The night TCU-Baylor rivalry met tragedy
Jim Pittman wasn’t nervous. So what if he had a game to coach in a few hours? That wasn’t going to stop him from taking a break to watch some of the afternoon game on TV with his staff. Pittman and his coaches only had one game to choose from to pass the time; options were limited in 1971.
In a few hours, he’d take his team onto the field at Floyd Casey Stadium to face Baylor. He brought a well-tested team to Waco that had already made trips to Arkansas, Washington and Penn State.
"It wasn’t like playing Texas or Arkansas," offensive lineman Lloyd Draper said. "We knew we would win if we played like we’re supposed to."
The Frogs marched onto the field for warmups. For October 30, the central Texas heat and humidity were oppressive.
"It was so hot, we were sweating BBs," running back Bill Sadler said.
Pittman, normally a fierce opponent of complaining, snuck in a quick gripe about the muggy locker room that offered little relief from the field’s mugginess. He wondered if a cold front could finally make its way through in time for kickoff.
He was loose and in a good mood, ribbing defensive coordinator Billy Tohill with a question about who took all the starch out of Tohill’s wrinkled pants.
"Let’s get us about 14 quick points and let the rain come," Pittman told Tohill, his staff’s chief lieutenant.
He felt fresh, ready to take the next step in a chase toward a realistic chance at TCU’s first Southwest Conference title since 1959, a span of 12 years.
The Frogs and Bears kicked off shortly after 7 p.m.
Doctors declared Pittman dead at 8:03 p.m.
TCU and Baylor share a residence in this year’s preseason top 5 and a status as the two favorites to win the Big 12. Last year’s 61-58 Baylor win was one of the defining moments of the 2014 college football season and ignited one of the Big 12’s most heated rivalries.
That will carry over into 2015, but despite its resurgence, the Baylor-TCU rivalry is anything but new. Just 90 miles of Interstate 35 separate the two campuses. A TCU win in this season’s meeting could even the all-time series between the two at 52-52-7 and both teams could be playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff on Black Friday. It could be the brightest day in a rivalry filled with history.
Forty-one years ago, though, the two programs shared one of college football’s darkest days.
Jim Pittman spent his whole life in Boyle, Miss., a tiny town off US Highway 278 about 115 miles north of Jackson. Today, about 650 people call it home, just like Pittman’s family did while farming soybeans and cotton in the early 20th century.
His father was stern, which eased his transition into the Marines. Pittman enlisted as soon as he was eligible and quickly found himself on a tour of the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. New Jersey.
When he came home, he rarely mentioned anything about his time overseas, but earned a scholarship to play football at Mississippi State. Two years after graduation, he was on the Bulldogs’ coaching staff. From 1947-55, the program had four head coaches and Pittman either played or coached under all of them.
The last? A young first-time head coach named Darrell Royal. Pittman impressed him and after two seasons, Royal asked Pittman to follow him to Washington.
A year later, Pittman followed him to Austin, where Royal would eventually win three national championships. The first came in 1963, and three years later, Tulane offered Pittman his first head coaching job.
Off the field, Jim and college sweetheart Jane were raising two boys: Brad and Alec. He wanted to be the opposite of his father’s rigid, impersonal approach to parenting, but still held high expectations and conservative values.
The only acceptable male haircut was a tight flat top. If you’re addressing an adult, it’s "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma’am." When you were in public, your shirt tail was tucked in and you were wearing a belt. Abide by a reasonable set of rules and you’d be fine. Stretch his boundaries?
"I don’t know if it’s acceptable nowadays, but there was a belt involved," Alec Pittman said.
Rules aside, he still sought to understand his sons when he was home. That wasn’t often during the season and heavy recruiting times. He was up and on his way to the office before 6 most mornings and wouldn’t come home until after 10 most nights.
He was strict but fair.
"I never saw the hard side of my dad that his players did," Brad Pittman said.
"If you could sit down and give him your point of view, he’d listen," Alec Pittman said. "Then he’d explain what he thought of the situation."
A 15-year-old Brad once let a friend borrow his mom’s Oldsmobile Delta 88. It ended up hopping a curb and landing in a New Orleans canal with a busted suspension and tires in standing canal water.
Brad called a tow truck but still had to explain the damage to his father, who was at a neighbor’s party with Jane. Brad concocted a long-winded, winding story. Its details were unimportant except for one: Brad claimed he was driving the car.
Jim let him finish and nodded. After a few minutes, Jim summoned his son again.
