Former Baylor football player and distinguished alumnus was on the field for the Bears’ first Sugar Bowl game 63 years ago – and he remembers it like it was yesterday
Baylor’s upcoming Sugar Bowl encounter with Georgia brings back many memories for Jerry Marcontell, who played an integral role in the Bears’ 13-7 upset of the second-ranked Tennessee Volunteers in the 1957 Sugar Bowl — the last time Baylor played in the storied New Orleans classic.
While the No. 11 Bears’ improbable victory still resonates with many longtime Baylor fans as the high-water mark of the football program’s first 75 years, there is no doubt where it ranks with Marcontell and the players who wore the green and gold in Tulane Stadium on that overcast, damp New Year’s Day 63 years ago.
Marcontell, now 84, was a junior from Baytown who played right end on offense and defense in the game against one of the top college football programs in the nation. Marcontell, who graduated in 1958 with a B.A. in chemistry, recently sat down with The Baylor Line to share his thoughts and recollections about the 1956 season, his teammates and coaches, and the game that put Baylor University on the national college football map.
Jerry, with Baylor having lost two Southwest Conference games and Texas A&M ineligible to play in a bowl because of NCAA sanctions, what expectations did you and your teammates have for the postseason?
We weren’t really thinking about the postseason. We were just thinking about the next game to play. After we beat Rice — we thumped them pretty good in the last game (a 46-13 victory) — and when we came into the dressing room, George Sauer, our athletic director, had a big blackboard that said “SUGAR BOWL” on it. But we lost those Southwest Conference games one after the other by the narrowest of margins. We lost to A&M by six points (19-13) and TCU by one point (7-6). We shouldn’t have lost either one of them, but we kept getting better as the season went on. After that, we went to Nebraska and trounced them (26-7) and then played SMU (a 26-0 victory) and then ended up with Rice. Like I said, we kept getting better and better and, by the end of the season, I think we could have beaten anybody.
What do you remember most about the lead-up to the Sugar Bowl?
As far as it affected us as players, not going home for the Christmas holiday, staying there (in Waco) and practicing and having what we used to call skull practice, which was going over scouting reports and that type of thing. It was nothing compared to what it is now. We went to New Orleans two or three days ahead, and we stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel, which was the nicest hotel there. We always went first class — we stayed in the nicest hotel in any city we went to and always had great accommodations. And most of the time, we had a chartered plane with just us on it. Like I said, we stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel, and they kept a pretty close rein on us. Of course, going to Bourbon Street was definitely a no-no. I understood afterwards that the coaches went, but the players definitely were not allowed to go. We were able to go out one night, and we went to see a movie — all the players did or most of the players who wanted to go. It was called “Written On The Wind,” I still remember that. But that’s all we were able to do while we were there. It was all business.
Tennessee, coached by Bowden Wyatt and led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Johnny Majors, was ranked No. 2 in the country and heavily favored to defeat Baylor. How did that affect the Bears’ approach to the game? Do you think you and your teammates embraced an underdog mentality?
Yes, I think we did. It didn’t come from being underdogs on the betting line. Instead, there was a sports commentator, who was big back then — an ex-coach named Herman Hickman. He really trashed us and sort of said we shouldn’t even be on the same field with Tennessee. So that really gave us good impetus to do well.
Was there any nervousness or anxiety among the players about being on a bigger stage and playing in front of a national television audience?
Well, first of all, TV wasn’t big back then like it is now. They only broadcast one game at a time. So, no. Because TV wasn’t such a big presence, there was no extra stress. And as far as playing in front of a big crowd (78,000), I never noticed it. You know, when you go out there, you are just concerned about doing your job and not concerned about what’s going on up in the stands.
In the game, what do you remember about Baylor scoring first and jumping out to a lead in the second quarter on a 12-yard touchdown pass on fourth down from Bobby Jones to a tight end named … Jerry Marcontell?
We had run exactly the same pass play the play before, and I had told our quarterback that I was open and so he called it again. Thankfully, I didn’t even think at the time that, what if it doesn’t work or what if I’m not open. You’re a kid — you say, “Hey, I was open.” That’s what the coaches tell you to tell the quarterback because all the play-calling was done on the field. The quarterback had a general game plan, but he did all the calling. And because of limited substitution, there was no way the coaches could send a play in. You just had to be well-versed ahead of time.
Isn’t there a personal anecdote associated with your touchdown catch that involves your family?
My dad and mom came to the game with my two sisters, and it started sprinkling in the first quarter into the second quarter. So my dad left to go out to the car and get rain gear for them. And while he was out there, he heard this giant roar, and when he came back, he said, “What was that roar about?” And they said, “Jerry scored a touchdown pass!”
