In an ancient office at the southeast corner of Texas Christian University's Anion Carter Stadium, his feet comfortably propped on a battered old desk and cigar ashes spilling to the floor, sits a leathery-faced man wearing a blue checked suit coat, gray trousers, gray shirt, red tie, a floppy brown hat and a snaggle-toothed grin. His name is Othol Martin, although they call him Abe, and the reason he grins is that his football team, for the second time in four years, has just won the championship of the Southwest Conference.
The game that clinched it for them last Saturday afternoon on a beautiful, summery day in the vast Rice Stadium at Houston was typical of all the other seven they have won this year. Down 7-0 at the end of the first quarter, they evened the score when Halfback Marvin Lasater plucked a Rice fumble out of the air and raced untouched 58 yards to the goal. Feeling perhaps that this display had been a little too flowery, they scored again before half time, going 60 jolting yards in 13 plays. The longest rushing gain in the drive was six yards, but Jack Spikes, the tough fullback, and the two halfbacks, Lasater and Marshall Harris, kept plugging away and Hunter Enis, the quarterback, mixed in several passes when things threatened to bog down.
Rice kicked a field goal with 6½ minutes left in the game, a bit of strategy on Coach Jess Neely's part that TCU still hasn't figured out. Anyway, it wasn't TCU's problem, so the Horned Frogs went down to score again, Larry Dawson, a quarterback of the second unit, doing most of the work this time. TCU won 21-10 and on January 1 will go to the Cotton Bowl once again to uphold the glory of the Southwest.
The football kingdom which Abe Martin now rules is a large one, covering most of the state of Texas and dipping, at one point, into Arkansas. The eight colleges of the Southwest Athletic Conference (actually, where football competition is concerned, there are at the moment only seven, since Texas Tech, the newest member, does not become eligible for championship play until 1960) extend from Houston, down on the Gulf Coast, all the way to Lubbock out in west Texas, a distance of some 600 miles. In certain sections of the nation some confusion usually exists as to who is exactly who in that corner of the academic and athletic world, and when names like Texas Christian and Southern Methodist and Texas A&M and Rice and Baylor come popping out of the headlines on Sunday mornings in other parts of the country, there is a tendency to shrug and say, oh, well, who cares. Since they will be reading about the Christians from now until the Cotton Bowl on January 1, however, it might be helpful to explain to readers that these are not a legion of bearded martyrs in flowing white robes marching off down the Fort Worth-Dallas Turnpike on their way to the lion pits, but the members of the TCU football team. In fact, it might be helpful to explain briefly what all the names mean and what the Southwest Conference is.
December 1, 1958
Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (Texas A&M): located in College Station, near Bryan. Enrollment is 7,000. Team name Aggies (or Farmers). Only all-male student body in conference and also quite a bit the noisiest. Once an all-military school (ROTC). Now has some 4,000 in cadet corps, who march over one of dustiest parade grounds in the world. Texas A&M prides itself on the spirit of the student body and on its agricultural and engineering curricula.
Baylor University: located in Waco. Enrollment 5,000. Team name Bears (or Bruins or Baptists). Largest Baptist college in the country, turns out many men of the cloth, also liberal arts graduates. Not the most attractive physical plant in the conference. Visitor once hit on head for smoking on the campus. Smoking now allowed, although not exactly approved.
Rice Institute: located in Houston. Enrollment 1,600. Team name Owls. By far the smallest, most exclusive student body in conference, with perhaps the largest, most beautiful modern physical plant. Old, rich in tradition. Most Ivy League of Southwest universities, featuring five residential colleges and a nationally respected academic program, with particular emphasis on science and engineering. Big, new Rice Stadium is most beautiful football arena in the nation.
Southern Methodist University (SMU): located in Dallas. Enrollment 6,000. Team name Mustangs (or Ponies or Methodists). Like the city, the school is the style-setter for the area, is noted for its well-dressed, lovely coeds. Lots of fraternity, sorority activity. Planned, ordered campus and buildings. Basically a liberal arts curriculum. Despite denominational tag, does not emphasize religious instruction.
