It was the scarf that did it. The pilot's scarf from the 924th Tactical Fighter Group at Bergstrom (Texas) Air Force Base, of which I'm an honorary member.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. This tale started when I picked up another honorary title, that of honorary coach of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks football team in its 1983 Lone Star Conference football game against the Angelo State Rams. This was a no-joke honor that was bestowed on me because, frankly, I'm a friend of the coach, Jim Hess, as well as a student of the game. I was to be allowed to call three offensive plays. Coach Hess tried to change that to one offensive play and two defensive plays. I carefully explained to him that I knew about as much about calling defensive plays as a pig knows about ice skating. So he'd given in, and I had my three offensive calls.
The Lone Star Conference usually has between 35 to 40 alumni playing pro football. We're talking Harvey Martin, out of East Texas State, and Wilbert Montgomery of Abilene Christian, who has done a pretty fair job for the Eagles. Then there's Clayton Weishuhn, who used to play at Angelo State and is a very good linebacker with the Patriots. And let's not forget Washington kicker Mark Mosley who was the MVP of the NFL in 1982. He played at Stephen F. Austin, which is where Bum Phillips, now coach of the Saints, was an all-conference lineman.
Many of the players in the Lone Star Conference were heavily recruited by the major powers, teams such as Texas, Penn State, Oklahoma and Nebraska. They just chose to stay down home, to play smaller college ball.
Coach Hess called one night in the spring of '83 and asked if I'd like to come down and be the Lumberjacks' honorary coach for the Angelo game. As a player and as a writer I'd seen a lot of honorary coaches. They mostly walked around in three-piece suits and the day before the game were allowed to give a stimulating speech that generally concluded with, "You can do it, men!"
So I declined. "Listen," I said, "I'm 46 years old, but I still think of myself as a jock. So if I come down there to coach I'm going to coach."
Coach Hess disarmed me by saying, "O.K., we can use the help."
"I'm talking about calling plays," I said.
That's when we started bargaining, and I ended up with the three offensive plays. I'd have settled for one. But that's life and that's football.
On the Tuesday before the game, Buck, the Stephen F. Austin equipment manager, outfitted me as a coach—I got a pair of shorts, two jockstraps, socks, knit sport shirts, the works—before I took the field and got a look at the players. That's when I decided on the spot to resign. In my own brief and ineffective career as a college football player, I'd never seen such quick and fast and strong young men. Fortunately for me, Coach Hess refused my resignation. He's about as laid back as a pillow, so all he did was laugh and say, "Naw, it'll be all right. We won't get you off in no storm."
He didn't know I already had a history of calling plays. When I was playing at John Tarleton Agricultural College in Stephenville, Texas, Bill Mimms and I were the two left ends that alternated taking in plays. Coaches Sandy Sanford and Joe Abbey were calling the plays. About midseason I noticed that one would call a play and then, just before you ran on the field, the other would grab your arm and change the play.
As I was running onto the field in a game against Schreiner Institute, I decided that in my considered opinion we didn't pass enough. As a matter of fact, we'd count a forward fumble that we recovered as a completed pass. Well, I felt it was time to change all that. The play I'd been given by Coach Abbey was a 23, the two back up the three hole. When I got in the huddle I told Tommy Hudspeth, our backup quarterback, that the play was 87 Cross. He gave me a kind of blank look for a second and then said, "What the hell is 87 Cross?"
I said, "It's a pass play. That's when me and Puryear cut across the middle about 10, 12 yards deep, and you hit whichever one is open." Bill Puryear was the right end.
Hudspeth said, after a second, "Oh, yeah, I remember that one. On two. Break!"
Well, I caught the ball for about a 14-yard gain and then headed toward the sideline. Coach Abbey and Coach Sanford were standing there with their arms crossed, and just as I got to the sideline, I heard Coach Sanford say to Coach Abbey, "Nice call, coach."
And Coach Abbey, without batting an eye, said, "Yeah, it looked to me like it'd be open over the middle the way their linebackers were dropping off."
This opened up a whole new world for me. I was like an addict after that. We beat Schreiner, primarily on calls I decided on between the huddle and the sideline. Only once did I nearly get caught. Coach Sanford stopped me one time as I was coming back to the bench after we'd just run a sweep and said, "I thought I sent in 34," which was a dive play. I kind of mumbled, "Must have been some confusion in the backfield."
He said, "Yeah, that'll happen. But, doggone, I wish you boys wouldn't forget and get confused. Hell, we practice this stuff all week." Those words about confusion in the backfield were to come back and haunt me 31 years later.
