1972 East Texas State Lions-The Gold Standard

50 years ago this evening, the East Texas State Football team did something that no team before them had done. They walked off the grass at Memorial Stadium in Commerce with the title of the best football team in the country in NAIA Division I. There had been undefeated teams before them and conference championships and Bowl Championships, but nobody had ever officially been recognized as a National Champion. This team had been. It featured 17 players that would be drafted or offered professional contracts and 7 Seniors on that team that would start on the professional level in either the NFL or CFL. It featured a future Super Bowl MVP, 2 future Super Bowl Champions, a starting NFL quarterback, and a standout defensive back. This team was loaded.

Yet, nobody saw this team coming. The previous two seasons had seen the ET program go 10-10 overall. Ernest Hawkins had taken over a program just 7 seasons earlier and was 7-12 in his first two seasons, but in his third year things started to turn around. From 1966-1971, Hawkins had turned the Lions back into contenders, winning two Lone Star Conference titles and going 34-24-2. However, 1972 was the start of Hawkins descent as the greatest Lion football coach ever and his teams would become synonymous with success and winning.

1972 started with a loss to longtime rival Abilene Christian 14-12, which was disappointing. However, the Lions then ran off 6 straight wins, including defeating # 12 Texas A&I and taking down # 1 Southwest Texas. The Lions had moved up to 3rd in the NAIA polls with the impressive wins. However, the Lions would drop their contest with Sul Ross, 15-14. The Lions dropped to 6th in the NAIA polls and it looked as if their chances of getting out of NAIA District 4 were looking bad. However, in one of the grittiest games in Lion history, the Lions took down the top ranked District 4 team, Angelo State, also ranked 14th in the country, 24-14. It was huge for the Lions to give them an outside shot at the NAIA playoffs. The Lions ended the regular season with a win over Tarleton State 27-6. The next week, they found out they were in the playoffs at # 6 in the country. The NAIA had selected it’s 4 teams. Livingston, Carson-Newman, Central Oklahoma State, and East Texas State. The Lions drew homefield advantage, and they would need it, Central Oklahoma was # 1 in the country and 9-1. Nobody gave the Lions a chance, but that showed to mean nothing when the Lions destroyed the Bronchos in a 54-0 route. The Lions racked up 519 yards of total offense and broke or tied 8 NAIA playoff records in that game. Meanwhile, Carson-Newman had tied Livingston 7-7, but advanced on penetrations inside the 20 yard line, as there was no overtime back then. The Lions drew to play at home again.

The Dallas Morning News was covering this game, as it was biggest college football game in the area. Bill McClanahan, a well known sports cartoonist, drew up this cartoon to preview the game. The Lions were slight favorites despite being ranked lower than Carson-Newman. December 9, 1972 saw thousands of people pack Commerce’s East Texas State Memorial Stadium for the battle between the # 2 Carson-Newman Eagles, and the # 6 East Texas State Lions.

From a weather perspective, the day was miserable. Cold, rainy, and a thick fog that would envelope the Blackland Prairies that entire weekend, but this was one of the biggest events to happen at ETSU in it’s history. The entire area turned out for this game.

The first quarter was uneventful to a 0-0 score. With 8:37 left in the second quarter, fullback Nelson Robinson plunged in from 2 yards to put the Lions up 7-0. Carson-Newman responded with a Skip Jones 2 yard run to pull within 1 at 7-6 as the kick was blocked. Just before halftime, the Eagles speedy wideout Tim George got behind the Lion defense to haul in a 47 yard touchdown from Jimmy Sullivan. The second conversion attempt again failed and the Lions went into the locker room down 12-7.

With 6:54 left in the third, The Lions put together a long drive on the back of Kenneth Parks that resulted in Will Cureton sneaking in from one yard out to put the Lions back on top 14-12. Two possessions later, the Eagles struck right back as Tim George again got open for another 18 yard TD pass fro Sullivan. The conversion again failed as Autry Beamon intercepted the attempted 2 point conversion in the end zone.

Starting the final frame behind 18-14, the Lions once again called upon Kenneth Parks to carry the load, and carry the load he did. With just over 8 minutes in the game, he put the Lions up for good with a 3 yard run to make the score 21-18. The Eagles took the ball and drove down to the Lion 11 yard line with 6 minutes to go, when Sullivan’s passed was intercepted by safety Ricky Earle killing the drive. The final 4 minutes were intense as could be. Hawkins kept calling for Parks to be fed the ball and with the Lions driving further downfield, they faced a 3rd down and 4 when Carson-Newman called a timeout.

Hawkins knew what play to call. He knew that CN was counting on either Parks to run it or Cureton to bootleg and keep the ball to burn as much clock as possible and then punt the ball. It seemed like the right strategy, as the Eagles only had one serious pass catching threat. Nobody would pass in this situation.

Nobody but Ernest Hawkins.

The Lions lined up in the Slot-I, baiting the Eagles into crashing the line to stop the run. Cureton took the snap, faked a play action handoff to Parks and hit tight end Calvin Harris on a crossing route for 6 yards. First down ET. With no Carson-Newman timeouts left and the game under 2 minutes, all ET had to do was take 3 knees. The Lions were at last, national champions.

45 years later, the 2017 Lions team would join the group as National Champions, and perhaps the 1952 team might join this group retroactively in the Champions mural outside of Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium. This past fall, the NAIA National Championship trophy, which had been damaged badly, was replaced by a group of fans and alums to make sure that the gold standard team had a gold standard trophy so that all can be proud of and look to, and we as Lions, will always speak fondly of and hold in high esteem. A Championship team led by a once in a lifetime Head Coach and Coaching staff, and full of iconic players that go far, and have gone, far beyond Commerce, Texas.

Roar Back Here.....

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