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W.J. Wisdom and "The Streak"

By Chris Guthrie

Perhaps the most astounding feat in the annals of Tarleton athletics was the eighty-six game winning streak achieved by Coach William J. Wisdom’s men’s basketball teams between 1934 and 1938. This achievement set a national record which held until John Wooten’s UCLA Bruins won eighty-nine basketball games in a row in the 1970s. During the period of the winning streak, the Plowboys outscored their opponents 3,547 to 1,650 points (about three points to one). Moreover, after losing their eighty-seventh game to San Angelo Junior College, Wisdom’s teams went on to win twenty-five more consecutive games before losing again, earning an overall record of 111-2 for the years 1934-39. For an entire ten-year period from 1930 to 1940, wisdom’s teams lost only ten games.

The man who coached Tarleton’s teams to this amazing record actually never played basketball himself. W.J. Wisdom had been born in Pottsville, Texas on July 25, 1887. He attended elementary and high school in nearby Hamilton. He attended North Texas Normal College for two years and earned his teaching certificate. He also attended classes at the National School of Recreation in Chicago, Illinois. After he had come to Tarleton and had coached at the college for a number of years, he returned to Denton and earned a B.S. degree at North Texas in 1938. Wisdom played baseball while at Hamilton and during his first stay at Denton. He was so good that he even played one year of semipro ball for the Colorado State League and could have had a major league career if, according to him, “my hands had been larger.” However, his hands were well suited for the violin: he was a member of the orchestra while at North Texas (first chair) and also a gifted singer who performed with several musical organizations on campus. After he came to Tarleton, he would still sing on special occasions, “but he cannot be persuaded to perform in public with the violin.”

After Wisdom returned to Texas from Colorado, he accepted a position as a business teacher at Tyler Commercial College for a short while and them moved to Paducah High School where he chaired the English Department. He also had his first experience with coaching basketball while at this school. Assigned the task of coaching the school’s women’s basketball team, he quit after the team’s center knocked him down three times during a practice session. “She was bigger and stronger than I was,” he would later recall. After a year at Paducah, Wisdom moved to Thorpe Springs Christian College (an ancestor of Texas Christian University) where he coached the football team and taught business classes. He moved again in 1920, this time to Tarleton. He originally came to the college to work as a business manager and head cashier at the College Store. But, shortly after his arrival, the combination of the departure of Coach A.B. Hayes and budget constraints forced Dean Davis to draft him to coach the school’s football team.

Wisdom’s outstanding tenure as Tarleton’s football coach, shich included an undefeated season in 1925 and an overall 71-35-15 lifetime record, will be chronicled later in this chapter. However, his success in this sport, combined with another budget crisis brought about by the arrival of the Great Depression, led Dean Davis to once again draft him to serve as coach of another sport—basketball—in 1930. Although Tarleton had a strong basketball tradition, having won state championships in 1917, 1926, 1927, 1928, and 1929, the sport definitely took a back seat to football at the college in terms of fan support. Wisdom would change that forever.

Wisdom’s only experience with basketball was his short tenure as women’s basketball coach t Paducah High School. As Jerry Flemmons once said, all Wisdom knew about basketball at this time was “that it was played indoors and was not considered by Texans to be a character-building sport.” But a job was a job and he quickly set about to perform his new assignment as best he could. He approached the game as if it were an academic problem and studied everything he could find on the subject. And as he studid he gradually developed an appreciation for the details of the sport. As he once stated in an interview, “It fascinated me because I could see the opportunity to improve the game by perfecting fundamentals and culling out errors.”

It took Wisdom about two years to get everything to fall into place. He continued to study and had his players practice endlessly in the wooden field house that stood on the southwest corner of Vanderbilt and what is now Doc Blanchard Boulevard (it is a parking lot today). Beginning in 1933, the results of this intensive preparation began to appear on the court. In that year, the Plowboys won thirteen straight games before losing the final game of the season and the conference championship to San Angelo Junior College (now Angelo State University), 42-41. Wisdom began the 1934 season with a victory over that same San Angelo team that had beaten Tarleton for the conference championship the year before. With this victory the famous “streak” began.

Wisdom would beat all comers for the next four years. Some of the games were close. In February of 1937, for example, North Texas Agricultural College forced the Plowboys into overtime before losing by two points. In January of 1936, the Decatur Baptist Indians played a tough game before losing to the Plowboys 39-38. Other games were complete blowouts with scores such as 92-17, 72-6, and 53-4. Southwestern Conference powerhouses such as Texas A&M, the University of Texas, and Texas Christian University refused several invitations to play the Plowboys for fear (justified, it seems) of humiliation. Those four-year colleges who did decide to teach the Plowboys a lesson regretted their decision. For example, the coach of the Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth challenged wisdom to a game in 1936. Wisdom would have preferred not to play TWC at that time because he knew he had a hard conference game scheduled the next night. But he also “didn’t want them to think we were scared” and accepted the challenge. The game took place at Tarleton but a huge TWC contingent showed up, along with “nearly all the newspaper sportswriters and photographers in Fort Worth,” ready to watch their team knock the upstart junior college team back into place. Wisdom would later claim that the Fort Worth media “already had their headlines written: ‘TWC Ends Plowboy Winning Streak.’” If this story is true, the reporters had to make last second changes to their copy since Tarleton won the game 24-23. TWC would demand a rematch for the next year, only to lose again. Other four-year schools, such as Howard Payne and Daniel Baker College, and prominent local independent teams, such as the Fort Worth Junior Chamber of Commerce and the T&P Oilers, also fell before Wisdom’s invincible Plowboys during this period.

Numerous coaches fro, across the United States contacted wisdom during the “streak” era in an attempt to learn the secret to his phenomenal success. Wisdom, of course, was flattered by the attention but tried to explain that he really did not have a “secret”:

“Most of them thought I had found a secret or developed a new style of Play, but I hadn’t. We just played Basketball, and the boys wanted to play. That’s all there was to it.”

But more was involved in his success than Wisdom was willing to admit. Because he had no basketball background whatsoever, he was much less tied to traditional styles of play and more open to innovation and new ideas than many of his contemporaries. He also had a methodical approach, learned from years of coaching football that emphasized meticulous preparation and attention to every minute aspect of play. For example, he was the first college coach to apply the idea of keeping individual records for his players as a way to determine his starting lineups: “…I realized that defeat often came when a boy lost the ball at a critical time. Also I saw that many times a boy stayed in the starting lineup because he was a good shot or because he was a better defensive player than someone on the bench. So I considered choosing for my starters the boys that made the most of possession of the ball. In order to decide on the lineup, I set up a bookkeeping record of the number of times the ball was fumbled or thrown away, how many shots were taken, and how many were made. Checking on these records, I luckily found a combination of players that proved superior to any combination I had yet used.

This idea, which had been used in football and baseball for many years, had never been applied to basketball before. In fact, when Wisdom explained his record-keeping strategy to the basketball coach of the University of Notre Dame at a workshop at Texas Tech in 1934, the latter individual admitted that the “idea had never occurred to him, but it certainly ought to work.”

Another Wisdom innovation was the introduction of the ‘one-handed” shot. At the time that he took over Tarleton’s basketball program, most coaches in the region advocated the “two-handed” technique (where the player place one hand on either side of the ball and pushed it towards the basket) as the most accurate way to make a shot. However, a semipro player named Chuck Taylor (who also worked as a sales representative for an athletic shoe company) showed Wisdom the “one-handed” shot and the coach immediately recognized its potential value. For, while a two-handed shot required that a player stop and face the goal before releasing the ball, the one-handed shot allowed a player to shoot from various indirect angles an even while he was still moving (as with a lay-up). Wisdom had Taylor demonstrate this new technique to his team and, by 1937, the one-handed shot had become one the Plowboys’ major weapons, accounting for eighty percent of the points they scored.

Recruitment also played a major role in Wisdom’s success. According to Flemmons, he wanted “hungry boys who were good athletes,” and there were plenty of them around in Texas during the Great Depression. Even though he had no scholarships to offer potential players, he did obtain part-time jobs for them with the school as janitors and groundskeepers. He also often provided lodging for his players in a room behind the old wooden gym. In extreme cases, Wisdom even loaned his players the money to come to Tarleton. Jude Smith, future member of the Tarleton Athletic Hall of Fame and guard on the undefeated teams of 1934-36, lived in Lamesa when Wisdom invited him to play basketball at Tarleton. Wisdom offered him a part-time campus job as an incentive but Smith was so poor that he could not even afford to make the trip to Stephenville. Wisdom then lent him $90.00 out of his own pocket to cover travel expenses and pay his first year’s tuition and fees. As a result, Smith did come to Tarleton and became one of the key players on Wisdom’s undefeated teams for three years. He later repaid the loan by working as a part-time groundskeeper on campus.

Legend has it that a piece of luck played a role in Wisdom’s undefeated streak. According to the famous story, an unknown WPA worker gave Wisdom a twenty-five cent red knit necktie in 1934, just prior to his first game of the season against San Angelo. Wisdom wore the tie that night and won the game, launching his winning streak. He wore the tie at every game thereafter until it finally became so “faded, raveled, and stringy” that the Erath County Coaches’ Association bought him a new one (and a matching pair of red socks) in late January 1938. Wisdom first wore his new tie to a double-header contest against Ranger Junior College. Tarleton won both games. Wisdom’s next opponent was Tarleton’s traditional basketball rival, the San Angelo Conchos. The Plowboys won the first game of the series on January 31. The second game, which took place the following day, marked the end of the “streak.” Tarleton went into halftime behind the Conchos (16-14) and never could make up the deficient, eventually losing the game 27-26. Wisdom never blamed his abandonment of his old tie as the reason for the defeat, but many Tarleton fans came to the conclusion that his new tie had somehow “jinxed” the Plowboys and terminated the winning streak.