"You know, I deal with guys a lot older than you," Jim said. "Why don’t you just start over?"
Jim knew his son understood the depth of his idiocy and deception. He didn’t bother to issue a real punishment outside of a subtly demanded confession.
"That was the last time I ever lied to my dad," Brad said.
He took a gruffer approach with his players–and it worked. Tulane hired him in 1966, a decade after the Green Wave’s last winning season and its first year after leaving the SEC to become an independent. Tulane went 5-4-1 and after three losing seasons, went 8-4. A week after beating Colorado 17-3 in the Liberty Bowl, Pittman was back in Texas on his way to Fort Worth.
His disciplined programs and reputation for instituting Marine-like requirements of his players attracted TCU’s attention. As much as college football has changed in four decades, the pattern of hiring coaches has remained constant. When one coach fails, everyone demands a replacement who takes as contradictory an approach as possible.
The Frogs hired him to try and resuscitate a program that had become a perennial loser in the Southwest Conference under Fred Taylor’s more relaxed approach.
Pittman did the same thing with his teams he did with his sons: Lay out his expectations and trust they’d be met. A lack of compliance meant punishment, just replace a belt with uphill runs at 5 a.m.
"You’re going to clean up, you’re going to dress up, look good and play good," Pittman told his team at their first meeting.
Keep your hair above your ears. Shirts better be tucked in and shoes shined. Thursday meant room inspections: Keep the water rings off your sink, keep your bookshelf tidy and your closet organized. Be back in your room before curfew.
If you weren’t five minutes early for a meeting, you were late. He’d shut the door and lock it, angering more than a few players who had to watch meetings through the glass on the door.
"The world was changing, but he wasn’t changing with the world," Sadler said.
Pittman wanted to instill his brand of discipline. If the side effect meant his team earned a campus-wide reputation for being model citizens, so be it.
One rule cost him more than the others combined: Players were not allowed to have facial hair.
"The only people with facial hair were largely the black players," Sadler said. "From their perspective, it was a direct slap in the face."
That included three all-SWC talents. Raymond Rhodes was the best of them, having run for 786 yards to lead the team in 1970. He’s better known as Ray Rhodes and went on to coach the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles and coached on five Super Bowl-winning staffs, winning NFL Coach of the Year in 1995 with the Eagles in his first season as a head coach.
When Rhodes ran the ball, the Frogs on the sideline couldn’t help but stop and watch.
"He was like Gale Sayers," Sadler said. "He was lean, slippery, he was fast and his run was the most beautiful gait you’ve ever seen on a human being."
He was also only 170 pounds and his style found friction with Pittman’s hope to install a wishbone that was heavier on running between tackles. Just before the season began, he and several other black players transferred. Most ended up at Tulsa.
"I don’t think Coach Pittman had a racist bone in his body," defensive back Lyle Blackwood said. "He was evaluating what was going on and they hired him to institute more strictness. Fred Taylor was loose. That was one of the rules he wanted to tighten up."
Despite their protests, he didn’t budge and it cost him a star running back and two other starters just before the season began.
Even Blackwood, who described himself as "wildly compliant" thought the facial hair rule was too "picky."
"I hated to see the ballplayers leave that left," Blackwood said. "As I look back, I think that cost us a Southwest Conference title."
Those who stayed eventually got glimpses the side of Pittman with which his sons were more familiar. Play by his rules and he’d be more than willing to forgive 19-year-old foolishness.
Get busted by campus police for a minor offense? Pittman had eyes everywhere in Fort Worth. Come Monday morning, expect a summons to his office.
"I’m going to help you out this time but there’s not going to be a second," tight end Ronnie Peoples remembers him saying.
"And there wouldn’t be. There was no screwing up from there."
On the field, Pittman settled into a CEO-style of head coaching. He coached his coaches and on the practice field, let them do their jobs. In his first spring, he didn’t care what position his players thought they played. Tight ends got work at defensive end. Running backs gave playing linebacker a try. Defensive linemen flipped to the other side of the line of scrimmage. Pittman wanted to find out what he had and dig out his best 11 on offense and defense.
He’d put mats out in a fieldhouse with no air conditioning and call two names. They’d rush to the center of the mat and wrestle or one player would be given a rope and another would try to yank it away.
It all taught him plenty about his roster.
His son, Alec, joined the staff as a graduate assistant and helped coach defensive ends. He’d been one under Bear Bryant at Alabama but turned in his cleats for a whistle after a second knee surgery. When doctors told him they’d have to start grafting muscle tissue to make new ligaments–something he’d never heard of–he was done expending his body in the name of sport.
