Check out the latest in our feature series, "Making an Impact".
Throughout the year we'll look at a moment, personality, organization or tradition that makes Texas A&M Athletics and those support it and compete for it so special.
THE 1939 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
Seventy-five years later, all the participants are gone,
but the legacy of Texas A&M’s title team lives on
by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
When Texas A&M officials decided to offer the head coaching job to Homer Norton in January 1934, they devised a plan. Action step No. 1 was simple: Go see him. Another way to phrase that would have been: Under no circumstance should we invite a top candidate to College Station.
Even in the midst of the Great Depression, A&M in the early 1930s took despair and dreary to new lows, so the A&M officials traveled to Shreveport, La., where Norton had spent the last 10 years at Centenary. The Aggies’ contingent painted a rosy picture, telling Norton he could become the next legendary figure of A&M football. He could, in fact, become the next Dana X. Bible.
Norton liked how that sounded.
A&M officials also discussed facilities, describing the majesty of Kyle Field, which had been built with concrete—somewhat of a rarity in those wooden bleacher days. The first five sections had been cemented into the ground in 1927, and 16 more sections were added in ’29. With temporary seating in the south end zone, capacity could extend to almost 38,000.
The smiling, moon-faced Norton was impressed. He was also intrigued as the A&M officials described the unique spirit of Aggieland, as well as the toughness, tenacity and integrity of the cadets. They painted College Station as a growing, prospering community of opportunity.
It sounded like a perfect situation. Norton accepted the job, sight unseen. Then he arrived in Aggieland. What he found was not exactly the way it had been portrayed or what he had expected.
Norton toured the stark campus. He discovered empty athletic coffers. He found skeletons in the closets…and on the roster. The dire financial situation of the athletic department threatened the future of the football program.
While he was impressed by Kyle Field’s splendor, he was equally disturbed by the stadium’s bonded debt of $210,000. Times had been so bleak in 1933 that the athletic department had only managed to pay the interest of its debt. Tickets had been slashed to $1.50 apiece, but in the midst of economic uncertainty, filling seats was a significant problem.
A&M did not even have money for scholarships, and the university could not supply enough jobs—mess hall waiters, uniform pressers, candy salesmen, etc.—to attract potential student-athletes with supplemental funding. Football players were already forced to live four to a room in “project houses” near the south end of the stadium.
Then there was the roster, which was at least as bleak as the bank accounts. At a summer Houston A&M Club meeting in 1934, Norton, according to the book, The Twelfth Man, told the group: “This coming season doesn’t look too good. We’ll win a few games and for the next year I can’t raise your hopes by promising any better than we can expect this year. We need scholarships. Perhaps by 1936 we can offer scholarships. So maybe by 1937…”
Before he completed his sentence, a man in the audience interrupted: “Never mind telling us about 1937, Homer. If you haven’t started winning by then, you won’t be around.”
Fortunately for Norton, it didn’t take as long to show signs of progress as he’d expected. His first two years were predictably tough. A&M went 2-7-2 in 1934 and 3-7 the following year. But the Aggies won some recruiting battles.
In 1934, A&M landed Joe Routt, a guard who would become the first All-American in school history. Then in ’35, Norton managed to convince Dick Todd, a sensational running back from a tiny West Texas town called Crowell, to come to A&M.
Norton was gaining some ground in recruiting, which paid off in 1936 when the Aggies won eight games. While A&M was rising in the standings, however, it was still sinking into an abyss of debt.
The mounting economic pressures sent Norton to the Mayo Brothers Clinic for ulcer surgery in 1936, and by the spring of 1937, he’d concluded that there was only one way A&M could ever emerge from the depths of its financial black hole: Win big and fill up the stadium.
To win big, though, he needed a full class of top-flight athletes like Joe Routt and Dick Todd. That would take money. Big money.
But first things first: Norton assigned enterprising trainer and assistant coach Lilburn “Lil” Dimmitt to compile a list of the 40 best players in Texas. As Dimmitt began that painstaking process, Norton calculated costs. He figured it would take at least $25,000 to recruit those 40 players and lure them to A&M with scholarships.
