Dub Stocker (’74) says the five decades “have flown by” since he and his teammates won Abilene Christian University’s first national championship in football. The players, who were mentored by a beloved staff of coaches, are making sure their mentors – and collective efforts on the field – are not easily forgotten.
The 1973 team will be on campus Oct. 13-14 during Homecoming festivities this weekend, and they are bringing their checkbooks.
For 11 years, small-college football programs knew the road to an NAIA national championship went through the Texas cities of Abilene, Kingsville, Commerce and San Angelo. From 1969-79, a team from the Lone Star Conference won the national crown every year but one, and from 1973-77, if the Wildcats did not earn the title, Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) did.
Those roads were built by some of the best college football talent in the nation, regardless of level, and multiple future NFL standouts. A number of the standout Wildcats are inductees in the university’s Sports Hall of Fame.
ACU won the LSC its first year – 1973 – since moving from the Southland Conference it co-founded, but success on the football field that fall was not foreshadowed by the two previous seasons.
The Wildcats were 5-5 overall in 1971 and just 3-8 in 1972, and entered 1973 with a talented but unproven quarterback, a defense seeking an identity, and a quiet freshman running back from Greenville, Mississippi, who had left Jackson State and the prospects of playing several years behind a fellow named Walter Payton.
Wilbert Montgomery (’77), the young Mississippian, did not start his first game for the Wildcats, a dramatic 56-46 loss to Arkansas State. He bolted 46 yards for a TD with a screen pass the first time he touched the ball, however, and the race to a potential national title was on. Montgomery scored an amazing 35 more TDs that fall and quarterback Clint Longley (’74) became the first Wildcat to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season (3,167).
Head coach Wally Bullington’s team did not lose another game that year, reeling off 11 straight wins, capped by a 34-6 victory over Langston in the national semifinal game in Shotwell Stadium and a 42-14 rout of Elon in the Champions Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Four seasons later in 1977, ACU duplicated that feat for first-year head coach Dewitt Jones (’65), winning a second national title.
This weekend, the 1973 team’s late assistant coaches – offensive coordinator Ted Sitton (’54), defensive coordinator and secondary coach K.Y. Owens, offensive line coach Don Smith (’53), and defensive line and linebackers coach Jerry Wilson (’71) – will be memorialized by a new endowment that will carry the name of Bullington (’43), who was head coach for nine years (1968-77) and director of athletics from 1969-88.
The 1973 team’s goal of $50,000 has been eclipsed by commitments of more than $120,000, and Stocker wants everybody to know they are still actively raising funds from each other and their coaches’ many admirers.
On Friday, the team will attend the Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner and meet afterward with current head coach Keith Patterson. On Saturday, the team will participate in the parade, attend Chapel, enjoy a catered lunch and be honored on the field during the ACU-North Alabama game, then watch film together of their own championship game.
Two standouts from the 1973 team will be inducted Friday into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame: wide receiver Richard Williams (’77) and defensive back Jan Brown (’74). Brown died in 2022 at age 67.
“I maintained all these relationships all these years,” Stocker said of his former classmates and forever teammates. “These are special men. I love them and they have been an integral part of my life.”
— Ron Hadfield
Oct. 12, 2023