By BRUCE GUTHRIE
SPECIAL TO THE LOG CABIN
He could have been considered a symbol of what was at Hendrix College. He could have been the last bastion of a facet of an academic institution that fewer people recollect as time passes.
Instead, 80-year-old Gene Wilbourn can be considered a bridge. After the 1960 football season, Hendrix eliminated football from their athletic offering.
In an era when only three coaches were employed campus wide, Wilbourn served as the head basketball coach and assistant football coach from 1956 until the end of the 1960 basketball season.
Though he was in his first semester as the institution’s Director of Admissions, Wilbourn said he felt the reverberation of the announcement made that football would be discontinued.
“It was a very upsetting time,” Wilbourn said. “It was announced at a convocation of the student body, and the president announced that we would be dropping football. It was a blow to everyone. We all heard it at the same time.”
Wilbourn said information never leaked prior to the convocation.
“There were no rumors,” Wilbourn said. “I’m sure the Board of Trustees knew about it.”
The residual effect wasn’t severe, Wilbourn said.
“Some players left, but most came back,” Wilbourn said. “They were there as students anyway. Just like the team that’s there now. They will come as students who play football.”
At that time 25 scholarships were offered to male athletes across the board in all sports. The elimination of football cut that number to 15.
“We recruited players that could play (multiple sports),” Wilbourn said. “We had players that played football, basketball, and ran track.”
The Warriors’ track team enjoyed championship years in 1958 and 1959. They won the AIC title outright in ‘58 and tied with UCA know then as Arkansas State Teacher’s College in ‘59.
The athletic scholarships offered by other Arkansas colleges was a major reason Hendrix dropped football in 1960, according to historical accounts.
Wilbourn confirmed those accounts.
“Those scholarships were tuition only back then,” Wilbourn said, “and it put us at a disadvantage.”
According to an article on the Hendrix College website posted in 2008, in the late 1940s, Hendrix officials became frustrated because other schools in Arkansas began to subsidize athletics – paying football players’ room, board, tuition and oftentimes spending money in exchange for their participation in athletics — citing a book entitled “Hendrix College: A Centennial History” written by James E. Lester Jr in 1984.
That development meant that some schools “will have the best football teams that money can buy,” former Hendrix College President Matt Locke Ellis said at that time. Hendrix football teams were then clearly at a disadvantage, with the Warriors faltering in the second half of football games against larger and more skilled opponents.
By the fall of 1955, the Hendrix football team included only 22 players, and over a three-year span the Warriors won only one football game. These factors, combined with the mounting expense of fielding a football team, forced the discontinuance of football at Hendrix in 1956.
It attempted a return a couple of years later, but it was discontinued following the 1960 season. The late John Douthitt was the head coach at that time.
On Sept. 7, the program will be reborn, and Wilbourn said he is excited to see it.
“I’m glad it’s coming back,” Wilbourn said. “I think it adds something to the campus to have football. I think it adds a different type young man on campus.”
Wilbourn said as Hendrix did when he was coaching, the Warriors would attract students that wish to play football rather than football players going to college.
“I think they will find out real quick that these football players are going to be sharp young men,” Wilbourn said.
Since his coaching days, Wilbourn has had a full professional life. He continued his post as the Director of Admissions until 1970. From there he became an investment banker with Stephens for the next 31 years until he retired in 2001.
A gathering was held to honor the athletes of past eras including Wilbourn, and on Sept 7, what Wilbourn thought was dead will be ceremoniously reborn.