Paul Leighton Tyson
Greatest high school football coach of all time
mentor to Knute rockne, Pop Warner, Et Al.
all-time record of 205-42
Four state championships and one national high school championship
In a corner of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame is an exhibit showing relics from the illustrious career of Paul Tyson, unarguably among the best football coaches of all time at any level. Men like Knute Rockne and Pop Warner called Tyson their mentor. He forever changed the game. Within that exhibit the Hall of Fame there is a faded piece of paper and on it, Coach Tyson once penned a poem to inspire his players to play like men with respect for their opponents and their community. “Play on the square,” demands Tyson. These words will certainly resonate with any freemason.
Paul Tyson was born October 25, 1886 in Hope, Arkansas. At four years old, he came with his family to Santa Anna, Texas where he was raised and educated. While a teenager, Tyson began dating a girl who went to school with him. One night, he went to pick her up for a date they had planned only to discover she had already left with another guy. He apparently never dated again.
Tyson planned for a medical career but the story goes that he was very homesick for Santa Anna when he arrived in Waco in 1904 to attend TCU. He went to one of TCU’s football games and he was so enthralled by the game that his homesickness was cured. One week later, he was playing for the team. Tyson caught on as a talented football and baseball player while at college and developed a love for sports. Though the major leagues offered him a baseball contract, he turned it down and stayed in school until he acquired a Masters degree in 1909.
Tyson was an accomplished musician as well, capable with many instruments and always seen at the piano for Central Christian Church’s services.
In 1911, Tyson got his first coaching job at Tyler High School where he coached football and taught science. He spent 1912 at Denison High doing the same thing but in 1913, destiny brought him to Waco High. That first season, his Tigers went 1-3-2. That proved to be his last losing season for nearly three decades.
His second season as Waco High’s coach went a little better and he began to build some momentum in developing a solid program over the next couple of years. In 1918, Tyson left to serve for the Army in World War I but he returned shortly thereafter and set about building the greatest football dynasty that high school football and perhaps all of football has ever seen. From his first year back from the War in 1919 until 1931, the Tigers never lost a home game.
Most Dominant Ten Years of Football History
The 1921 Waco Tigers are often forgotten and unfairly so. The team was not yet a part of UIL so were not technically eligible for the playoffs or a chance at the state title but their ability was undeniable. They went 9-0 that year and scored 526 points in those nine game while allowing zero. All season, only one team managed to cross the fifty-yard line and even they only did so one time. So began the most dominant decade by one team in football history.
In the 1920s, nobody could touch Waco High. They won their first state championship in 1922. Then, in 1923 and 1924, the Tigers made it to the state title game but lost both times.They again won state in 1925 and 1926. That completed a five year run of making it to the state championship every year. Tyson spent the off-season honing his creativity and came into the next season ready to set the bar even higher.
In 1927, Tyson implemented his newly designed “spin” play where the quarterback would step back, spin around and have the choice of handing the ball to one of his running-backs or keeping it himself to run or pass. It was devastating. Opponents had no idea how to defend it. Going into their tenth game of the season, they had yet to allow a touchdown while on offense, their season average would end up being 56 points per game. That set a new offensive record which stood until 1975. Twice Waco High scored more than 100 points. After allowing a touchdown in their tenth game, Tyson’s boys buckled down to play even harder. Game eleven saw Waco High squaring off against Houston’s Jeff Davis in an important playoff game. The Tigers were still seeking redemption for allowing a touchdown in their victory the week before and at the end of the game, the scoreboard read 124-0 but it said so much more. This was the best football team anywhere. One opponent’s coach exclaimed, “They could beat a good college team!”
The Tigers went 14-0 and won another state title. They were named National Champions after achieving a 44-12 victory over an extremely good Cleveland, Ohio team. During the dominant years of the 1920s, the Tigers played at the Cotton Palace field where Baylor also played its home games. Baylor usually had fewer fans at its games.
A Trio of Football Legends
In 1931, Paul Tyson left Waco for Stanford University where his friend Pop Warner was coaching. After studying the game for a season with Warner, he returned to Waco and two years later, he led the Tigers to another national championship title in 1934. Pop Warner soon popularized the “single wing” formation which had already been used by Tyson prior to his 1931 visit.
Legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne described Tyson as having more football knowledge than any man in the world. After hearing of Tyson’s success in the 1920s, Rockne traveled to Waco to learn from and pick the mind of Tyson. This resulted in Rockne developing the “Notre Dame Box” which forever changed football at every level and was a variation of Tyson’s own offensive scheme.
Rockne, Warner, and Tyson formed a football brain trust that made many of the advancements in the sport which dictate how the game is played today. Notre Dame has letters between Rockne and Tyson in its archives now and between them and newspapers showing interviews from back then, it is clear that Rockne and Warner considered Tyson to be a mentor.
Fired for Unfounded Rumors?
The first half of the 20th century was a very different time than that we live in today. You went to college, made a career, got married and had kids. It was the American way of life. That Tyson never married troubled some people. Rumors persisted that Tyson might be gay or worse. He spent lots of time with his players taking them as a group out to dinner or to Texas Longhorn football games in Austin. By 1940, Tyson’s teams weren’t quite as dominant as they had been in the past. It seems that in looking for a reason to fire the most legendary coach in Texas, folks around town settled on the fact that he he wasn’t married and liked spending time with kids. He was labeled a pedophile without any evidence to suggest as much.
The school board unceremoniously fired him after an 8-2 season in 1939 for reasons unknown. It is often said that the rumors regarding his personal life were to blame, that the school board and fans had become spoiled by his championship expectations, or a combination of the two. Whatever the case, the record is clear. Three hundred mothers of current and former players signed a petition begging the school board to rescind its decision. To this day, every single one of his players have vehemently denied the rumor that Tyson was ever inappropriate with any of them. Long after his death, they formed a club to honor his memory, fix up his gravestone, and stand as evidence against any existing doubts regarding the character of Paul Tyson.
Paul Tyson never did anything to one of his players except to motivate and inspire them to become good men. Research by legitimate journalists only resulted in people saying exactly that even to the present day. That the man’s reputation was sullied by ridiculous claims is incomprehensible and his name ought to be tossed around in conversations about the greatest football coaches of all time.
After Waco High
In 1942, Paul Tyson taught science for Woodrow Wilson High. He then coached football in Beaumont for three years before returning to Dallas to coach at Jesuit College Prep in 1946. When one of his Jesuit players broke a leg, Tyson paid regular visits to motivate the boy while he healed in the local hospital. That boy was Eddie Joseph who went on to be director of the Texas High School Coaches’ Association and remembered Tyson as fondly and respectfully as any of his other players.
After that, Tyson finally made the jump to coaching at the college level. For decades, fans had wanted this to happen but Tyson was committed to the program he built at Waco but now that his own school had turned him out to pasture, he coached for Westminster College and then Daniel Baker College in Brownwood. That’s where he was in 1948 when his former program at Waco High made a state championship run. Though his heart had been broken by the administration, his hope for the success of Waco’s players remained. He often made trips to Waco to tap into the local community and press so he could get first-hand accounts of how the team was doing. After Waco High won the championship that season, they held a celebration at the Roosevelt Hotel downtown. One of the players from the 1927 team was Howard Dudgeon who was now on the school board. While giving a speech at the event, Dudgeon saw the old coach looking in through a door. As soon as he could, Dudgeon went to invite Tyson to join them, but he had already left.
As the yearly preparation for Daniel Baker College’s 1950 school year and football season got under way, Tyson died of a brain hemorrhage in a faculty meeting. He was buried in Waco. Inside his coat pocket is the petition signed by the mothers of his players in a desperate attempt to keep him on as a mentor to their children.
Paul Tyson’s legacy in the sport is everywhere. He began the currently universal system of assigning players to second and third strings for the purpose of using them as scrimmage teams to hone the skills of his best players. His first dominant team in 1921 came the closest to losing when they matched up against Oak Cliff who lost 21-0. Recognizing the “close” game as a sign of weakness, Tyson sent an assistant coach to scout Oak Cliff’s games in 1922. While nobody else did this in 1922, you cannot go to a football program anywhere in the country today without seeing scouts.
