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Interview with: Dr Gaylord Johnson
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: July 21, 1976
Archive Number: OH 083
LM: Dr Johnson you received your PhD from Rice, and you taught at Rice. In 1927, I believe—or was it 1928—you became the business manager for the athletic…
LM: 1926. I would like to ask you how you came into that position sir.
GJ: Mr Heisman was having some difficulties in his coaching. He felt that the business end of the athletics required more of his time than he wanted to give to it. He wanted to devote more time to the actual coaching. He asked me if I would take over the job of business manager. That was in 1926. That is when the job was assigned to me as business manager.
LM: Was it a full time position?
GJ: It was a full time position, yes.
LM: What sort of problems did you have when you first took over?
GJ: The problems mainly were because Mr Heisman was having a few difficulties not only with his coaching problems, but he was having difficulty with some of the newspaper people. He was a kind of a truculent sort of fellow at times. He had worked up some difficulties in his relations with some of the news writers and with some of the alumni. It was taken with the understanding that I would have no responsibility as far as his relationships with the alumni or the newspaper people. My job was not to undertake to solve his problems in that respect, but was to purely be responsible for the business relationships of the Rice Institute athletic activities.
LM: Were you aware of the types of problems he was having with the coaches?
GJ: That they were having with the coach?
LM: You said he was having problems with (speaking together)
GJ: I wasn’t having them.
LM: No, you weren’t, but he was.
GJ: He was having trouble because he was finding fault with some of the material that was being printed with respect to his coaching and some of his results. This is common when you don’t have a winning football team. He was having some unpleasant results because of that. He felt that if he could give more time to coaching, perhaps it would provide him with an opportunity to solve some of those problems. Unfortunately it didn’t. Of course he felt that this climate was completely unsuited to football. He didn’t seem to ever understand that both teams played in the same weather on the same day. Unfortunately, other people felt that both teams had to play the same day. The weather couldn’t be held as completely responsible for the failures of 1 team consistently.
LM: What kind of problems did you have to immediately deal with in the financial area as business manager?
GJ: As a business manager, we had not ever been a successful team financially. Of course, it was perfectly logical that solving the financial side of the picture could only come with more success. Another side of the picture was that our physical plant was not such that it would contribute to much success. Our stands, at the time that we took it over, seated 3500 people. The list of season ticket holders, when it was given to me by Mr McCants who was the bursar of Rice, was all on 1 sheet of paper. Most of those were either trustees or were faculty members. Our season ticket holders were not people of any large number, nor were they very profitable.
LM: I noticed that…
GJ: In addition to that, the physical plant was not one that was productive of payment in the fact that the fence around the field was about 3-1/2 or 4 feet high. This was covered with Cherokee roses. Anybody could drive up on the outside of the field and watch the football game without any responsibility for a ticket. All the area south of the Rice Institute property was nothing but prairie at that time. They would just drive their cars up to the fence, and just look over the fence and watch the football games.
LM: No money in that.
GJ: Not much.
LM: I noticed that in 1927 the price of the grandstand tickets was $10.50, and $13 for boxes.
GJ: That is for the season.
LM: Oh, that was for the season.
GJ: That was for the season. Let’s not be confused about that.
LM: That’s a difference.
GJ: That’s right.
LM: I was going to say that was (speaking together)
GJ: No, no, that was for the season.
LM: It wasn’t written that way in the letter that I read at the library at Rice. They just simply had season ticket—not season ticket, football ticket $10.50 and they had grandstand. I wanted to clarify that to find out.
GJ: No, no, at that time the football ticket at the conference games was only about $2 or something like that for most of the games. Ours didn’t bring quite that much. They were not playing on a uniform basis at that time at all.
LM: How did you go about trying to resolve some of these problems?
GJ: Well in 1928 for instance, the Democratic convention was held in Houston. A group of people came in and asked us to let them hold a rodeo on our football field. One of whom was the famous Oklahoma cowboy who had quite a reputation as a comedian. He had shown in New York. I’m sure you know who he is. He did a roping act…
LM: Oh, Will Rogers.