Even before I arrived at Stephen F. Austin for my coaching debut, I had my three plays. One I got from my friend, Larry Peccatiello, the defensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins. However, I did check it out with Bobby Ross, the coach at Maryland. It was intended to yield 10 to 12 yards or, if we could hit the flanker, to get us an even bigger gain. The play begins with the setback on the left side going in motion—first heading toward the left sideline and then doubling back to become a lead blocker. Then the quarterback fakes to the fullback up the middle, fakes the pitch to the running back on a right-side sweep and either hits the tight end who's coming across the middle or the flanker going deep, depending on what coverage the defense is in. We called it 124. That was my biggie. But I wanted to set it up with a sweep to the right. For my third play I selected a quick pitch to the tailback, run out of the I formation.
Fine. The Lumberjacks practiced the quick pitch, the sweep and the 124 all week and they looked good. Only I was getting a little too intense. When the first-string offensive linemen didn't block the way I wanted them to against the scout squad, I'd gotten the bad habit of going over and shaking some of those large people around by their shoulder pads. Coach Hess finally told me, "Why don't you go over there and work with our kicker and punter. Hell, I'm scared you'll hurt some of my little boys."
The man probably saved my life.
Everyone's always talking about how flaky kickers and punters are. Of course they are. Nobody ever pays them the slightest bit of attention. There aren't five coaches in the world who ever kicked or punted a football. Consequently, the kickers and punters are always over there on the sideline by themselves. I know. I was a punter myself.
So I was glad to spend time with the punter, Andy Gamble. We worked a lot on his drop and his coordination and timing, and I told him how Ray Guy used rosin on the right side of his kicking shoe to get more friction on the ball, thereby producing a better spiral. My words would have an effect later.
By the end of the week I felt as if I'd volunteered for a lunatic asylum. The team practiced 2½ hours a day, and the rest of the time the coaches were in meetings, going over the strategy again and again. I didn't get enough sleep that week to add up to a catnap. Some nights we broke up at about 2 a.m.
Then Saturday finally came. Angelo State came to play. The only things that were keeping us in the game were Gamble's booming punts and some pretty good defense. From our 26-yard line Gamble got off one of 52 yards that, according to my stopwatch, had a hang time of 4.5 seconds. That kind of punting could get you a nice contract in the NFL.
Midway into the second quarter, we finally scraped together some offense and, after a sustained drive, had the ball first-and-goal on their four-yard line. And what does Coach Hess do now? With four downs to make four yards, he calls a pass to split end Floyd Dixon that's overthrown by quarterback Tod Weder. Then he calls a pitch to fullback Michael LeBlanc that results in a fumble. The Rams recover.
It's about 400-yards to the field house at halftime, and I'm right beside Coach Hess and in his ear the whole time. I said, "We're first-and-goal at the four. Four downs! Why didn't you punch it in?"
Coach Hess says, as we're trotting, "I don't know. Give me a break, Coach!"
I said, "To hell with that. We been running up their middle all night. Why not then?"
He says, "Well, I thought Tod could hit a pass. And we'd get a quick score."
I said, "Oh hell, don't give me that!" At that point Weder—or Weed, as the players called him—was 4 of 12 for 21 yards. He was having a terrible game and couldn't have hit my grandmother on a six-yard down-and-out if she'd been sitting in a rocking chair with no coverage. He'd also lost two fumbles. So I was still in his ear. Finally he said, as we neared the field house, "For God's sake, Coach, give me a break!"
Well, he was lucky. I didn't let up on him because I'd finished saying all I had to say. I was just out of breath.
Coach Hess made a pretty good half-time speech, and Lynn Graves, the defensive coordinator, and then Smitty Hill, the offensive coordinator, both gave their talks. But what I thought was the most effective halftime statement was made by Howard Wells, the offensive line coach. As he was talking to his linemen, he emphasized the point about what a sorry job they were doing by throwing a 10-foot-long Formica-topped table some 12 to 14 feet. Clear across the room. It had to have been a Lone Star Conference record.
That was his second record of the day; about an hour before game time, he'd thrown up three times.
Now it was time for the second half to start, and the handwriting was on the wall. I was standing by the door as the players left the locker room, my fighter pilot's scarf hanging around my neck. The scarf is silk, with small, swept-back winged F-4s on a royal blue field. As the players passed through the door, a few reached out and tentatively touched it. But just a few.
I thought it curious, but I forgot about it because the Rams came right after us. First their freshman quarterback, Ned Cox, wrapped up a 64-yard drive by handing off to running back Eddie O'Brien, who lugged the ball into the end zone. Then they came right back off an interception thrown by Weed. That resulted in a 41-yard field goal by Mike Thomas with 5:07 left in the third quarter.
