Dec. 17, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – In two weeks, Don Gibson will reach the 66th anniversary of one of Marshall’s signature football moments.
“That night,” Gibson said, “we did everything but win the football game.”
It was Jan. 1, 1948, and before a capacity crowd of about 9,000, the then-Big Green (pre-Thundering Herd, officially) played its first postseason game, falling 7-0 to Catawba (N.C.) in the second Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Gibson was named Marshall’s MVP in the game.
The Tangerine has morphed into the Citrus Bowl and now is the Capital One Bowl, considered one of the top six or seven postseason dates. It’s a marquee New Year’s Day, Big Ten-SEC matchup.
Gibson has been a longtime retired resident of the state in which he played that first bowl, and he’s still going strong after all these years. Just how many years?
“I’m old enough to know better, and too old to care,” Gibson said, laughing, from his home in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he lives with his wife of 65 years, fellow Marshall grad Wertie. “On May 5th, I’ll be 90. And I still work out every day … sit-ups, push-ups.”
Gibson’s story is about much more than being the MVP in Marshall’s first bowl appearance. He’s a World War II veteran, and after playing for Coach Cam Henderson at Marshall, was a storied coach in his own right at New Mexico Highlands University.
But that one game …
“They (the Indians) scored late in the fourth quarter,” Gibson said. “We just didn’t win the game. We had more passing yards than Catawba. We outrushed them. We just didn’t win.”
Catawba gained only 92 yards total offense in the game to the Herd’s 160 (109-54 on the ground), and Marshall had a 12-6 advantage in first downs.
But Marshall had four turnovers. The Big Green had 35 yards in penalties to zero for Catawba. Half of the North Carolina team’s first downs came on flags.
Catawba was ranked No. 20 in the second-last Associated Press poll of the 1947 season before the game.
Lee Spears, a 185-pound Indians’ fullback, bulled into the end zone from 4 yards with 4:35 left, capping a 45-yard drive. It was the lone touchdown in a bowl that remains the lowest-scoring in what is now Capital One history. Marshall didn’t advance past the Catawba 10, that in the second quarter.
There were only 13 major bowls then, and only seven of those remain today (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Gator, Sun and Tangerine-turned-Capital One). The Delta, Dixie, Harbor, Raisin, Salad and Great Lakes bowls are history.
Henderson’s 1947 team went to Orlando with a 9-2 record, having lost at home to Canisius and at Xavier – but it traveled to Florida without him. Henderson, of course, also coached basketball … and the Herd hoopsters headed west on a six-game holiday break trip, including the NAIB Los Angeles Invitational.
“Cam went with the basketball team, and Roy Straight, an assistant coach, was our head coach in the bowl game,” Gibson said. “Seems like we were in Orlando about two weeks, practicing.
“And Cam took both of our starting ends with him – Bob Koontz and Norm Willey (who later played eight seasons for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, reaching two Pro Bowls). Those two guys were good players, and they played basketball, too. But we missed them on the football team.”
Starting at right end, Gibson became the team’s Tangerine Bowl MVP. Marshall threw only 10 passes, completing five, and Gibson impressed most on defense. Play-by-play newspaper reports show him with at least seven tackles.
“Until that game, I was mostly a blocking back. With ‘The Old Man,’ as they called him (Henderson), you played where he told you to play,” Gibson recalled. “I was an end, blocking back, sometimes a wingback. That game, I was an end.”
Meanwhile, Henderson’s basketball Herd lost at Kansas State and Denver. It then won the Los Angeles Invitational, beating West Texas State, Idaho and then Syracuse in the Dec. 30 title game. The Herd lost at San Diego State on Jan. 2 before returning home with a break-even trip.
Gibson was a sophomore then -- and he was in his second stint at Marshall, too.
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Gibson came to Marshall as a 6-foot, 176-pounder from Winding Gulf, W.Va., a coal camp in Raleigh County. When Gibson was born in 1924, Winding Gulf was the third-largest town in the county. He went to Collins High School and played for the Pirates before heading to Marshall in 1942.
“I wasn’t there a year when I was drafted,” Gibson said. “I got drafted my freshman year (1942-43). I signed to come to Marshall because for one thing, I wanted to play against my brother, Ray Gibson. He played on the team at Fort Knox, and in ’42 they had their first team. He broke his leg two weeks before Marshall played them (Fort Knox won 20-6), so we never met on the field.”
Gibson said he was standing in line to be inducted during wartime – “to the Army or Marines,” he said – when his life changed.
“There were about 125 to 130 of us standing in line and I was up to about fourth in line,” Gibson said. “A man comes running down the aisle where we’re standing and goes up to a man in charge, doing the induction, and points to me and says, ‘Is that Don Gibson?’ The man asked, and I said yes.
