(Excerpted from James F. Willis, Southern Arkansas University: The Mulerider School’s Centennial History, 1909-2009, pp. 180-85)
Elmer Smith, one of the school’s most renowned coaches, led the men’s sports program after the war. He, like his fellow coach Kathryn Brown, was a natural athlete of great talent. At Hendrix College from 1927 to 1931, he lettered in four sports and made his reputation as an all-state fullback. Hendrix coach Ivan Groves declared that Smith was “one of the hardest runners ever to come out of the state of Arkansas. He could make yardage through a concrete wall.” Smith coached in high school, at Hendrix, and at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana. When the war broke out, he joined the navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.
Smith came to A&M in January 1946 and immediately coached a successful basketball team. Richie Lee was named a forward on the all-state team. Smith’s basketball teams never won the AIC title, but in 1948 with Prentice “Duddy” Waller from Emerson at the forward position, the team won the Southeastern Junior College District Championship at Lake Charles, Louisiana, and then traveled to the national tournament at Springfield, Missouri, where A&M lost to California Compton Junior College. It was the first athletic contest in which any A&M player had faced a black opponent. Smith was worried about an incident, but he recalled in his memoir that “there was no sign of friction” even when it was the black player whose scores “put the game on ice for Compton.” Duddy Waller was the leading AIC scorer in 1948 and in 1949 when the team had 20 wins and 9 losses but lost in the Lake Charles tournament to Tyler Junior College. Waller went on to fame as a player at the University of Arkansas. Afterward, he coached at the high school level and at his alma mater before becoming head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas.
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Carrying out [Colonel Charles] Wilkins and the board’s decision to have a full program of athletics, Smith coached and later added assistants to coach track and a baseball team. Baseball and track competition had been sporadic at TDAS and at A&M before the war; no real effort was ever made to have a full season. The baseball team had mostly played independent teams from the region the school served. AIC baseball competition was first played on a major scale only in 1949. Alumnus Ralph Ross after earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas returned to coach baseball. With only a primitive field at A&M, the team sometimes met AIC teams at the Travis Jackson Park in Waldo, named in honor of the town’s native son who had played shortstop for the New York Giants (1922–36) and was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like baseball, tennis had been played from the school’s earliest days but not in intercollegiate competition until a team entered the AIC tournament at Ouachita in 1948. In these years, as in earlier decades, the principal sports focus was Mulerider football.
Elmer Smith quickly demonstrated in his first spring practice in 1946 that he would coach like he had played football. He was thirty-eight years old, a large intense man with penetrating eyes and usually a cigar in hand. He stated in his memoir that he “always felt that . . . fear of something or someone was necessary to be successful.” His practices were so tough that many players quit. One of his players, Raymond “Rip” Powell, who would later coach at the school, recalled that Coach Smith “had one way—his way. He probably ran off as many talented players as he kept.” Many of those who survived, however, formed a bond with him that lasted a lifetime. They gave the hard “work ethic” he had imposed much credit for their later successes in life.
When necessary, Smith looked out for his players like a stern father. Famous sportswriter Jim Bailey, a 1954 alumnus, wrote years later about a January 1951 incident when sophomore basketball player W. T. Watson decided to quit school. He left to hitchhike to an El Dorado recruiting office to join the air force. Smith followed him, and when he stopped his car to pick up Watson, he reportedly said two words, “Get in.” Smith did not say a word more, and they spent the day traveling to South Arkansas schools to talk to prospective athletes. Upon returning to campus that evening, he dropped off Watson at his dorm and then said, “You’d better be in class in the morning. I don’t want to have to go looking for you again.”
Smith was able to hire Auburn Smith (no relation) as his assistant in the 1947 fall semester. The two worked together until Elmer Smith left to join Paul “Bear” Bryant at Texas A&M in 1954. Auburn Smith, a 1938 Hendrix graduate, had played for Elmer Smith when he was that school’s assistant coach. Coach Auburn, as the players called him to avoid confusion with Coach Elmer, contrasted in many ways with the head coach. He was a much smaller man and low-key. Ralph Ross, class of 1947, who had served as a trainer before coaching, recalled “how hard he worked and how nice he was.” Auburn Smith scouted the next week’s opponent and often missed the games of the Muleriders he helped coach in those days.