Angelo State 10, SFA 0.
At that point, I gave up and went and sat down on the bench, hanging my head. But the players didn't give up. Defensive back Kary Cooper, who's about 27 years younger than I am, came and sat by me, patted me on the back and said, "Coach, it'll be all right. Don't worry." And LeBlanc came over, took me by the shoulders, jerked me around and said, "Coach, get your head up! This game ain't over. We're going to beat those suckers."
Then a strange thing began to happen. Almost as if it had been rehearsed, one by one the players began to come by where I was sitting and without saying a word, they reached down and rubbed the end of my fighter pilot's scarf. Early in the fourth quarter, with us still 10 points behind, several players came over, stood me up and pushed me toward Weed, who was standing on the sideline waiting to take the field. I said to him, "I think you're supposed to rub this scarf. I know it sounds silly, but...."
He said, "Yeah." And then he rubbed the scarf with both hands.
From then on he was nearly perfect. He took the Lumberjacks on a 69-yard drive, culminating in a 15-yard touchdown run by Ron Jefferson. Rick Wilson kicked the extra point, and it was 10-7.
We held them and got the ball back with 4:30 left, but we were deep in our own territory. That's when I jerked myself together, went to the sideline and knelt by Coach Hess. I said, "Jim, it's time. Run the sweep." He yelled something to Smitty, who was signaling the plays in to Weed that I didn't quite hear. Maybe I had a bad seat, but it looked more like a dive play to LeBlanc than it did a sweep. But it got us a first down.
Then I called 124. I distinctly heard Coach Hess yell that over to Smitty. We got 48 yards. Except Weed hit Noble, instead of Dixon, whom I'd designated as the primary receiver. It gave us a first-and-goal at Angelo's nine-yard line.
Two plays and a personal-foul penalty later, we were at their four with another first down. I don't know if this is true or not. I was a little too excited to remember. But Coach Hess swears it happened. He said I was yelling in his ear about us having been on the four once before and having given them a pass look. He said that I told him to give them the pass look again and then run the quarterback draw. Well, somebody called it, because it happened. Weed went straight in for the go-ahead TD.
SFA 14, Angelo State 10.
In the final minute and a half we shut them down completely, sacking Cox three times. And we went into the locker room the winning team, after having been beaten for three-quarters of the game.
Later, at a party at Coach Hess's house, he and I detached ourselves for awhile and went back in a bedroom to talk things over. I kind of scratched my ear and said, "Coach, when I called that sweep, to set up 124, it looked like a dive play to me."
"Well, you know," he said, "the sideline is the worst seat in the house."
So I said, "Yeah, but on 124, my primary receiver was Dixon, but Weder hit Noble."
He yawned and said, "Probably a little confusion in the backfield. You know how that goes."
Max Corbet, the sports information director, was in the room with us, and as I walked out, still slightly confused, he said, gently, "Coach Tip, don't you know that Weed has the authority to audible off at the line on every play?"
Coach Hess heard him and hurried over to say, "But don't forget the help you gave us with Andy Gamble." He'd averaged 41 yards a punt.
I was stripped of my moment of glory.
Coach Hess and I had one bad disagreement before I left. He wanted the fighter pilot scarf and I didn't want to give it to him. And didn't. The next week he beat Texas A&I, but then he was to play the Southwest Texas State Bobcats. The Bobcats had what at the time was the longest winning streak for a college football team—22 games—and were also the two-time defending NCAA Division II champions. I sent the scarf in the mail.
At the half we were down 17-zip. Coach Hess later told me he'd hung the scarf on the locker room wall where all the players could see it. During intermission he pointed to the scarf and told them, "That's a symbol of a fighter pilot. The most dedicated, the most courageous, the most single-minded and goal-directed men in the world. Let every player rub on that scarf, and let every player, in this last half, be a fighter pilot."
With only 4:49 to go, Weder completed a pass to Charlie Smith, who made a one-handed catch, and then ran for a 20-yard TD to tie the game 24-24.
Next defensive tackle Mike Granger intercepted a tipped pass to give the Lumberjacks the ball on the Southwest Texas 36 with 1:47 to play. Five plays later Wilson kicked a 37-yard field goal to make the final score 27-24 in Stephen F. Austin's favor.
Coach Hess called me about an hour after the game, and I asked him what my chances were for getting my scarf back.
He said, "None."
I asked, "What if I offer to buy it back."
In a firm voice he said, "You don't have enough money and you haven't got any friends that have enough money to buy that scarf back. That scarf is going in the Stephen F. Austin Hall of Fame."