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

In late 1942, at age 39, Woodson had been commissioned as a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. He served as a senior physical training officer for three years, primarily in Texas and the Gulf Coast states. The Hardin Simmons football program was canceled during WW II from 1943-45.

But Woodson’s military contacts and experience proved valuable in his ability to recruit veterans for his future teams. These veterans were stronger, heavier and more mature than typical college freshman. They were instrumental to Woodson’s success at Hardin Simmons in the mid-to- late ‘40s and later at Arizona and New Mexico State in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Woodson returned to Hardin Simmons in 1946 with new recruits, more ideas, and even more confidence in his ability to lead. He was feted at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Abilene. Woodson said that returning to football after the War was “like a revival.” He was not specific about prospects for the season, but did say he had 55 players, all but seven of whom were veterans.

Following Woodson’s talk, a Kiwanis member and Methodist layman, Nib Shaw, rose and spoke in a complaining tone. To a hushed audience, Shaw said Woodson had stolen many Methodist boys to play at a Baptist college, Hardin Simmons. Now, his alma mater, Methodist McMurry College was suffering. Moreover, Woodson had supposedly promised to not pay any recruit more than $200 a month, with a $1,000 bonus at season’s end. Other coaches at McMurry and Abilene Christian had lived up to the promise, but not Woodson. For awhile, those at the luncheon were silent, thinking Shaw was serious. They looked at a scowling Woodson, who suddenly chuckled. The pent up tension exploded in laughter, and Woodson joined in.

Actually, there was more truth to the payoff banter than anyone cared to admit. Virtually every school across the country was into paying players, especially veterans. The post WW II “football monster,” most obvious at Oklahoma and other ‘football factories’ anxious to gain national recognition, had been born.

Woodson’s 1946 Cowboy team went on a tear, finishing the regular season undefeated at 11-0. They capped the year with a 20-0 shutout of Denver in the first Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. ‘Doc’ Mobley, now a mature man after his military service, was the national leader in rushing yet again.

How good a coach was Warren Woodson at Hardin Simmons? In an article in October 1997 by Al Pickett of the Abilene Reporter-News, legendary Texas high school football coach Gordon Wood gave testimony.

"Warren Woodson may be the best offensive coach… ever…" said Wood.

Wood and Coach Al Milch explained how Woodson's Wing T differed from the one Darrell Royal later made famous at Texas.

"He changed the game with the cross-block," said Milch, who played for and coached with Woodson at HSU. "There would be a cross between the tackle and the guard." We would fake it on the other side, too, so the defense didn't know which way the back was going. In 1942 we beat both SMU and Baylor because they didn't know how to handle the cross-block."

"He was a motivator," Milch said. "I've never seen anyone with the ideas he had for games."

Hardin Simmons finished 8-3 in 1947, second in the Border Conference. Halfback Wilton Davis led the nation in rushing with 1,173 yards, the third time in a row an HSU back won the title. The Cowboys were sixth in the nation in total offense and fifth in rushing offense. They went bowling yet again, this time against San Diego State in the Harbor Bowl in San Diego where they crushed the Aztecs, 55-0.

Throughout the 1940s, Warren and Muriel continued to play tennis, often together. They won several age group doubles titles in Texas tournaments. Woodson was reported to have annually challenged the best Cowboys’ tennis player, winning often in singles matches.

Woodson believed in a healthy, balanced diet – he ate large portions of fresh fruits and vegetables long before such things became popular on TV and the internet. He urged his players to eat healthy foods and to avoid smoke and drink. Woodson also extolled Christian values. It was all part of Woodson’s football program and the discipline he believed necessary to win.

Johnny Ford and Bob McChesneyWoodson’s 1948 team had a 4-2-2 regular season record, finishing only fifth in the Border Conference. Wilton Davis was fifth in the nation in rushing with 889 yards. Quarterback Johnny Ford was eighth in the nation in passing. The Cowboys also had Bob McChesney, all-Conference end who finished third in the nation in receiving. Woodson’s passing offense was taking hold. The more balanced running and passing attack would be the hallmark of his future coaching years at Arizona and New Mexico State.

Despite the ‘down year’ in 1948, HSU played in three bowl games. The Cowboys featured six sets of brothers, all military veterans. For this group of veterans, Woodson’s ambitious postseason scheduling was not a problem. They packed into a converted WW II Army transport plane, and flew from Abilene to the Grape Bowl in Lodi, California, on December 4. On December 18 they flew to the Shrine Bowl in Little Rock, Arkansas. Finally, HSU flew to the Camellia Bowl in Lafayette, Louisiana on December 30.

“He was very receptive to the bowls, and so was the team,” recalled 80-year old ex-wingback Paul Petty in 2008. “Actually, we would have liked to have played in another one, I think.

“There was a row of seats on each side of the plane, with nothing in the middle,” said Petty. “It wasn’t too comfortable.”

The Cowboys opened their postseason with a 35-35 tie against Pacific at the Grape Bowl. Hardin-Simmons led 21-0 but had to rally to tie after losing the lead to Pacific, which was led by future Dallas Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron. Two weeks later, HSU beat Ouachita 40-12 in the Shrine Bowl at Little Rock, and then topped Wichita 49-12 in the Camelia Bowl at Lafayette.

Petty played all 60 minutes in both of those games and had an interception return for a score against Ouachita.

The multiple bowl games had never had been done before. A year later, the NCAA passed a rule limiting college teams to one bowl appearance per year.

With the pool of veterans diminishing and big money being spent by competitors, Woodson’s Cowboy teams in 1949-51 were not as successful, finishing 6-4-1, 5-5, and 6-6, respectively. They did manage third and second place finishes in the Border Conference in 1949 and 1951.

After the 1951 season, the University of Arizona called to offer Woodson the head coaching job in Tucson. Apparently, HSU’s consistent wins over Arizona and Arizona State persuaded Arizona that he was the man for the job. And Woodson liked the prospects of a better funded program. However, he realized that he would effectively be giving up recruiting in talent-rich Texas. This would prove to be a factor that was difficult to overcome. He would also be giving up a level of control of the program. At HSU he had been largely his own boss, surrounded by friends and supportive boosters. At Arizona he would be stepping into unknown territory.

Also See: Part One