This Week in Texas History: Boy from cotton patch sure could coach

By Bartee Haile

Stamford won the battle of the Bulldogs on Dec. 21, 1956, beating Brady 26-13 for their thirty-second victory in a row and second straight Class 2A state championship. 

Forty-two-year-old Gordon Lenear Wood had accomplished what most high-school football coaches achieve only in their dreams. But he would prowl the sidelines for 29 more seasons and collect a record nine state titles.

The youngest of eight children was born into cotton-patch poverty in 1914 and grew up on hardscrabble land around Abilene. Chores always came first, even before education, causing the baby of the brood to miss the first three months of every school year.

Young Gordon played in the first football game he ever saw. The seventh grader took the chant “fight team fight” too literally and on every snap of the ball punched the opponent he was assigned to block.

But the future gridiron genius had to overcome the objections of his father, who had an even lower opinion of sports than book learning. After three years of begging, the elder Wood finally gave in and allowed him to go out for football at Abilene High.

The catch was that the boy could not shirk his responsibilities around the farm. The workload at home on top of football practice, studies and the long bus ride to and from school soon overwhelmed the youngster.

Although he never again put on the pads in high school, Gordon found time for basketball and track and excelled at both. His speed attracted the attention of a coach at Hardin-Simmons, one of Abilene’s three church colleges, who decided to take a chance on the eager farmboy.

Starting out with a partial scholarship, Gordon earned room and board with his gutty performance on the football field, basketball court and cinder track. He even boxed for his alma mater winning 30 of 33 bouts.

By the time he received his diploma in 1938, Gordon Wood knew he wanted to make a career of coaching at the high-school level. In his first job at the Panhandle community of Spur, he was an assistant football coach, in charge of basketball and track, taught classes and drove a bus.

When the head football coach retired after the 1939 season, Wood jumped at the chance to take his place. The school board offered him the position but ended up giving it to a more experienced applicant.

Two counties to the east at Rule, the head coaching job was going begging and with good reason. The high school had lost its last 20 football games. That did not matter to the 26-year-old, who only wanted the opportunity to prove himself.

Wood did not have a storybook beginning as a head coach. His undermanned squad lost eight of ten in 1940 and showed only slight improvement the next year with a record of three wins, three losses and two ties. The high point of the 1941 campaign for the struggling coach was a 27-point upset of Spur, the school that spurned him.

World War II cut short Wood’s stay at Rule. When he returned to civilian life in 1945, it was as principal, math teacher, bus driver and all-sports coach at Roscoe near Sweetwater.

Wood taught the Fighting Plowboys the new Wing-T formation, his bread-and-butter offense for the next four decades. His Roscoe elevens went 16-2-2 before he moved on to Seminole not far from the New Mexico line.

With the invaluable assistance of Morris Southall, who would spend 31 years at his side, Wood turned Seminole High into a district champion in 1947 with nine regular-season triumphs. After the victory total slumped to six in 1948 and then to four in 1949, he relinquished the reins to Southall and tried his luck at Winters, which wound up a single-season stopover on his way to Stamford.

It was with the Bulldogs that Wood took a giant step into the elite coaching ranks. The whole pigskin world sat up and took notice, when his Stamford teams rolled to 80 wins in seven seasons, including a phenomenal streak of 35 that produced back-to-back state titles, while losing a grand total of only six games.

By 1958 high schools from every corner of the Lone Star State were beating down Wood’s door. Victoria won the bidding war for his services, but the West Texan was never happy on the Gulf Coast. He bemoaned the lack of passion for the sport he loved and after two so-so seasons, at least by his lofty standards, went home for good.

The rest is well-known history. In his inaugural season at Brownwood, Wood took the 1960 Lions, who had advanced to the playoffs once in 40 years, to the 3-A finals and won. He did it three more times that decade, twice in the 1970s and one last time in 1981.

In Gordon Wood’s 26 years at the helm, Brownwood won 82 percent of its games and tasted defeat on average just twice per season. The boy from the cotton patch retired at the end of the 1985 season with more career victories (396) than any other high school football coach anywhere in the twentieth century.

Last chance to order Bartee’s books for Christmas at the special price of $20.00 each. Mail your check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 for “Depression Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan,” “Texas Boomtowns,” “Unforgettable Texans” and “Texas Entertainers.”

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