Texas Christian University (TCU): located in Fort Worth. Enrollment 6,000. Team name Horned Frogs (or Christians). Most friendly, homey campus of any in the conference. Dress is very casual, tending toward Western. Growing fast but school still retains intimate, small-college atmosphere. Very plain yellow-brick buildings with red-tile roofs are functional rather than attractive, form a compact unit in a rather large campus area. Little emphasis on religious instruction; mostly liberal arts.
University of Texas: located in Austin, the state capital. Enrollment 17,000. Team name Longhorns (or Steers). The state university and one of the nation's largest. Vast wealth from oil lands. Good educational facilities available in almost any course of study. Working hard to build up to high national academic ranking after some lean years. Campus architecture is a hodgepodge of various periods, and there is more grass in Times Square than on the Forty Acres, since school is unable to expand geographically and all available space is taken up. Strong social life.
Texas Technological College (Tech): located in Lubbock. Enrollment 9,000. Team name Red Raiders. Finally gained conference admission in 1956 after years of trying. Big and growing and dusty, most westerly of SWC schools. Good engineering courses, excellent in geology.
University of Arkansas: located in Fayetteville. Enrollment 6,000. Team name Razorbacks (or Porkers). One of Southwest Conference charter members, has consistently resisted invitation from Texas schools to leave. Frequently a conference have-not athletically, it now appears to be coming back fast. Situated on a ridge in the Ozarks, it ranks among most attractive of SWC schools, is the state university, only major college in Arkansas. Features liberal arts academic program.
Annually the teams representing these schools produce a brand of football competition that has been called the most exciting in the country—and also the screwiest. While developing hordes of great football players, as the professional rosters will attest, the conference only occasionally comes up with a truly great team. It is just too well balanced. For the past 25 years the conference football writers have been conducting a preseason poll to pick the SWC champion. In 20 of those years they have missed completely and, even worse, in two of the last four years the team which was picked to win has finished last. Whether this has more to do with the quality of football played in Texas or the quality of football forecasting is a relatively minor point. At least it indicates that things can get a bit confused where Southwest football is concerned.
Over a five-year period, from 1953 through 1957, only two games separated the team with the best conference record from the team with the worst. In that same period of time, Ohio State was winning 28 Big Ten games against only five losses while Indiana was winning five and losing 25. In the Southeastern Conference Mississippi was 23-5 compared to Tulane's 8-24, and on the Pacific Coast UCLA had a 28-5 record while California was only 10-21 in conference competition.
"There are at least two good reasons for this," says Jess Neely, the courtly Southerner who came to Rice in 1940 and has stayed around to become the conference's dean among coaches. "No one school has ever established recruiting domination down here because it is simply impossible. There are enough good football players to go around. In addition to that, these kids all know about each other. They have lived in this state for years, played against and with each other in high school, sometimes played together as far back as junior high. So when they read in the newspapers that this boy or that boy is so great, they don't believe it at all. They know exactly how good he is. So they go out there and stop him.
"Kids in Texas," says Neely, who does not agree with all he reads in the papers either, "are not impressed by each other's press clippings."
As for the old story that the Southwest Conference is college football's most razzle-dazzle league, that is hardly true any longer. As a matter of fact, it never really was. The reputation grew from the more or less revolutionary tactics of two men, Ray Morrison at SMU and Dutch Meyer at TCU, back in the '20s and '30s. Morrison liked wide-open football and played it that way. Meyer, the first great exponent of the spread formation, was actually taking maximum advantage of his material, which included a couple of passers named Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien. In the same general period there were also coaches named Francis Schmidt and Dana Bible and Homer Norton who would rather run over you any day than go around you. Today it is much the same. At SMU the Mustangs throw a lot of passes because they have a boy named Don Meredith, and at A&M they throw because of Charlie Milstead and at Baylor because of Buddy Humphrey. At Rice and Texas and Arkansas, where the line blocking is better than the passing, they prefer to run. These schools have not thrown nearly as many passes this year as Iowa or Army or Syracuse. At TCU they do a little of both.
