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November 9th, 2011
Bartee Haile: Fifties were golden for TCU under Abe Martin

This Week in Texas History: A column

Hours before the kickoff of the TCU-Texas football game on Nov. 12, 1966, the Horned Frogs’ head coach was sidelined by a heart attack.

With a name like Othol Hershel Martin, the Jacksboro native needed a nickname something bad. And that was what he got at Texas Christian University soon after enrolling in the fall of 1927.

The freshman’s slow-motion speech and dry backwoods humor reminded Coach Francis Schmidt of the newspaper column “Abe Martin Says.” He began calling the walk-on “Abe,” and the name caught on.

Starting out as a bench-warmer with no scholarship and little cash, Martin wound up a starter on the 1929 squad that won Texas Christian’s first SWC title. A star in his own right, he set conference records for blocked punts and fumble recoveries.

Two years after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1932, Martin launched his coaching career at El Paso High. Even though his teams were the best in their district both years he was there, they were no match for Blair Cherry’s Amarillo juggernaut that was on its way to collecting a record-tying three straight state crowns.

With no money in his paltry budget to scout the Sandies in advance of their early season meeting, Martin wrote Cherry to request a copy of his playbook. Abe was only kidding, but the future University of Texas head coach obliged him by return mail.The inside information had no effect on the outcome, as Amarillo routed El Paso 87-0. Smarting from the stinging defeat, Martin said in a second communication, “Blair, if you hadn’t sent us those plays we sure would have been in for it!”

Hired as an assistant at Lufkin, Martin was in East Texas only a matter of days before his boss up and resigned. Over the next seven seasons, the Panthers compiled an impressive record of 66 victories against 10 defeats while winning district four times. However, when one of his players died from a ruptured spleen, the shaken task-master quit.

Following a year in the private sector, Martin returned to the gridiron at Paschal High in Fort Worth. He left after the 1944 season for a short stint in the Army.

Martin returned to his alma mater in 1945 to study for his master’s degree and to join Dutch Meyer’s staff as freshman coach. Meyer had put the Horned Frogs on the map the previous decade with a share (some say the whole enchilada) of the national championship in 1935, an historic triumph in the first Cotton Bowl and a perfect season in 1938.

Nineteen fifty-two was The Dutchman’s 19th and last season at the helm. He retained the title of athletic director and passed the reins to his popular right-hand man.

Abe Martin did not exactly burst out of the chute, going 3-7 in 1953 and 4-6 in 1954. But 1955 was the turnaround season, as the 9-1 Frogs took top honors in the SWC and might have beaten Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl if their quarterback had not broken two ribs on the opening kickoff.

Despite being runner-up to Texas A&M the next year, TCU again represented the Southwest Conference in the Cotton Bowl due to the Aggie’s NCAA probation. Billed as the battle of the All-Americans, Syracuse’s Jim Brown and the Frogs’ Jim Swink, Texas Christian prevailed 28-27 on a blocked extra-point attempt.

Of his many memorable quips, Martin’s descriptions of two stars were real pearls. About Swink he once remarked, “Aw, he’s just a little old rubber-legged outfit nobody can catch.” And he compared Bob Lily, the Dallas Cowboys’ first draft pick, to “a big old green pea” who will “stand in there for you like a picket fence.”

After a disappointing 5-4-1 campaign in 1957, Martin got his boys back on track, and the season ended with the Horned Frogs all alone atop the SWC standings. Their third Cotton Bowl in four years proved to be the strangest ever, as neither TCU nor Air Force could score in a sloppy contest marred by eight turnovers and five missed field goals.

In 45 seasons, the Southwest Conference race never had ended in a three-way tie for first place. But that was what happened in 1959, as TCU, Texas and Arkansas finished with identical records of five victories and one loss.

The head-to-head tie-breaker was no help because TCU had lost to Arkansas, Texas had lost to TCU and Arkansas had lost to Texas. So SWC officials came up with the “last team to the party” rule.

Since the Longhorns had gone the longest (eight years compared to six for the Hogs and one for the Frogs) without playing in the Cotton Bowl, UT received the New Year’s Day invitation to Dallas. TCU’s consolation prize was the inaugural Bluebonnet Bowl.

Except for six-win outings in 1962 and 1965, Martin’s last half dozen seasons failed to measure up to the previous five. He may have been toying with the idea of retiring in November 1966, when a serious heart attack made the decision for him.

Abe Martin gave up coaching for the “office job” of athletic director, which he held until 1975. A fatal heart attack sounded the final gun four years later for the “Jacksboro Philosopher.”

Read about the Great Galveston Storm, New London school explosion, Waco twister and 22 more calamities and close calls in “Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Other Disasters” the latest “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today by mailing a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

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