The Cowboys open up the 2017 football season today, taking on the Cardinals at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.
Canton is the home of the NFL Hall of Fame in part to honor the Canton Bulldogs, one of the first professional football dynasties. Behind the running of tailback Jim Thorpe (Carlisle Indian School, PA) and the passing of quarterback Cecil Grigg (Austin College, TX), the Bulldogs won back-to-back NFL titles in 1922 and 1923.
Grigg was an Austin College fullback in 1911 when the Roos faced the Bears at historic Carroll Field in Waco. According to the press, Grigg “played a fast and heady game, defense and offense” while Baylor was “outplayed by the fast bunch from Sherman.” The Roos returned to Sherman with a 9-0 victory.
Grigg was still playing professional football in 1924, another year of progress for the Baylor Bears in their effort to establish themselves as a 1920s Southwest Conference power. The Bears in the SWC were every bit as dominant as the Bulldogs in the NFL during that era. 1924 in particular would be the year when no conference school, large or small, could tame that squad in Waco.
But where the best teams in Texas failed, little Austin College succeeded.
It’s Legends weekend, and the 2017 Hall of Honor will be inducted on Saturday:
2017 Hall of Honor Inductees: Dr. Paul Alexander, Dale Huggins, Maggie Roe, Bob Sheffield, Jeff Timmons, Katy Williams
2017 Hall of Honor honorary inductees: Dr. E. Don Williams, Dr. John Prudich, Dr. Jack Pierce
2017 Coach Joe Spencer Award: Mike Sorrells
Today’s story is dedicated to the 2017 inductees, and is titled:
“The 1924 SWC Champion Baylor Bears, and the greatest Kangaroo victory ever.”
Looking forward to toasting all of you in Sherman.
Chapter 1: Baylor resurgence
Head Coach Frank Bridges had turned things around. After a mediocre first season in 1920, the Georgia native had led Baylor to three winning season from 1921 to 1923 and had compiled a 21-7-2 record. The highlight of this period was a 1922 Southwest Conference championship. Baylor nearly repeated as conference champions in 1923, but a loss to SMU on the last game of the season gave the Mustangs their first SWC crown. Baylor had most of their 1923 squad coming back, however. Bear Nation had tasted football glory, and wanted more.
A championship in 1924 though would be a tall order. In addition to the always tough Arkansas Razorbacks and Texas Aggies in Waco, Baylor had away dates with the Texas Longhorns in Austin, the defending SWC champion Mustangs in Dallas, and John Heisman’s Rice Owls in Houston. Conference play opened for Baylor when the Razorbacks came to town on October 18th. Arkansas was coming off of a 6-2-1 season that included wins at LSU and over Rice. The Razorbacks were 3-0 when they arrived at Carroll Field on the campus of Baylor. Carroll Field was the home of Baylor football from 1906 until 1935, and was located just west of Waco Creek next to the administration building.
The 5,000 who saw Baylor defeat Arkansas was the largest ever to witness a football game at Carroll Field. The Bears scored early, and the defense shut down the Arkansas passing attack. In the second half, the Bears added another score and Arkansas failed to move the ball. The game ended as a decisive 13-0 victory for Baylor. Arkansas’s 1924 squad couldn’t score on the Bears, but did finish the 1924 season 7-2-1 with wins over Ole Miss, TCU, and LSU once again.
Baylor’s quest for a conference title was off and running. The Bears had a non-conference game scheduled the following week, before resuming conference play against Texas A&M. The Aggies were on the mind of Frank Bridges to such a degree that the coach made a fatal mistake. He skipped the game to head to Dallas and scout the A&M-SMU game. His assistant would be in charge of the non-conference matchup back home. And the one lesson competitors never seem to learn is………never, ever, give your opponent bulletin board material.
Chapter 2: The Greatest Kangaroo Victory Ever
Waco’s answer to the Texas State Fair was the Cotton Palace. Every fall, the citizens of McLennan county would gather to enjoy the fair’s commerce, exhibits, and family entertainment. Highlights of each year’s Cotton Palace events were Baylor football games. Scheduled for the 1924 clashes with Baylor were Austin College on October 25th and Texas A&M on November 1st. The Cotton Palace was located at the corner of Dutton and 15th, just south of downtown.
Bridges’ decision to scout at Fair Park stadium was a huge error. The Kangaroos might have been a TIAA opponent, but they were a worthy adversary. Austin College had won conference titles in 1920 and 1923, and had defeated numerous SWC schools along the way. In fact, the Sherman school had considered requesting SWC membership that past spring. SWC schools were nearly unanimous in their concern for scheduling Pete Cawthon’s football teams during the early 1920s. But the Bears had overcome their reluctance. The game was on, even if only one head coach would be making the trip.
