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Lone Star Sports: Baylor QBs - 1950 or 2011?

Baylor's 1950 QB group (Left to Right): Larry Isbell, Hayden Fry and Cotton Davidson

 Quarterback is often the most valued position on a football field. Understandably so, it’s the only position guaranteed to touch the ball every play while on the field (other than the center, of course). In the NFL, this leads to discussions of who is a, “Franchise Quarterback?” – a debate that often includes Texans Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill along with household names, such as, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

However, at the collegiate level, some teams have the luxury of multiple starter-quality quarterbacks. Ohio State, in particular, has been in the spotlight for changing (out of necessity) quarterbacks three times last season while winning a National Championship. All three of those quarterbacks (Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett – a Texan) will be back on campus this fall vying for the starting job. Closer to home, the 2011 Baylor football team had Robert Griffin, Nick Florence and Bryce Petty on the same team. That trio would have a combined win-loss record of 40-12 from 2011 to 2014 with one Heisman winner and two future NFL players. But would that group be considered the greatest trio of Baylor quarterbacks to appear on one roster? They certainly have a great argument, but let’s revisit Baylor history to look at another group of candidates.

The year is 1950 and Baylor will open its football season with an away game at Wyoming on September 23. The game doesn’t go as the Bears planned and they fall 7-0. The group quickly recovers, notching wins over Houston 34-7 and Mississippi State 14-7 in back-to-back weeks before losing to a tough Razorback team in Arkansas 27-6 (the only heavy loss of the season). The 1950 team will go on to knock off #13 Texas A&M 27-20 in Waco and #15 SMU 3-0 in Dallas. They almost pull off the upset of the season when #5 Texas comes to Waco, and the Bears battle to a 27-20 defeat.

The squad finishes 7-3. Although not good enough for a bowl game, it’s not a bad result in the brutal Southwest Conference, especially for a first year starter – Larry Isbell. Behind Isbell were quarterbacks Hayden Fry and Cotton Davidson. This group would go 26-12-3 from 1950 to 1953, a pedestrian result compared to win-loss record of the 2011 group. However, the 1950 trio would produce two NFL first round draft picks, a College Football Hall of Famer and an appearance in the Orange Bowl at a time when there were fewer than 10 bowl games. We will look at each individual’s achievements closer to understand their accomplishments.

Larry Isbell

Isbell was the starting quarterback for the 1950 and 1951 Baylor football teams. While the 1950 season was memorable, as well-documented in the previous paragraph, it was merely a launching point for the 1951 season. With Isbell and other starters returning, the 1951 Bears started the season with a #13 ranking. Hopes were high in Waco and fans were hoping to see the first Baylor SWC football title since 1924. The season started well with a four game win streak over Houston, Tulane (then an SEC team), Arkansas and Texas Tech.

Week five of the 1951 season would bring Baylor’s first real test. Now ranked #7, the Bears would be traveling to a hostile College Station environment to face the #16 Aggies. Both schools proved worthy of their rankings as they battled to a 21-21 tie. The physical toll of the game did more damage to Baylor, as the next week they fell to a then unranked TCU squad 20-7. Now with a loss and a tie, the hopes for a SWC title were all but gone; however, rather than allow the season to spiral, the Bears responded with a new vigor. In week seven, Baylor travelled to Austin and handily beat #10 Texas 18-6. The Bears then closed out the season with victories over SMU and Rice. Finishing an impressive 8-1-1, the Bears had lost the SWC crown and a trip to the Cotton Bowl to TCU, whose 5-1 conference record trumped Baylor’s conference record of 4-1-1. However, the Bears received an at-large bid to play the SEC co-champions, Georgia Tech, on New Year’s Day in the Orange Bowl.

Undefeated Georgia Tech came to Miami with a 10-0-1 record; their only blemish a 14-14 tie against Duke. The Yellow Jackets were under the direction of legendary coach Bobby Dodd and, in the next season, they would claim the National Championship. However, on January 1, 1952, Baylor knew they belonged on that field and were ready to prove it. The first half went off perfectly and the teams headed for the locker rooms with Baylor up 14-7. The score stayed the same over the third quarter and not until 6:53 left in the game was GT able to tie the game when Darrell Crawford hit Buck Martin for a 22-yard score. With plenty of time left on the clock, the Bear offense trotted out onto the field looking to regain the lead. It wasn’t meant to be, as Isbell fired an interception three minutes later that the Yellow Jackets would return to the Baylor 9. After the Baylor defense held for three downs, Coach Dodd sent out his kicker on fourth to achieve the final score – 17-14 Georgia Tech.