GJ: Will Rogers. He was 1 of them. A couple of people from Missouri City were in on the program. One of the people was from Richmond. They agreed to pay us $4000 for the use of our field. When it came to the board of trustees to decide whether they would let them use the field, it was decided that they would do that. Captain Baker asked what we were going to do with the $4000. We told him that we were going to build a fence around the field so that in the future we might be able to get some money for our tickets.
LM: Did it work?
GJ: It worked. We built a fence around the field.
LM: Also, in doing my research, I read where you instituted the season ticket plan.
GJ: We did.
GJ: We instituted the plan to sell season tickets at Rice. Later, we instituted a program whereby with each season ticket for $1 they would get a program for each of the games. We gave them a little book of tickets. There was a ticket for each game in each one of these books that went with each one of the season tickets that were sold. The $1 was fine, but we had a prepaid amount of money for a certain number of programs. As a result, we were getting more for our program advertising because of the amount of prepaid subscriptions to our program. I recall that at 1 time we had 60,000 advanced programs sold. We were getting more money for our program advertising that Notre Dame.
LM: (laugh) That is quite a lot.
GJ: Sure we were.
LM: Did you receive much assistance from the university administration financially?
GJ: Did we do what?
LM: Did you receive much financial assistance from the administration?
GJ: Oh sure, because in the early days it all came from the administration. They didn’t make any money for years.
LM: How much money are we talking about during this early period approximately?
GJ: The budgets in the early years ran around $50,000 a year.
LM: That was for the whole athletic program?
GJ: Yes, but money was worth a lot more then than it is now. That is what the net cost was. Including the deductions for what they took in and everything, it was costing the school about $50,000 a year to run their athletic program. Of course, later on they got to the place where it was profitable.
LM: About when was that?
GJ: Along in the 1940s it got to be a profitable proposition, because TV came into the picture. This is the real source of the income for athletics, not necessarily the gate. Of course, the gate is a handsome part of the emolument that goes with successful athletics. TV is a big source of income for all forms of athletics, whether they are college or professional.
LM: What about radio?
GJ: Radio in the early days provided some funds, but nothing like TV has. We put on the first radio show. We had the first game on the radio of any southwest conference team, our game with Texas.
LM: Who was instrumental in getting the radio coverage?
GJ: I suppose I was. We sold it to Humble Oil. Arkansas sold it to Lion Oil. At that time Humble had no oil business outside the state of Texas. Of course, after they sold to Standard Oil of New Jersey it became SO and later Exxon. Then it was quite a different thing. They were worldwide, because Exxon is the marketing agent for Standard Oil in New Jersey.
INTEVIEWER: So the radio did help some?
GJ: Oh, certainly it did. Sure, it was helpful. Anything was helpful.
LM: When you had very little to start with. Do you have any idea what percentage of income you received from the radio to make up for the deficits in the athletic program?
GJ: It wasn’t a great deal. I think that the most that they got was about $10,000 a year out of radio.
LM: You were active in the southwest conference.
GJ: Yes, I was president for a number of years of the business managers and athletic directors association. I guess, for several years—it must have been 6 or 7 years I was the president of that group.
LM: What sort of problems did you deal with then?
GJ: We dealt with problems that were characteristic of the entire conference. As a typical example, let’s say for instance, newspaper publicity. For instance, during the depression we needed publicity from the Houston Chronicle and from the Houston Post. I went to Mr. Jones, who was the owner and editor of the Houston Chronicle, and asked him for—they don’t have them any more—the banner line on Saturday morning. He said: “We can’t do that Gaylord. Those things are expensive.” I said: “Mr. Jones, in addition to that I want a front page picture on the Saturday morning Chronicle.” He said: “We couldn’t possibly do that.” I said: “Mr. Jones, we actually need your help out on Main Street at Rice. We need something to help stimulate our football.” He said: “Well, the Chronicle needs some help too.” I said: “Well Mr. Jones, you don’t think you can help us.” He said: “No Gaylord, I just can’t. I don’t think we will be able to do that.”
