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Aggie Glory Days

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico State football hasn’t always been bad

The New Mexico State football program has taken its lumps in a big way over the past half century.

Lowlights include a 27-game losing streak from 1988-90 that made the Aggies the butt of jokes in Bottom Ten polls. More recently there was coach Hal Mumme’s gory 0-12 inaugural season in 2005. And then there was last Saturday, when the current edition of the Aggies lost their 10th straight game, 50-14 to BYU. The 1-10 Aggies close the season at Texas State on Saturday.

Since 1968, nine head coaches have tried to resuscitate this once-vibrant program, and the most successful of the bunch might have been Jim Bradley, who was 23-31-1 from 1973-77 before being jettisoned. Later in his football life, Bradley must have remembered how to coach again. He won six state prep titles at Roswell and Mayfield.

But nothing might be more telling about the Aggies’ forlorn grid history than the fact the program has not been to a bowl game in 52 years. That’s a remarkable non-achievement considering that this season only 54 of the 124 major schools won’t receive an invitation to a postseason game. And it’s not like the bar has been set too high. North Texas went to the New Orleans Bowl in 2001 with a 5-6 record.

Thus, it might be hard to believe that in 1960 at this juncture of the season, the Aggies not only were the talk of the town in Las Cruces and about to go to a bowl, but also were the talk of the nation.

Good old days

In the spring of 1958, the makings of that Aggie wonder team two years hence began taking shape with the hiring of acerbic coach Warren Woodson, who coached at the University of Arizona from 1952-56 before grating on the nerves of UA higher-ups and being told to leave.

Before that Woodson coached at Hardin-Simmons. In 1946, his Cowboys went 11-0. In 1948, his team played in three bowls — as many as NMSU has been invited to in its history.

Woodson, who died in 1998 at age 95, was 55 that first spring in Las Cruces and was taking over a program that had had 12 consecutive losing seasons. First, he would need a quarterback. And up popped Charley Johnson.

“I was recruited to play basketball,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview from Las Cruces. “I tried out for the football team that spring and Woodson watched me throw the ball around for about 15 minutes. The next day I was first string.

“He had a brilliant, brilliant offensive mind. He always felt that you threw to set up the run.”

Woodson also apparently was a sensational recruiter.

“Coach Woodson had friends all over the place, ex-players of his,” said Johnson, who went on to a 15-year pro career. “He was a very successful coach when he came here, and although he wasn’t particularly friendly, he had a lot of friends, if that makes sense.”

One of the recruits he made an impression on was Don Yannessa, a two-way lineman from Aliquippa, Pa.

“In 1958, when I was coming out of high school, New Mexico State was one of the schools that said to come down and get an education,” said Yannessa, a retired prep football coach in western Pennsylvania. “It was that or going to a prep school or a junior college, so I took a shot. I had never heard of (NMSU).

“He did it on the telephone. You didn’t fly down for a visit, he just said, ‘Look, I’m going to give you an opportunity.’ He was a shrewd salesman. We had eight or 10 from Pennsylvania, Jersey, a lot from Texas, a half dozen or 10 from New Mexico.”

The black athlete

Racism was rampant in the late 1950s, and it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1960s that black athletes began to be accepted at programs across the country.

In New Mexico, Arizona and California, however, black athletes were often welcomed. Woodson was able to take advantage of that racial climate by recruiting blacks from across the land. Those players went on to win four straight national individual rushing crowns from 1959-62 while at NMSU.

First it was Pervis Atkins (Oakland, Calif.) in 1959, with a high of 971 yards. The next year, he was tops in yards per carry at 9.4 and No. 1 in all-purpose yards with 1,613 while teammate Bob Gaiters (Zanesville, Ohio) won the rushing crown with 1,338 yards. The next two years, Jim “Preacher” Pilot (Kingsville, Texas) was the rushing champ.

Louis Kelley, a stellar defensive back who lettered for the Aggies in 1957-58, is black and remembers that his schooling options were limited while growing up in Abilene, Texas.

“I went to Cisco (Texas) Junior College one year and then I was recruited by New Mexico State, by a trainer really,” Kelley said from his home in Lubbock. “There was just something about New Mexico State that I wanted to go. Nobody else tried to recruit me at all.”

Former Arizona State coach Frank Kush, now an officer for the school’s Sun Devil Club, was just beginning his head coaching tenure in Tempe at that time, as was the University of New Mexico’s Marv Levy, who went on to fame in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.

Said Kush of recruiting black athletes in that era: “One of the things I saw out West was that there wasn’t that much of a bias. If a kid was a great athlete, there were a multitude of schools after him. I don’t think there was that much prejudice out here.

“Everybody was doing it. Southern Cal, the Michigans, Notre Dame, we had a number of blacks on our team.”

Not really everybody

Certainly, the SWC and Southeastern Conference were not recruiting blacks. It was particularly harsh in Texas.

Ex-Aggies wingback Dave Thompson (1960-62) recalls how blacks were treated on one particular trip during his time at NMSU.

“I can remember going over to Denton, Texas, and we pulled up at the motel and our line coach said, ‘All black guys come with me.’ Somebody said they’re not going to stay with us,” Thompson said. “That was part of that time. Segregation was going on in parts of the country. Our guys had to live with that, I guess.”