“So, the man who ran up the aisle told the other guy, ‘We want that man for the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is starting a football team, and we want Don Gibson.’ The man at the head of the line said, ‘Well, that’s up to him. He has to go (into the service), but what he does is up to him.’”
Gibson said he got out of line, discussed the possibilities with the Coast Guard “recruiter” and took that option … and the next football season (1943), he was an offensive and defensive end on the All-American Service Team of 1943.
He was stationed at Curtis Bay, Md. – located only some 25 miles from Annapolis, where the Herd will play the 2013 Military Bowl against Maryland at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Dec. 27.
From there, Gibson shipped out into wartime duty in the Atlantic on the USS Monticello, a troop transport ship.
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“After I was discharged, in 1946 I went back to Marshall,” said Gibson, who had grown to 192 pounds by then. “I had the opportunity to go to some major schools after playing in the Coast Guard, and I told them I appreciated the interest, but I was going back to Marshall. They took me when I was a senior in high school and those bigger schools thought I was too small.”
Marshall had returned to football in ’46 after a three-season wartime hiatus. Gibson lettered four years at Marshall (1946-49 seasons). After his return to school, one day on the student union steps he had met fellow student Wertie Bowe, of East Bank. She was a Marshall cheerleader.
The football star and cheerleader were married in 1948. Gibson graduated in 1950.
Herb Royer, who was an assistant to Henderson, took the head coaching job at West Virginia Tech and hired Gibson as an assistant. Gibson got his master’s degree at Marshall and Royer wanted Gibson to follow him to Logan High School. But Gibson was presented the opportunity to become the athletic director and head football and basketball coach at Clear Fork High in Wyoming County by Gibson’s old Collins High principal.
At Clear Fork, Gibson coached another future Marshall star, Tex Williams … and Gibson eventually became a recruiter for his next move.
“One day I got a phone call from Coach Henderson,” Gibson said. “He always called me ‘Gibbie.’ And he says, ‘Gibbie, I’ve got a job for you as a college coach. It’s a good job. Dr. Tom Donnelly is the president there, and he’s a Marshall man (former MU faculty member) and he’s from West Virginia.
“‘Gibbie, this would be a fine position for you.’”
Gibson became the AD and football and basketball coach at New Mexico Highlands, where he served from 1953-64. He took the job in Las Vegas, N.M., sight-unseen – and his teams’ rosters would be dotted for years with kids from the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky.
At Highlands, he had Frontier Conference basketball title teams and his ’57 and ’60 teams played in the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, the latter reaching the quarterfinals. He was a two-time conference coach of the year at the NAIA school.
Before he took over the Highlands football program, it had one victory in two years. Gibson’s first Cowboys’ team went 0-8, but the next three were 5-2-1, 6-3 and 5-2-1. He ran the same single-wing offense he played in for Henderson – and in 2009 was inducted into the National Single Wing Coaches Hall of Fame.
Gibson’s NMHU players included former AFL and NFL receiving star Lionel Taylor of the Denver Broncos; Charlie Cowan, who was a Pro Bowler with the Rams; and Monty Crockett, who later played in the NFL for Buffalo.
He also was a Las Vegas city councilman and had a second career in insurance. He chaired the area Red Cross before he and his wife moved to Florida in the ‘70s. And in 1985, he was elected to the Marshall Athletics Hall of Fame, in the second induction class.
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In 2001, when Gibson was inducted to the Highlands H-Club Hall of Honor, the school’s presentation said:
“Coach Gibson wrote that “coaching is teaching in its highest form, teaching not only of athletic skills, but of ethics, morals, sportsmanship, loyalty, courage, cooperation, poise, self-control, confidence, and the will to win.” One sees that Gibson was able to instil permanently all these values in his students.
Gibson’s coaching also produced several professional football players and many career athletes, teachers, and coaches. More importantly, he mentored many athletes too poor to be in college except for the good will and help of Gibson and his wife, Wertie. He wouldn’t let them give up and go home, and many attribute the success of their lives to Coach Gibson.
“Gibson’s ‘boys’ love and respect their coach even more today than when he was coaching.”
And he still follows the Herd. He has become good friends with Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick. Gibson and his wife have sat in Hamrick’s private box at a few games at Edwards Stadium in recent seasons.
This season, Gibson saw Coach Doc Holliday’s team beat UTSA here on Homecoming and made the drive to Miami for the victory over FIU, where he sat in the visiting AD’s box. He missed the game at Florida Atlantic for good reasons.
A few days after the Herd won a 24-23, last-play thriller in Boca Raton, Don and Wertie returned to Las Vegas, N.M., as New Mexico Highlands saluted him again – dedicating the Coach Don Gibson H-Club Athletic Hall of Honor.
To paraphrase Gibson, it seems like he’s done everything but win that bowl game.
This story also appears in this week’s edition of Herd Insider magazine.