Special to The Flash Today
STEPHENVILLE (August 24, 2017) — A lot has changed over 100 years.
For instance, fewer than 12,000 of the United States’ population, which is roughly 8 percent of the nation, owned a telephone according to the 1917 Census of Electrical Industries. Fast forward a century and more than 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 1917, big things were happening across the country as the United States prepared to enter into World War I following the April 2 request of President Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, a future leader of America would be born into the world as the Kennedy family in Brookline, Massachusetts welcomed newborn John Fitzgerald on May 29.
As all this was happening across the country, change also was coming to small-town Stephenville, Texas in 1917. John Tarleton Agricultural College was set to undergo a remarkable transformation that not only stabilized a young institution but laid the groundwork for one of the fastest growing universities in the state of Texas.
According to the Texas State Historical Association, Tarleton began in 1893 after citizens of Stephenville raised $6,500 to build Stephenville College. The school operated as a private institution until 1898 when the property was transferred to the trustees of the newly established John Tarleton College, which was endowed by John Tarleton. The school offered senior college work for a short time, but quickly reverted to junior status with two years of high school work, and two years of college work in liberal arts.
Like many schools during that period, John Tarleton College faced financial worries. However, the citizens of Stephenville and the trustees of the school offered the college properties to the state as a nucleus for the new school. On February 20, 1917, the 35th Legislature was accepted and established a branch of Texas A&M in Stephenville to be named John Tarleton Agricultural College.
Fresh off its brand-new status as the founding member of The Texas A&M University System, JTAC began to flourish by offering two-year degrees, a preparatory program, and specialized study in agriculture, home economics, and military training.
Meanwhile, the tradition of excellence within Tarleton Athletics was just beginning.
Arthur B. Hayes was the school’s first known athletic director and ushered JTAC into its Texas A&M University system era. He led Tarleton’s intercollegiate sports – football, basketball, and baseball. Men’s Track and Field was added the following year under the leadership of head coach P.G. Greenwood.
Hayes maintained his leadership until a new face emerged on the Tarleton campus. The new leader of athletics in Stephenville would take over in the fall of 1921 and begin a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest coaches and leaders of Tarleton.
Enter, William Jones Wisdom.
Coach Wisdom made an immediate impact with the football team, leading the Junior Aggies to an 8-1-1 record in his debut season and going on to find success as the head coach of JTAC basketball and baseball.
In 1924, Wisdom made one of his many marks on Tarleton Athletics by bringing change to the school’s mascot. According to Tarleton history, Wisdom became disenchanted with the name ‘Junior Aggies’ and held a school-wide contest to select a new mascot. The winner would receive $5 – equal to $69.78 in today’s currency – and Wisdom would be the sole judge. During the contest, the name ‘Plowboys’ came to the third-year head coach so he won the contest, kept his $5, and the school adopted the new moniker.
The following season, Wisdom led his Plowboy football team to brand-new heights as JTAC made the trek to College Station for the first game between Texas A&M and the system school it had adopted just seven years earlier. Tarleton lost the game.
Meanwhile, the school was developing a reputation of excellence in every sport under Wisdom’s leadership. In his first six seasons at the helm, Wisdom coached Tarleton to three straight state titles in football, five state championships in basketball, and the 1926 state championship in baseball. As the school’s athletic director, he also watched JTAC claim the 1926 and 1927 state titles in track and field and men’s tennis under head coach Oscar H. Frazier.
Starting the 1928-29 season, Tarleton Athletics started to change.
The spring of 1929 marked the final year of intercollegiate baseball under Wisdom and the beginning of boxing and wrestling programs, which were short-lived. The following fall, Wisdom stepped away from coaching football and turned the program over to its first full-time head football coach, W. A. Hall.
Wisdom jumped back on the football sideline the following season after a down year and continued to grow the department with the addition of Men’s Golf, also coached by him.
Entering the 1930’s, Tarleton Athletics was a completely male-dominated program. The women of JTAC competed in intercollegiate basketball competition sparingly in the 1920s, but by the 1930s all women’s sports were strictly intramural affairs as “the sole purpose of their athletic activities is to give proper amount of exercise and a desirable type of recreation to counteract the monotony of study,” according to the 1933-34 edition of the Grassburr. The women competed amongst themselves in basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, skating, calisthenics, dancing, and horseback riding. The women resumed intercollegiate competition in basketball and gymnastics for the 1934-35 year, which lasted only one season before reverting back to intramural competition until 1968.
