Almost every football season produces one or more small college teams that win most of their games but attract no public attention outside their immediate areas. Frequently the first national notice these teams receive is at draft time, when their unknown stars pop up near the top of the professionals' "wanted" list. Such a team is little New Mexico State. Last Saturday night, down in the crisp desert air of Arizona, the Aggies won their seventh straight victory of 1960.
They beat Arizona State in a wonderfully exciting game by a 27-24 score, and they did it once again with a backfield that would surprise most sports page readers. It may be the best in the country.
New Mexico State is not noted for its sharp defensive talents—no team coached by Warren Woodson ever is—and on Saturday night in Tempe the Aggie line leaked like a crumbling levee. Arizona State has a good ball club; in fact, it has two or three good ball clubs, and it ran through New Mexico State for 328 yards, three touchdowns and a field goal. At one point early in the fourth quarter the Sun Devils led by a score of 24-14. But then New Mexico's Pervis Atkins, who is the senior partner in the firm of Atkins, Gaiters, Johnson and Jackson, shook loose for a 98-yard kickoff return and a 71-yard run from scrimmage and New Mexico State won again.
Atkins, a 195-pound Negro who can run the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds, led the nation in rushing and scoring last year. This season he has been running at wingback, carrying the ball only on occasion, catching passes, acting as a decoy and blocking. Sometimes, however, the Aggies need him to take over, as they needed him Saturday night. When he was through, the lithe Californian with the antelope gait had a season record of 453 yards in only 43 astonishing carries for an average of more than 10 yards a try; he had caught 18 passes for 269 yards; he had scored 10 touchdowns and kicked one conversion for 61 points. The Los Angeles Rams have already drafted him, and they can hardly wait until he arrives next season.
The reason Atkins is playing wingback this year is that his roommate and best friend, Tailback Bob Gaiters, weighs 210 pounds and can run the 100 in 9.8. Gaiters did not have one of his big nights against Arizona—in fact, he had his worst of the season—but still he gained 81 yards in 18 carries, scored a touchdown and almost personally conducted the Aggies on their first scoring drive. When the night was over, Gaiters was leading the nation in rushing, with 917 yards in 138 carries and also in scoring with 98 points.
One reason Atkins and Gaiters are able to run so well is Charley Johnson, who weighs 190 pounds and can't really run very well at all. But Johnson is a smart, cool quarterback who likes to gamble, a marvelous team leader and a boy who throws a football like Johnny Unitas. He has been drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Cardinals could use him right now. Last season Johnson was second in the nation in total offense, seventh in passing yardage and led everybody with 18 touchdown passes. Saturday night he completed seven of 14 for 61 yards and one touchdown, which gave him a season record of 74 completions in 127 attempts for 929 yards. He leads the nation once again in touchdown passes with nine. His running and passing set up the second Aggie touchdown.
The fourth member of the New Mexico State backfield is a junior named Bob Jackson who weighs 215 pounds and runs over people. He didn't run over very many Saturday night but this was a tough line he was going against and he is still the junior member of the firm. As for the Aggies themselves, their 257 yards running and passing and 27 points scored kept them on top of the major college statistics in both these categories. They have now scored 272 points.
Not everyone will agree that New Mexico State deserves its status as a major college. It does not play Oklahoma or Pittsburgh or Southern Cal; it plays New Mexico and West Texas State and Texas Western and schools like that. But this is a matter of definition. Certainly, to the teams which have been overrun this season, the Aggies from little Las Cruces loom as large as the Chicago Bears.
There was a time, long ago, when victory was not considered a good enough reason for dancing in the streets in Las Cruces. In 1905, for example, the Aggies were unscored upon in five games, although the season ended on a slightly deflated note when El Paso High School held them to a scoreless tie. Again in 1923 New Mexico State overpowered all opposition, including New Mexico Military, Montezuma, Fort Bliss and the Garden Grocers of El Paso. But then the supermarket was invented, New Mexico State joined the Border Conference and, until 1959, it had had only one winning season in 21 years.
