EDITORS NOTE: Welcome to our inaugural summer select series, where we bring in a number of outside voices that take their aim at some topics that have piled up in my inbox but still deserve their day in the sun. Our opening journey features Jared Kalmus from Underdog Dynasty taking us on a romp through the unique history of the Hardin-Simmons College football program, which has played at three different levels of competition but currently has found their home.
Drive far enough west in Texas and eventually, you’ll tumble into what us Texans refer to as “Big Country”. The rolling, fertile hills of the Texas Hill Country give way to the flat, barren plains of the West. The temperatures rise, the stars grow bigger, and life seems to slow down all around you.
If the Big Country were its own state, Abilene would assuredly be its capital city. Two and a half hours from Dallas, three and a half hours from the state capital in Austin, and six hours from El Paso, Abilene, Texas was founded in 1881 as a shipping station for livestock. Given the town’s remoteness and humble beginnings, it’s an unlikely home to one of the most successful college football programs in the state of Texas.
The Hardin-Simmons Cowboys hold a 58% winning percentage through 79 seasons of play but their historical win-loss record only scratches the surface of the accomplishments of the university. With an enrollment of around 2,000 students, the Cowboys have gone toe-to-toe with universities more than 10 times their size.
The Cowboys would first take to the gridiron six years after the university was founded, under the direction of Head Coach Carl Krause. Originally called the Simmons Ranchers, the program would notch a 12-0 victory in their first game where they faced off against the “Abilene Town Kids”, but would only play four games in two years, with a 1-3 record to show for it.
After a six-year hiatus, Dallas Scarbrough would resurrect the program in 1904 to moderate success, paving the way to 5-2 and 7-1 seasons in 1908 and 1909 from Head Coach George Mullins – only for the program to go on hiatus for another eight years.
Once the Cowboys returned to the field in 1917 they finally found some stability and really started to hit their stride. Before taking a four-year break during World War II, the Cowboys would play 25 straight seasons under eight different coaches, amassing a combined record of 136-86-24. They would enjoy three pre-war appearances in the Sun Bowl, finishing 1-1-1 after a tie with New Mexico A&M, a win over Texas Mines, and a loss to the Second Air Force.
Hardin-Simmons’ football players put the football program on hold and joined the war effort after the attack on Pearl Harbor shook the world. Once Warren Woodson’s players returned from the European and Pacific theaters, the Cowboys would pick right back up where they left off with an 11-0 season in 1946, featuring a huge win over West Texas regional power Texas Tech. The 1946 season would culminate with a 20-0 victory over Denver in the first iteration of the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
After finishing the 1947 campaign with an 8-3 record and a 53-0 win over San Diego State in the short-lived Harbor Bowl on January 1st, the Cowboys would play in three other bowl games in the 1948 calendar year, a feat no other program has ever, or will ever, be able to duplicate. The NCAA swiftly passed legislation banning teams from accepting multiple bowl bids following the Cowboys’ nearly month-long voyage.
Coach Woodson’s wily group of war veterans utilized their T-formation offense to finish the regular season with a 4-2-2 record. Eager to showcase the team’s talents, Coach Woodson arranged the most fitting of transportation for the team’s bowl games. A military troop transport aircraft modified to provide (uncomfortable) passenger transport arrived in Abilene to fly the team to the Grape Bowl in Lodi, California.
The Cowboys would head home to Abilene after a 35-35 tie with the Pacific Tigers before turning around and heading to Little Rock, Arkansas for the Shrine Bowl a week later. Following an impressive 41-12 win over Ouachita Baptist, Hardin-Simmons would once again take flight to the Camellia Bowl in Lafayette where they should defeat Wichita State 49-12 on December 30th.
Hardin-Simmons’ moderate success through the ’40s and ’50s was followed by things going south in a hurry in the early ’60s. After Sammy Baugh turned in a disappointing 3-7 record in 1959, Howard McChesney would take the reigns and promptly burn the proud program to the ground. McChesney’s squads would finish an astonishing 0-20 before he was shown the door.
Jack Thomas took over the following year and led the squad to just one win in a ten game season, after which he packed his bags and left town. Floyd Huggins would then come in and lead the team to a 2-6-1 record, and suddenly the Cowboys had amassed an awful 6-42-1 record in the previous five seasons.
With the losses piling up and the program facing financial hardship, it was clear the program needed a major overhaul. Unable to come up with a viable roadmap for success, the Hardin-Simmons administration made the shocking decision to drop the university’s football program entirely. While it may have been a necessary move at the time, the removal of the team left a void in the football-crazed town of Abilene.
Hardin-Simmons remaining athletics programs would continue to compete in Division I, but the high cost of competing in football against collegiate heavyweights like Texas and Texas A&M made a football resurrection a non-starter. Having access to fewer resources than their competition also made life hard for the university’s Olympic sports. The Cowboys’ administration knew the current path was unsustainable, so Athletic Director Merlin Morrow began scheming a major rehaul of the entire athletics department.
Morrow’s plan began to take shape in 1990. Morrow explained his justification for shaking up the athletics department to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We were a real little fish in a real big pond,” Morrow said. “We decided there were better ways to spend our money than on trying to keep up in Division I, especially since we were doing it without football.”
After re-establishing a football program in 1990 to the joy of Abilene locals, Hardin-Simmons dropped from Division I to the NAIA as most of the university’s sports moved to a non-scholarship model. After two transition years, the Cowboys became a dominating force in the NAIA. Hardin-Simmons held the state of Texas highest winning percentage (77.4%) through the first 15 years after Cowboys football returned to Abilene.
From 1992 to 1996 Hardin-Simmons went on an absolute tear against NAIA competition; they won eight or more game and reached the quarterfinals or semifinals in each year, and finished in 1st or 2nd place in their conference each season.
The Cowboys weren’t quite as successful in the playoffs once they moved to NCAA’s Division III but the wins continued to roll in. Hardin-Simmons’ worst season since moving back to the NCAA was a 4-6 season in 2013. The Cowboys have turned in six wins or more in every other season; it’s clear that Hardin-Simmons has found where they belong.
Did the move from Division I harm fan enthusiasm? Hardly, Jim Jennings replied to The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1994. “Basketball is basketball. Football is football,” Jennings said. “It’s exciting if it’s your team, and it’s exciting if the game is competitive. We don’t need to be in any certain division to have a good time.”
Hardin-Simmons’ bold moves and subsequent success provide a positive model for other Division I programs that are struggling to keep up with the rampant arms race of college football. By stepping away from the cross-country travel and increased demands of Division I play, the Cowboys are helping put their student-athletes in a better position to succeed academically, fulfilling the mission of the university itself.
Instead of getting beat down by major programs on a weekly basis and bemoaning a lack of funding, Hardin-Simmons fans and alumni instead get to enjoy the thrill of turning in a winning record nearly every year, all while competing against similarly-funded programs within their geographic footprint.
If you’re a Louisiana-Monroe fan do you get more enjoyment over watching your team fail to record a .500 record each year or dominating other programs in Louisiana at a lower level? Is it more fun to make a deep run in the FCS or Division II playoffs or limp into your annual body bag game against LSU or Florida each year? The same question could be asked of many other football programs across the nation. Admittedly, it’s a tough question to answer. Even teams that are stomped each week gain national exposure and there’s always that slight hope of a miracle season.
While the allure of big-time sports is hard to turn away from, programs like Hardin-Simmons have proved that oftentimes the bright lights of gigantic stadiums and flashy TV deals are less rewarding than equal competition and a focus on sustainability. As the cost to compete at the FBS level continues to skyrocket, perhaps it’s time for more programs to follow the Cowboys’ lead.