Written by Walter Hines
The success of sports at New Mexico A&M in the pre-World War II years can in some ways be traced to none other than Abraham Lincoln. Under the Morrill Act signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, a land grant institution like NM A&M was intended to serve the children of the "industrious classes." The "industrious classes" were, quite simply, the working families of America. They manned the factories, the farms, the ranches, and the small businesses. Their sons and daughters needed a fair break at getting an education. And in athletic endeavors, these sturdy young men and women would prove to be more than the equal of those at the larger, more urban colleges.
In 1893, soon after the founding of New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, an ‘Athletic Association’ was formed to promote sports and “physical culture.” Later-to-be-famous agriculturist, Fabian Garcia, was a founding student member. Association members were chosen by vote of faculty and students. The Association President was a faculty member who also served as coach of virtually all sports, male or female. Dues were assessed and several hundred dollars were raised each year, most notably for football, tennis, and women’s basketball.
Whereas men’s basketball was not played against outside teams until 1907, women’s basketball was an intercollegiate hit from the start. A team was formed in 1893 and journeyed to Albuquerque to play the ladies of UNM. The game was contested in a makeshift gym with baskets suspended by wires with no backboards. The Aggie women, unfortunately, lost by the resounding score of 4-2. But they rebounded quickly and soon became a strong team known throughout ‘the territory’ as the Aggiettes. Outfitted in long dresses emblazoned with a large “A C” for Agricultural College, they were formidable. Through the mid-1920s, the Aggiettes were the terrors of the New Mexico, West Texas, and Mexico. The sturdy farm and ranch gals trounced most of their foes, and were the uncrowned basketball champions of the region.
Large intramural ‘Play Days’ were held at College Field with the best competitors picked for Aggie teams that competed with others in track and field and tennis (which in some years had coed teams). Teams from other New Mexico colleges, area high schools, and El Paso military and business teams made up most of the competition. Located just southwest of the present-day intersection of Espina and University Streets, College Field was renamed Miller Field in 1908. Later in 1932, the main athletic facilities were moved to Quesenberry Field, a stadium (just south of present-day Williams Hall) that was named in honor of early Aggie footballer Joe Quesenberry, fiancé of long-time Registrar Era Rentfrow. Quesenberry was killed in combat in World War I, ending the engagement with Ms. Rentfrow, who became the long-time registrar at NM A&M, but never married.
Football was the most popular intercollegiate team sport and the Aggies were a rough and spirited bunch. The pre-1920s were the days of no helmets, little padding, and few passes. Under the tutelage of unpaid faculty members who doubled as coaches, the Aggies had a sparkling winning record of 32-18-7 from 1894 to 1910. The two best known early coaches were William Sutherland, and the indomitable John O. Miller who also served the college as registrar. These men were followed by a succession of fine coaches like Arthur Badenoch of the University of Chicago (an Amos Alonzo Stagg protegee) and Robert ‘Cap’ Brown of Dartmouth. From 1911 to 1928, the Aggie footballers were 76-47-6, including a 7-7-2 record against their big brothers from UNM.
The 20s were a time of great interest in college football with the likes of sports writer Grantland Rice and gridiron heroes such as Knute Rockne and his Four Horsemen at Notre Dame and the "Galloping Ghost", Red Grange at Illinois. College basketball, though hindered by unimaginative coaching and primitive dribbling and shooting techniques, was also growing in popularity. The legendary coach ‘Phog’ Allen of Kansas led a drive to create and organize coaching strategies and implement new rules aimed at improving the college game. The sports boom was felt even in sleepy little Las Cruces. Early Aggie opponents, which included teams like El Paso Cactus, El Paso YMCA, Waltz Independents, Las Cruces High, and 7th Cavalry (Troop L), had been replaced by Arizona, Sul Ross, and Hardin Simmons.
Meanwhile, President Kent and Professor Hugh Milton, later to become president, were involved in organizing an association of Southwestern universities that formed the Border Conference in the early 1930s. With Texas Tech, New Mexico, Arizona, Tempe (ASU), Texas College of Mines (UTEP), and Flagstaff Teachers (NAU), the Border Conference was prestigious company for a ‘cow college’ of only 500 students.