Levy, who attended and coached at Coe College in Iowa, was an assistant at UNM from 1954-57 before becoming boss in 1958-59. He remembers racial hostilities from a particular booster at the time.

“I did a lot of recruiting by phone and I did a lot of personal recruiting, all in (New Mexico) or in Chicago or Iowa, where we had our roots. That’s how we got Don Perkins and (quarterback) Chuck Roberts from Iowa.

“We had the first black players in the history of the university. … The only prejudice I saw early was from this one booster. We won our first game (in 1958), but lost the next. He said, ‘You better get rid of the black quarterback or you’ll lose your job.’

“I was seething,” Levy said, “but we kept on and won (five) straight. And Perkins? He may have been the best player I ever coached.”

Don Yannessa was a standout lineman for the unbeaten 1960 Aggies.

Early success

The Aggies went 4-6 that first year under Woodson, whose dramatic facelift of the team set the stage for the future.

“He came in and he cut 30 players when he got there,” Kelley marveled. “That was before spring ball and then he started adding Charley Johnson, Atkins, Gaiters. … He made you want to play for him. He treated us all the same.”

Charlie Rogers, a Fort Sumner native who attended school in Las Cruces during this era and remains friends with many players, said a lot of the recruits had been in the military and were more experienced in life than many of their counterparts.

“Almost all those guys had gone through training camp, learned how to take orders, were more mature,” he said. “The Aggies recruited guys who were 21, 22 years old. Pervis had been a Marine for four years.”

Making headway

That 1959 season was a breakthrough on many levels. NMSU went 8-3 and rode the arm of Johnson, who had a nation-high 18 TD throws to complement Atkins’ running.

Included was a 29-12 victory over a Lobos team that finished 7-3 and a 28-8 win in the Sun Bowl over North Texas. It was the Aggies’ first bowl game since a 14-14 tie with Hardin-Simmons in the Sun Bowl after the 1935 season.

“(Woodson) wanted us to throw at least 20 times a game and seven times in the first quarter,” Johnson said. “And sure enough, that’s what we did.”

“Magic in the desert”

That’s the phrase Atkins once used to describe the Aggies’ run in 1960.

They entered the season on a four-game winning streak and extended that to seven after routing Mexico, Tulsa and Trinity. Up next were the Lobos in Albuquerque.

“They had a new stadium and we drew 28,000,” Yannessa said of a game New Mexico State would win, 34-0.

“Games that were really important were beating the Lobos and beating Wichita (State) at home. They were pretty big. They had great reputations. And we beat Wichita 40-8.” That Shockers team went on to finish 8-2.

One week later, in a game at once-beaten Arizona State, even Sports Illustrated took notice in a story titled: “The Team The Pros Watch.”

The magazine referred to the Aggies as the “high-scoring, unbeaten and virtually unseen” team. New Mexico State’s backfield of Johnson, Gaiters and Atkins was called the best in the country.

In dramatic fashion, New Mexico State overcame a 24-14 deficit on a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Atkins, and later his 71-yard run led to another score to help beat ASU 27-24. The victory propelled NMSU into The Associated Press national rankings at No. 18.

The Aggies, 7-0 and with the top-rated offense, went on to beat West Texas State 35-15 and Hardin-Simmons 40-3 on the road before returning home for the season finale against Texas Western.

After a 27-15 victory over the Miners, which extended the Aggies’ win streak to national-best 14 games and put them at No. 17 in the final poll, it was off to the Sun Bowl in El Paso a second consecutive season.

The Aggies’ opponent would be Utah State, a team led by future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman Merlin Olsen, which was 9-1.

“I went against Olsen all day and earned my scholarship,” Yannessa said.

Said Johnson of the time before the game: “We were higher than a kite — high, high high. Utah State had a marvelous team, a heck of a defense with Merlin Olsen. But Merlin never touched me.”

Johnson had two TD passes, and Gaiters ran 32 yards for a score in NMSU’s 20-13 victory.

For some, the postgame celebration lasted only a short while.

“That was just two years into my marriage,” Johnson chuckled. “(Teammates) came and got me for a quick beer, but then I left because I was getting behind my (chemical engineering) school work.”

Yannessa, meanwhile, wanted the good feeling to last: “After the game was over you were on your own. Some of us and some girls went to Cloudcroft and partied for two days.”

The aftermath

After that season, Johnson, Atkins and Gaiters departed for the NFL and the Aggies slipped to 5-4-1, but not before extending that win streak to 16 with a victory in the 1961 season opener against Arizona State-Flagstaff, 56-6.

The Lobos, however, rocked the visiting Aggies a week later 41-7.

After the 1967 season, Woodson simultaneously hit retirement age and wore out his welcome in Las Cruces, much as he did in Tucson by not coddling to the school hierarchy. He finished with a 10-year mark of 63-36-3.

The school has had five winning seasons since.

“Everything (NMSU) has done is by inches,” Yannessa said. “They should take a committee to Manhattan, Kansas — whether by stage coach, train or whatever — and learn something. That was one of the worst programs in the country until they made a commitment to the program.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal