Imagine a Head Football Coach driven by the relentless pursuit of perfection amassing a better than 69% win percentage. Imagine this coach taking an also-ran team to national prominence, being written about in the major periodicals of the day. A coach criticized by some for abuse to his players, defended by others with equal passion.
Imagine this head coach taking the cast-offs, the overlooked, and the seconds from the major colleges of the day and turning those that chose to believe into teams that all colleges feared, and most regretted playing.
From wide open passing attack that operated from any yard line, to record setting offenses that led the nation in scoring, to his ability to make the name “Red Raiders’ a nationwide household name, this coach spent every waking moment trying to make the program a success.
Now imagine this coach being “asked” to leave by the administration. Sound familiar? Well it ought to.
This is a story of Texas Tech Coach Peter Willis "Pete" Cawthon. “Coacher” came to Texas Tech in 1930 as the Head Coach of the Matadors after a two year, self imposed hiatus from Austin College. At the time, Texas Tech was a rag-tag bunch with very little discipline, a large dose of apathy, no real identity, and certainly not much of a fan base.
In a period of eleven years, Coach Cawthon transformed the Matadors into the feared “Red Raiders”. He took a program that was not making money and made it the most prosperous program on campus. He took the undisciplined and transformed them into hard hitting, winners, and gentlemen.
During this same period, he made Texas Tech into a coach’s “Mecca” by hosting summer clinics attended by thousands. Big name coaches such as Knute Rockne and “Pop” Warner attended and participated. With the publicity and the stats to back it up, the Matadors were at one point rated #5 in the nation. Traveling coast to coast, the Matadors, in their distinctive red satin uniforms became known as the Red Raiders. Coach Cawthon was civic minded as well, forming a summer “camp” for kids in Lubbock known as the “Knothole Gang” to teach kids right from wrong through sports. He also spent tireless hours planting trees on the bare Texas Tech campus, building tennis courts and baseball fields. He also led the men’s Downtown Bible Class and helped begin Lubbock’s first synagogue.
An innovator, “Coacher” once solicited the aid of a dance teacher on campus to teach agility to his players. Another time he beat Notre Dame’s JV with their own offensive scheme 39-0. With all of this success surrounding him, one has to ask, then why did the administration of the day wish to dismiss him?
It came down to money. Those that had hired Coach Cawthon had done so to “grow the program”, increase revenue, become respectable, and instill discipline”. Previous to his arrival, the Matadors had been satisfied to play the likes of a teachers college in the panhandle of Texas as well as other local schools. Pete, with is drive for perfection, upped the competition level to play the likes of Texas A&M, Rice, Oklahoma, Notre Dame (b-team), TCU, Miami, Loyola; all the most formidable teams of the day. Of course this did not come free. It meant traveling from coast to coast and the administration did not want to spend the money. (Incidentally they liked the fame, just did not want to fork over the green). The last straw came when Cawthon submitted is proposed schedule for 1941 and it had no teams from Texas on it.
As a result, in the words of Dean Stangel (yes, like the dorm), “We are not firing Pete”, he stated, “We are asking him to resign. Resign he did and a firestorm of opinions erupted on the South Plains. The assistant coaches to Pete were then asked to run the team and they refused until Pete asked them again. Coach Cawthon then went on to coach the Brooklyn Dodgers football club, the Detroit Lions, and become Athletic Director at the University of Alabama.
Peter Willis Cawthon, born in Houston March 24, 1898 graduated from Houston Central High School in 1917 and then attended Southwestern University in Georgetown where he lettered in football, basketball and baseball in his freshman and sophomore years. When his coach left Georgetown to serve in WWI, Cawthon took over coaching duties as well.
Cawthon’s overall record at Texas Tech was a whopping 79-27-6 during his eleven years as HFBC. He began his coaching career at Beaumont High School in 1919. In 1920, he coached baseball and basketball at Rice Institute (now Rice University). Austin College was his next stop from 1921 thru 1927. Pete came to Tech in 1930 at the ripe old age of 32 taking over a disaster of a program that only won one game in 1929.
One of my stories about Pete is one of what he used to say to his scholarship players when they were not giving it their all. Pete is a loud southern drawl would tell them, “either yous put out or I’m a gonna break your plate!” meaning take away the scholly. When a player would fumble during practice or a game, he could be heard yelling, “hang ons to dat ball, cuz dats what we plays with!”
By 1932, Texas Tech led the nation in scoring and was playing a number of the top national teams. In 1937, Pete’s Boys became the nation’s first college football team to fly to a road game when they chartered a DC3 from Meecham Field in Ft. Worth to Michigan to play the University of Detroit. Because of Cawthon, Texas Tech is reportedly one of the first colleges in the nation to install lights for night games as well. In 1939, he led the Red Raiders to its first undefeated season and a trip to the Cotton Bowl and was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978.