One day, Jim saw his son overcoaching one of his defensive ends during a particularly difficult practice in the heat. He kept silent and watched until Alec was done berating the player. He pulled Alec to the side.
"If you just keep giving negative feedback to that guy in everything he does, you’re going to keep getting negative results," Jim Pittman told his son. "You can’t be negative all the time."
He wasn’t a yeller and most never heard him utter a curse word. During practice, he mostly stayed quiet and didn’t have much 1-on-1 interaction with players.
"He didn’t holler a lot. If he did holler, you knew you were in trouble," quarterback Steve Judy said.
He’d hit players with a steely-eyed stare that didn’t require words to get a point across.
"He was frightening, to be honest with you," Sadler said. "When he said something, it meant something. You knew not to test him or ever try him."
If you heard him yell "Riverside!" it was time to switch directions on the field to avoid an injured player on the field.
He left most of the hollering at players up to his assistants, led by Tohill and fellow hollering expert Gerard Boudreaux, a 5-foot-6, angry Cajun whose go-to move was a face-to-face scream session while jerking a player’s facemask around.
At one practice, Draper made a basic mistake during a Thursday practice.
"I think I was thinking about going out that night with (his future wife) Mary or something," Draper said.
He trotted back to the huddle, where Boudreaux was waiting. Sure enough, he grabbed Draper’s facemask and lit into his lineman. Draper’s crafty rebellion was tightening his neck muscles and to keep Boudreaux from jerking his head around. That only made him angrier. Boudreaux called out to Pittman.
"What are we going to do with this one, Coach?"
"Well, Coach," Pittman yelled across the practice field. "He’s been on time all week. He went to class. His grades look good. Let’s let him off the hook this one time."
A difficult offseason conditioning program and grueling two-a-days pared down a roster that once had nearly 130 members (including walk-ons) to somewhere in the ballpark of 70 players by the time the season began. His impersonal style prevented close relationships with players but those still left recognized how much the spring and summer boot camp had changed the team.
Baylor was the seventh team on TCU’s schedule. Heading into Halloween weekend, the Frogs were just 2-3-1 but all three losses came to top 20 teams and just one came in league play.
Trips to Penn State and Washington gave his team valuable callouses, providing more toughness and opening their eyes to the kinds of athletes he planned to recruit. Combing west Texas and beating out Texas Tech for players wouldn’t be enough for TCU to win the Southwest Conference titles he saw in its future.
Baylor was just 1-4 and had yet to score more than 15 points in a game. It had been held to 10 points or below in three of its five contests.
Only a few minutes into the first quarter, TCU was mounting what would be its first touchdown drive of the game.
Pittman approached offensive coordinator Russell Coffee to add some input into the rest of the drive’s playcalling. With no warning, he grasped for Coffee’s shoulder.
Then, he grabbed his own chest and topped over backward like he’d been hit by an invisible, swinging wrecking ball. He landed on the ground bent at the knees and hip, curled into a ball.
A few feet behind Coffee and Pittman, Draper was waiting for the play call from Coffee.
"Holy shit, holy shit!" Draper said to no one in particular as Pittman fell. Some around him thought Pittman’s foot had gotten caught in a wire from his headset.
His body briefly shook on the ground in front of Draper. Quarterback Steve Judy looked over, waiting on the play and saw his coach on the ground.
Was he having a seizure?
Draper’s leg was still bleeding from a Baylor cleat earlier in the drive, but he was responsible for running Coffee’s play call out to Judy. Coffee gave Draper the play and told him to go into the game. So he did.
He found a stunned huddle, and Judy wasn’t going to be as compliant to his coach’s command. He ran over to the official on the sideline and called timeout, confusing the rest of his offense that didn’t want to lose the drive’s momentum and hadn’t yet noticed the frantic chaos on the sideline.
A handful of medical personnel huddled over Pittman’s unconscious body and laid him flat on his back.
Judy ran back onto the field where the rest of his teammates had taken a knee in a silent stadium.
He delivered an educated guess.
"He had a heart attack, guys," Judy said.
Rumors of issues with Pittman’s heart had swirled around the program since his hiring 10 months earlier but never been publicly addressed.
Draper just assumed the heat had caused him to faint. With a little fresh air and some time, the team would have its leader back.
"People don’t die at college football games," Draper said.