Norton then called Bert Pfaff, a wealthy electrical engineer and A&M alumnus. He arranged a meeting at Pfaff’s Dallas bank—attended by Pfaff, Dimmitt and himself—where he unveiled his seemingly outrageous loan request for $25,000. The banker initially scoffed at the notion, citing the huge debt Texas A&M already owed and one Norton had inherited when he became head coach.
Then Pfaff, who had $400,000 in his personal account with the bank, threatened to move his money elsewhere. The banker experienced an instant change of heart.
“If you get this money, when will you go after these 40 boys?” he asked.
“My car is parked across the street,” Dimmitt replied. “As soon as I know Homer has the money I will be on my way to get the first one.”
“Well, you’re looking at the craziest banker in Texas. You have the money.”
Within one hour of that conversation, Dimmitt signed one of the players on his list, Fort Worth North Side quarterback Marion Pugh. Soon afterward, Jim Thomason, Tommie Vaughn, Marshall Robnett and many others on the list signed with the Aggies.
Overall, 37 of the 40 players on Dimmitt’s list signed, and 23 of them wound up in Aggieland the following fall. Those players became the nucleus of the 1939 national championship team, and Pfaff made sure they stayed in shape and had enough money to stay in school
“Bert furnished summer and Christmas vacation jobs in the East Texas oilfields,” the late Howard Shelton, a reserve center on the ’39 national title team, told 12th Man Magazine. “He paid regular wages—nothing special because we were football players—and we worked our tails off. We had to work. Our scholarships provided for room, board, tuition and $5 a month. Without Bert’s jobs, many of the boys would have had to quit school.”
While Norton did his homework in making his top 40 list, two of the most critical personnel pieces—John Kimbrough and Joe Boyd—to A&M’s championship run essentially fell in the Aggies’ lap.
Kimbrough was the workhorse of the ’39 team, playing 550 out of a possible 600 minutes in 10 regular-season games. He punished defenders with his rugged running style, finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy race in 1939 and second in ’40.
“John Kimbrough is legendary not only because of what he did individually, but also because he was the leader of the ’39 team that accomplished something no other team at A&M has ever done,” said John David Crow, A&M’s first Heisman Trophy winner in 1957. “Some sportswriters used to compare me to him when we were No. 1 in 1957, but to me, there’s no comparison.”
The fact that Kimbrough is even associated with Texas A&M involves some significant twists of fate. He had a different school and a different career in mind.
Kimbrough’s father, William Augustus Kimbrough, arrived in Haskell, a sleepy West Texas town of about 3,400 residents, in 1907 as the town’s first doctor. Among other things, the elder Kimbrough had two passions: A love for medicine and a disdain for football. He made one of his boys quit playing in high school, and he told John he was never allowed to play.
“As a young boy, I figured I was going to be a doctor,” John said prior to his death from pneumonia in 2006. “But my father died when I was in the seventh grade, and there wasn’t $500 cash from Fort Worth to El Paso. So that was the end of (my hopes to become a doctor). I played football because I wanted to go to college and that was a way I could get to college. Had my father lived, there was no way I would have been a football player.”
Nevertheless, it appeared as if Kimbrough had been born to play. In high school, Kimbrough was a prolific running back, who earned a scholarship to Tulane. Once in New Orleans, the Tulane coaching staff decided to turn the 6-foot-2, 210-pounded into a tackle. It was a disastrous move for Kimbrough, and he was cut from the team and stripped of his scholarship.
Kimbrough began searching for a football team that would take him. He found Texas A&M, where the reject and the reeling program united.
The future Aggie legend began his career at A&M as a 10th team afterthought. It was only because Kimbrough was so far down on the depth chart that he ever received his opportunity. In the opening SWC game of the 1938 season, No. 1-ranked TCU was so thoroughly dominating A&M that Norton pulled his starters in favor of the scrubs near the end of the third quarter.
“TCU was whipping us like tied up hounds,” Kimbrough said. “A coach grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘You’re a running back. Get out there.’ When I got in the huddle, it sounded like a Chinese fire drill. The linemen were saying, ‘Don’t come my way.’ The backs were saying, ‘Don’t give me the ball. I’ve had enough.’ So I said, ‘Give me the damn ball.’
“They snapped it to me, and I took a step toward the hole, where it looked like there were 40,000 (TCU players). They were hollering ‘new blood.’ Well, my mother didn’t raise any idiot. Instead of hitting the hole, I went to the outside and picked up some yards. Before I went down, I decided I was going to take one of their boys with me. After the play, everyone got up but the guy who tackled me. He stayed on the ground.”