"Basically," says Abe Martin, "college football all over the country is the same. We all exchange films and go to the same conventions and the same clinics. We also play by the same rules.
"Now, Dutch liked to pass," says Abe, nodding in the direction of the TCU athletic director's office, where Meyer sits with his feet propped up on another old battered desk, dressed in what appears to be the other half of Martin's two suits. "He used the spread and I played under Dutch here and coached under him. But when he retired in 1953 and I took the coaching job, I put in a pro-type T offense. Now we are using the straight T, more or less, with lots of the belly series.
"I'm primarily a running football coach, I guess. You've got to run to make your passing go. But I don't think you can have an outstanding team unless you can move the ball passing, too. So we pass. I guess the thing we strive for is balance. This year we've been pretty fortunate in having it."
TCU may look like a dull team—in fact, let's admit it, it is dull—but there is, nevertheless, a rather large group of pretty-fair-to-middlin' ballplayers around, as Abe would say. Not one great player, perhaps, although the big tackle, Donald Floyd, ranks among the best in the country. Just a lot of good ones.
There is a big first-team line which has exceptional mobility and can block and tackle like seven demons and a second team which is even bigger and almost as good. The first-team running attack, which features Spikes and Lasater, is hardly spectacular but it usually gets there, and the passing of Enis (eight touchdowns) has been a big help. With Merlin Priddy at fullback and Dawson at quarter, the second backfield unit may have a bit more speed and striking power but it is not quite so dependable, particularly on defense. As two complete units, however, the Horned Frogs have been very tough to beat. Only Iowa has done it.
"Maybe this isn't an exciting team," says Abe, who doesn't really care what they say about his ball club so long as it wins. "Maybe we don't try to be exciting. I just send the kids out there on the field and tell 'em to have fun. 'Just go out there,' I tell 'em, 'and hully-gully around a little with that old ball.' "
The boys who play football for TCU—most of them are sophomores and juniors and will be back in '59—are like the boys who have been playing football at TCU for years. Generally, they come from small towns, and although many of them were terrific high school athletes, they were frequently from so far out in the sticks that their reputations didn't extend very far. It is this which once gave TCU the reputation of getting by with leftovers.
TCU's homey, low-pressure atmosphere extends from the top of the football team to the bottom. Abe's three fine varsity assistants—Walter Roach, Allie White and Vernon Hallbeck—and the freshman coach, Fred Taylor, are, like Abe, TCU men. They work closely together, usually over coffee and cokes in a highly informal atmosphere, and Martin says the real secret of his success is that he doesn't have to waste any of his time "coaching the coaches."
Texas Christian has never fired a coach, and since 1923 it has had only four: Matty Bell (1923-28), Francis Schmidt (1929-33), Dutch Meyer (1934-52) and Abe Martin. Two years ago Abe was awarded faculty tenure by the university, which doesn't hurt the air of relaxation around the place a bit.
Abe Martin has no secretary, no plush carpeting, no gleaming chrome furniture and no ulcers. His coaching staff is the smallest in the land and the man it works for has not changed much since that day in 1927 when he came off a farm up in Jack County to enroll as a 19-year-old freshman at TCU. They gave him a job cutting weeds, but it wasn't long before Abe quit. "If I'd wanted to farm," he says, "I would just have stayed at home." Instead, he began to play football and that's how he got through college.
Abe Martin has been around quite a bit in all the years since, but he is still not a fancy man. Like his football team, Abe is just plain and steady and sound and he gets the job done in a quiet, unspectacular way. Together, Abe Martin and TCU just win football games.