by Dan Ford
In 1948 the high school sports landscape was on the verge of change. Surrounding states had opted to hire an Executive Secretary to manage the affairs of the association. More and more pressure was being brought by the media and fans to establish a state football playoff system. Boxing as a high school sport had only recently disappeared from the scene but was replaced by a state baseball playoff system. Previously baseball was mostly a summer sport, leaving track and field as the spring sport for the high school athlete.
One of the events that propelled these changes was the case of Las Cruces Union High School in 1948.
The Bulldogs had a respectable sports program, often dominating the smaller District 4 opponents in the area. The state football championship was purely mythical at the time. Anybody that could finish the season without a loss within state play, no matter how few games they played, could and would claim the title. Cruces was frequently in that conversation.
A Texas boy from the Amarillo area and a coach at Tucumcari was hired in 1943 to coach the ‘Dogs. He was Aulton “Bull” Durham. Up until that time a “coach” was hired and responsible for all sports, often teaching Physical Education.
When he came to Las Cruces with his wife and one child, Coach Durham joined Principal John L. Gill at the school. Gill had been in education since 1923 and was Superintendent at Belen for 14 years before coming to Las Cruces in 1939.
Coach Durham had some successful seasons of both football and basketball during his five years as the Bulldog coach.
In April of 1948 Coach Durham abruptly resigned as Coach. His resignation was accepted by the School Board. It was not only accepted but it was demanded. The coach was popular with the students and their immediate response was to organize and go on strike. They walked out of class and demanded an explanation; even more, demanding a reinstatement. The event made headlines. The administration would rather have swept the entire episode under the rug but the students wouldn’t let that happen.
Turns out that the coach had played four players in both football (1947) and basketball (1948) who were ineligible for various reasons. The school issued a periodic eligibility list which would be sent to opposing schools and the official document by which the coach determined player availability. Those players were not on the list.
Unlike Today’s political dynamics which requires public employment practices to be confidential, Mr. Gill laid it all out in the Las Cruces Sun News on April 11, 1948. He wrote, “This whole controversy is not a recent development but a culmination of a long series of events dating back over some three or four years … arises from a determined spirit of insubordination on the part of Mr. Durham”. The coach had scheduled summer football camps in direct violation of the NMHSAA rules and took it upon himself to schedule football games, something that was reserved for the principal. Some of the opponents were “not on our restricted war-time schedule”. Concerning the ineligible players, Gill defended his actions which suggested he was culpable in the actions by, at the very least, ignoring the coaches’ violations and, at most, a party to them.
One player did not live with his parents who were not in the district, a serious eligibility question that required a petition to the NMHSAA. Another had dropped out the previous spring and had not fulfilled the continuous education requirements in order to compete for the school. The others had grade issues. In all cases the coach had approached Principal Gill with a solution but did not follow through with an answer that would make the kid eligible. One answer would have been to have a mother sign an affidavit that she was intending to move back to Las Cruces. It never came but the boy played. Another answer was to have the coach tutor a boy and raise his grades. That never happened either.
The student strike shined an unwelcome light on the situation and forced the administration to call for an investigation by the NMHSAA.
For its part, the NMHSAA (forerunner to the NMAA) did not have the resources for the management of eligibility. A referendum of members overwhelmingly voted to hire a czar. The elected President of the Association was often the Superintendent of a school and probably expected that his major task would be to organize the semi-annual meetings of the group. The Association was treated like a committee of the New Mexico teachers group. But by 1948 many eligibility issues along with more sports resulted in the need for a full time, and paid, executive. The members voted to change the fees from $5/year (yes, $5/year for about 120 schools) to a range of $25 to $265/year based upon size. 27 people applied for the job and by 1949 an organization leader was in place.
The resulting investigation was a two-day affair in which a couple of Association members visited the school, spoke with the administrators involved, including the Superintendent Carl Conlee, and viewed all of the records.
In the end, Las Cruces was in violation on numerous Association rules involving those four student athletes. Mr. Gill’s printed comments that it “goes back three or four years” did not encourage a more extensive investigation. In fact, when President Sweeney (from Santa Fe) of the Association was asked about forfeiting past games, he said “It’s water under the bridge”.
The report blamed not only the coach but also Principal Gill and Superintendent Conlee who the report claimed knew about the infractions and failed to either report or prevent them. A suspension of one year was imposed effective immediately when assessed in May, 1948. The Bulldogs would be prohibited from playing games against other New Mexico schools in all sports.
The consequences were not too severe. In the fall of 1948 a new coach came on board and immediately had to find some football opponents from across the border. It resulted is just two football games against El Paso Cathedral (they lost them both) and a game against a team from White Sands, probably a town team or military team. At the end of the football season in early November the ban was lifted, probably due to the administration’s dismissal of Coach Durham and compliance with the order, just in time for basketball season.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of it was the hiring of that new coach, Rudy Camunez, a local boy made good. Coach Camunez was in his mid-20s when hired. He had been a sports hero for the Bulldogs, graduating in 1941. Then he played for NMSU. He would be the football coach until 1961 and then moved into administration as the principal at Zia Junior High. He is credited with being the mentor to many fine coaches, including the legendary Jim Bradley.
Gill would step down as principal but continue with the school district as a guidance counselor until his retirement in 1962. Durham continued with his coaching and teaching career in Texas. Superintendent Carl Conlee finished a 34-year career in education in 1954 after 21 years in that capacity in Las Cruces.
One would wonder if the infractions were more numerous and if the administration was complicit. I’m sure Durham felt so. I can imagine that a coach with a Texas background aggressively sought to give his teams an advantage and crossing the line was part of the job. Getting caught was not.