30 Years ago this September, Dallas Morning News SportsDay Writer Kevin Sherrington took the 50 minute trip up Interstate 30 to cover a town that few knew about and a college football team that about as many seemed to have any idea existed. 10 Minutes north of the I-30 exit sat a campus of 9,000 students split by a highway that led north to Oklahoma. The town that surrounds it and the University that supports it was the focus for feature by one of the Southwest’s leading newspaper. This town, this school, and this football program that sat equidistant between Dallas and the sooner state in the heart of the Texas Blackland Prairies would soon be shown as what it really was, a hidden treasure.
The feature mainly was about the state of the Lion football program roughly halfway through the 1992 season. That 1992 team was a great football team. Led by Coach Eddie Vowell, the ’92 Lions finished 8-3 overall, losing only to top ranked Pittsburg State on the road, Division I Northwestern Louisiana State, and the defacto conference championship game to Texas A&I, 17-10. This squad had 8 All-Americans, 18 All-LSC performers, with 10 of them making the first team. They were kept out of the playoffs by the lobbying of former A&I Head Coach Ron Harmes, who was on the regional playoff committee. He had almost lost one to the Lions, and now that the offense had found a starting quarterback in future Arena League Star Clint Dolezel, the last thing Harmes wanted was a rematch with a top 5 ranked defense and an offense that featured 2 future NFL signees and several stars. After a 3-3 start, the Lions roared to win 5 straight games and nab a # 14 final ranking.
The column showed first how tough it was to run such a big sport on a tight budget. Back in 1992, the football budget was $80,000. That would be the equivalent of running a football team on $160,000 today. It also showed how little the University and Administration really cared about fielding a winning football team and sports programs. While this was not included in the article, I do know that one of the prizes for winning the 1990 LSC Championship was a new set of headsets for the Lion coaching staff. The other were the actual LSC title rings for the players and coaches. A need that any coaching staff in college football has was treated as a gift.
There was also a feature on the relationship between the town and the school regarding school spirit. There was a sharp contrast drawn between say, Pittsburg, Kansas and the way their town treats the Gorillas, and the way that Commerce regarded the Lions. There was a sense of apathy despite a program that had won 38 games over the past 5 seasons to go along with 2 NCAA National Quarterfinalist appearances and an LSC title with 3 second place finishes. Downtown Commerce seemed to be more excited about the upcoming Bois ‘D’arc bash rather than a football program in a football crazy part of a football crazy state. The attitude was one of acceptance, not worship, like it had been 20 and certainly 30 to 40 years prior when all home games at Memorial Stadium were at or near the 10,000 person capacity. This was different.
And yet, despite the lack of funds, lack of community involvement, the one-sided stadium, the simplistic attitude of the administrators, East Texas State Football was a perennial powerhouse from 1988-1996. 63 wins during that time, 3 NCAA Division II playoff appearances, 5 finishes in the NCAA D2 top 25, and a conference title. It was all about the coaches, the players, and the 5,000 or so fans that filled Memorial Stadium every Saturday.
Times have changed for the better. Memorial Stadium is now Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium, or “The Hawk.” The east side of the stadium has been rebuilt. Massive improvements to the entire complex as a whole have happened and continue to happen. Average attendance is usually at near capacity and now, the days of backwater Division II status are over as the Lion football program moves to Division I this fall. Reading the article from 30 years ago it makes me appreciate how far we have come. It is worth the read and worth celebrating. Texas A&M-Commerce is a hidden treasure.
It is the hidden treasures that are usually the most precious.
Link To Archived Article-https://thelionwire.com/2018/04/22/special-edition-dallas-morning-news-feature-september-25-1992-hidden-treasure-east-texas-state-thriving-despite-division-ii-limitations-mere-acceptance-of-town/