Paramedics called for an ambulance, but there wasn’t one in the stadium. Former basketball coach Buster Brannon, then 63, had also collapsed and been taken away in it earlier in the game. He would be fine, but died of a heart attack almost eight years later in 1979.
Alec Pittman rushed down to the field from the stands. By the time he made it, paramedics were ushering him into a private car. Alec and his mother, Jane, made it to their car and followed Jim to Providence Hospital, a short, four-mile drive on Waco Drive across Highway 6.
The family knew more about Jim’s heart issues and feared the worst. A friend drove them to the hospital behind the car carrying a still unconscious Jim.
Alec and Jane arrived at the hospital, but emergency doctors had already rushed him into a room.
They weren’t there long before 8:03 p.m. passed.
A doctor emerged through double doors and delivered the news. There was little to be done. Resuscitation efforts had failed.
He may have already been gone before his body crumpled to what was then a grass field at Floyd Casey Stadium.
Around 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital, Alec and Jane were headed home. Alec tried to make some idle chatter with comforting words, but silence dominated the 90-minute drive up Interstate 35 back to Fort Worth.
Back at the stadium, there was still a game to finish.
The Frogs were struggling and at halftime, head trainer Elmer Brown and Tohill told the team their coach was dead. A few knew already. Word had passed down from the stadium stands to the sideline. Brown ceded the locker room floor to Pittman’s right hand man.
He spoke about making decisions and laid out what was in front of what was now his team.
"Your character is about to be challenged. Everyone in this room is going to grow tonight," Tohill told the players. "Deal with your emotions right now. You’ve got a job to do."
He reiterated that this is what Pittman would want from the team he’d spent the last year building.
There was no dramatic speech from the players, no rallying the troops.
There wasn’t room for anything but a shocked silence as the minutes ticked off the halftime clock.
The team’s leaders–Peoples, Blackwood, Judy, Guy Morriss and Tookie Berry–got together and reiterated a focus on doing a job. A bad night wasn’t going to get worse by losing to an inferior team. There’s nothing to do after you’re told your leader is gone. Why not fight for him?
"Baylor people went from being rabid Frog-haters to being compassionate," Sadler said.
There was applause when the Frogs emerged from the locker room.
Blackwood had known Pittman and his boys since he was a grade schooler in Austin and Pittman was on Darrell Royal’s legendary staff. He knew his coach better than anybody else on the roster and found himself wiping away tears in nearly every huddle.
"Everything after he fell is a blank to me," Blackwood said. "I just remember going back on the field and crying. I told myself, ‘Get a hold of yourself.’ I can’t let this stop me from doing my job."
The Frogs rallied, despite a poor defensive performance. They erased deficits of 20-13 and 27-20 in the second half for a 34-27 win.
"It was a silent celebration. We all were happy we had won and did what we were supposed to do but we lost our leader," Draper said. "We were all in a daze. We didn’t know what to think. What do you do now?"
Baylor coach Bill Beall gathered both teams at midfield for a prayer after the game. A few players met up with their parents to make the short drive home. The rest filed into the buses back home.
Brad Pittman, then 17, went to every one of his dad’s home game and the away games within driving distance after he played his games on Friday nights. The Baylor was the only game he skipped.
He was with friends at Griff’s Hamburgers, a hangout for Arlington Heights High students. He went outside and across the parking lot, a classmate yelled in his direction.
"Hey, is your dad OK?"
Brad was confused but figured he’d better get home. He jumped in his car and before he made it, got pulled over for speeding. He explained the situation and who he was.
"Go on then," the policeman said.
He knew it was serious when he saw police cars and more unfamiliar vehicles outside his home. His mother was already inside, along with Alec.
"When you’re 17, you don’t have a realization that something like that can happen," he said. "It was just a shock to my whole system."
The rest of the night was a macabre version of a weekly tradition. After every game, the coaching staff and their wives would congregate at someone’s home, even after late games.
There was no debating the postgame destination on this night.
Local papers estimated 2,500 people showed up to Pittman’s memorial at University Christian Church in Fort Worth on Monday. That included every head coach in the Southwest Conference, except Rice’s Bill Peterson, who was ill. The Owls still sent a representative: Assistant AD Red Bain.
Monday night, the team practiced under the lights for the first and only time since Pittman had taken over.
Tuesday, the family buried his body at Lakewood Memorial Gardens in Jackson. Pittman’s coaching staff served as pallbearers and flew back to Fort Worth after the burial.
Life did what it always does: It went on.