More changes continued to come under Wisdom’s tenure, beginning in 1934 as the then-13th year leader just finished his second consecutive undefeated basketball season, which was the beginning of one of the most storied winning streaks in college basketball history. From 1934-38, Wisdom’s Tarleton basketball team won 86 consecutive games and outscored their opponents 3,547 to 1,650. The streak has only been broken by one other men’s college basketball program in history when UCLA, under the leadership of Hall of Fame Head Coach John Wooden, won 88 consecutive games in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, 1934 also saw big changes across the rest of the athletics department as the men’s cross country team was born under head coach O.H. Frazier. The first cross country team competed only between the halves of Tarleton football games, initially opposing JTAC’s primary athletics rival, Grubbs College – now UT Arlington.
Wisdom completed his 19-year first tenure as athletic director in 1940, giving way to former Tarleton football MVP and Texas A&M graduate Earl Rudder, who served as athletic director for one season before heading out to serve his country in World War II. Rudder was the commanding officer of the Second Ranger Battalion, which had a major role in the D-Day invasion.
Wisdom resumed the duties for a second stint in 1941 and led the school through wartime, which cancelled all intercollegiate competition for JTAC until the 1944-45 year.
The two-year hiatus of athletics put a halt to the school’s tradition of excellence for a time.
Athletics returned to JTAC in 1944 under new Athletic Director Jimmie Marshall. Upon return to action, the school boasted intercollegiate competition only in football and men’s basketball. The football team underwent a rough go of things in its return to the gridiron, as the Plowboys were shutout in each of their first five games before getting their first post-war win against a team comprised of students from Abilene Christian, Hardin-Simmons, and McMurry, 13-0.
The 1946 year was a big one for new athletic director C.M. “Dutch” Flory and Tarleton president, E.J. Howell.
Flory brought the athletics program back to competing in five sports – football, basketball, tennis, track and field, and boxing – while Howell was hard at work to bring a new football facility to the college. Howell wanted something to memorialize the 185 Tarleton students and three faculty who gave their lives during World War II. He secured the funds and authority from the Texas A&M Board of Directors to purchase 38 acres of land and build a 6,000-seat home for JTAC Football, Memorial Stadium. After persevering through some financial troubles, the stadium was completed in 1951.
Flory led the way for athletics through 1949 before Willie Zapalac (1949-51) and H.A. “Sandy” Sanford (1951-61) took over the reins and led Tarleton through the end of its junior college era.
In 1961, Tarleton made the transition to a senior college and the first four-year degrees were issued in May 1963. Tarleton State College earned its accreditation as a four-year school in 1966.
Meanwhile, the athletics department was handed back to a familiar face as Flory returned to take control of the program, this time through the spring of 1969. The programs began adjusting to senior college competition and the reemergence of women’s intercollegiate sports under the guidance of Sue Baker. Flory led Tarleton into the NAIA Lone Star Conference in 1968, but the time spent in the LSC was short-lived before Tarleton departed for the newly formed Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
Tarleton’s prominence started to rise in the mid-70’s when Jan Lowery delivered the school its first TIAA championship in women’s basketball. The first-year head women’s basketball coach led her team to a 29-10 record in a season dedicated to the late Sue Baker. The following spring, Tarleton football head coach Buddy Fornes brought home Tarleton’s first senior-college football championship in 1977 and followed up with another in 1978. Fornes’ 1978 football team, which was ultimately inducted into the Tarleton Athletics Hall of Fame, qualified for the first national playoff football game in school history and fell to the University of Findlay in a 13-6 heartbreaker. Meanwhile, Lowery was dominating the women’s circuit with 10 consecutive TIAA league championships to begin her coaching career.
While the school was growing into a perennial TIAA powerhouse in those sports, as well as track and field under Hall of Fame coaches Joe Gillespie, Lonnie McMillian and Carl Pleasant, the 13th President of Tarleton State University Dr. Barry B. Thompson was making moves to ensure even more success in the future of Tarleton Athletics beginning in 1988.
Thompson’s moves started in the few years prior to 1988 when he decided to reinstate the baseball program for the second time after the sport left the Stephenville campus in 1970.
Another moment that seemed like a routine coaching change at the time turned out to be a monumental shift in the leadership and success of Tarleton Athletics for years to come.
Fresh off its 26th losing season in its 27 years of being a senior college, the men’s basketball program was in search of a new leader. Gillespie, who was then in his final year as the athletic director, and Dr. Lamar Johanson, who was serving as the faculty athletic representative and would later be inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame as a supporter, brought in a young basketball coach fresh off a 21-10 season as the head coach of Connors Junior College.
Welcome to Stephenville, Lonn Reisman.
