A Genius For Football; Coach Warren Woodson :: Part Four

NMSU opened the season In Las Cruces against the University of Mexico Pumas, a team they played the previous year in Mexico City. The Pumas were game but unable to match the Aggies size and speed. Gaiters and Atkins broke many long runs and accounted for three touchdowns. Johnson hit Bob Kelly with two touchdown passes and the Aggie defense, featuring hard-hitting Bob Jackson and Bob Langford as linebackers, had their way. The game ended with a 41-0 Aggie victory.

The next week, the Aggies were in Oklahoma to take on a strong Tulsa team. The Aggies exploded offensively, and led in the second quarter 19-0 before Tulsa scored to make it 19-7 at the half. NMSU finished the game with a flurry. Gaiters scored four touchdowns and Johnson passed for another in a 38-18 victory. Tulsa coach Bobby Dobbs was wowed by the Aggies offense. He called Atkins the best football player in America.

Trinity University was the next opponent. They lost to the Aggies 45-0. It was another offensive show, but the defense, which had been superb all year, came up big again. Kelly, Langford and Strickland tackled the Trinity quarterback in the end zone three times for safeties.

Atkins and Sims against UNMThe Aggies picked up a fourth consecutive win (seventh counting the last three in 1959) with a 34-0 drubbing of I-25 rival New Mexico.

The game was played at brand new University Stadium in Albuquerque before an all-time New Mexico record crowd of 27,000. Johnson threw touchdown passes to Sims and Atkins. Atkins scored on a 67-yard punt return and a two-yard dive. The 210-lb Gaiters bulled over several Lobo defenders on a 71-yard touchdown run.

Over the next two weeks, the Aggies defeated McMurry College and Wichita State by scores of 47-17 and 40-8, respectively. After the Wichita game, Shockers coach Hank Foldberg warned Woodson that his team would get even next year.

Woodson replied, “Why, of course Henry. Of course. That’s what football is all about.”

It was now mid October, and Woodson’s team was no longer a secret. Sports Illustrated sent Roy Terrell to write a story and report on the NMSU-Arizona State game set for Tempe on October 29, 1960. The November 7 story, entitled “The Team the Pros Watch” had a fine summary of the heroics by Atkins, Johnson, Gaiters, and Kelly.

Terrell delved into Woodson’s personality, saying he was called “an ornery old moss-backed so-and-so, even by his friends. His enemies prefer not to discuss him at all.” Terrell went on to say that “Woodson fits no one’s conception of a coach. Now 57, he is a man of average height and weight, his brown hair is thinning and turning gray at the temples. He speaks in a soft, high-pitched, drawling voice He wears glasses and dresses in neat, conservative clothes. He does not drink or smoke or use profanity (I don’t know how a man can sound that mean without cussin’ one of his players once said).”

ASU and NMSU traded long scoring drives in the first half, which ended with the score tied at 14-14. Tension built for what proved to be an unbelievable second half. A 20-yard field goal gave the Sun Devils the lead 17-14 early in the third quarter. After an Aggie drive stalled, ASU promptly drove for what seemed to be the winning touchdown in the early part of the fourth quarter. ASU led 24-14. However, on the ensuing kickoff the speedy Atkins returned the ball 98 yards for an Aggie score.

After an exchange of fumbles, one by NMSU at their 17-yard line, the second by ASU at the NMSU two-yard line, the brilliant Atkins struck again. He took a hand off and raced 71 yards before being pulled down deep in Sun Devil territory. Johnson then hit Kelly for two diving catches, the second for a score. A final ASU drive ended with an interception by Bob Langford and the Aggies ran out the clock for a 27-24 victory.

Atkins was named AP Back of the Week, recognition that would lead to first-team All American honors by season’s end.
NMSU remained undefeated in the following weeks with 35-15 and 40-3 wins over West Texas State and Hardin Simmons. Gaiters led the way in these games with five touchdowns. Johnson passed for four more touchdowns, and Atkins returned a punt 70 yards for another. Again, the unheralded defense played well. Hodgson returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown in the HSU game.
NMSU’s final game of the regular season was in Las Cruces against arch rival Texas Western and future pro quarterback John Furman. Gaiters and Jackson teamed to overcome an early Miner lead with tough running, and Sims scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on a 14-yard pass from Johnson. Gaiters added an insurance score and the Aggies hung on for a 27-15 victory. The win extended NMSU’s winning streak to 13-games. And it gave the Aggies their first undefeated regular season since 1923.
After a flirtation with a Sugar Bowl invitation the Aggies settled for a second straight Sun Bowl appearance against a tough Utah State squad. The Utags finished 9-1 and won the Skyline Conference championship. They featured future College Football Hall of Famers -- Coach John Ralston and the great tackle Merlin Olsen.