Elmer Smith had a knack for taking athletically talented men who had never played football and turning them into first-rate players. The two most famous examples were Sam Bailey from Stephens and Charles McClendon from Lewisville. Neither had any football experience until, as married veterans, they came to A&M after the war. They became stars on Elmer Smith’s first team. Bailey was the starting quarterback in the first football game he ever played (and probably ever saw). McClendon, plucked from the basketball floor by Coach Elmer, was an end. Both men went on to achieve great success as coaches in major college football. Bailey assisted Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama and then became the school’s longtime associate athletic director. McClendon became one of the greatest coaches in the history of Louisiana State University football and was later honored as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
In the 1946 Mulerider season, the recently returned veterans lost more than they won as they gained experience. Their four victories in nine games, however, included an impressive 21–0 win in a renewal of the Thanksgiving rivalry with the Monticello Boll Weevils. In that year, Euell Davis demonstrated his remarkable talents as a kicker. Smith said he was “one of the greatest punters” he had ever seen. He averaged sixty yards on kickoffs and forty-two in punting.
After a year’s experience, the veterans were virtually unbeatable in 1947. With a 9–2–1 record, they compiled one of the best seasons in school history. Only a loss to Arkansas Tech at homecoming in Magnolia kept the Muleriders out of the race for the AIC crown. It was at that homecoming that the alumni association decided to gather for the first time since 1942; the group had cancelled meetings during the war. The Muleriders were invited to play in the inaugural Cajun Bowl at Lake Charles, Louisiana, against John McNeese Junior College on December 12, 1947. The weather was awful that day. By game time, the temperature hovered just above freezing with wind gusts up to forty miles per hour. There was both rain and sleet. Almost no spectators showed up, but officials decided to play the game anyway. Elmer Smith said the game was “like a Byrd expedition to the South Pole.” The coach put eleven men on the field but kept the other players inside a cold dressing room near the field so they would not freeze to death sitting on a bench or standing on the sidelines. Players on both sides made valiant efforts to hang on to the ball, but there were numerous fumbles. The game ended in a scoreless tie.
The 1948 Muleriders unofficially became AIC co-champions with Arkansas Tech’s Wonder Boys. Only Tech’s name appeared in the record book, however, because although the two teams had equal records, Tech once again defeated A&M. In addition to the Tech game, the key contest of the season was with the Bears of Arkansas State Teachers College (ASTC) in Conway. Along with the Wonder Boys, a perennial winner of the AIC title, the Bears had been picked as pre-season favorites. The Muleriders pulled off an upset victory when the team’s center, Harold Brinson, grabbed a Bear pass on the Mulerider forty-five-yard line and ran it back for a touchdown. Jack Scott’s point after kick made the difference in the Muleriders’ 7–6 victory that spoiled ASTC’s homecoming. At that year’s Thanksgiving meeting with the Boll Weevils, the Muleriders won the game and carried away the contest’s prize—the goat. The two schools renewed the tradition of awarding a goat to the game’s victor. It had last occurred in 1936. The new nanny had a single name, M-Aggie. The new presidents apparently had little interest in sharing their names with a goat as [Presidents Charles] Overstreet and [Frank] Horsfall had done in the 1930s. The Muleriders were invited to the third annual Papoose Bowl at Wilburton, Oklahoma. There on December 3 they soundly defeated East Oklahoma A&M’s Mountaineers 41–12.
Twelve members of the 1948 team received all-state honors. A tackle, Ben Burton, and a back, Sammy Furo, were named to the first team. Others made second or third team all state. Delwin Ross, the quarterback, received AIC honorable mention, but the A&M student body voted him the year’s “Best Athlete” for 1948–49. He was the only athlete to play on the first team in both football and basketball and to star in each sport. Ross would later coach for three decades at his alma mater. Brinson would serve as the institution’s president for fifteen years.