More information about just how bad Pittman’s health had been began to surface. In 1964, he stayed home for Texas’ trip to the Orange Bowl after his first major heart episode. A few years later, as Tulane’s head coach, he survived his first official heart attack. Oblivious to the negative effects on his health, Pittman smoked often. He also didn’t bother regulating his diet or getting consistent exercise. Doctors didn’t forbid him from coaching, but they encouraged him to stop.
Earning a paycheck based on decisions made by teenagers is only slightly more healthy for a human heart than consuming a pound of bacon every morning.
Jane didn’t even bother asking him to quit. She knew the answer to that request and didn’t want to pressure her husband to surrender his dream.
Pittman would shrug off questions about his health from reporters. They intensified after he contracted a virus months after accepting the TCU job and moving to Fort Worth. He struggled to stay on his feet on the recruiting trail, but neither Pittman nor his staff ever thought his biggest job would be over so soon.
"There was very little knowledge of his prior heart attacks," Frank Windegger said.
Windegger was the TCU baseball coach, assistant athletic director and ticket manager in 1971 and spent 45 years in the TCU athletic department, taking over as athletic director from 1975-1998. He was one of the first TCU staffers to reach Providence Hospital the night of Pittman’s death and spent two hours dealing with media and visitors after Pittman had been pronounced dead.
"I don’t know who was aware of it, especially people in the know who should have been," Windegger said. "A physical should be performed on anybody being hired in that position. There was no hiding it. That was just Jim. He didn’t want to state it and there wasn’t any place that would be coming out of other than him, the family or a doctor."
The Pittmans and TCU shared the same question: What happens to us now?
TCU AD Abe Martin announced on Sunday that Tohill would assume interim coach duties. The Frogs began preparations for Texas Tech the following week. The Baylor win moved them into a four-way tie atop the Southwest Conference.
Meanwhile, Brad and Alec had set out to answer the question that hounded them from the second they’d both been blindsided with a new reality: Would Mom be OK?
"Coaching salaries were good back then, but not what they are now," Brad Pittman said. "There wasn’t a lot TCU could do. Things were less intricate than they are these days."
Family vacations every summer meant returning to Mississippi to see Jane and Jim’s family. These days, Gary Patterson has made a habit of taking trips to Africa for animal safari tours.
"I’m sure Gary’s contract is about 30 pages," Brad Pittman said. "My dad’s was a page and a half."
The university helped the family receive its small insurance settlement. Brad later earned a football scholarship to Ole Miss, relieving the family of the burden of paying for school.
A few month later in early 1972, Jane moved back home to Mississippi to be closer to her three sisters. She quickly found a job with a bank and never remarried. She died in 1991.
Dusty Griffith, a family friend with a son in school with Brad, took Brad in and let him live with the family and finish his senior year at Arlington Heights.
A week after Pittman’s death, Judy hit receiver Freddie Pouncy for a 49-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive and the Frogs beat Texas Tech, 17-6. Blackwood provided the Frogs’ final score, intercepting a pass and returning it 32 yards to put TCU up 17-0 midway through the fourth quarter.
The Frogs only lost once the rest of the season–a 31-0 drubbing at No. 13 Texas. It cost them the SWC title, but they closed the season with an 18-16 win at rival SMU to earn a third-place finish and a 3-1 record for Tohill as head coach.
At the end of the season, Martin removed the interim label and gave the 32-year-old Tohill his first head coaching job.
"I love Coach Tohill I would have died for him in a war," Blackwood said, "but he wasn’t ready at that time to take a head coaching position. There was a tremendous void."
TCU finished 6-4-1 in 1971, but suffered through 5-6 and 3-8 seasons the next two years. Just 17 months after taking over for Pittman, Tohill was involved in a nearly fatal, one-car accident. He spent two months in the hospital and lost his right foot.
"When you put a nail on a magnet, if you take it off, you can still pick up metal shavings," Blackwood said. "But after awhile, that nail starts losing its magnetic quality. As a team, we still had that magnetic quality and after he left, it started fading."
Tohill was fired after the 3-8 season in 1973.
TCU would finish last or next-to-last in the Southwest Conference in every season until 1984.
It presents a difficult question: Did one night at Baylor forever change the trajectory of the program?
TCU’s program had just two winning seasons in the decade before Pittman’s arrival. It had just one in the two decades after his death. The Southwest Conference splintered in 1996 and TCU’s struggles meant banishment to the WAC, a giant chasm separating them it from major conference football.
TCU may have won at Baylor that night in 1971. But it lost much more: A coach and the promising program he was building.
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