Much later, Wisdom would claim that poor officiating had cost Tarleton the game against San Angelo. While this may have been the case, other factors may have played a role. At the beginning of the 1938 season, about a month before the San Angelo defeat, Wisdom expressed concern that almost all his starting lettermen from the 1937 season had graduated, leaving him a relatively untested squad. Moreover, a rule change threatened to hinder one of the team’s major strengths. Prior to the 1938 season, a jump-off between opposing centers took place after every goal. The Plowboys were famous for their aggressiveness in these situations and often controlled the ball after scoring. However, the new 1938 rule stipulated that jump-offs only were to take place at the opening of the game and at the beginning of the second half. After a team scored, the opposing side now had to pass the ball into play from out-of-bounds. This new regulation deprived the Plowboys of one of their favorite methods for running up the score and thereby demoralizing their opponents.

It appears that the strain of maintaining their undefeated record had finally started to negatively affect the team’s performance. During the course of the streak, wisdom had tried various methods to reduce the pressure on his players. He encouraged them to “cut up on the court” (when they had a comfortable lead). His center during the mid-30s, Joe Headstream, worked on a blind over-the-head shot which, even though it failed far more often than it succeeded, would cause pandemonium among Plowboy fans whenever it connected. Jude Smith and Oran Spears developed and equally crowd-pleasing shot by launching the ball over the rafters of the old Tarleton gym and occasionally even scoring two points. Wisdom also tried to minimize the importance of individual games by giving low-key pre-game pep talks in which he merely said, “I believe you can do it.” If his team fell behind at half-time (which was not often), he merely repeated, “I still believe you can win.” These efforts did help to prevent his young charges from caving in under the tremendous pressure that the streak generated as it continued. In fact, these techniques worked so well that Will Tate, who played for Wisdom during the first forty games of the streak, could not “remember there ever being any pressure.” But pressure, nonetheless, increased the longer the streak continued and, by 1938, Wisdom could no longer hold it back. During the games that immediately preceded the San Angelo defeat, the team showed flashes of its traditional brilliance but, according to newspaper reports, “they would inevitably remember that record which must not be broken” and become “tense…and ragged.” Taking advantage of hindsight, one can see that the defeat on February 1, 1938, had been building for at least a month.

Relieved of the pressure of maintaining “that record which must not be broken,” Wisdom’s Plowboys went on to win twenty-five more games in a row before losing again. Wisdom continued to produce winning teams until the outbreak of World War II forced Tarleton to suspend interscholastic athletic competition in the fall semester of 1942. Wisdom retired the next year (1943) and left Stephenville for four years to serve in the USO. He returned to Stephenville in 1947 and worked as Secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce for six years. In 1974 he and his wife Creola moved to Houston to be closer to their four children. During his retirement, Wisdom received numerous honors for his accomplishments. In 1969 the Tarleton Alumni Association named him its Distinguished Faculty Member. Two years later, in 1971, he was inducted into the Texas Sports Writers Hall of Fame. He was the first and, thus far, the only Tarleton coach or athlete to receive this honor. He was also the first coach to be inducted into the Tarleton Athletic Hall of Fame in 1981. Perhaps the most lasting tribute to the legendary coach occurred in 1972 when Tarleton named its new gymnasium in his honor. William J. Wisdom Gymnasium remains a monument to one of the greatest college basketball coaches who ever lived.

Wisdom died on June 6, 1981 at the age of 93. But his legacy lives on. Many of his players during the 1930s—men such as Willard Baxter, James Britt, Elmer Findley, Joe Headstream, Thurman “Slue” Hull, Carl McConachie, Jude Smith, Oran Spears, Will Tate, and Tommy Tinker—have entered the Tarleton Athletic Hall of Fame and will always be remembered as some of the greatest to have ever played the game at this college. Many of his “boys” would transfer to senior colleges at the end of their Tarleton career and continue their basketball success. In one Southwestern Conference game in 1940, six former Plowboys made the starting lineups of the two opposing teams—three for the University of Texas (Elmer Findley, “Slue” Hull, and Oran Spears) and three for Texas A&M (Harold Duncan, Jude Smith, and Tommy Tinker). A number of Wisdom’s players later became excellent coaches in their own right: “Slue” Hull became head coach of the University of Texas in the mid-1950s; Tommy Tinker became head coach at the University of Texas at Arlington; Jack Martin coached varsity basketball at Lamar, and another former Wisdom player, Marshall Hughes, took his mentor’s former position at Tarleton in the late 1940s before moving on to UT. These men and the players they coached would continue Wisdom’s influence long after his active career came to an end.

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and hi Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999. pp. 294-300.