The Aggies' basketball court through most of the 1930s remained the incredibly tiny ‘Crackerbox.’ With a capacity of 200, mostly standing room on the elevated one lane running track suspended above the floor, the ‘Crackerbox’ took on an aura all its own. Alumnus Michael Taylor wrote a vivid description.
When erected in 1911 it had been considered an architectural wonder. In my day we wondered why. The spectators at a game sat in one of the narrow balconies on either side. The gym was a hot box and an echo chamber, and yet we loved it. Its very smallness made for a sort of enforced intimacy. All the college hops were held there. The stark interior imposed great difficulties on the decorating committees that labored for days before each dance. We were not critical, however, and when the lights were low and the music swelling, the old monstrosity became an enchanted pavilion. As you entered with your date on dance night you became aware of a strange aroma. This was due to the mingling of Evening in Paris, a popular, inexpensive perfume, and vinegar. The young ladies shampooed, of course, before such important occasions and many used vinegar in their rinses.
By today's standards, football and basketball games in the early 30s were low scoring, unimaginative affairs. Football was dominated by the box, single- and double-wing formations, plodding power sweeps and off-tackle plunges. The "pigskin" was large and round, requiring an odd flat-handed passing motion. The quarterback was "the man", carrying the ball 75 percent of the time, passing rarely, handing to the other backs occasionally, and punting often. Strategy dictated punting on third down if inside your own 40-yard line, and 18-20 punts a game were the norm.
In the Border Conference, interior linemen typically weighed 170 to 190 pounds and the backs 155 to 170. The Aggies were even smaller, and usually outweighed by 10 to 15 pounds per man. Black, high-topped, steel-cleated shoes, helmets without face guards, and small, rounded shoulder pads were standard. Substitution rules were harsh and most players went ‘both ways.’ Broken noses, dislocated fingers, cleat gashes, and utter exhaustion were all part of the game.
Basketball in the 20s and 30s was a small man's game. Players were seldom over 6'3", and more commonly 5'9" to 6'0". The standard shot was two handed. The jump shot was unknown, and dunks were extremely rare. Set shooters rained looping, back spinning shots on rims that were above the reach of the average player. Dribbling and ball handling skills were awkward, almost mechanical.
Most teams used deliberate teamwork and passing, though the Aggie teams of the mid-30s went against the grain and introduced the fast break with much success. Officiating was tight. ‘Banging’, hand-checking, and rough play were quickly whistled and, by the rules, four fouls meant disqualification. Typical scores were 33 to 26, and often the losing team was held to less than 20 points. A winning team with 65 points was virtually unheard of.
By 1933-34, the Aggie athletic program was on the upswing. Vaughn Corley, fresh from his success at Las Cruces High, was hired as an assistant to Coach Hines. Corley, who was in the first graduating class at Texas Tech, was pivotal in developing freshman teams in both basketball and football. He was also a trackman, and introduced track and field as a real varsity sport with obvious benefit to both the football and basketball programs. Cigar champing, wheeler dealer Dan Williams, a crony of new Democratic Governor Clyde Tingley, made the scene as a regent in 1933. Williams was also the County Road Superintendent, a powerful patronage-granting position in its day. He soon became President of the Board of Regents and led a much-needed drive for better facilities and funding for Aggie athletics.
In 1933 Coach Hines married Nona Mossman. Nona, a gay divorcee, was the daughter of Walter Chauncey and Annie Freeman Mossman of Mesquite. Raised on the Mossman cattle ranch, which stretched from the Organs to the Rio Grande, Nona had been educated in finishing school and women’s college in Texas. She was an accomplished musician, artist, and as a ranch girl, a fair athlete. She was instrumental in reforming a women's sports program at NM A&M, which had deteriorated during the late 1920s. Skill clubs were organized to promote "activities that may be adapted to the leisure time of after-school life." Captains were appointed as club leaders in activities such as volleyball, softball, basketball, tennis, hiking, rifle, and archery. An annual "Play Day" was reinstigated in Las Cruces for competition among "girls from the colleges in New Mexico." Although women’s sports were not at the ‘varsity level’, the women were at least competing again.