Joe Spencer & Joe Namath

This week’s Roo Tale is dedicated to AC Athletic Director David Norman, member of the 1981 Roo National Championship football team, coach of the 1991 Roo baseball team, and former Roo football coach in the 2000s.

Coach Norman was the skipper of AC baseball, and I was an AC tennis guy. However, the fellas I hung around most during my time in Sherman were baseball guys, and the Coach Norman stories that I overheard were plenty. Guys like Kevin Krause, Wayne Whitmire, Kelly Carver, David Vance, Phil Novicki, Kyle Matlock, Jason Willis, Pat Abernathey, Shane Montgomery, and others. In spite of my slow bat speed and lack of a curve ball, I consider myself an honorary member of AC baseball………based purely on fandom.

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1988, the status of AC baseball was……….well, let’s be blunt……AC baseball was struggling. Wins were hard to come by, and I suspect morale was fairly low. Not only did AC compete against solid TIAA teams, the Roos would also schedule games against other great programs such as Dallas Baptist. Definitely not the salad days.

However, throughout 1989 and into 1990, one thing became increasingly obvious. These guys could play, were a unit, and were committed to turning things around. I can recall thinking “it seems like better days are ahead with this group”. And how.

1989 was another season of difficulty. But 1990 showed improvement! The win total was higher, and the games were more competitive. And they seemed to be having a lot of fun.

My favorite AC Roo baseball memory from the 1990 season? I was battling Trinity at Russell tennis stadium on the far court adjacent to left field. During a changeover, I noticed Kelly Carver at the plate. “I’m just gonna watch this at-bat before heading back to the court.” And wouldn’t you know it, Carver hits a towering shot to left that clears the fence for a HR, bounces, and then rolls right up to the fence not 20 feet away. Almost like he was sending a souvenir my way.

There are many reasons to be a Roo, and a tremendous study abroad program is one of them. I took advantage by spending my entire 1990-91 junior year in Madrid, Spain (por su puesto hablo el espanol). It’s so easy to forget today, but 25 years ago was, well, different. No internet, no smart phones, no wireless, no satellite t.v./radio. No nothin’! Squat. Zilch. Zero. To live in Spain then was to live in near complete isolation from all things American. And the blackout certainly extended to Sherman, TX.

So your humble author returned home in June 1991 with many questions. What music did I completely miss? What movies did I need to catch up on? And, how did AC baseball do in 1991?

The answer was impressive. During the 1991 season, the AC Roos played .500 level baseball against TIAA competition. .500! Within the span of two years, Coach Norman and all of those guys had performed a tremendous, Bill Snyder-like turnaround for the program. I’d like to say that I saw it coming. I certainly saw parts of the puzzle. I remember feelings of pride in the fellas.

Not surprisingly, I spent much of the spring of 1992 before graduation chatting with Rebecca Cannon Novicki in the stands and watching some good AC Roo baseball.

Congratulations to Coach Norman on his lifetime of service to Austin College, and as a deserving recipient of the Joe Spencer Award for Meritorious Service and Lifetime Achievement in Coaching.

I have not been to Legends in a long, long time. But I plan on attending next month. I’m looking forward to shaking Coach Norman’s hand, catching up with some of those I know, and also meeting a whole lot of new Roos, both young and old. I hope to see you there! Go Roos!

Chapter 1: If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em. Part I.
Chapter 2: Somewhere Down in Texas. Part I.
Chapter 3: If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em. Part II.
Chapter 4: Somewhere Down in Texas. Part II.

“Football Is an honest game. It’s true to life . It’s a game about sharing. Football is a team game. So is life.” – Joe Namath

“Defensive and offensive lineman control the game and true sports fans know that.” – Dante Hall

 Legends 2016…

 Chapter 1: If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em. Part I.

Quick! Name an offensive lineman on the Alabama Crimson Tide. No fair, right? Nobody knows the names of those journeymen. In spite of the decisive role played by those in the “trenches”, obscurity comes with the profession. It’s in the job description.

Joe Spencer is not a name many are familiar with. Why? Well, he was a tackle during his playing days, and a tackle’s coach thereafter. And yet, Joe Spencer had a lasting contribution not only to our dear ol’ Austin College, but also to the structure of the modern NFL today.

Spencer was born and raised in Oklahoma. His size and strength made him a natural lineman, and off he went to Stillwater in the early 1940s to help the Oklahoma State Cowboys compete in the Missouri Valley Conference. One of Spencer’s first brushes with Austin College? In 1942, the Cowboys faced off against Henry Frnka’s Tulsa squad. Like most teams that year, Oklahoma State came out on the short end. Frnka was a star AC Roo in the 1920s.

After service in WWII, Spencer returned to finish his playing days in Oklahoma and to begin a pro career. Although drafted by the NFL, Spencer instead signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the up and coming All-American Football Conference in 1948. In 1949, he was traded to the AAFC Cleveland Browns.

The Browns were led by legendary Ohio coach Paul Brown, assisted by Weeb Eubank, and were dominating a league that increasingly seemed to be signing top talent. The AAFC included some famous names. In addition to the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, and Buffalo Bills were members. Attendance was up, as was fan interest.

Joe Spencer, teammate Lou Rymkus, and the rest of the Browns Offensive line dominated in 1949, leading Cleveland to a 9-1-2 record and the AAFC championship. In the title game, the Browns topped the Niners 21-7, and the celebration was on. See photo of Spencer (far left), Paul Brown (hoisted), and the rest of the team after winning the AAFC title.

