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UT Coach Ox Emerson gets belated recognition – against his family’s wishes

Friday, September 4, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The bad luck for Gover “Ox” Emerson began on a football field in 1956 and continues to this day, according to his children, who are protesting the potential re-zoning of their family home as a local historical structure.

Emerson, who played for the Detroit Lions in the 1930s, had the misfortune of being on the coaching staff at the University of Texas when the Longhorns went down in defeat to the Aggies at Memorial Stadium on Thanksgiving Day in 1956. For those of you too young to remember such a dark day in Texas history, a highlight reel of the game is posted on You Tube.

Emerson was one of the assistant coaches on the sidelines of that game, but his five-year career at UT was about to be over. He, like every coach on the sidelines that day, was shown the door. The next coach to take the Longhorns on the field would be Darrell Royal.

As daughter Sally Craig told the Historic Landmark Commission last month, her father could have done anything at that point. He could have gone on to professional coaching. Three pro teams scouted him, as well as a score of colleges and universities. Instead, Emerson decided to stay put and raise his children in Austin.

“With no job and no income, and the big time available to him, he made the radical decision to stay put,” Craig said. “No one understood – certainly not our mother – why he was going to stay in Austin.”

So Ox Emerson the football coach became Ox Emerson the insurance salesman. And, eventually, he became a high school football coach, having the distinction of being the first coach at Johnston and Lanier high schools. It didn’t pay much, so Emerson would teach all day, coach in the evenings and during the off-season he ran a bowling alley.

It was Ox Emerson who opened and closed the Dart Bowl Lanes on Burnet Road on the weekends, putting in 16 hours on Saturday and 16 hours on Sunday.

“My dad and my mom went to the well for us to stay in Austin and to stay in that house,” Craig said. “He coached for 30 years, and at the end of his life, we knew he never had the career he should have had, but he had a remarkable career with young people. The reputation he had was well-deserved.”

Emerson coached well into the 1980s, ending his career at St. Louis Catholic School. Ox passed away first, in 1998. Virginia Emerson passed away in 2007. The home had not seen any serious maintenance since 1984.

The Emerson children wanted to move the 1935-era home to Del Valle, and sell the lot at 1700 Pease Avenue as the final, and only, inheritance the three of them would have from their parents. But, suddenly, the father who wasn’t good enough to coach the Longhorns was famous enough to have his house considered a landmark.

“I hope you understand why this is so ironic, that the city that he so loved and to which he gave so much, is going to zone his house historic and, by that action, take away everything he worked so hard for and saved for us,” Craig said. “Let us move this house and give it a new life with a new family.”

Unfortunately for Craig, her passionate speech about her father’s life only made Commissioner Terri Myers more inclined to initiate historic zoning on the case, saying the details of the case made preservation quite compelling.

Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky described the home as a “very eclectic, colonial revival style house,” with a close association with Emerson. He recommended initiating a historic zoning case, which will return this month to HLC.

The Old Enfield Homeowners Association President Marlene Romanczak said there was no way the association could support the relocation of the home. The home was a contributing structure in the National Register District, and its removal would be a significant loss to the neighborhood fabric.

“We don’t believe the condition of the home or the economics should be considered,” Romanczak said. “We have plenty of people who do go in and, instead of tearing down the home, they fix them up. I happen to be one of the people who owned what was, at one time, one of the worst homes in the neighborhood.”

And, as Romanczak noted, the home that would replace the current one on the lot would be subject to the Old Enfield deed restrictions. It would be unlikely any footprint or height would be any bigger than the current structure. Redeveloping the lot would be difficult, agreed Commissioner Joe Arriaga.

Only John Rosato expressed hesitance on the historic association with Emerson, and even he voted with the rest to initiate a historic zoning case. As to the maintenance, Chair Laurie Limbacher noted that new code provisions had defined something known as “demolition by neglect,” and that included the Emerson house.

“We’re not the property owners,” protested John Emerson, who is handling his parents’ estate, including the disposal of the house.

“That’s not a threat or a provocation,” Limbacher said. “It’s simply something that staff may need to respond to.”

To see the 1956 UT game highlights on YouTube, click here.

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