Baylor’s 6-0 lead held up through the first half, but Tennessee rebounded to go ahead 7-6 in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Johnny Majors. How did you and your teammates handle falling behind in the second half, and was there any concern that the Volunteers’ vaunted single-wing attack was about to hit its stride?
No, I don’t think so. As best I remember, we were still extremely confident that we were going to win, to find a way to win. And we did. I can’t remember if I was in there when Johnny Majors made his touchdown run, but I think I just barely missed him as best I remember. One thing I should interject is that, for once in Baylor’s history, we were really three-deep. In fact, there was hardly any difference between the first and second team. Not much between them and the third team. So that was one of the things on the Tennessee scouting report, which I still have, is that they have a great second group and you won’t notice a difference when they come in. But basically, that was the way with us. We had a lot of guys play in the game.
As it turned out, the Baylor defense, on which you played right end, really stepped up and held Tennessee to only 146 yards rushing — well below its average — and forced five turnovers, including four interceptions. Was there a special defensive game plan that helped deliver this dominating performance?
Yes, there was a special game plan because of Tennessee running the single wing, which changed everything. Tennessee was the last major school to run the single wing, and everybody else ran sort of a variant of the split-T, Consequently, there was very little passing for most people. We had to really prepare much differently for the single wing than we did for anybody else because it was so new to us.
Well, you and your teammates held on to win the biggest game in school history and what many longtime fans still call the biggest victory in Baylor history. What was the celebration like in the locker room after the game, later that night in New Orleans and then when the team arrived back in Waco?
Of course, everybody was just really happy. I remember on the bus, going from the locker room to the hotel, Sam Boyd, our head coach, got on the back seat of the bus, kind of like a dead bug with his arms and legs out. Everybody was laughing like crazy because it was totally out of character. After the game, there was a dance for both teams that the Sugar Bowl committee put on, and I remember the governor of Tennessee was there, and he had this gorgeous wife who was an ex-Miss Tennessee or something. One of my regrets was that I didn’t ask her to dance. Several people danced with her. They were very gracious people. You know, both teams were in the same room, but there wasn’t much interaction. When we got back to Waco, there was a big celebration. They had a parade for us, all in convertibles, through downtown Waco. At that time, downtown Waco was where it was at. It was a great time. Afterward, we were in great demand to go to high schools and churches, to speak at high school banquets and show the film. Then it was back to school for the next quarter. I made the worst grades I ever made that quarter.
What was it like to go 3-6-1 your senior season after such a positive experience the year before?
It’s still a mystery to me as to why we didn’t do well. We lost some good people (Del Shofner and Bill Glass, among others) to graduation, but we had a lot of real good people left. I think our overall team speed was down, particularly in the back. Shofner really made a difference, being so fast.
What kind of conditioning and/or weight program did the team have back then?
There was no weight program, and there was no conditioning program. I know, in the summer, the captains would send letters to their teammates, saying to be sure and do your running and exercises and keep in shape. It was all solely individual. And our dressing room was the pits, not at the stadium but where we practiced. You had a nail, and that was about it.
After graduation, you went on to medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, did an internship, completed your residency and eventually became a prominent obstetrician-gynecologist in Houston. Since retiring as a physician in 1998, you and your wife Mary have been involved in the forestry business in Rye, Texas, which enabled you to serve as a past president of the Texas Forestry Association. From football to medicine to forestry — you seem to have done it all?
I have been very fortunate. When I stop to think about it, I think about how fortunate I was, or anybody was, to be on a Southwest Conference team. You know, all these kids playing high school football, to get the opportunity to play. Plus, the fact was I couldn’t have gone to college anyway. I mean, I was going to go, but I was going to have to work my way through school. But my parents sure couldn’t have sent me on my dad’s work at the Humble (now Exxon) oil refinery. And I had two younger sisters, so I have felt blessed my whole life to get an opportunity like I had.
Finally, what has your Baylor experience, from your first days as a wide-eyed freshman on campus to now as a distinguished alumnus and a member of the Baylor Athletic Hall of Fame meant to you?
Baylor gave me lots of opportunities. I think that’s all anybody can ask for — a chance, an opportunity to excel and to perform. And I met so many wonderful people there. You form lifelong friendships, and I treasure those and all the memories that go with them.
Lester Zedd graduated from Baylor in 1973 with a B.B.A in business-journalism. He has worked as a sports writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald, where he covered the Bears’ 1974 Southwest Conference championship football season, and later as an editor at the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle, where he recently retired after a newspaper career that spanned almost 51 years.