Just over two weeks ago the NFL stopped play after Damar Hamlin collapsed in the Bills vs. Bengals game on Monday Night Football. It was a horrifying scene that looked like it could end in the death of a 24-year-old man, and with the entire country watching it.
Fortunately, it’s now apparent that Damar will be okay, and has been released from the hospital. Many people talked about how this was unprecedented, and to a degree it was, player-wise, on this stage the only good comparison is Christen Erikson. Erikson suffered a cardiac episode in Denmark’s opening match of Euro 2020 (held in 2021). Fortunately like Damar, Erikson was okay and has since resumed playing, as he now plays for Manchester United in the Premier League.
Coaching-wise we have seen this before unfortunately. On Sunday Night Football in 2013, as a Texans fan, I sat down to watch my Texans try to turn around a once-promising season against the Colts. It looked good at first as they led 21-3 at the half, then what looked like a season-changing win turned into a nightmare. Gary Kubiak collapsed on the field with a Transient Ischemic Attack, and suddenly football seemed secondary. Not only did my team’s coach collapse on the field, but he was the cousin of my dad’s lifelong best friend. The Texans lost the game, and finished 2-14, Kubiak was fired, but it worked out for him as he landed as the Denver Broncos Head Coach. Even winning a Super Bowl before hanging it up. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the story of TCU Head Coach Jim Pittman in 1971, as he collapsed in the first quarter against Baylor and by halftime had passed away.
Background on Jim Pittman
Jim Pittman was a Mississippi boy, born in Boyle, and played football in Starkville for Mississippi State right after World War II from 1947 to 1949. He stayed in Starkville working with their Freshman team from 1951-1953, then as an assistant from 1954 to 1955. In 1956 he’d say goodbye to Mississippi as he took an assistant job at Washington, but by 1957 he’d be back in the south and introduced to the Southwest Conference for the first time in Austin. Pittman would stay at Texas as an assistant for eight years before a head coaching job at Tulane came calling.
Jim Pittman was an interesting hire for TCU back in 1971, his only previous head coaching experience was at Tulane where he mustered a 21-30-1 record. He coached Tulane from 1966 to 1970. For some perspective on Tulane football, at the time they were just about a decade removed from willingly leaving the SEC, as they felt an SEC schedule was holding them back and thought a national schedule could serve them better. To Pittman’s credit in their final season, they went 8-4 including a win over #19 Georgia, and a Liberty Bowl victory over Colorado, thus TCU pulled the trigger and hired him.
His first year as a Frog really wasn’t going too terribly, sure they entered their game with Baylor at 2-3-1. But they had beaten Texas A&M, and all three of their losses came to top 20 teams in his former stop Washington, Arkansas, and Penn State. For context, TCU’s last winning season was way back in 1965 with Abe Martin, Pittman’s predecessor Fred Taylor had four straight losing seasons before being fired.
In present times Baylor and TCU have certainly been each other’s primary rivals. Every TCU person I talk to, will talk about just how much they hate Baylor, and vice-versa, they’re the only two private schools in today’s Big 12, and a less than two-hour drive separates them. But way back when in the Southwest Conference Baylor wasn’t quite TCU’s primary rival. There was another Christian private school in Dallas that held that claim in SMU, not only was it a Texas private school rivalry, but also a Dallas-Fort Worth rivalry. Now make no mistake about it, TCU vs Baylor was still a huge game, these two teams first played in 1899, and twice a year in both 1904 and 1910, and thrice in 1905, 1907, and 1909. Moral of the story: these teams had a history.
Both teams entered this 1971 matchup with losing records, but TCU was clearly the favorite between the two. As previously mentioned they had lost to three top 20 teams, beating Texas A&M and tying Oklahoma State, it appeared that Pittman had the Horned Frogs headed in the right direction. Baylor on the other hand was not a good program at this time, they hadn’t even finished in the top half of the Southwest Conference since 1964. Bill Beal was in his third season, and on the hot seat, starting 1-4, with their only win over Indiana (he’d be fired after this season). Despite TCU looking like a much better team up till that point it wasn’t expected to be a blowout, considering they were rivals, and it was in Waco.
There aren’t many details on the game itself out there, in fact, the best I found was a short 1971 newspaper article in the Tuscaloosa News. The game kicked off at 7:00 central time, on a hot day with rain expected, Jim Pittman suffered a cardiac arrest just a few minutes into the game with TCU driving on what looked to be their first touchdown drive of the game. Pittman was immediately rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead by 8:03.
Unlike in the Bills, Bengals game, this one didn’t stop. In fact, the players would be notified in the locker rooms at halftime that Pittman had passed, but that’s as far as it would get for the time being. TCU trailed at the half, and despite being rivals, news/rumors of Pittman dying had gone through the stadium, when they took the field in the second half they actually came out to applause.
TCU would go on to win the game 34-27, behind an inspiring second-half comeback knowing that their coach had passed, scoring the last 14 points unanswered. After his death more details would become public that Pittman had heart issues, stemming back as far as 1964. TCU would go on to win three of their last four, including wins over rivals Texas Tech and SMU to finish 6-4-1 and third in the Southwest Conference.
On October 30th, 1971, Pittman, a World War II vet, would leave behind his wife Jane, and two sons Brad and Alec. He entered the game, and passed away with a losing record, by the time the game ended he had a .500 record with a program that had been at the bottom of the conference, and a winning record in Southwest Conference play. Pittman’s only season at TCU would be their first winning season since 1965 and last until 1984.