Isbell would go on to graduate before being selected seventh overall in the first round of the 1952 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins. However, Isbell, who was an All-American baseball player for Baylor along with his status as an All-American QB, spurned the Redskins and joined MLB’s Boston Red Sox. Despite two productive minor league seasons, Isbell’s baseball career ended, so the two-sport star moved on by signing with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders where he played for five seasons from 1954 to 1959. Along with being enshrined in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the Baylor Hall of Fame, Isbell was honored again in 2006 when Baylor University decided to hang banners around Floyd Casey Stadium to honor the best Bears of the past – Isbell among them.

Coach Hayden Fry at North Texas on the left and at Iowa on the right

 Francis “Cotton” Davidson

After a forgettable 1952 season, Davidson brought the Bears into the 1953 season with renewed energy. Again, Baylor found itself ranked in preseason polls at #20. Right out of the gates, the Green and Gold proved they were worthy of their ranking. Travelling all the way to Berkeley, California to play #14 Cal, Baylor pitched a shutout and ran away from the other Bruins 25-0. The Bears stampeded to a 6-0 mark to start the season with away victories over Miami and #15 Texas A&M, as well as, home wins over SWC foes Arkansas and TCU. The impressive string of victories catapulted Baylor to a #3 national ranking.

With only four games to go, the Bears could easily start thinking of taking the SWC title, but one of their biggest hurdles remained – the week seven showdown with #19 Texas in Austin. A tightly contested battle ensued with the final outcome being 21-20 in the Longhorns’ favor. Dropping to #9, the Bears were obviously still hung over from the UT game as they fell to unranked Houston in Waco by a shocking 37-7 score line.  

Baylor would finish the season by beating SMU before falling to #8 Rice 41-19 in Houston. The team’s 7-3 record was worth celebrating but after finishing the season 1-3 and going from #3 nationally to unranked, the Bears couldn’t help but feel they had left unfinished business. Davidson wouldn’t have another chance to don the Green and Gold with 1953 being his senior season, but his draft prospects looked bright so he turned toward a career in professional football. Davidson finished his college ball playing as a co-captain for the West team in the Shrine East-West classic and in the College All-Star game.

January 18, 1954, the NFL draft begins. Just two years before, Isbell hadn’t had to wait long before hearing his name called seventh overall. Cotton would have an even shorter wait being selected fifth overall by the Baltimore Colts. Davidson would go on to become one of only three players selected in the first round of the 1954 draft who would eventually become a Pro Bowler (the only NFL Hall of Famer from the 1954 draft was a fellow Texan and future Colts teammate, wide receiver Raymond Berry of SMU, who was selected in the 20th round).

Davidson’s professional career started slowly enough. After completing the 1954 season with the Colts, Davidson went on to play for the Fort Bliss Falcons. While playing for the Falcons from 1955 to 1957, Davidson was named the “All Army Quarterback” in 1955. Cotton would return to the Colts in 1957 and would start three games as an alternate to Baltimore star, Johnny Unitas; however, Davidson would leave the team again after only one season. Davidson would return home to Texas in 1959 to rest an injured shoulder. While there, he would help Baylor coach John Bridgers install the Colt offense.

In 1960, Davidson would become a member of the inaugural Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) during the American Football League’s first season of play. Cotton would become the franchise’s first starting quarterback and go on to play in the 1961 AFL All-Star game following that initial season. Davidson would lead the West to a 47-27 victory and be named the MVP for the game.

In 1962, Davidson would move to Oakland where he would play out the rest of his career, which would end in 1968. Cotton was traded by the Dallas Texans for the first overall pick in the 1963 draft (the Texans would use the pick to select future Hall of Famer Buck Buchanan). Davidson would make one final All-Star game appearance in 1963. After retirement, Davidson would turn down a position as the offensive backs coach with Oakland to return to Waco as a quarterbacks and receivers coach for Grant Teaff.

Hayden Fry

Despite having the least impact of the three on Baylor football during his playing days, Hayden Fry is likely the most recognizable name. Fry began his career playing football for Odessa High School. As a senior in 1946, Fry would quarterback the Bronchos to an undefeated season and the school’s only state title. Odessa would outscore their opponents almost 400-50 without committing a single turnover the entire year.

Fry would, of course, go on to play at Baylor. While he would start a few games as an upperclassman, Fry could never lock down the starting job. Graduating in 1951 with a psychology degree, Fry enlisted in the Marine Corps and served from 1952 to 1955. The Marines gave Fry the opportunity to continue playing football, which he did for the Quantico Marines football team in 1953. Fry led the team to a Marine Corps championship, for which Quantico received an invitation to the Poinsettia Bowl. The Poinsettia Bowl didn’t go well for the Marines as they fell to the Army team from Fort Ord, 55-19.