It must have been maybe 3 or 4 weeks after that we were playing TCU in Fort Worth. A friend of mine who was the manager of the Worth Hotel and who had been brought down by Mr. Jones to manage the Rice Hotel—Barney Martin, who had been the manager of the Rice Hotel, had been furloughed. This man was going to be put in charge of the Rice Hotel. Instead of putting him in charge of the Rice Hotel, he was sent to Fort Worth because the Worth Hotel was in such dire straights up there. They decided they needed his expertise up there more than they did in Houston. While we were up there, he came to the room one morning and said: “Gaylord, John and Jesse Jones are in the hotel and want to know if you will have breakfast with them.” I told him I sure would. I didn’t have any demands on my time for breakfast and I would be glad to. We had breakfast together. While we were talking they were telling me the plight that the Worth Hotel was in. It had gotten to be nothing but a bawdy house. Maybe this shouldn’t go in here…
LM: No, that is excellent go ahead.
GJ: It had gotten to be nothing but a gambling hall and a bawdy house. This new manager knew that they sooner or later would be up against it. They couldn’t run a successful hotel that way. I told him that I thought I might be able to help them. They had to change their clientele. I thought that I could get the southwest conference to bring their athletic teams there. I thought that I could make a deal for the southwest conference athletic teams to stop at his hotel. They had been stopping at the Texas. Mr. Jones said: “Why Gaylord, that is the answer to our prayer. They will bring that entire college crowd with them. That is exactly what we need. If we can get a decent crowd of people like the college crowd coming to our hotel, this will be the very thing that we need. Do you think you can do it?” I said: “I think I can. Now these people will be having a meeting before very long. I think we can work it out. There is one thing that I am sure you are going to have to do though, Mr. Jones. You are going to have to give the teams their rooms. They will pay for all of their food and all their facilities and everything that they use. Except that you are going to give the teams their rooms.” He said: “Oh that will be all right. There will be no problem in connection with that. That will be fine. This hotel would be their headquarters?” I said: “I think we can work that out all right.”
We got a meeting of the people together. They decided that would be fine. They would all be willing to do that. They would use the Worth Hotel as the headquarters for the conference. As it turned out, they decided to do it. I went to talk to Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones said: “Gaylord, this is the answer to our prayer. This is just fine. I very much appreciate what you have done.” I said: “Mr. Jones, I know that you are very appreciative, but I still need that banner line and that front page picture.” He said: “But Gaylord that is going to cost a lot of money.” I said: “All right Mr. Jones, let’s just forget the whole deal. The people are very happy where they are now. It is all right. I think it will work out all right for you in the long run. Your new manager will work out some scheme to handle the gamblers and the loose people hanging around your hotel.” He said: “No, that isn’t the way it is going to work. It is not going to work that way.” I said: “All right then. Do I get the banner line and the front page picture?” He said: “Yes you do.”
This was done for the other teams, railroad train fairs and things of that kind. If we were going to have a ball game, let’s say in Dallas, it was the responsibility of the directors and businessmen to try to work out special rates, not only for the team, but for the students. There was no such thing in the early days as airfares and things of that kind. It was purely a train situation. Of course, later on the same thing applied to airfares. They worked out arrangements where people were going to stop. For instance, let’s say when they went to Fayetteville Arkansas. The hotel facilities in Fayetteville in the early days were practically nil. They stayed in a little town called Rogers just outside of Fayetteville. This was a resort at that time and had a real nice hotel. Things of that kind were worked out by the various teams through business managers and directors.
LM: How long did the arrangement with the Rice Hotel continue, and with the newspaper?
GJ: Oh it lasted several years, until they got it cleaned up. Then they didn’t need it anymore.