When Kimbrough returned to the huddle, a combination of angry scowls and scared looks focused on him. As if things weren’t already bad enough, his teammates said, Kimbrough had made TCU mad.
Kimbrough again was given the ball on the next play. Like he had done before, he stopped short of the hole, cut to the outside and picked up enough yards for a first down. Most notably, the TCU player who tackled him once again remained on the ground.
“When I was getting up, I felt someone pulling me on the arm,” Kimbrough said. “I looked around, and it was this short man with a coat and tie on. It was (TCU coach) Dutch Meyer. His face was red, and he was calling me every name you could think of and some I’d never heard. I picked him up by his coat and tie and got him eye level with me. I said, ‘Coach, you’re too small to talk to me like that.’ Then he got off the field.”
On that day, a legend had been born. Kimbrough immediately went from 10th team to first. One anchor for the ’39 team had been found.
Another one arrived from Paris Junior College with a reputation as soiled as a diaper depository. Joe Boyd grew up in Dallas. When he was a teen-ager, he was a member of one of numerous gangs. The city’s answer to the gang problem was to organize them into sports teams—the West Dallas gang, the Fair Park gang and so forth. Each of the gangs had a football team, and it was there when Boyd’s gridiron career began to flourish.
“I played for one of the gang teams, and it was so tough and rough that we drank wine at the half,” said Boyd, who against the longest of odds, grew up to be a reverend and the author of more than 15 Christian books before his death in 2009. “All the games wound up in free-for-all fights. By the time I got to Crozier Tech High, I thought I could whip anybody.”
Because of his reputation, Boyd didn’t have many collegiate suitors. He contacted Baylor, but the Bears had no interest. Other schools had a similar response. After a brief stint at Paris JC, Boyd contacted A&M. Norton was willing to give him a conditional chance.
“A&M, they said they would take me,” Boyd recalled. “They also said that if I made the ballclub, I could stay. But they said that if I didn’t make the ballclub, I would have to leave.”
Boyd did much more than make the team. Playing strongside tackle, Boyd was a three-time All-Southwest Conference performer. In leading the Aggies to a perfect 11-0 record in 1939, Boyd was selected to six All-American teams. Amazingly, Boyd accomplished all of that while playing the entire ’39 season with a broken neck. In the final game of 1938, Boyd cracked vertebrae and broke some ribs. He experienced temporary paralysis in his legs and was taken to Houston for X-rays.
“The man came out of the X-ray room, and he told me my neck was broken,” Boyd recalled. “I said, ‘I knew there was something wrong.’ I guess I was just a tough old bird. They hired a big, strong woman to massage my neck in between games (in 1939) and absorb the chips that came off that break. Then I would play on Saturdays.”
THE RUN TO GLORY
At reunions throughout the years, members of the 1939 team always laughed at the perceived notion that the Aggies were shooting for a national championship. After going 4-4-1 in 1938, A&M was simply trying to avoid shooting itself in the foot.
But there was pressure on the ’39 Aggies to do something special to attract some fans and pay some bills. A&M averaged an attendance of only 5,000 people in 1938, which wasn’t paying off the debt.
“I remember we were practicing prior to the start of the 1939 season, and we had a water break underneath the west side grandstands of Kyle Field,” recalled the late Roy Bucek, a member of the ’39 Aggies, in his book, Roy Story. “During the break, the stadium’s namesake, Edwin Jackson Kyle, Class of 1899, visited with us. Kyle, who at one time or another served as professor of horticulture and president of A&M’s General Athletics Association, told us: ‘You fellas have a big burden on your backs. We haven’t made a principle payment on this stadium in three years. If we don’t make a principle payment on the stadium this year, the bank is going to foreclose on us. You understand what that means?’
“We all nodded, as we didn’t want to appear like fools, but truthfully, none of us knew what the hell Kyle was talking about. Most of us didn’t know what a principle payment was in the first place, and we had only a vague understanding of what might happen if the bank ‘foreclosed’ on us. I, for one, thought that maybe they’d take the stadium away from us if we didn’t put more people in the stands and make money. I’d seen homes and farms that had been foreclosed, and other people moved into them. I wondered if some other football team might move into our stadium.”