Fry also had the opportunity to coach during his time with the Marines. Coaching a six-man team, Fry was able to innovate new and unique schemes that fit the different style of play. It also introduced him to Al Davis, future owner of the Oakland Raiders, who was then head coach of another military team. Fry finished his service with the Marine Corps ranked as a captain and then return to Odessa.

Starting out a as a teacher and assistant football coach, Fry would be promoted to head football coach in 1956. Just 26 years old, Fry was coaching the same team he led to a state title just a decade earlier. After receiving a call from new Baylor football coach, John Bridgers, Fry accepted a position coaching the Bears’ secondary. By 1960, Bridgers had helped develop the Baylor secondary into the top pass defense in the nation. The team would finish with a regular season of 8-2 and receive an invitation to play in the Gator Bowl against Florida. Fry’s effort was rewarded with a call from former Baylor assistant coach Frank Broyles, now the head coach at Arkansas, to become the Razorbacks’ backfield coach. After one year in Arkansas that saw the Razorbacks win a SWC co-championship and almost upset Bear Bryant’s Alabama squad at the Sugar Bowl, Fry was selected to become the head coach of Southern Methodist University.

Fry coached the Ponies from 1962 to 1972, and quickly made his mark, winning the SWC Coach of the Year in his first season. As part of his agreement to become the Mustangs’ head coach, Fry had required that he be allowed to recruit and play African American athletes on his team. Seeking to find a young man who was both an exceptional athlete and built with the mental toughness to survive the hatred he would almost certainly endure, Fry found Jerry LeVias who would go on to be a three-time All-SWC player and an icon in sports history. During his SMU tenure, Fry would lead the team to births in the Sun Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Bluebonnet Bowl while winning the SWC in 1966, SMU’s first SWC title in 18 years. After a few down seasons, Fry was fired in 1972. In his memoirs, Fry believed that the main reason he was fired was because he refused to institute a slush fund for paying players. After several boosters approached Fry with the idea, he immediately rejected it; so, according to Fry the boosters pressured the new SMU president into firing him. Of course, just 15 years later in 1987, SMU football would receive the death penalty from the NCAA for its multitude of violations.

Fry moved on, becoming the head coach at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in 1973. North Texas had seen many down seasons in their football program and the administration was considering dropping out of Division I or possibly even shutting down the team (even after producing the number four overall pick in the 1969 draft, Joe Greene, who would go on to become one of the most dominant defensive tackles in NFL history). Fry immediately turned the program around, winning a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title, as well as, MVC Coach of the Year in his first season. The North Texas administration, impressed by the success, opted to leave the MVC in hopes of joining a stronger conference (something that would never happen during Fry’s tenure). Fry would choose to leave in 1978, seeking to coach a team that would receive bowl bids and where he wouldn’t have to serve as athletic director, as well as, head coach. Fry left the Mean Green after compiling a 40-23-3 record from 1973 to 1978, including a 10-1 mark in 1977 and a 9-2 mark in 1978.

Fry would find his new and final home coaching the Iowa Hawkeyes. Fry is unquestionably, most remembered for his time at the helm of the Iowa football program. To discuss all of his accomplishments while in Iowa City would take pages upon pages. In summary, Fry would coach two decades for the Hawkeyes leading them to three Big Ten titles and 14 bowl games. Fry’s conference title in 1981 was the first for Iowa in 21 years. Fry would retire in 1998 after his worst season as head coach of the Hawkeyes (he had secretly been undergoing radiation treatments for cancer during the year). His final record with the Hawkeyes was 143-89-6.

With a career record of 232-178-10, five conference titles and 17 bowl games, Fry was a near lock for the College Football Hall of Fame; however, when a position opened at his Alma Mater Baylor in 2002, it was reported that Fry expressed interest in the opening. Of course the position would eventually go to Guy Morriss. Fry stayed in retirement but his coaching tree continues to impact college football today with names that include: Kirk Ferentz, Bill Snyder, Bret Bielema, Bo Pelini and the Stoops brothers.

In 2003, Fry was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame alongside his former player and star, Jerry LeVias. In 2005, Fry would again be honored by the American Football Coaches Association with the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award which goes to, “the individual, group or institution whose services have been outstanding in the advancement of the best interests of football.” This award that has gone to other Texas greats, such as, Dana X. Bible, Jess Neely, Darrell Royal, Grant Teaff and R. C. Slocum.

Conclusion

Without question, the 2011 trio of Baylor quarterbacks outperformed their 1950 counterparts on the field. The success of Griffin, Florence and Petty is unparalleled in Baylor history (in college football history for that matter); however, the 1950 group made its own significant marks on Baylor football and the football world at large. Whether you count the greatest trio to be from 2011 or from 1950 depends largely on what you care about most. Regardless, these six men made a profound impact on Baylor and, as such, will long be remembered and honored for their accomplishments. Sic‘Em.

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