James Creighton, manager of Roo football, recounts the days leading up to the big game. “As the Baylor game approached, [Cawthon] increased the tempo of the Kangaroo workouts. [Defensive standout] Butter [Allred] tackled incessantly for two days straight while the rest of the squad was driven to the point of exhaustion.”
At the Cotton hotel in Waco, Cawthon let it be known that Baylor had no respect for the Roos. Where was their coach? Did he even think the Bears needed him to whip AC? His squad was challenged to silence the partisan crowd and teach the Baptists a lesson.
From Creighton: “If Mr. Bridges, coach of the Baylor team, could have seen the Kangaroos as they filed into the Cotton Hotel, he doubtless would have chartered a special interurban and returned from Dallas where he had gone to scout. Baldheaded as goats, their faces scratched and covered with bruises, the Kangaroos had the long, hungry look of a team which had come to play.” The raucous Cotton Palace crowd that came to witness an easy Baylor win quickly realized their enthusiasm was misplaced.
The game started well enough for Baylor. The Bears kicked off and the Roos immediately fumbled. First-and-10 deep in Roo territory. But then, disaster. Bear RB Benny Strickland got the call, was hit at the line, and fumbled.
Creighton again: “The ball went one way, Strickland another, but it was [Russell] “Dutchy” Smith who gathered in the popped up fumble and raced seventy-five yards for a touchdown. Halfway down the field [Dell] Morgan looked back, discovered a lone Baylor pursuit, which he promptly demolished. Butter [Allred] kicked the extra point and the score stood Austin 7, Baylor 0.”
From that point on, the game became a titanic battle of wills. On the one side was Baylor’s dogged determination to find the end zone. On the other was Austin College’s bend-but-don’t-break refusal to grant the Bears that real estate. Over and over the Bears would drive into Roo territory. Each time the drive would stall. Fumbles, interceptions, and turnovers on downs. Three times the Bears failed to convert on fourth down within the 5-yard line. One of those three, near the very end of the game, was stopped just inches short of the goal line. Only a third quarter field goal prevented the shutout. Final score: Austin College 7, Baylor 3.
The Roos erupted in celebration as they ran out the clock and the game was called. AC returned to Sherman as SWC conquering heroes, a position they had enjoyed many times in the past. While most sports writers conceded that statistically Baylor was the clear winner, the consensus was that the Bears “were outfought and outgeneraled by their lighter opponents.” Nobody outgenerals Pete Cawthon, especially an opposing coach scouting in Dallas.
While the Cotton Palace faithful left the game disappointed, the reaction among the Bears squad was interesting and positive. They shook off the loss. Baylor knew they had a quality team, knew AC was a strong opponent, and began to refocus again on the conference schedule at hand. If anything, the Kangaroo loss was a wakeup call for Baylor. They wouldn’t be unprepared again.
Chapter 3: An Historic First
The scouting must have worked.
The Aggies came to Waco for the 2nd of two Cotton Palace football games sporting an undefeated 5-0-1 record and outscoring opponents 181-7. Many in the press were predicting a title for the Aggies, and most gave Baylor little hope after their performance a week earlier against their TIAA rival in Sherman. But the Bears had renewed focus and were hungry once again. They wouldn’t be embarrassed two weeks in a row in front of a home crowd.
25,000 crammed into the Cotton Palace, the largest crowd ever to see a Baylor football game at the time. Dana X. Bible’s Aggies put up a fight, but the Bears would not be denied. Captain and star Billy Pittman put the Bears on the board with a 60-yard TD run, and a second score late in the game gave Baylor the lead for good. A 40-yard field goal late in the game, a kick of considerable distance in 1924, iced it for Baylor. The Aggies headed back to College Station on the short end of a 15-7 loss.
There was little time for Bridges and Baylor to celebrate. Defeating the Aggies at home was an accomplishment, but the following weekend required a road trip to Austin. UT was coming off of an 8-0-1 1923 season, which included a win over Austin College. The Longhorns are always tough at home, and that would certainly be the case on November 8th. The University of Texas was inaugurating a brand new field on November 8th, 1924: the massive Texas Memorial Stadium.
The stadium was the brainchild of UT President Robert Vinson. After acquiring legislative approval for UT to purchase the land east of campus, President Vinson began a massive university fundraising campaign to raise the monies needed for construction. By 1924, the stadium was ready to replace old Clark field, in use since 1897. Dr. Vinson resigned in 1923, just before completion. But he did get to enjoy more than a few UT football games at Clark Field against his alma mater during his tenure. Vinson was a Roo, Class of 1896.
