then a real head scratcher against Southern Arkansas. Then, 3 wins later over Central Oklahoma, Wayne State, and the hated Hoggies of Texas A&I, their first road win over the Hogs since 1982, put the Lions back into the top 20. A trip to Portales, New Mexico was a disaster as the Lions lost control of their own destiny by losing by a late field goal to Eastern New Mexico, 17-14. They rebounded by routing Abilene Christian 37-3, but then completely lost a chance to repeat as LSC champions by the virtue of a 39-39 tie against Angelo State. A win against the Rams would have given the Lions a tie for first place and a first repeat of conference titles since the 58-59 season. The Lions then routed Cameron to end the regular season, and awaited their postseason fate.
On a closed circuit TV in the old T-Lounge, The Lions anxiously wondered if their overall body of work would put them in the NCAA postseason and it did. Not only did it put them in, the Lions would be hosting a playoff game for the first time since joining the NCAA 9 years earlier, and would be hosting the team that they beat in the first round the previous year, Grand Valley State. The Lions ran out to a 31-7 lead en route to a 36-15 win. Gary Perry ran for two touchdowns while Bob Bounds ran for another and Mike Meador threw a 48 yard TD pass as the Lions defense, led by Curtis Buckley and Eric Turner made huge plays to demoralize the Lakers and send the Lions back to the NCAA National Quarterfinals.
The Lions returned to Pittsburg, Kansas for a matchup with long time foe Pitt State. The game started out horribly, but the Lions made a hard run to score 28 unanswered points and bring the Lions within a score at Division II’s toughest venue, but a long touchdown drive by PSU sealed the game and for the second straight year, the Lions bowed out as National Quarterfinalists. Pitt State would win the NCAA D2 Championship 3 weeks later, and the closest anyone got to beating them was the ET Lions.
The 1991 team is one of the most talented but least celebrated teams. This is a great team that almost brought Commerce it’s second national title, and no other team had come closer than the 1980 team did in the NAIA. Many believe if the Lions had started the second round game with PSU better, the 1991 Lions would have a mural on the outside of Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium as national champions, and there is an excellent argument for that.
The 1991 Lions had 7 All-Americans, 10 LSC First Team performers, 3 LSC Second team performers, and 10 LSC Honorable Mention selections, and Eddie Vowell was doing in the NCAA what Ernest Hawkins had done in the NAIA, made the Lions perennial contenders. Many players played in the NFL, CFL, and the Arena Leagues. This was a great team, and 30 years later, they are still one of the best to wear the blue and gold, call the roll, and sing “Hail ET” at the end of games.