That Championship Season
From Midnight Yell Practice to the Twelfth Man, Texas A&M has one of the most storied football programs in the country. But only the 1939 Aggies can lay claim to the sport’s ultimate prize.
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Whether you love the Aggies or hate them, there’s no argument about how passionate they are about football. Their fans yell when others cheer. They stand when others sit. They smooch when others high-five. They revere the Twelfth Man, Midnight Yell Practice, the Corps of Cadets, Reveille, and, despite tragedy, Bonfire. But for all the pageantry and history—one that’s long on legends like Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Heisman trophy winner John David Crow—Texas A&M has won only one national championship. And it was all the way back in 1939.
Today’s Aggies, however, can relate to the pressures the program faced in the late thirties. At the helm was a coach, Homer Norton, whose job was on the line after five up-and-down seasons. His goals were clear: Take down tough conference opponents like SMU and TCU and, of course, beat UT. But if winning was important, so was the bottom line. The university needed Norton’s teams to succeed to help save Kyle Field and pay off some $200,000 in defaulted loans (as far as we know, Norton never resorted to selling insider newsletters to boosters to raise money). And yes, the athletes faced off-the-field problems as well, but these Aggies were caught in a sliver of time between being children of the Great Depression and men of the Greatest Generation. “I can remember sitting at the table with my folks,” said Jim Sterling, an end from the tiny town of Panhandle, “and the conversation that day was ‘Where are we gonna get the fifty dollars to pay on Pop’s thousand-dollar life insurance policy?’ I mean, fifty bucks. That’s where you were coming from.”
Like many an A&M team, the 1939 squad had a great defense—though fans had not yet uttered the words “Wrecking Crew.” On their way to winning all ten regular-season games, the Aggies recorded six shutouts and allowed only 18 points in the other four. They gave up 76.3 yards per game and a mere 1.7 yards per play, an NCAA record that stands to this day. But they also had plenty of firepower on the other side of the ball. Led by “Jarrin’” John Kimbrough, a six-foot-two, 210-pound fullback from Haskell whose knees were said to bump his chin as he’d smash through helpless tacklers, the Aggies pounced on their opponents. They ended Villanova’s 22-game unbeaten streak by pounding the Wildcats 33—7, and they outgunned TCU, the defending national champs, 20—6.
The Aggies proved their dominance on New Year’s Day, 1940, when 73,000 football fans—3,000 more than capacity—packed themselves into Tulane Stadium, in New Orleans, for the Sugar Bowl Classic. (The energy that day was so overwhelming that “goose pimples tall as giant asparagus sprouted,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.) A&M took an early lead on a Kimbrough touchdown, but Tulane fought back and tied the score in the third quarter. Then, with eleven minutes to go, the Green Wave jumped ahead—but only by six points. Herbert Smith, an end from San Angelo who was listed in the official program at 173 pounds but, after a bout with food poisoning, no doubt weighed in quite a bit lighter, blocked Tulane’s extra-point attempt. That sparked one of the most important plays in A&M’s history. From the Tulane 26-yard line, quarterback Charles “Cotton” Price completed a pass to Smith, who ran the ball to the 10 before lateraling it to Kimbrough. Jarrin’ John plowed through two defenders and marched into the end zone. Price then kicked the extra point, putting A&M ahead for good 14—13 and winning the school’s first and only national title.
By all accounts, the Aggies should have repeated the following season. With much of the team intact, they rolled through their first nine games undefeated, seemingly on course for a Rose Bowl appearance. But then came the Longhorns and a wingback named Noble Doss. On the third play of the game, Doss’s over-the-shoulder grab (a feat so impressive it’s been immortalized as “the Impossible Catch”) set up the only score of the contest and derailed the Aggies’ dream of another national title. A&M would go on to lose to the Longhorns for the next seven years, eventually costing Norton his job in 1947.
As for the rest of the members of the national championship team, only a handful are still alive. Three were able to join Texas Monthly in College Station in October for a reunion—and a bit of reminiscing. “My whole football experience is something I look back on and can’t believe,” said Sterling. “It’s amazing that for three years I beat my brains out down there on Kyle Field. They were some of the hardest years of my life, but they were also some of the best.”
Defensive and offensive end, Sophomore, Panhandle
“We had this crashing program. Man, I worked over many a quarterback. You’d hit ’em in the ribs about four or five times, and you knew you had them going your way. But I don’t think there was that much talent on our ball team. We were all average. The thing was, you had to play football to stay in college. We didn’t come from rich families. And coming to Texas A&M after that background, you knew you didn’t want to go back to where you were from. I think that was the biggest incentive we had for playing good football.”
Left guard, Sophomore, Schulenburg
“The first year we played on varsity, we came up two weeks before school started and had two-a-day practices. One day, we were sitting there at the stadium after coach had us working for about an hour and a half, and E. J. Kyle walked up to the group, and he said, ‘Fellas, y’all have a big monkey on your back.’ He pointed to the stadium, and he said, ‘You know, that’s named after my family.’ The truth of it is, he was being modest: It was named after him. Then he said, ‘We haven’t made a principal payment on this stadium in five years, and if we don’t make one this year, the bank is going to repossess it.’ I don’t think we knew what the hell ‘repossession’ was. But we had our inspiration for the season.”
Back, Sophomore, Corpus Christi
“We had so many good backs on that team—John Kimbrough, Jim Thomason—that I didn’t get a whole lot of playing time that season. So one of the greatest moments of the Sugar Bowl for me was when Coach Norton told me to get ready because Jim was hurt. I got all excited. But Jim recovered during halftime and was able to play the rest of the game. But it was just as well. I was happy watching our team win the national championship, even though I didn’t get to play in the game.”