“I was looking at the gallery of past presidents of Southwest Texas— excuse me, Texas State— the other day and reflecting on the institution's 100th anniversary. I have personally known every president except the first one. ”
That is Vernon McDonald illustrating his long association with Texas State University. (At this point, I should add he was strongly opposed to the name change, so as he reads this, I expect he will cringe slightly when I use Texas State to identify his alma mater and life-long employer.)
Vernon, better known as “Coach Mac,” has not strayed very far from his birth place over the 74 years of his life. He was born in Dale, near Lockhart in 1929. When he was in the fifth grade, his family moved to Moran, west of Waco where they stayed for about a year. From there, they moved to Bartlett, but shortly after, moved to Taylor (his dad was with the Katy Railroad) where he graduated from high school in 1947.
“I didn't play football in high school,” Vernon said. “I was the drum major of the band all four years. I played all sorts of instruments, the clarinet, the French horn, the cornet. I sort of had a scholarship to the A&M band.
“My brother returned from the service in 1946 and enrolled at Texas Lutheran College (TLC), and when I graduated, my mother wanted me to go to college at TLC. I went without a scholarship, but I made the basketball team and played for two years. It was a junior college at the time. ”
After two years at TLC, Coach Milton Jowers offered Vernon a basketball scholarship to Southwest Texas. He came to SWT in the fall of 1949.
“I came to Southwest Texas to play basketball with a bunch of 'nobodies.' We had guys like Bob Baty, Bookie Brammer, and Slim Berry, who was on a half-basketball, half-football scholarship. We had Spider Mays who could only make the B team at Livingston High School. The reason I'm telling you this is to show you that we were a bunch of nobodies. Lewis Gilcrease was a freshman when I came here.
“My senior year, 1952, we were 30-1. At the end of the year, we had six players who were first or second team All Conference. We beat A&M two games in College Station, we beat Texas Tech in Lubbock and we beat Baylor in Waco. ”
The real reason Vernon dwelt on the no-name basketball team, which came within one victory of a national championship in 1952, was to reflect the coaching genius that was Milton Jowers. On more than one occasion during this interview, I reminded Vernon, I was after his story, not Jowers'.
Vernon's athletic career was not the only aspect of his life that was germinated and nurtured in the shadow of Old Main.
“I met Dolores here and we were married in April of 1951. I was scared to death to tell Coach Jowers. I was afraid he was going to run me off. But he didn't. After I graduated, he got me a job coaching at Eagle Pass. We were there nine months. It was 110 degrees for five consecutive days and Dolores said, 'We have to leave here..'“
“One Sunday afternoon I got a phone call and Coach Jowers said, 'Do you want to come up here?' That was all he said.
“I asked, 'For what?'“
“To coach with me,” he said.
“We moved up here the summer of 1953 and I have been here ever since. He told me I would be the assistant basketball coach and the defensive secondary football coach. I had no knowledge of football, but Jowers told me it was a lot like playing defense in basketball.
“I also filmed all the games. The camera had three lens options. One year we were playing Trinity University and I inadvertently set the lens halfway between two settings. For the entire game the only pictures I took were of the skyline of San Antonio. Coach Jowers was not very happy about that. But he wouldn't fire me. I still had to film the games. ”
In 1961, SWT's football program was desperately in need of revival. They were 1-9 the previous year and the university president asked Coach Jowers to coach football. Jowers agreed on the condition that Coach Mac take over the basketball program.
“I knew nothing about any of this,” said Vernon. “Jowers walked into my office and said, 'McDonald, do you want to be the basketball coach of Southwest Texas?'
“I hope to be someday, I responded. He threw the keys on my desk and said, 'You're the coach.'“
Vernon pointed out that in three years, Jowers had the Bobcat football team at 10-0 and number one in the nation at the NAIA level. He goes on to say that, aside from his family, Coach Jowers is the best thing that ever happened to him.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he was the best coach ever. He never had star players to work with. He worked with good people, but his recruiting budget was limited. Pence Dacus, probably the best all-around athlete ever at SWT, was recruited with a penny postcard. ”
(Note: Lewis Gilcrease, another outstanding SWT athlete, hitchhiked home after his recruiting interview with Coach Jowers.)
Coach Mac coached the SWT basketball team from 1961 to 1977.
He describes his retirement from coaching. “In January we were getting ready to play our first conference game with Sam Houston. Suddenly, my chest felt like someone was standing on it. Dolores called the doctor and after he examined me, he told me he was sending me to the hospital in Austin. I told him, I couldn't go, I had a ball game. I went to the hospital. ”
“I did not have a heart attack, but I had a blockage which they decided to treat with medication. I still take seven pills every morning and seven every night. ”
While surgery was not required, Vernon was ordered to give up basketball. Bill Miller, Athletic Director at the time, made Coach Mac the assistant AD. He continued to contribute by teaching classes until 1988.
He and Dolores, who taught in San Marcos Public Schools, retired the same year, 1988. Retirement was not a problem for the McDonalds.
“You are probably looking at the two happiest people in San Marcos. I bought a motor home the year we retired and for five years, we traveled all over the country. We have been to every state in the lower 48. ”
Their travel habits have evolved from more to less. From the RV they went to a tag-along with a pick-up. That proved a bit big for Dolores and so they went to a fifth wheel and a pick-up. Following a recent trip to Knoxville, Tennessee with the fifth wheel, they concluded that for the price of their rig, they could stay in lots of motel rooms.
I must add that their love of travel has not diminished. As I began this interview, Vernon informed me that he and Dolores had just returned from an Alaskan cruise.
Returning to his long association with SWT, Coach Mac recounted that there were about 1200 students here when he came as a student.
“My first salary as a coach was $3,600 a year. To make enough to live on, I took any job I could get. I ran the swimming pool, and I was a dorm director— at the same time. We were just trying to survive. When we played out of town, I would take my car and a college car. Dolores was left here with three children and no car.
“I will never make it up to her. If we played two games, she was here from Friday to Tuesday with no car. ”
I asked about the difference between college athletics today and when he was coaching. He proudly remarked,” My players all graduated. ”
“We went to Washington, D.C. for a game when Lyndon Johnson was president. I thought nothing of it, but I got a message while there that I was to bring the team to the White House. That morning, the president walked in and greeted the team with 'Hi, Bobcats.' My boys were thrilled to see the president. ”
On integration, Vernon says: “I brought the first black athlete to SWT. A boy by the name of Johnny Brown and he wasn't that good a basketball player. I don't know where he is now, but I know he has a PhD. ”
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Vernon and Dolores have two boys and one girl. Lynn McDonald played for his dad at SWT and is the boys head basketball coach at Clear Lake, Texas. Donnie McDonald is the girls basketball coach at Hays High school and their daughter, Lola is an elementary school principal in San Antonio.
“One more thing you have to put in the article,” Vernon said with enthusiasm. “Lola, went to Russia and adopted a little boy who is three now. We get to keep him every other weekend. He is a great joy. ”
Coach Mac has a bottomless bag of interesting stories about family, former players, teammates, SWT, San Marcos, and Milton Jowers. Forgoing his great stories, I have tried to capture his personal optimism, enthusiasm, and intense loyalty to SWT— er, ah, ...Texas State University.