Roger Conger, “Mr. Waco History,” remembered Paul Tyson thusly:
“Mr. Paul Tyson, the great immortal football coach of Waco High, was a great friend of mine. He taught biology or I guess you could call it teach… We loafed through biology class because Mr. Tyson was… a quizzical, humorous man and he liked to propound far-out to us in biology. He would say, ‘Did you ever see a black greyhound chase a tame wildcat up a dead live oak?’ And such questions like that would disarm a pupil sitting at the front of the room expecting a serious question. Mr. Tyson would always tell the students several times during the year that the scientific name of the platypus was the ornithohynchus paradoxus and promised ten extra points at every final exam if anyone could correctly spell it. No one every claimed that award. Mr. Tyson was a great teacher, a great inspirer.
I went out for football but came nowhere near making the team. It was a great experience, though, and strengthened my relationship with Mr. Tyson which I always cherished. We dedicated our 1926 annual to him.”
Perhaps his greatest legacy was his inherent ability to motivate and inspire his athletes. He never cussed or screamed at the players. When they made mistakes, he called them over and explained to them that they could do better. They responded by doing better. If one of the more talented boys became particularly arrogant about his skills, Tyson would challenge him to a footrace, allow a head-start, and always win. If a player got out of hand, lost his cool, or used foul language during a game, he didn’t get to play in the next one. The result was winning football teams and boys who became leading men in their communities. Their loyalty to Tyson never died, proven by the creation of a Paul Tyson club in 1977 by a group of his former players.
Paul Tyson Football Field is the former playing field of Waco High and is located very near the meeting place of Waco 92 today. Recently, Vanguard College Preparatory School announced plans to begin playing their varsity football games there.
In 1955, Paul Tyson was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco. Be sure to look for him if you visit but it shouldn’t be a challenging search. His name is hard to miss.
According to Dave Campbell, Paul Tyson’s 27 years of football teams at Waco High outscored opponents an unbelievable 8,069 to 971. They won 205 games, lost 42 and tied in 16.
The Best of Tyson’s Players
Tyson’s teams turned out some outstanding football players. Among them were:
Abe Kelley, fullback 1923
Abe was an outstanding athlete who helped get the Tigers to the state title game. He later became rather famous. In 1927, he was a captain for the Baylor Bears football team but also played basketball. On a fateful day in Round Rock, the basketball team’s bus was struck by a train. In an effort to save a teammate, Kelley was killed along with nine others. His statue stands at the front of the Immortal Ten memorial on Baylor campus today and the tragedy led a national movement to require buses to stop before crossing tracks and to install flashing lights and signs as warning.
Dutch Meyer, 1914
One of Tyson’s first talented players at Waco High, Meyer went on to have an extraordinary career coaching football and basketball at TCU. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
John “Boody” Johnson, runningback and kicker 1921-1923
Often called the best high school football player ever, Boody Johnson led Waco to the 1922 championship. He was a blazing fast runner also capable of nailing dropkick field goals from the fifty yard line. A broken leg prevented him from taking his talents to the next level after Waco High.
Jake Wilson, quarterback 1926
Jake went on to achieve All-Southwest Conference Honors at Baylor
Jack Sisco, center 1921
Sisco was a monster opening running lanes for the undefeated 1921 team. He went onto lead Baylor to a Southwest Conference Championship and won All-Southwest Conference Honors as an individual player. He also coached the University of North Texas to six conference titles and is remembered as the second-winningest coach in North Texas’ history. He is in Baylor’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Charles “Tex” Leyendecker, tackle 1927
Tex was dominant on the line for the Tigers before being just as good at Vanderbilt and playing on the very first Philadelphia Eagles team in 1933.
Homer “Bear” Walker, guard 1921
Bear played at Baylor and demonstrated a lot of power in blocking defensive linemen. He is in Baylor’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Sam Coates, halfback fullback tackle defensive end 1921-1922
Coates was a versatile athlete. Big enough to block, fast enough to rush the ball, and agile enough to play defensive line. He went to Baylor where he won All Southwest Conference Honors at tackle and at defensive end three times each. In 1924, he was named MVP of the Southwest Conference. He was inducted in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and Baylor’s. Later, he ran the Sam Coates Restaurant in Waco.
Madison Pruitt, tackle end 1927
After winning the championship with Waco, Pruitt went on to have an All-Southwest career with TCU.
Weldon Mason, runningback 1926
Weldon gained the nickname “Speedy” while at TCU where he was named an All-American in 1931.
Joel Hunt, runningback 1924
Joel is remembered as one of the best backs to ever play for the Aggies and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He eventually coached at the high school, college, and NFL levels.