By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (September 12, 2017) — Tally Neal just chuckled a little each time Tarleton State make a big play on the football field Saturday.
And when Will Johnson – a linebacker 40 years after Neal played that spot for Tarleton – scooped up an Oklahoma Panhandle State fumble and sprinted 40 yards the other way for a Tarleton touchdown, well that may have been the Texan legend’s second favorite moment of the night.
Second favorite because nothing for Neal Saturday could top being surrounded by teammates teammates and coaches as his jersey was finally publicly retired in a halftime ceremony during which Tarleton president Dr. F. Dominic Dottavio and athletic director Lonn Reisman presented Neal with his framed No. 34 jersey.
The jersey was actually retired on paper years ago, says Neal. But someone apparently did not get the memo.
“They had retired it on paper, but everyone was busy and time went on and we just never did anything in public,” said Neal, a two-time NAIA first-team All-American and now assistant principal at Seguin High School as well as a volunteer football coach. “A couple weeks ago it came up in conversation and somebody said one of the boys was wearing my number. We called and asked and Coach Reisman got right on it.”
Indeed, redshirt freshman running back Dondrei Williams wore No. 34 last season, according to the 2016 roster on tarletonsports.com, the official website of Tarleton athletics. Williams is not listed on the current roster, and nobody was listed as No. 34 at Delta State or against OPSU this season.
It appears to be a simple oversight that has since been corrected, as well it should be. For never since Neal has there been a linebacker, or any Texan, worthy of following the university’s all-time leading tackler as No. 34.
A jovial Neal was back in Stephenville Saturday for the 40th anniversary reunion of the 1977 Texans, the program’s first senior-college team to win a conference championship and joined the 1966 squad as the second to post a winning record .The Texans were 7-3 overall and 4-0 in the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which also included Trinity, Sul Ross State, McMurry and Austin College.
Trinity was the only TIAA opponent to stay within a possession of Tarleton. The Texans won that game 17-13, and were victorious 12 points or more in each of their remaining conference contests.
Perhaps an even better indicator of the strength of the 1977 Texans is their narrow 17-14 loss to Southwestern Oklahoma, who Abilene Christian ultimately defeated in the NAIA national championship game.
“We had a good team, just a bunch of guys who loved football and loved each other,” said Neal of the 1977 Texans, led by the late Buddy Fornes, Tarleton head coach from 1973 through 1982. “A lot of us came back and we were even better in ’78, but we all know ’77 was when it really started.”
The 1978 team was undefeated but once tied in the regular season before losing 13-6 to Findlay (Ohio) in a NAIA national quarterfinal to finish 8-1-1. But that group, though comprised mostly of the same names, can wait until next year for their 40th anniversary.
The lengthy list of 1977 Texans who returned last weekend shows how tight the team really was. There were 26 players and assistant coaches Joe Gillespie and Ronnie Giles back on campus some 40 years later. Gillespie went on to become athletic director and then head of kinesiology at Tarleton retiring this past May.
Back on campus with Neal, Gillespie and Giles were Bubba Grooms, Chuck High, Carl Pleasant, Joe Gossett, Krayles Banks, Calvin Gulliory, Russ Crawford, Johnny Gann, Steve Fieszel, Billy Easter, Randy Crook, Barry Cox, Dane Crisp, Wayne Schumacher, Lonnie McMillan, Gene Ross,Glen Elliott, Alan West, Gary Douglas, Tony Rich, Paul Lewis, David Steele and Dan Chandler and Rodney Payne.
Pleasant and McMillan went on to coach track and field at Tareton State, another role filled by Gillespie during part of his long tenure with the university that has more than quadrupled in size since the ’77 team ruled the TIAA. One player not present last weekend was Steve Wood, who has won a slew of state championships as a defensive coordinator and now head coach at nearby Aledo.
None of them could tackle like Tally Neal.
Saying Neal is Tarleton’s career leader in tackles is a little like saying Lonn Reisman is the university’s winningest basketball coach. The disparity between their numbers and those of anyone else in their role make any comparison similar to that of Memorial Stadium, circa Tally Neal era, and the Memorial Stadium that will be unveiled next fall after $24 million in upgrades.
Her’s the raw math – Neal made 613 tackles from 1975 through 1978. No. 2 all-time at Tarleton is Robert Ivey, a linebacker from 1985-88, with 339. That’s a difference of 274 tackles. In short, Neal, 40 years later, has still made almost twice as many tackles as any defender in university history.
Neal doesn’t just have the most tackles in a season at Tarleton, he has the three highest single-season tackle totals at the school. And his other season is 11th in program history, just one tackle short of making the top 10 list in the annual media guide published by Tarleton Athletic Communications.
The single season standard of 170 tackles was set by Neal in 1978, when he averaged 17 per game. He made tackles most frequently in 1976, averaging 18.4 to collect 166 in nine games. In 1975 he had 165 in 11 games, averaging 15 per contest. That included his ridiculous single-game school record 29 tackles during a 28-0 loss to NAIA national champ Texas A&I (now A&M-Kingsville) right there at Memorial Stadium.
Neal joined play-by-play broadcaster Byron Anderson and myself as color commentator on the radio during the second half of Saturday’s game, a 48-20 Tarleton victory over Oklahoma Panhandle State. Watching an OPSU QB scramble around, I asked Neal if QBs ran around like that in the 1970s.
“They tried. My 29 tackle game was against A&I,” Neal explained in as deep a voice as I’ve ever heard in person. “They had a All-American quarterback, Richard Ritchie, and he ran all the time out of the veer.”
Yes, quarterbacks ran in the 1970s, and often they ran a lot, but mores by design than the scramblers out of pressure we see today. And out of veer or or triple option looks more than the modern read options out of the shogun.
Which does he prefer, the old, more physical style, or the spread it out sideline-to-sideline style of today?
“I prefer smash mouth,” he said. “The spread is fun, but I prefer smash mouth.”
And of the higher scoring affairs typical of the modern game?
“I’d rather not see so many points,” said Neal.
But right then, johnson scooped up an OPSU fumble and looked ahead to see nothing but beautiful new CoolPlay FieldTurf on the route to the end zone, where he arrived moments later to end any doubt concerning the outcome.
“Here’s some points you like,” exclaimed Anderson as he called the play. And, of course, Neal acknowledged any points scored by Tarleton were fine with him.
What about Tarleton back in the 1970s, I wanted to know before he left.
“We stayed in Crockett Dorm and I saw that it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Neal. “Our dressing room was under the bleachers on the visitor’s side (he pointed across the field to what will be transformed into the home side next year) and we called it the dungeon. It was bad.”
Would you ever have imagined Tarleton having 13,000 students, I asked him.
“No, no way,” he replied. “I think back then we had close to three thousand.”
Tarleton was a great school in the 1970s just as it is today. The difference, one draws from conversations with past Texans like Neal, was a lesser quantity of everything. There were less buildings and people, less classes, colleges and majors, and a lot less formations to adjust to each week on the gridiron.
But winning is some thing Neal and he Texans did more than any of the senior college era Tarleton teams to come before them.
And tackling? Well that’s something Tally Neal did more than anyone else ever to wear a Tarleton jersey, be it in a game, a season, or a career.
And it’s why the purple No. 34 jersey is his forever. Framed and cherished, never to be worn on the gridiron again.