“(Assistant Athletic Director) Ron (Newsome) and I went over to Dr. (Barry B.) Thompson’s office to make our recommendation (of Lonn Reisman as the new head men’s basketball coach) known,” said Johanson. “He looked us right square in the eye and said, in no uncertain terms, ‘he better blank-blank win or I’ll have a chunk of both of your tails.’
“Fortunately, Reisman bailed us out,” he added.
And bail them out, he did.
Reisman went on to turn the program into a national powerhouse, leading the Texans through the transition years from NAIA to NCAA Division II. He became the school’s all-time winningest head basketball coach, passing Wisdom, and led Tarleton to four NCAA Division II Elite Eights and two NCAA Division II Final Fours. He is a 13-time Coach of the Year and was responsible in bringing Tarleton’s all-time record back to an even .500 mark as a senior college, which he did in 2014.
As Reisman’s legacy was just getting started, it was the TexAnns of Tarleton Basketball who became the first team in school history to compete in a national championship game as a senior college. The 1991-92 TexAnns went all the way to the national championship and finished as the national runners-up. That team was inducted into the Tarleton Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013.
Newsome replaced Gillespie as athletic director in the fall of 1988 and ran the department for five years before the athletics program made another leap into its state of current success when Reisman was named the 13th athletic director in school history.
His first order of business: getting Tarleton into the NCAA.
“President (Dr. Dennis) McCabe brought me in to interview for the athletic director job in 1993 and I simply told him the vision I had for this department and the university,” said Reisman. “I explained my vision for what the Texan Club could become and what joining the NCAA could mean for the university. I guess he liked it because he offered me the job and we were off.”
The transition led to a two-year probation period for Tarleton and a five-year ‘phase-in’ program designed by Reisman to ease the financial burden significantly off the university with the addition of scholarships, more personnel, and overall athletic budgets. Gender equity laws upon moving into the NCAA also forced a change to the department as Tarleton dropped men’s golf and tennis.
Part of lifting the financial burden off the university came with the rebirth of the Texan Club.
The new responsibilities of preparing to become an NCAA school required more attention than ever before on bringing in the funds to stay competitive, thus Reisman revitalized a then-meager Texan Club, which has grown into one of the largest booster organizations in all of NCAA Division II.
“When I took over as athletic director, our Texan Club was in poor shape,” said Reisman. “We only had one level of individual memberships and no corporate sponsorships. My first year, we opened it up for corporate sponsors. He had eight corporates our first year – just eight banners on the wall in Wisdom Gym – today, we have over 200 corporate sponsors. We’ve also expanded our individual memberships and developed the T-Club Letterman’s Association. We raise enough to fulfill 10 full scholarships and the rest of the money goes for student-athlete enhancement through study hall tutors and monitors, as well as supporting the programs. We definitely would not be as successful following our transition into NCAA Division II if we didn’t have the support of our T-Club Letterman’s Association and the Texan Club corporate sponsors and individual members.”
Reisman led Tarleton into NCAA Division II in 1994 and has been the only leader of Tarleton Athletics in the NCAA era and over that time – leading up to today’s successes. He has witnessed Tarleton’s growth into a national power as the track teams started sending individuals to the outdoor national championships as soon as 1997 on the men’s side and 1998 on the women’s side. In 1998, President Thompson’s vision came to fruition as the baseball team, under Hall of Fame Coach Jack Allen, qualified for the school’s first NCAA regional tournament and followed it up in 1999 with the school’s first Lone Star Conference championship of the NCAA era.
The football team in 2001, under Head Coach Todd Whitten, delivered the school a league championship and became the first team to win an NCAA postseason game. Whitten’s Texans defeated Chadron State 28-24 in the opening round of the football playoffs.
Tarleton Athletics, under the guidance of Reisman, has seen its program grow to new heights over the last 100 years, highlighted over the past 23 years as an NCAA program. Tarleton Athletics has seven individual track and field national championships, a national qualifying individual in men’s cross country and the school’s first national qualifying women’s cross country team, multiple Lone Star Conference division, season, and regional championships, including four from the men’s basketball program under Reisman’s guidance, as well as the domination of women’s golf under head coach Jerry Don Doyle with 10 LSC Championships and nine West Region championships. Tennis coach Lance Drake has also elevated that program to new heights with 11 NCAA regional tournament bids. The school’s youngest program, women’s softball which was created in 1996, also has an NCAA Sweet 16 berth of its own in 2015.
Today, Reisman remains at the helm of the department as the longest tenured athletic director in school history.
It’s been 100 years since the 35th Legislature passed and put Tarleton within the Texas A&M University system.
A lot of things have changed in 100 years, but Tarleton’s tradition of aiming for athletic excellence has not.