Then Dr. Roger Corbett, the New Mexico State University president, decided that enough was enough. Dr. Corbett was on the staff at Maryland when Curly Bird hired Jim Tatum to revitalize the Terps, and Corbett is a man who likes football and believes that it plays an important part in college life. So in 1958 he went out and hired Warren Brooks Woodson to coach New Mexico State.
Woodson is sometimes called an ornery old moss-backed so-and-so, even by his friends. His enemies prefer not to discuss him at all. He has been accused of running up scores to horrifying heights, of refusing to shake hands with a defeated opponent, of stealing good-looking freshman halfbacks right off someone else's campus. He has little use for alumni who fail to help him build up a football team and no use at all for alumni who try to tell him how to do it.
Yet no one ever accused Warren Woodson of turning out either a poor football team or an uninteresting one. His quarterbacks have firm instructions to pass at least 20 times a game, at least seven times in the first quarter. He will try almost anything once—and will try it again if it succeeds. Despite his horny handedness, Woodson's players respect him for his honesty and knowledge and skill and never-ending search for perfection.
After New Mexico State pounded Wichita 40-8 a week ago, Wichita Coach Hank Folberg warned Woodson that his ball club was going to get even next year. "Why, of course, Henry," said Woodson. "Of course. That's what football is all about."
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), and he resembles a moderately successful insurance salesman on the verge of retirement.
In the years since he graduated from Baylor in 1924, Woodson has coached at a lot of places, high school, junior college, college, and he has had only four losing teams. He has won 195 college football games and in six bowl appearances he has yet to lose.
Woodson has been offered jobs at big universities but, for one reason or another, he has always turned them down. "Sometimes I didn't like the setup," he says, and adds forthrightly, "sometimes they didn't like me." Primarily he remained at small schools because there he could run things the way he wanted to. He came to New Mexico State only when assured that he would be head coach, athletic director, the man in full charge. Today Woodson is happy he went to New Mexico and New Mexico is deliriously happy to have him.
New Mexico State University ranks high among the "Who's That?" of American colleges. Hardly anyone outside west Texas, New Mexico and Arizona has any idea where it is or what it is or even why. "The most difficult recruiting problem we had when we first came here," says Woodson, "was convincing a prospective football player in California or Pennsylvania that there really was such a place."
Las Cruces, State's home town, is located 40 miles north of El Paso, a few miles west of the White Sands Proving Ground and 15 blocks from where Billy the Kid made his last jail break. On the outskirts of Las Cruces, with the unusual spires of the Organ Mountains as a backdrop, stand the yellow stucco buildings with the red tile roofs that make up the university. The campus is dotted with Chinese elms and a number of blades of grass. It is a Southwest school with a Southwest heritage, and everyone is very friendly, almost as if this were one of the entrance requirements. A land grant college, for years State was known as New Mexico A&M, but the name was changed in 1958, and almost immediately the proportion of female students to male students shot up from 1 in 7 to 1 in 3. "Girls don't like for people to think they are agricultural students," says Dr. Corbett.
There is still a good agricultural course, but New Mexico State is now better known for its emphasis on the physical sciences. Its physics department brings in students from all over the country and outside the country as well; there are large sums of money to carry oh an anti-missile applied research program and there is a new basic research center. Awarding Ph.D.s in physics, mathematics and engineering, the school has grown to 3,600 and it is expected to reach 10,000 in the course of the next 15 years.
When Woodson arrived in the spring of 1958, he could find only eight boys whom he considered proper material. He had only 35 football scholarships, and there was no money for more. But Woodson has long been known as a most compelling recruiter. By the fall, he had a respectable team. It was made up of a few leftovers, several transfers—and 25 freshmen. Border Conference rules allow freshmen to play varsity sports and these were good freshmen. They won four games, lost three others by a touchdown or less, and New Mexico State was on its way.
