Recently the College Football Hall of Fame released its 2019 ballot, and on that ballot were five players (or coaches) from teams who currently compete in the Sun Belt.
Arkansas State was represented by Calvin Harrell, a running back who turned down being drafted by the Dolphins in 1972, and the school with the most spots on the ballot was Troy, with three: Freddie Thomas, Al Lucas and Larry Blakeney.
The player who stood out to me most though was Bruce Collie. He was an offensive tackle, and he was named an All-American by three different organizations in 1981. Collie was not a Warhawk, a Bobcat or a Mountaineer, though. He never played in Statesboro, and as a matter of fact, his team never did either.
Collie played football for the Texas-Arlington Mavericks, a team that doesn’t exist.
UTA sponsors other athletic programs: baseball, basketball, even pole vaulting—a sport in which a Mav took this year’s national title. However, the school hasn’t supported a football team since 1985.
That year, UTA shut down a program with 66 years of history.
The Maverick football team was born in 1919 as the Grubbs Vocational College Grubbers, later the Shorthorns. By 1923 both the school and the team changed names, and the Aggies of North Texas Agricultural College joined the Central Texas Conference.
Over the next quarter century, the Aggies brought home four conference titles, but only one win in the two years after that. Another rebranding didn’t make a difference, either.
Following the school’s lead (North Texas AC was now Arlington State College) the Aggies became the Blue Riders for a season, but student intervention dubbed them the Rebels. They went 1-15-2 in this time and changed coaches until one stuck.
Boy, did he stick.
Texas-Arlington football begins and ends almost literally with one man. One former player, James Hyden, called him “the glue that held us all together.” Former UTA president Wendell Nedderman called him “one of the greatest personalities that ever set foot on this campus.”
Claude “Chena” Gilstrap was hired in 1953, and apart from his predecessor’s one-and-done (under Willie Zapalac, the Rebels went 8-1-1 in 1952) he changed the program overnight. The Rebels won 51 games over the next five years.
Just to put that into perspective, the Rebels won just four games in the three years before Zapalac. Their win percentage from 1949-1951 was .211, below Mario Mendoza’s actual career batting average. From 1953-1955 the Rebs’ winning percentage was .769.
In the article, writer Michael Rychlik noted that Gilstrap was a pioneer.
“He was among the first to play a 4-3 defense, to send men in motion in the Wing-T offense and to use game film as a coaching tool.”
In 1956 and 1957, Arlington State traveled to Pasadena for the Junior Rose Bowl, a game that crowned the national JUCO champion, and won both.
Not long after, the University became a four-year school and joined Division II. The Rebels won 13 games in years one and two, but in the next three years combined only won 12.
Despite this, Arlington State planned to move up yet again, to Division I, at the University’s behest. According to former assistant coach Charlie Key, ASC administrators wanted the school “to be associated with the highest level of academics.” (Rychlik’s words.)
The Rebels helped found the Southland Conference in 1964, a stepping stone for many of today’s G5 programs—Arkansas State, North Texas, Troy, Louisiana Tech and more spent time in the Southland.
In Gilstrap’s last two years as head football coach, the win-loss column flipped from 3-6-1 to 6-3, earning him a 2nd-place conference finish and Southland’s Coach of the Year award.
He took over as athletic director and promoted his defensive coordinator Burley Bearden in 1966. At first, the program’s outlook was bright.
The Arlington State Rebels won a conference title in 1966, Coach Bearden was named Southland Coach of the Year and defensive tackle Ken Ozee was named an All-American. The next year, under the school’s new name, the Texas-Arlington Rebels won another conference title.
Bearden again won Coach of the Year, and this time two players were named All-Americans. Robert Diem and Robert Wilbanks, an offensive lineman and a safety, both made the AFCA list (Diem was also named to the AP list.)
The program took an expected step down after this, going 6-4 and 5-5. Then came 1970, Division I play… and the Rebels’ only recorded winless season.
“In retrospect, we had absolutely no business going into Division I in 1970,” Key said. “We did not have the resources necessary.”
“The school would spend only so much money on the program,” Bobby Lane, former head athletic trainer, said. “It never was quite enough to really be successful on a constant basis in Division I. And I understand that you can’t take away from your academic programs for athletics. It just seemed like we were always a dollar short….”
Bearden was out, and with him what became a controversial moniker. The Rebels became the Mavericks, and Gilstrap hired Rebel alum John Symank to turn things around.
He failed. Symank only won 11 games in three years.
Gilstrap hired Bud Elliott, but the Mavericks went 1-10 in 1974. The next year, a group of students approached Nedderman with a petition to scrap the program.
Instead, Gilstrap retired.
After three straight 5-6 seasons, Elliott led the Mavs to a 9-2 record in 1979. In 1981, the 6-5 Mavs managed to win their last conference title and Collie was named an All-American.
Chuck Curtis took over for Elliott in 1984 but by then the Mavericks’ fate was sealed.
“UTA averaged 7,495 fans in 1984 and 5,600 in 1985,” Rychlik wrote. “Those numbers were hard to swallow, as was the $950,000 deficit the UTA athletic department was facing.”
On Nov. 26, 1985, Nedderman delivered the eulogy.
Collie was first named to the 2015 ballot, which means his name has come up every year since. Similarly, it seems UTA football is rumored to return on an annual basis.
Despite a feasibility study in 2004 and a short-lived club football team (coached by Hyden, incidentally) the program remains dormant.
Collie has a chance to make the Hall of Fame. As far as restarting the program goes, his Mavs have none.
Special thanks to Michael Rychlik.