UT probably should have picked a different opponent for the grand opening. Baylor fans descended from Waco and paraded through Austin in the days up to game day. They comprised a good portion of the tens of thousands who witnessed the game, and their Bears gave them plenty of reason to continue the party.
Baylor dominated UT 28-10 in the first game ever played at what is now DKR Texas Memorial Stadium. At the time, it was the worst home loss ever suffered by the Longhorns. Bear Bill Coffey scored the first ever TD in the stadium, and Pittman found the end zone as well. Late scores by the Horns made the game a bit more respectable, but the outcome was never in doubt.
The win over UT was historic. For the first time in Texas college football history, a team had defeated both the Aggies and the Longhorns in the same season. All that was required to achieve this historic first, apparently, was a motivating loss to the boys from Sherman.
While the Bears were celebrating in Austin, the Roos were doing likewise in Houston. Cawthon and Austin College had slayed another SWC giant when the Roos knocked off John Heisman’s Rice Owls on the road by a score of 6-2. Like Baylor, Rice was undefeated in SWC play at the time of the AC loss and had a matchup with Texas A&M which followed. Unlike Baylor, the Owls would stumble in College Station after the falling to the Roos.
The Rice loss to the Aggies left only two unbeaten teams in conference play, Baylor and SMU. And SMU was up next for the Bears. The two schools were scheduled to face off on November 15th at Fair Park stadium in Dallas. The game was touted in the press as a pivotal contest in the SWC race, with most writers picking the Mustangs. After all, they were at home, and they were the defending SWC champions.
Chapter 4: The Baylor Bears, 1924 SWC champions
The Mustangs needed a win, and they didn’t get it. With the score deadlocked 7-7 late, SMU staged a late drive that fell short. The game ended in a tie. Baylor celebrated with relief, while SMU left dejected. An earlier Mustang tie with Texas A&M meant that (3-0-1) Baylor owned sole possession of first place in the Southwest Conference. Just one win stood between the Bears and a championship: A Thanksgiving day tilt in Houston against Heisman’s Rice team. A Bears loss would give the title to SMU for a second straight year.
The outcome of the SWC race had come down to a battle between two SWC schools. And AC had beaten them both.
After giving up a second quarter touchdown, Rice battled back to take a 9-7 lead heading into the 4th quarter. But the Bears regrouped. A field goal gave Baylor a lead early in the quarter, and a costly Rice interception gave the ball to the Bears at the Rice 25-yard line. RB Bill Coffey slipped through the line and crossed the goal line to put the game away. After a failed desperation drive, Baylor ran out the clock. Bear fans who had traveled from Waco carried off the team in celebration. Back in Waco, citizens celebrated into the night.
The Baylor Bears were 1924 SWC Champions.
Austin College’s quest for another TIAA title came up short. The Roos had to decide whether to take on Heisman’s Owls in Houston on November 8th or honor an Armistice Day clash with Howard Payne in Sherman 3 days later on November 11th. In the end, they decided to do……………….both. The decision was costly. Howard Payne established a 15-0 lead in the 4th quarter, before AC finally started its comeback. The Roos were only down 15-10 and had the ball inside the HP five-yard line when they ran out of time. The game ended, and Howard Payne was on its way to the 1924 TIAA title.
Creighton again: “…it was truly asking the almost impossible when [Cawthon] proposed to play Howard Payne at Sherman on Tuesday after the long trip back from Houston on Saturday and Sunday. Just why such a schedule should have been made is something of a mystery to this day, unless the Rice game came up at the last moment, and [Cawthon], rather than forego a chance at the [unofficial] Southwestern Conference title, decided to take that risk.”
According to Creighton, “the iron in the Austin team had finally succumbed to time and fatigue.” But the season was still an unqualified success. After the 1924 campaign ended, Coach Cawthon declared his Roos the “unofficial Southwest Conference champions”. No disagreement was heard in Waco.
Chapter 5: Aftermath
For Baylor, the drought lasted for 50 years. The Bears failed for five decades to win a championship. But the magic finally returned.
During the 1974 season, head coach Grant Teaff decided to honor the members of the 1924 SWC championship team during halftime of a Baylor Bear football game at Floyd Casey stadium. And then a funny thing happened. The Bears started to win.
Arkansas fell in Fayetteville, and TCU lost in Fort Worth. It seemed academic at the time, as Darrell Royal’s Longhorns were headed to Waco on November 9th. Texas had won 6 conference championships in a row, alongside two national crowns in 1969 and 1970. Baylor had not beaten the Horns since 1956, and it appeared that nothing was going to change when UT took a 24-7 lead into halftime.