The NFL had seen enough. With the idea that one should assimilate what one can not destroy, a merger deal was reached whereby the Browns, 49ers, and Colts would be admitted into the league. The AAFC was soon disbanded. Spencer had played a small role in forcing the dominant professional league to open its doors and expand the game. It would not be the last time.

Joe Spencer (#49) and the 1949 AAFC Champion Cleveland Browns.

Chapter 2: Somewhere Down in Texas. Part I.

Spencer moved on to the NFL and the Green Bay Packers, but an injury ended his playing days in 1951. Fellow OK State Cowboy Harry Buffington was coaching at Austin College, and offered an assistant job to Spencer. In 1953, Joe Spencer headed south to Texas.

AC was going through a period of lean years when Spencer arrived, as the prior 7 years saw only 16 victories. But that would change. As an assistant for 2 years and then head coach for 6, Spencer guided the Roos to 6 winning seasons and won nearly 60% of its contests.

The Spencer era also included some of AC’s most famous players. Gene Babb played for Spencer, as did Bo Miller. Ken Krause, father of 1991 baseball infielder Kevin Krause, was also a Spencer protégé. The 1959 team went 8-1 during the regular season, at that time the best record ever posted by Roo football. The 1960 team was the first to play in AC’s new home, Louis Calder Stadium.

After 8 years in Sherman, however, the professional ranks came calling again.

Rymkus was now coach of the AFL Houston Oilers, and hired Spencer to lead the Offensive Line in 1961. The Oilers rolled to an AFL Championship behind well protected QB George Blanda. See photo of the AFL champion 1961 Houston Oilers. Spencer is standing and third from the right, next to Blanda.

In 1962, Spencer and the Oilers attempted to repeat, this time with recently acquired AC Roo Gene Babb whom Spencer had coached in Sherman. But the Oilers fell to Hank Stram’s Dallas Texans in a dramatic double overtime AFL title game.

Spencer spent a few more years coaching the Oilers, and then departed to Edmonton for the Canadian Football League. But former Cleveland coach Weeb Eubank soon called and asked for help. Eubank had been named the head coach of the upstart New York Jets in the AFL. Would Spencer accept an offer to head to the Big Apple to lead the Jets offensive line and protect the team’s star QB from Alabama? Edmonton was soon in the rear view mirror.

Joe Spencer (standing, second from right) and the 1958 AC Kangaroos…

 Chapter 3: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Part II.

Like the AAFC before it, the NFL had little respect for the upstart AFL. And when the Super Bowl was established in 1967 as a battle between the two league champions, there was every expectation that the NFL champion would win. And that’s exactly what happened, when Green Bay dominated the first two Super Bowls.

Most expected the same in 1969, when Baltimore met the AFL Champion New York Jets. Don Shula’s Colts had one of the NFL’s best all time defenses, giving up only 10 points per game. It was assumed that defensive end Bubba Smith would make life miserable for Namath and star running back Matt Snell. Baltimore was favored to win by as much as 22.

We all know the story. Namath predicted victory, and then went out and led the Jets to a dramatic 16-7 upset. Broadway Joe was the MVP, and the entire city was suddenly his. But the key to victory was a dominating offensive line that pushed the NFL’s best defense back time and time again.

New York’s victory was in the single digits, and statistically the game was close. But looks can be deceiving. A too-little, too-late effort by veteran Johnny Unitas in the 4th quarter would make the game appear more respectable than it really was. Super Bowl III was more than anything a never ending steady diet of the NYJ offensive line creating holes for Snell and buying time for Namath. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, New York had taken a three score lead on yet another long drive, and had 17 first downs to Baltimore’s 6. Joe Spencer and his crew dominated the NFL’s best, and the NFL would be forced to respond to this Roo coach once again just as in 1949.

See photo of the Super Bowl III champion New York Jets at Shea Stadium. Spencer is in row #3, second from the right. To his left is fellow assistant Buddy Ryan. Directly in front is #12 Joe Namath.

The real story of Super Bowl III. Joe Spencer’s OL pushes the NFL’s best defense on their heels again and again…  

Joe Namath tells us what he thinks of Spencer’s OL…

 Chapter 4: Somewhere Down in Texas. Part II.

The NFL had scene this script before. Like the AAFC before it, merger talks soon led to the incorporation of the AFL into the National Football League. We can definitely say that Joe Spencer never coached in the USFL. Had he done so, it would surely have succeeded and been incorporated as well. Instead, the USFL decided to not hire Spencer and instead sue the NFL. And they won! $3. 🙂

A 1988 Los Angeles Times article revisited the Super Bowl 20 years earlier, with a specific focus on Namath and the Jets OL. “But how many remember the guys who lined up in front of Namath? They bore the brunt of the Colts anger at the Jets’ quarterback; they were the ones who got their hands dirty in order to wear the ring.”

After leaving AC, Spencer would spend nearly a quarter century in the pros coaching offensive lines. He retired in 1985 with the New Orleans Saints. After a long battle with cancer, Joe Spencer passed away in 1996.

The Joe Spencer Award for Meritorious Service and Lifetime achievement in Coaching was established in his memory in 1997. The late Bob Mason, who received the first Spencer award, called Spencer an “unforgettable human being, a gentle soul in a pro football lineman’s body.” Past recipients of the Joe Spencer Award include Mason, Larry Kramer, Bill Snyder, and other AC royalty.

Congratulations to Joe Spencer Award recipient David Norman on his service to Austin College. I’m excited to head up to Sherman to grab a drink, shake his hand, and listen to other Roo tales at Legends next month. See you there!

Go Roos!