Woodson has one weakness as a coach—defense bores him. However, when he came to New Mexico State he conceded that some defense might be necessary. Accordingly, he hired Tom Moulton to coach the line; next year he hired Paul Alley to work with the ends; this past summer he hired Howard White to coach the defensive backs. As a result, New Mexico State began to show progress on defense last year, and the progress has been respectably sustained this year.
But New Mexico State still lacks depth, and it must score quickly and often to win. The boys who have been scoring quickly and often for the last two years are Gaiters and Atkins. Both came together from Santa Ana (Calif.) Junior College with big reputations, and the reason they picked New Mexico State was a man named Harry Skinner, an alumnus ('37) who had a business in Los Angeles and a son playing on that same Santa Ana team. "Man," says Gaiters, who was raised in Zanesville, Ohio, "we didn't know where it was, but we went." "You went," says Atkins. "I just followed along." For four days after they arrived in Las Cruces, Atkins kept his bags packed, just inside the dormitory door, trying to talk Gaiters into going back to southern California. It was well for Pervis Atkins that he decided to stay.
In Woodson's offense, the left half—or tailback, as Woodson calls him—runs with the football approximately half the time. The right half, or wingback, does what Atkins did so well against Arizona State—catches passes, acts as a decoy and blocker and only rarely carries the ball. Gaiters went to tailback at New Mexico State and Atkins to wingback. It was a logical choice, for Gaiters can run like an angry bull. He has unusual starting speed and is in full flight after two quick strides; he is not particularly elusive but he will run around people or over them without worrying much about the choice.
Running, however, is all that Gaiters can do. Atkins, on the other hand, is faster, more elusive and almost as strong, a perfect tailback type. He has wonderful acceleration in an open field. But Atkins is also an exceptional pass receiver and a good blocker, and Woodson needed those talents out on the wing. "Atkins is the best college football player in the country," said Coach Bobby Dobbs of Tulsa.
Gaiters, who was married last summer (Atkins was best man), is the clown of the Aggie team, the joker, the funny guy who keeps everyone relaxed, a happy football player who laughs as he runs with the ball. He is not a particularly good student, but he gets by, and Gaiters is not a man to worry about grades—or anything else.
Atkins is an intensely serious young man who spent three years in the Marine Corps before playing football at Santa Ana JC. He is studying criminology at New Mexico State and after graduation plans to mix probationary work in Los Angeles with a pro football career. Last summer he worked at a Southern California institution for delinquent children and has helped out at a Las Cruces youth commission. But all life is not serious with Pervis Atkins; he has a great love for music, particularly modern jazz, and for the past month has been conducting a disk-jockey show on a Las Cruces station, combining music (one of his favorites is Cal Tjader, his theme song Cannonball Adderley's This Here) with interviews of his teammates.
Despite the great speed and scoring ability of Gaiters and Atkins, there are many who feel that New Mexico State's success hangs even more on the passing and play-calling and leadership of Charley Johnson, a good-looking boy with a blond crew cut who came to the Aggies from the ranks of the unemployed. When Johnson graduated from high school in Big Spring, Texas, a four-sport letterman in football, basketball, baseball and golf, no large schools seemed interested in his talents. He went to Schreiner Institute, a junior college in Kerrville, Texas, but the school dropped football after Johnson's freshman year. He tried to get into Texas Tech and Hardin-Simmons. Neither was impressed. But Woodson was looking for a passer—Woodson is always looking for a passer—so Charley went to New Mexico State.
His first day on the campus, Johnson moved his bride of two months into one of the school's married students' housing units, signed up for the tough chemical engineering course and went out to take over the football team. He has been running it ever since. Johnson is an excellent passer; he completed over 52% of his throws last year, and he has completed almost 60% of his attempts this year. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in every game. Johnson is smart and quick and when he is out there Woodson doesn't have to worry about calling any plays from the bench.
Johnson and Atkins and Gaiters all complete their eligibility this season. This makes New Mexico State opponents very happy, for they know even a Warren Woodson doesn't come up with players like these every year. But what they forget is that Woodson did it when people had never even heard of New Mexico State. There is no telling what he may accomplish now that he no longer has to tell prospects where the blamed place is.