LM: So that ended the agreement then?
GJ: Oh sure, that is understandable.
LM: Were there any other important aspects of your work in the southwest conference? (speaking together)
GJ: Well, we founded the Cotton Bowl.
LM: I would say that is significant. Can you talk about that a little bit?
GJ: I was one of the original members of the founding staff of the Cotton Bowl.
LM: How did it come about?
GJ: Well…cut that thing off for just a minute.
There was as man in Dallas that had the idea that they should start a bowl game in Dallas. He called the conference people together, the directors and business managers, to see if they couldn’t work out a program whereby such a game could be initiated.
LM: Where did the financing come from for it?
GJ: It started off without any money at all really.
LM: That is unusual.
GJ: You bet. This man was an oil man. I don’t think he really had very much money. In any event…
LM: What was his name?
GJ: I can’t recall that now, but I will later on. In any event, he decided that they should have a game. He called a group of people together and they put up a small amount of money, not a lot. He got together a group of people and they put on the first game.
LM: What year was that now, when the idea first started?
GJ: It seems to me it was in 1939. Following that, the conference took it over.
LM: What about the actual facilities? How did that all come about? You said there was very little financing in the early days.
GJ: Well, the people in Dallas got behind it. The Cotton Bowl was there. It was at the old fair grounds in Dallas, where it is played now. It was there. Of course, it wasn’t as big then as it is now. They have enlarged it.
LM: In the earlier years, the southwest conference set up some fairly stringent regulations on the use of athletes: Attracting athletes and inducing athletes to attend the various universities and play some football.
LM: There is very strict wording of the regulations.
GJ: Excuse me.
LM: Where were we? The wording of the regulations indicates that perhaps there were some very competitive practices at that time.
GJ: Oh, in the early days there were no such things as rules. A man would play 1 Saturday for 1 team, and maybe the following Saturday for somebody else. I remember very well that there was boy named Eshi. He played for 1 team 1 season and another team the following season. He played for ANM and played for Texas. That was common. That was not unusual at all. They just switched around any way they wanted to.
LM: They were enrolled in 1 university, and they could play for other universities?
GJ: Oh, sure. There wasn’t any fixed house situation. In the early days, you just played for whomsoever you wished.
LM: Were they paid by the other universities to do so?
LM: What kind of money are we talking about in that early period?
GJ: Whatever was necessary. For instance, 1 athlete would get maybe $20 a month. Another 1 would get $100 depending on skill and who was promoting him. That was a common thing. It wasn’t only just here; it was all over the United States. There wasn’t anything unusual about that. You could still move from here, although you may be committed, and go to other schools and play.
LM: Playing for different teams during the same season. Is that what you are talking about here?
LM: You said promoters. Did some of these people that played have sponsors?
GJ: Sponsors, of course.
LM: Who would get a commission on the…
GJ: Oh no. For instance, I know 1 man that used to keep at least 60 boys and girls in 1 of the schools in the conference all the time. The boys he was interested in were athletes. The girls weren’t, because then there was no such thing as worries about girl athletes like there is now. This is just as new problem. He used to keep 60 of them in school all the time. I have seen his books. He showed them to me when I was in the athletic department.
LM: Before the regulations took hold—Let’s use Rice as an example—How would a Rice coach go about scouting and inducing students to attend?
GJ: Well, we never did have a lot of money for that sort of thing. Being young, we never had many influential let’s say sponsors who would take a boy and say: “Coach, you get that boy and I will pay his way through school.” We just didn’t have that many because we were too young compared with the rest of the schools. What we had to do was sell them on the idea of getting an education. We had a hell of a time doing it until we finally had the school of physical education where a boy had a chance to get a certificate or a diploma, and still spend a lot of time in athletics. Of course, we don’t have that anymore. Now they are in the doldrums again.