The game got regional television coverage, a rarity in those days. On a beautiful New Years Day 1961 at sold out Kidd Field in El Paso, Utah State struck first to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. NMSU answered early in the second quarter, making the score at 7-7. Utah State used a bruising running game, took the lead at halftime, 13-7.

QB Charley JohnsonIn the third quarter, NMSU’s Gaiters showed why he was the national leader in scoring and rushing. On a last second option pitch from Johnson, Gaiters ran through and over several tacklers, and scored from the Utah State 32-yard line. It gave the Aggies their first lead of the game, 14-13. A Johnson pass to Sims finally secured the game for NMSU, 20-13. A last ditch Utah State drive died in NMSU territory with two minutes left. Johnson, who completed 18 of 26 passes for 190 yards and two scores, was named Sun Bowl MVP for the second straight year.

Bob Gaiters and Pervis AtkinsThe 1960 Aggies finished the season 11-0 and were ranked 17th in the final national college polls. Seven members of the starting offensive team would go on to play professional football. Johnson would set many passing records for the St. Louis Cardinals, make All Pro, and be inducted into the Denver Broncos Ring of Honor. Atkins and Gaiters played in the College All Star game in Chicago. Atkins would sign and play for the Los Angeles Rams and Gaiters would be Rookie of the Year with the NY Giants in 1961. Woodson was named Small College Coach of the Year.

While Woodson’s 1960 Aggie team was his best, the records continued to accumulate in the years following. James ‘Preacher’ Pilot won the national rushing title as an Aggie tailback in 1961 and 1962, the fourth year in a row that a Woodson-coached player won that title.

Woodson’s Aggie teams went 38-27-1 in the years 1961-67. But the 1962 and 1963 teams had losing records, hampered by NCAA sanctions imposed in 1961 for alleged admission irregularities and financial assistance to players. According to Dr. Simon Kropp’s book, That All May Learn (p. 369),

“Gleeful chortling came from Albuquerque where it was said that Pervis Atkins and other Negro athletes, unable to meet the University of New Mexico’s academic requirements were “lured” to NMSU.”

President Corbett denied the charges having to do with enrollment and academics. But NMSU’s appeals came to naught. The Aggies were placed on three-year probation and not allowed to compete in NCAA championships or invitational events, and banned from television broadcasts. Given the demise of the Border Conference and the formation of the Western Athletic Conference (with no invitation forthcoming for NMSU), these were not harsh sanctions. However, they no doubt hurt recruiting and scheduling in the early and mid-‘60s.

The entire probation affair, and the implication that Atkins was somehow given special treatment and ‘passed through’ NMSU academically is shrouded in mystery to this day. Atkins graduated from NMSU and went on to a very successful career in the film and entertainment business in California. In April 2009 he was selected for induction into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame.

There are those that swear that the Aggies’ “dear friends” at UNM were involved behind the scenes in complaining to the NCAA about NMSU admission policies. The long-time Registrar at NMSU, Era Rentfrow was considered beyond reproach by all who knew her. Certainly, the issue of modest amounts of financial aid to players at a small school like NMSU was not enough to elicit probation. Virtually every football-playing school in America was into it. NCAA regulations were lax and largely overlooked except in the most egregious of circumstances (e.g., the Jon Arnett affair at USC).

During the last three years of Woodson’s tenure at NMSU, from 1965-67, the Aggies had recovered from probation and were winning football games -- a sparkling 22-7-1 record. Halfback Jim Bohl was among the leading rushers in the nation in 1965 and 1966, and quarterback Sal Olivas led a fine passing attack during the same period. Olivas would play in the North-South All Star game and go on to play pro football.