Fortunately, Bucek and the rest of the ’39 team never had to worry about that. Most of the attention—regionally and nationally—heading into the season was directed toward TCU, the 1938 national champions. A&M was considered far more mediocre than magnificent. So truly, the ’39 Aggies went from nowhere to No. 1.
“We didn’t know there was such a thing as playing for No. 1,” recalled the late Tommie Vaughn, the center of the ’39 team, who went on to become a successful auto dealership owner in Houston. “When you look back at what we did, it’s very impressive. But it wasn’t even a big deal back then. What we had going for us was the fact that we were tough as an old boot.”
Like an old boot, the Aggies did some serious kicking. A&M outscored its first four opponents—Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), Centenary, Santa Clara and Villanova—by a combined score of 86-10. But the players didn’t realize they were anything special until they traveled to Fort Worth for the first Southwest Conference game of the season against defending national champion TCU. The Frogs beat A&M, 34-6, the previous year.
“We traveled to TCU and kicked their purple-clad butts, 20-6, at Amon Carter Stadium,” Bucek wrote in his 2012 book. “That’s when I realized we were really good, and we continued on our roll by beating Baylor, 20-0, and Arkansas, 27-0. As the season went along, we just kept getting better, as did John Kimbrough. He was really something, and he definitely led us by how hard he played and ran.”
After the Arkansas game, the largest crowd (30,000) ever to see a game at Kyle Field poured into the stadium on Nov. 11 to see the Aggies face SMU on a miserably dreary day (ticket prices increased to $2.50 apiece for that game and the finale against Texas).
With A&M leading 6-0 in the fourth quarter, SMU drove deep into Aggie territory, and the Mustangs lofted a pass toward the end zone. It was caught, but the conditions were so miserable and the players’ uniforms were so muddied that it was initially difficult to determine who came up with the ball. A&M’s Derace Moser made the interception, but he then tried to lateral the ball forward. The Aggies were penalized and took possession at their own five-yard-line with a few minutes left in the game.
SMU then stopped the Aggies and blocked Bill Conatser’s punt in the end zone. Scrambling through ankle-deep water, Conatser beat several SMU players to the ball to recover it for a safety instead of a Mustangs touchdown. The perfect season was preserved by the narrowest of margins, as A&M held on for a 6-2 win.
Following a victory at Rice the next week, a standing-room-only crowd in excess of 38,000 packed into Kyle Field on Thanksgiving Day to watch the Aggies dominate the Longhorns, 20-0.
The closest game all year came in the Sugar Bowl against Tulane on Jan. 1, 1940. Kimbrough’s 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave the Aggies a 7-0 advantage, but the Green Wave scored the next two touchdowns to take a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter. A&M then began a 70-yard scoring drive capped by Kimbrough’s second short scoring run of the day. The ensuing extra point by Cotton Price gave A&M a 14-13 victory and a perfect 11-0 record.
The 1939 team still holds an NCAA record for total team defense, allowing 76.3 yards per game. The Aggies also finished first in the country in rushing defense (41.5 yards per game) and scoring defense (2.8 points allowed per game). Thanks to Kimbrough’s running and the dominating defense that registered six shutouts, A&M won eight of 10 regular season games by at least 14 points.
Most significantly, though, the remarkable season, combined with the big crowds at Kyle Field and the payout from the Sugar Bowl, finally placed A&M’s athletic department on firm financial footing.
“A&M College received a big paycheck for winning the Sugar Bowl, and that helped A&M finally emerge from its huge debt problems,” Bucek said. “We had won the title and saved the football program. All the coaches and administrators patted us on the backs and congratulated us when we returned from New Orleans.”
- Red Bryant (6/24)
- Lettermen's Goal Line (6/10)
- The Next Step Campaign (5/13)
- Graduation (5/6)
- 12th Man on Campus (4/29)
- Student Support Groups (4/22)
- Muster (4/15)
- The 12th Man (4/8)
- Luke Joeckel (4/1)
- Big Event (3/25)
- Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (3/18)
- Amber Reynolds-Jackson (3/11)
- Ty Warren (3/4)
- Dell Lindsey (2/25)
- Dr. John Thornton (2/18)
- Diamond Sports Mic'd Up (2/11)
- Who's No. 1? (2/4)