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

Woodson would spend five years in Tucson. At 26-22-2, his teams were not as successful as at HSU, but there were some highlights. In 1953, in front of a statewide television audience, the Wildcats defeated arch-rival Arizona State 34-0 -- the first of three straight wins over the Sun Devils. The Wildcats would sweep New Mexico all five years of Woodson’s tenure. And the Wing T continued to produce records. In his first start for Woodson, halfback Art Lupino (aka the “Cactus Comet”) gained 228 yards on six carries and scored 32 points. Lupino went on to win national rushing titles in 1954 and 1955, and led the nation in all purpose yards, scoring, and kick returns in 1954.

At Arizona, Woodson once again focused on recruitment of military veterans. His 1952 squad included only four non-veterans. Many of the veterans had served in the Korean War, were married, and had young children. Woodson also reached out to New Mexico’s few premier players. He recruited quarterback Skip Corley from Las Cruces in 1952. In 1955, he landed the ‘all everything’ athlete Sal Gonzales from Anthony Gadsden and a talented quarterback, Lionel Romero, from St. Mary’s in Albuquerque.
In the early and mid ‘50s, NCAA recruiting rules were lax, as were rules on scholarships and ‘spending money.’ It is unclear whether Coach Woodson’s ‘cash drawer’ was a new thing at Arizona or whether it had started at HSU – probably the latter. Several on his early ‘50s team at Arizona said that Woodson dispersed small amounts to players, but only at his discretion and for what he deemed to be worthy reasons. The veteran players got larger amounts because of their needs for family support. The money was provided by the Tucson Town Cats boosters.

Such goings on were common at the larger football playing schools at the time. And Woodson felt no qualms about needing to compete with such schools on an equal footing. In the mid ‘50s, a scandal involving large under-the-table payments to athletes at USC, UCLA, California, and Washington made the headlines. Star halfback Jon Arnett of USC was one of the players receiving large payments. He was suspended for half the season in 1956. Arnett had been the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, but instead the award went to Paul Hornung of 2-9 Notre Dame. Given the Golden Boy’s later ‘transgressions’ and the hidden dealings at Notre Dame, it was ironic.

Warren WoodsonWoodson’s relationship with the Town Cats and the Arizona administration gradually soured as his teams struggled to win games against the bigger-name opponents now on the UA schedule. Booster advice and criticism was met with biting rejoinders by Woodson. In 1956 when Arizona lost to Arizona State 20-0 and Colorado 38-7 (both fine squads), the situation deteriorated. Woodson was relieved as head coach and reassigned to “other duties.” He cooled his heels in 1957 awaiting another opportunity.
In 1958, that opportunity came with an offer to coach at New Mexico A&M (soon to be New Mexico State). Woodson accepted with the knowledge that he would be in full charge, negotiating a deal that included the job of athletic director. New Mexico State, which had a good football record before the War, was woeful afterwards. The Aggies were a combined 29-85-1 over the 1946-57 period with many humiliating drubbings by Border Conference teams. That was about to change.

Woodson installed his Wing T and beefed up the defense. The Aggies, while lacking in talent and depth, made a credible showing in 1958. They lost close games to New Mexico, Arizona State, West Texas, and Hardin Simmons, but defeated UTEP for the first time since 1946. The Aggies completed the year at 4-6.

Most importantly, Woodson was recruiting good players, the best of which was quarterback Charley Johnson. Johnson had played football previously at Schreiner Institute in Texas, but had not yet made a name as a quarterback. He soon would. Biding his time learning the Wing T, he took a few lumps as the Aggies quarterback in 1958. But the clever Johnson would lead the Aggies to glory in 1959 and 1960.

The previous coach at NMSU, Tony Cavallo, had developed recruiting inroads in Pennsylvania. Woodson took advantage and enlarged upon that pipeline. Players like Pete Smolanovich, Lou Zivkovich (later of Playgirl centerfold fame), Don Yanessa, and David Thompson showed up in Las Cruces. Other Woodson players included the bruising Kelly brothers, Joe and Bob from Carlsbad, and a number of small, though fast linemen from New Mexico and Texas like Floyd Strickland, Carl Covington, Jimmy Campbell, Allan Sepkowitz, and J.W. Witt. Morris Hodgson, running back from Texarkana by way of Long Beach State, was switched to linebacker by Woodson. Hodgson and Woodson did not get along at all initially due to the position change, but later, Hodgson became a Woodson favorite and stayed on at NMSU as a coach and assistant AD.

Sal Gonzales followed Woodson to NMSU from Arizona. Bruising lineman Billie Ray Locklin, previously recruited from Texas, was on the squad along with the rugged end E. A. Sims and future Cowboys and Rams kicker, Danny Villanueva.

Along with Charley Johnson, Woodson’s other coup was signing the talented halfback tandem of Bob Gaiters and Pervis Atkins from Santa Ana JC in California. Alum Harry Skinner had noticed Gaiters at a game and called Woodson with a recommendation. Gaiters agreed to come for a visit and brought along his pal, Atkins. Woodson liked what he saw and offered scholarships to both. Bob and Pervis spent four uneasy nights amongst the sounds and smells of the farm animals on the NMSU campus wondering what they’d gotten into. But they stuck it out and made history. Atkins would lead the nation in rushing in 1959, with Gaiters winning the scoring and rushing titles in 1960.

While Woodson did not preach religion to his players, he made it a point to promote Christian values and suggest that they should attend church. When Atkins joined the squad, Woodson asked if he had a church in mind to attend in Las Cruces. Atkins said no, not yet. Woodson said in that case, Pervis should join him, Muriel, and daughter Dawn at his Baptist church. The next Sunday, the four entered church together. This was the late ‘50s and it was unusual to see a black person in a predominantly white church. But despite a few fleeting glances, the congregation welcomed him and the Woodsons.

Woodson continued to innovate with the Wing T, adding pulling and new cross blocking schemes for the running game. He insisted on passing at least 20 times a game, with a minimum of seven passes in the first quarter. A devastating running play, run off a pass fake, involved Charley Johnson raising the ball quickly over his head to freeze the defense, then handing off on a draw to Gaiters.
Atkins was a great receiver and a threat to score off the wingback reverse, sometimes run with fake pulls in the other direction to make the defense think it was yet another power sweep. Johnson ran the option pitch smoothly, but added a maneuver where he ran laterally toward the pitch spot, only to jump and throw a short pass across the middle to either E.A. Sims or Bob Kelly. The bread and butter play was either the power sweep with Gaiters led by the fullback and pulling linemen, or the off tackle plunge often run at an angle to take advantage of the cross block.

The 1959 team finished the season at 8-3 with a Sun Bowl victory over North Texas State and future AFL star Abner Haynes. The Aggie defense was spectacular in that game, causing eight North Texas fumbles, six recovered by NMSU.

Earlier that year, the Aggies beat UNM for the first time in 19 years, with Atkins scoring on a long run on the first Aggie offensive play -- a wingback reverse. They lost a close game to their other arch rival Texas Western and another to Arizona State. Both losses would be avenged in 1960. Wingback Pervis Atkins led the nation in rushing and all purpose yardage. For good measure, he kicked off and played a mean defensive back.

With the 28-8 Sun Bowl victory resounding, and with many experienced seniors returning, it was obvious that Woodson’s team was loaded and ready for a banner season in 1960.

Also See: Part One | Part Two