In 1990, a group of 11 freshmen started for first-year head coach Hank Walbrick and went 1-9. That group of football players continued to fight and improved to 5-4-1 in 1991 and 6-3 in 1992.
Then in 1993, they accomplished something that no team from East Central University, in any sport, has repeated. They won a national championship.
“It was a dream year that didn’t start out that way,” Walbrick said. “We had built the team since 1990, with 11 freshmen starting. Of those 11, 10 were still with us in 1993 and were the nucleus and leadership of the team. I didn’t have to do a lot of motivating when I had players like that doing it for me.”
This year’s Homecoming will be all about remembering the 1990s, and what better way for the ECU athletics department to get involved than to honor its national championship?
“Everything that season was very consistent,” said ECU flanker back Jason Clements. “The Monday practice before the national championship, we started out doing the same thing that we did on the first day of August: two-a-days. The coaches did a super job of having a plan for the year and taking the talent and players we had and knowing what to do with them that year.”
The 1993 ECU football squad finished the season 10-3 overall, 3-2 in the Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference and had a perfect 7-0 record at Norris Field. After going 7-3 in the regular season and earning a No. 7 ranking, the Tigers had to wait to find out if they would make the eight-team field due to a final regular-season loss at Southeastern.
“After we lost to Southeastern, we thought that we had lost our chance to make the playoffs,” Walbrick said. “But we were fortunate enough that a lot of the other teams below us also lost. So we got a second chance. When I talked to the team, I told them that while we didn’t take care of business at Southeastern, we had a second chance and we couldn’t let that one slide.”
The notification to the team came on a non-practice day, and most would expect that once the players were released by the coaches, they would head home for some rest. But the players on the 1993 team had other plans.
“While that was all I had to say, there was something that went through the locker room that day,” remembered Walbrick. “We weren’t practicing that day, but they stayed around and visited. That showed the coaching staff that they had taken this second chance to heart, and we played our best football in the final three games of the season.”
The Tigers went on the road for the first game, only to return home with a 24-22 victory over Western New Mexico.
“It was a 17-hour bus ride that started Wednesday night for that first game, and we had a bus burn up just as we got into town,” commented Walbrick. “So we had to load all the players onto one bus after we checked into the hotel to head over to practice, but they didn’t let that bother them.”
ECU continued its run by making a strong statement with a 27-0 victory over future conference foe Arkansas-Monticello to reach the championship game against Glenville State.
“The atmosphere at home was very inspiring,” Walbrick said. “We had several pep rallies, but the one before the championship game at the Kerr Activities Center was packed. During the pep rallies, one of our players went over and banged on the drums with the band. That is the type of players we had. They were students first and wanted to be part of the atmosphere.”
In what was described on the box score as perfect conditions for a mid-December football game, 5,750 fans packed Norris Field for what would become a 12-touchdown offensive battle.
“We played a top West Coast passing offense. We had never seen it and we had no idea how to defend it, but at the same time they had not seen a big, physical run game like we had,” said Clements. “So it was two polar opposites that were slugging it out, and both teams were very good at what they did. I distinctly remember the coaches saying, 'This is going to be a shootout. It is going to come down to who guts it out and gets it done at the end of the game.’”
After trading the first eight touchdowns, the Tigers took control of the game with 2:16 left in the third quarter, when Tyler Jack scored his third of four touchdowns for the day on a 1-yard run. Richard Peoples put ECU up 42-28 at 5:59 in the fourth, and Jack added the game-securing TD on a 20-yard run with 3:32 remaining on the clock.
While GSC added one more score with less than a minute left, the lead that the Tigers built was strong enough to earn the first national title for ECU.
“The biggest moment is always looking up at the clock, seeing the seconds tick down and realizing that it (winning the national title) is actually happening,” Clements said. “You reflect back through all the hard work that everyone put in, you are seeing it pay off and that is very rewarding.”
While winning the national championship was exciting for the team, they took more than just a ring from that season.
“What really sticks out to me is that when I looked around the locker room, I truly knew every one of the players,” said Clements. “We had so many players from that team that had come up with each other and we knew each other, and that made a huge difference.”
The football program was not the only area on campus that benefited from the extra excitement from playing for the title. As a whole, the student body and campus community came out to support the team on the field, but the players and coaches knew that the campus was affected as well.
“Winning always brings a lot of pride, but it also spilled into every aspect of the school,” Clements commented. “When you have a success like that, it breeds excellence all around and raises the bar for everyone.”
Football is not just about what you learn to do on the field. Like any other sport, it is about what it teaches you to succeed once you leave school and enter a career.
“There is a quote that I used to tell my players, which is ‘Winning is not a sometimes thing,’” said Walbrick. “If you are going to be a winner, you are going to win on the football field, in the classroom, with your family or in your career. I think if you look at that entire team, pretty much everyone has been successful in their careers.”
Clements added: “Being shown that when you do things right day in and day out very well translated into my career. You have teachers, parents and friends that always tell you that if you apply yourself, there is nothing you can’t accomplish, and we all walked away with living, breathing proof of that.”