But Teaff’s words at halftime must have been special. The Bears bolted out of the locker room and scored 27 unanswered points, defeating the Horns 34-24. Bears fans remained in the stadium for hours after the final gun, soaking it all in with amazement. According to Teaff, “they announced the attendance for that game as 43,000, but I’ll guarantee you I’ve had at least 80,000 people tell me they were there to see every play in the second half.” Ask anyone from Waco, and they’ll tell you all about the 1974 “Miracle on the Brazos.”
Baylor was not done. Texas Tech was defeated at home, and SMU fell on the road. Like 1924, a final game against Rice would determine Baylor’s fate. The Bears won easily in Waco, 24-3.
Grant Teaff spent two decades at the helm of Baylor. His Hall of Fame career, however, was bookmarked by Austin College.
Coach Teaff was an offensive lineman for McMurry in 1953 when the Indians traveled to Sherman to take on the Texas Conference leading Kangaroos. AC stood at 5-0-1 and was led by future NFL RB Gene Babb. But the Roos had no answer for the dominant running game of McMurry at Bearkat Stadium. McMurry 47, AC 21.
Coach Teaff retired as Baylor head coach in 1992. One of his last acts at Baylor was the hiring of offensive assistant and Austin College Kangaroo Larry Fedora. Aided by the coaching of Fedora and the passing of QB Jeff Watson, Baylor won its last SWC championship in 1994.
Austin College Athletic Director M. L. Cashion tried in vain to schedule games against SMU, Rice, & Baylor in 1925. All three declined. The risk of defeat was simply too great, and the rewards of a TIAA win were not valuable enough. Membership in the Southwest Conference was suggested by Baylor as a possible solution.
Eventually, games against SMU, Rice, and other SWC schools returned. But only sporadically. And Austin College never again faced Baylor after 1924.
100 seasons of SWC / Big12 football have been played since America’s entry into WW1. Over those 100 seasons, 47 SWC / Big12 champions went undefeated in conference play.
It’s tough for a non-conference team to beat an undefeated SWC / Big12 champion at home. How many times has it occurred in those 47 years? Just five times:
1924: Austin College 7, Baylor 3 @ Cotton Palace Stadium. Go Roos.
1952: Notre Dame 14, Texas 3 @ DKR Texas Memorial Stadium. The Irish finished 1952 #3 in the nation after a late season loss to #1 Michigan State.
1980: San Jose St. 30, Baylor 22 @ Floyd Casey Stadium. The 1980 team was arguably Teaff’s best and dominated the conference. But they were shocked at home in a Roo-like stunner.
1990: Colorado 29, Texas 22 @ DKR Texas Memorial Stadium. The Buffaloes finished 1990 as national champions. With a little help from the officials. 😉
2016: Ohio State 45, Oklahoma 24 @ Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The Buckeyes lost to eventual national champion Clemson in the BCS playoff just a few months ago.
Pete Cawthon was asked to coach professional football in 1943 after decades in the collegiate ranks. Cawthon took over the reins of the NFL’s Brooklyn (football) Dodgers, who played at Ebbets Field just years before Jackie Robinson.
That year, Cawthon was tasked with hiring assistant coaches. He settled on an old friend and colleague from his Texas days………Frank Bridges of Baylor University. Twenty years after the fact, the Roo & Bear coaches were finally on the field together. Only this time, they were on the same sideline.
Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne was a believer in Texas football. As a player, he had moved the center of football gravity from the East to the Midwest. As a coach, he believed the future lied in the South. And he was determined to capitalize.
After the Fighting Irish had captured the 1924 National Championship, Rockne established a summer coaching clinic at fellow Catholic school St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. The clinic would take place in August, 1925. Over 150 high school and college coaches from around the country headed to St. Edwards to participate. One of those coaches was Rockne’s friend and protégé, Pete Cawthon.
During the camp, Rockne had high praise for the level of football in Texas, and predicted that Baylor would repeat as conference champions in 1925. It was understandable why Baylor was on the mind of the legendary coach. His Irish would open up the 1925 campaign against the Bears in South Bend.
In Austin that August, Rockne and Cawthon spent time talking about life, football, and the Baylor Bears. How was Austin College able to accomplish what Arkansas, A&M, UT, SMU, and Rice could not? That Roo advice for Rockne will never be known. But whatever it was, it worked. Notre Dame defeated the Bears in September to open the 1925 season.
It took the defending national champions to finally defeat Baylor and match the greatest Kangaroo victory ever.