LM: The problem in 1927 was expressed in a letter to James A. Baker from Mr. William Ward Watkin. He said at that time they wanted to increase the number of freshman football players from 30 a year to nearly 70. He said there were great problems in getting people to come to Rice because of the Rice academic standards.
GJ: That is right.
LM: He said they needed a program to…
GJ: That was when the school of physical education was being proposed.
LM: That is what I was getting to. Can you tell me a bit about that? Was that the answer to this problem?
GJ: That was the answer to that problem, yes. The school of physical education had been one that had been discussed at Rice for several years. In some places they call it a school of commerce. In other places they call it a school of physical education. In other places they call it something else. The purpose is to devise a program whereby men who spend anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a day in athletic participation in some form, whether it is preparatory or actually in competition. They give somewhere from 3, maybe, to 6 hours a day. They have real difficulty passing the same courses that a person who has full time to devote to their academic responsibilities. That is hard for a lot of people to understand. You not only have the time involved, but after a boy has spent 3-4 hours on the athletic field, whether it is work out or whether it is in actual competitive sport of some kind, he is pretty tired. He is certainly not at his mental best when he comes home to study. Nevertheless, we had been working on the school of physical education for a long time.
Finally we got the trustees—Captain Baker was the chairman of the board of trustees. We got him to agree to listen to it. He assembled a group of people in the basement of his home at the Oaks. That was his home. In addition to the trustees who made up the group at that time, there were several prominent business men there. Among them was Mr. Will Clayton, the cotton man. Mr. Clayton asked that they explain why we were all there. They did, Captain Baker explained it. Captain Baker was not a person who had a real profound belief that people would give money. During his statement of what they wanted, they wanted to—for a period of 5 years they wanted to raise $100,000 to test this thing to see if it was a worthwhile program. To see if it would produce the results that most of us in athletics felt that it would. It would provide us with athletes that could perform successfully. It would give us a working program. They were to raise $20,000 a year. Prior to this though, and what really brought it about was 3 alumni. Clarence Wademan, Albert Thomforde, and myself had gone to a business man here in Houston. He had agreed to give us $20,000 a year for 3 years with the understanding that we would be conservative in the spending of it. If there were any savings in the $20,000 we wouldn’t use it up foolishly. This businessman agreed to do that. He would give us $20,000 a year for 3 years to advance athletics. He would help us subsidize some of the athletes. That was the first subsidizing program that Rice ever had.
LM: What year was that? Do you remember?
GJ: Oh, this must have been about 1930. He gave us that. I remember when we told Mr. McCants about it, who was the bursar of the institute. He told Captain Baker about it. Captain Baker called me. He said: “Gaylord, Mr. McCants tells me that there is a man here in town and he didn’t give me his name.” I said: “He doesn’t know his name.” He said: “This man said that he would give you $20,000 a year for 3 years to help the athletic program.” I said: “Yes sir that is correct.” He said: “Do you mind giving me his name.” I said: “No, I think you are entitled to his name.” He said: “Well I will tell you, I would have to have his name. Before I can let a thing of that kind go into Rice’s affairs, I would have to verify this.” I said: “I would expect that Captain.” I gave him the name. He said: “Well, he is a perfectly reliable man. If he said he will do it, it is all right with me.” I said: “No, I want you to call him and verify it for yourself.” He called him. He said: “I understand that you have agreed with those 3 boys that you would give Rice $20,000 a year for 3 years.” He said: “Yes, I have agreed to do that.” Without thanking him or anything else, he just hung up the phone. It was such a shock to him to believe that a man would give $60,000.
