Texas HistoryThanksgiving Throwback: 1921 A&M v. UT Game Launched College Football Radio Broadcasting

College football radio broadcasts can trace their roots to a 1921 rivalry clash at Kyle Field.
November 26, 2020
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From three yards and a cloud of dust to high-octane spread offense, manual scoreboards in rinky-dink fields to 160-foot jumbotrons in football cathedrals, and leatherheads to state of the art polycarbonate helmets — football has changed drastically since the first game between Rutgers and New Jersey four years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

And Texas, the football-obsessed state it is, can lay claim to one of the game’s biggest innovations: radio broadcasting.

In the early 1910s, an employee with the Texas Fiscal Agency constructed facilities at each university designed to teach radio transmission to engineering students.

At the University of Texas, this evolved into brief broadcasts of weather and crop reports. The man behind the broadcasts, physics professor Leroy Brown, built his own equipment and in 1917 taught the university’s first radio-focused course. Similar evolutions occurred in College Station.

Upon the spark of the First World War, that UT-Austin equipment was used for more critical ends.

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The ability to convey a message, nearly instantaneously, was a groundbreaking innovation for mankind and a boon to the American way of life — well, for all except the once titanic courier industry whose modern iteration is the United States Postal Service.

Predating radio was the telegraph and Morse code, and postdating it is, of course, television and the internet.

But in radio, these two Texas universities were at the forefront of the medium’s development and experimentation. 

It just so happens that the opportunity for experimentation arose on the gridiron.

A year and a half before President Calvin Coolidge would give the first State of the Union address broadcast nationally, the storied University of Texas-Texas A&M University rivalry provided the first introduction of the game-changing communication method.

In 1921, Berry Whitaker’s Longhorns matched up against Dana X. Bible’s Aggies — who’d start the 12th Man tradition a year later — for the top spot in the Southwestern Conference on Thanksgiving Day. The previous year, UT went 9-0 and romped every team they faced except in their 7-3 win over A&M.

But what would be the feature of the game, the broadcast, was originally intended simply to convey the final score. Instead, human ingenuity took root.

Program from the 1921 Aggies-Longhorn Thanksgiving Day football game. (Beverly Alford)

Bible, who would later coach the Longhorns 16 years later, and a student, Harry Saunders, assigned abbreviations to all possible in-game scenarios. These abbreviations were then relayed by W. A. Tolson, Frank Matejka, and a gaggle of others to multiple radio stations through Morse code, who would then announce the in-game action, albeit slightly delayed, over the ham relay station system.

And thus was borne the inaugural radio broadcast of a football game.

Going into the 1921 rivalry game, UT had lost only one game — a 20-0 drubbing at the hands of Vanderbilt — and A&M lost one to Louisiana State University and tied Rice. With the previous year’s tight finish, another nail-biter was on the horizon.

As it turned out, one can envision the broadcaster distraughtly relaying the final score pronouncing, “As God is my witness…I thought someone would score a point.”

The contest, aptly positioned as the season’s final game, finished in a knock-down, drag-out, barn-burning 0-0 tie. Today’s Big 12 fans — accustomed to the opposite problem of defenses so porous they make the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 look like Ellis Island — would not abide.

Indeed, the most notable thing to come out of that game was the radio and play-by-play broadcast.

Perhaps even a straight line can be faintly drawn between the 1921 Texas v. A&M Thanksgiving game and WKRP’s infamous turkey execution. After all, both were broadcast over the radio.

With the tie, A&M supplanted UT as the champion of the Southwestern Conference and then went on to beat the Centre College of Danville Praying Colonels in the Dixie Classic, the precursor to the Cotton Bowl.

For decades, football and radio have been intertwined. College football Saturdays would not be complete without the Mecca-bound walk by fans of any team to their respective football temples, serenaded by the sounds of pregame talk shows on handheld radios.

And radio would not be complete without the captivating verbal transmission of a team’s methodical but efficient march down the field for a game-winning touchdown.

A match made in heaven — well, made in Aggie heaven: Kyle Field.

But it takes two to tango and that momentous achievement would not have been possible without their dreaded rivals, the Longhorns. Both deserve thanks for their part in changing the game that has captivated millions — whether from the stands, their couches, or their cars.

Special thanks to the Texas State Historical Association for providing information on this achievement.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.