This Saturday Texas State hosts an old foe from their Southland Conference days in the Nicholls State Colonels. From 1980 to 2011 the two teams met almost every year until 1998 when they added a paddle as a trophy that held major significance to their rivalry.
If you’ve ever lived in San Marcos, you are probably pretty familiar with flooding. The Memorial Day flood of 2015 and the floods of 2002 for instance comes to mind but in reality anytime it rains hard the rivers swell.
Back in the fall of 1998 a devastating weather system from the Atlantic brought rain, floods, death and damage and systematically merged rivalry with tragedy in a origin story remembered fondly, however its legacy is washing away with the passing of time.
Second year head coach Bob DeBesse’s Bobcats squad were coming off a 5-6 season in 1997 and with newly acquired University of Minnesota transfer Spergon Wynn under center Texas State (then known as Southwest Texas State) had some high expectations. But a rough September had the ‘Cats limping into conference play at 2-4.
After a one point win against Delta State to start 1998 the Bobcats would get blown out in three straight games before defeating Southern Illinois.
Like mentioned before, flooding is a common experience in San Marcos. When significant rainfall hit the town the low-lying areas flood as precipitation swells the Blanco River, San Marcos River and various springs at their headwaters, resulting in areas going under water at a rapid pace. Bobcat football games are rarely threatened by inclimate weather but a transatlantic storm would soon change that.
In late September a tropical storm formed off the coast of Africa, crossed the Atlantic and subversed over Central America. On October 16th the system morphed into a tropical depression and by the 17th hurricane Madeline was born.
The hurricane never made landfall, its power hindered before crossing the Sierra Madre Occidental, but the moisture left behind by the remnants of Madeline’s rain bands and the moisture of a dissipated Hurricane Lester in the Pacific hit south Texas in the early morning hours of October 17.
Saturday The 17th
It’s homecoming at SWT and as mentioned before the Bobcats are entering the game versus Nicholls State at 2-4. After a one-point win against Delta State to start 1998 the ‘Cats get blown out three straight times before edging out Southern Illinois by five.
A conference win against rival Nicholls State would boost player confidence and keep the Bobcats in contention for a conference title.
In the week before the scheduled game, steady rain fell constantly in the hill country and the San Antonio area.
Bobcat Stadium itself was flooded, with the field too submerged for play due to constant rain. The game would be cancelled as torrential rain flooded most of the town and caused flash flooding.
The storm dumped over 15” of precipitation in the greater San Antonio area, with 23” of rain in New Braunfels as the Guadalupe River reached record crests in multiple areas.
The aftermath left 31 people dead across the southern Hill Country and cost 3⁄4 of a billion dollars in damage.
In all, twenty counties were declared federal disaster areas with roads and homes washed away.
The Birth of the “Paddle”
It would have been easy to just cancel the game but the opportunity arose to not only have a meaningful season ending makeup game but also a chance to be creative in rebranding a typical conference game.
DeBesse and Nicholls State coach Daryl Daye conversed over the phone and with the help and guidance of both universities’ athletic departments a rivalry was born.
“We wanted to honor the loss not just of lives but loss of property, people displaced.” DeBesse, current Georgia Southern offensive coordinator explained, “Neither of us were having good years, neither of us were going to make the playoffs but both of us desperately wanted to play the games and so in order to create some incentive or meaning to the game that’s kinda what (The Paddle) we came up with.”
Jokingly it was said that fans needed a boat to get to the game so the concept of an oar as a trophy was developed. Originally called the “War For The Oar” the administrations from both schools objected to such a violent title for the game so the more tame “Battle For The Paddle” was coined. Either by DeBesse, Daye or the administrations, the exact origin of the name is usually attributed to all involved.
A paddle with Nicholls State colors on one side and Texas State colors on the other was fashioned. Each game would be commemorated with the score on the winning team’s side every year.
DeBesse, who had been the offensive coordinator under legendary Bobcat coach Jim Wacker at Minnesota, showed the Texas State squad film of a Wisconsin/Minnesota rivalry game for Paul Bunyan’s ax as inspiration and motivation for their own upcoming rivalry trophy. Minnesota won this particular matchup in the film and the players rushed the field with the ax to do the traditional “chopping down” of the goal post.
The First “Paddle” Game
Eventually the game was scheduled for November 28th. The Paddle would make its debut that afternoon in San Marcos.
Despite the Bobcats being long removed from contention for the Southland title, the game was played with high emotion and didn’t disappoint.
Texas State jumped out to a 13-3 lead after the first quarter led by a punt block return touchdown and a Spergon Wynn scoring strike.
By the end of the third quarter Nicholls State rallied back to take a 24-13 lead.
But two more Wynn touchdown passes and a key 4th quarter interception by future NFL player Darrick Vaughn capped off a 28-27 comeback win.
Bobcat legend Spergon Wynn threw for 242 yards and receiver DeAngelo Torres caught a career-high three touchdowns.
The Bobcats victoriously paraded the paddle around Bobcat Stadium in front of the home crowd and made their way to the goal post to “chop it down”, just as they had seen their coach’s former team do on film.
“It’s not very often that you get to be part of the start of a tradition.” DeBesse stated spiritedly, “I think that’s what the kids and I know the coaches took pride in.”
Both teams would finish 1998 at 4-7 and wouldn’t capture a conference title until 2005, when the Bobcats and Colonels were coincidentally co-champions.
Is The Battle Up The Creek?
The rivalry game was last played in 2011 at Bobcat Stadium with Texas State pulling out a 38-12 win, tying the series since the paddle’s inception at 7 games a piece. Nicholls State had possession of the original paddle after winning the annual game in 2010 but refused to bring the trophy to San Marcos for the 2011 contest due to the fact Texas State was at-the-time an FBS transitional team and the number of scholarship players compared to the Colonels’ squad was a lopsided disadvantage. Then-Colonels Head Coach Charlie Stubbs declined bringing the paddle to the game for that reason exclaiming, “we ain’t bringing the damn thing”.
No problem though. The athletic department at Texas State fashioned their own paddle and paraded the new relic on Wacker Field that afternoon like it had been a staple in the trophy case for decades.
It’s unclear if Nicholls State’s administration will bring the original paddle out of its sarcophagus in Thibodaux, Louisiana to travel to its rightful home in San Marcos but I’m not expecting it to show up. I tried to contact the Colonels’ athletic department but they didn’t respond to my messages, further cementing my thought on the paddle’s upcoming absence.
The 2019 edition of the Battle For The Paddle will no doubt be a fun throwback for the fans that remember this little-known rivalry, but in the end the game and the paddle still retain a legacy for its remembrance of a tragic time for the area, the victims of the flood, and the decreasing significance of a once proud rivalry.