In what would be Woodson’s last game as head coach in 1967, NMSU clobbered the Lobos 54-7 in Albuquerque. The game led to bitter feelings at UNM when Woodson had local Rio Grande High graduate Al Gonzales kick a field goal with the game already more than over at 51-7. Lobo Coach Bill Weeks, who would be fired after the defeat, was incensed. Woodson calmly reasoned that he just wanted Gonzales to get a little attention in front of his local friends and family. In other words, revenge was sweet for the Lobos role in urging NCAA sanctions against NMSU in 1961.

Although the record is unclear, the controversial UNM game probably brought things to a boil in Las Cruces. Woodson and NMSU Vice President Bill O’Donnell had disagreed on several issues over the years, leading to bad blood between the two. Woodson wasn’t shy in confronting O’Donnell about his flaws and management style. O’Donnell and President Roger Corbett conferred with the regents and others about asking Woodson to retire. After all, they could say he was 65 years old -- technically the retirement age for faculty and staff at NMSU. But Woodson was still vigorous, committed to football and NMSU, and did not have retirement in his plans. But he was still ornery.

The situation stewed for a few weeks before Woodson reluctantly agreed to step down in December 1967. Morris Hodgson, an assistant coach on a recruiting trip to California remembers a phone call.

Woodson said, “Morris come on home”.

Morris replied, “But coach, I’m not through recruiting out here”.

Woodson replied, “Yes you are, Morris. We’ve been fired”.

There was lots of grumbling in Las Cruces, and most was pro-Woodson. His top assistant was Jim Wood, All American end at Oklahoma State in 1958. Woodson brought Wood to NMSU from his coaching position in junior college in California, along with Wood’s star halfback Jim Bohl. Lou Henson, hired by Woodson in 1966 as basketball coach after a great run at Las Cruces High and Hardin Simmons, took over as athletic director. While neither Henson nor Wood was publicly accused of undermining Woodson, some said that “it proved very handy” to have both around when the decision was made to force Woodson’s retirement.

President Corbett announced that he was “deeply pleased that he (Woodson) will be available to our new staff as a consultant” and that Warren Woodson “has lifted NMSU from small college to major college status.” Never one for political correctness, Woodson released a statement stating that Corbett had “seen fit to retire me as both coach and athletic director” and that “I am at the peak of my coaching career today” and “am looking for a football coaching job right now.”

Woodson was quickly hired as athletic director at Trinity University in San Antonio. After watching for several years, he took over as football coach. In his first year, 1972, Trinity went 8-2 and won the Southland Conference title. In his last year Woodson’s Trinity team had a fine record of 8-3. Despite the success, interest and support for Trinity football was waning. San Antonio fans were more interested in traveling to Austin to watch Texas or to the many local high school games.

The Trinity Board of Trustees voted unanimously to de-emphasize athletics. No scholarships would be offered in football after 1972 other than those already awarded. It was a melancholy time for Woodson who saw the end in sight.

Woodson at Aggie Memorial StadiumIn an October 2, 1972 article in Sports Illustrated, Joe Jares quoted Woodson.

"It is up to me to carry it on as well as I can. This is all new to me. I'm interested in learning how it will turn out." In the mean time, Woodson did what he loved most, doodling with plays on pieces of paper and losing himself in the world of football plays and chalked lines.

Jares said that a Trinity fan had walked into Woodson's office one day and found him talking to his quarterback, Charlie Bump.

"Hi, Charlie," said the fan. "How's it going?" "Fine," said Bump.

"What do you mean, fine?" growled Woodson. "We lost a football game Saturday night."

"Well, everything's fine but football."

"What else is there but football?" asked Woodson.

In his retirement years, he wrote a book, Victory Offense: The Complete Football Coaching Manual. Upcoming coaches would do well to find and study this rare book.

Woodson was inducted into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in 1989. He died in 1998 a few days before his 95th birthday. College football lost a great innovator, motivator, and a fabulous football coach. We may never see his like again.

Heaven knows, we Aggie fans miss you Coach. If you’re up there looking down, please call off The Curse. New NMSU Coach DeWayne Walker would really appreciate your help.

Also See: Part One | Part Two | Part Three


Good Stuff

I really enjoy Mr. Hines stories. Thank you for the insight on NMSU's most succesfull FB coach!
Good, good stuff!!!