Then after those 3 years—it worked out fine. He then got behind it. The night that he was describing all this to these gentleman that he had invited to his home, he was asked by one of them—He said: “Now, Captain Baker, tell us what it is you want to do.” Captain Baker told him that we want to raise this $100,000 over 5 years. He went on to say: “I just don’t think it can be done.” He said: “Well Captain, don’t you worry about that.” I will tell you what you do. Why don’t you as chairman of the board of trustees just forget about it, and leave it in our hands.” He had already sold the bill of goods, but he couldn’t believe it. Here he was, one of the toughest lawyers in this whole town. He couldn’t believe that he had almost got it sold. Then he called on another one of the trustees and had him say something about it. It was John T. Scott, who was then the head of the First National Bank, which is no longer there. It has been joined with First City. When he got through he said: “It is a good thing, but I don’t think it can be done.” Again, Mr. Clayton said: “As trustees you all forget about it and let us take care of it ourselves.” Again, and by God they wouldn’t do it, or they didn’t. They finally appointed a committee to go out and raise the money. It was no trick at all to get the money. That is the way the thing got started.
LM: That was quite an accomplishment, having a man give $60,000. That doesn’t happen often especially in those times it was a lot of money.
GJ: That is right. It was a lot of money.
LM: Were there any other large grants like that made?
GJ: No. To athletics? No.
LM: Was there much opposition from the faculty members for the establishment of this physical education program?
GJ: Yes, but there are certain things that I think ought to—Nobody in the athletic department ever seems to think that this is necessary. First of all we never have a trustee with high enough academic standards that he talks the same language that the faculty do. We have men with high enough financial standards, but we never have a trustee appointed with high enough academic standards to carry academic prestige equal to that of the faculty. Consequently, there is always a rift between the thinking of the faculty and the thinking of the trustees. One is thinking about money, and the other is thinking about academics. What is wrong with that? The thing that is wrong with it is this. Here are 5 men who come onto the campus once a month to a trustees meeting. When they come in that gate at Rice, they are completely lost. The agenda for that meeting is made by faculty, the president, and those close to him. Consequently, the money that is over here doesn’t know what the hell is going on over here and visa versa. These don’t know what is going on over here. There is always going to be that difference and that gap between trustees and faculty.
What happened in this particular case was that one person who had to deal with the faculty at least had enough academic standing. That was lowly me. I at least commanded some respect. I had the support completely of the chairman of the board of trustees. That was a hell of a lot. If someone just had the courage—Let me tell you something. What is true at Rice is true of every university in the land. They have the ablest people that they can find on their board of trustees. They will never sell the faculty on the idea that out of these people should come the money that means so much to the faculty. The things they all think of nowadays are grants. The reason is very simple. Let’s say that you and I are 2 members of 2 different boards of trustees—or let’s say that you are a member of 1 board and I am a member of another. Let’s say that you are at Rice and I am a big corporation. You come to me and say: “Gaylord, Rice needs a lot of money. As 1 of the members of the board, I would like to raise $5 million for them. I would like you to be one of the 5 that would give $1 million. Will you give $1 million?” Sure this sounds wonderful right on the face of it, doesn’t it? What happens? I am a guy that has my personal interest over here someplace. Maybe I came from Lehi, and Lehi is going to have a drive for money. I gave you $1 million, so I come back and I ask you for $1 million. Before you get through you might just as well have given the $5 million, because everybody that gave you 1 of the $1 million to make up the $5 million that you were going to raise is going to get the money from you. This is why that sort of thing doesn’t work. It has to come from grants.
If boards of trustees were made up of people who don’t have money, but control or have access to money that is better. Then I can’t come back to you when you have access to money and ask you for $1 million because you asked me for it and got it. If you have got it and I have got it, I can come back to you and you can come back to me. These are the reasons these things don’t work. Of all the departments in a university, the athletic department is the only 1 that through its own individual efforts can make money. If they could ever sell that idea to the faculty—because without faculty participation they can never have successful athletics. Nobody since I left there has ever tried to sell them on the idea that their participation is what makes athletics successful. You have got to share some of that participation. They have got to keep these boys eligible or they will never make it.
LM: How did they accept that idea then?
GJ: Well, we had a school of physical education. We had a set of professors who taught in the school of physical education. There were a lot of them who didn’t. We had a lot of professors up there that would recognize that athletics could contribute a lot to the funds of the university.