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HERRERA, WILLIAM CARSON [NEMO]

HERRERA, WILLIAM CARSON [NEMO] (1900–1984). William Carson “Nemo” Herrera, distinguished Mexican American educator and high school athletics coach, son of Rodolfo and Carolina Herrera, was born in Brownsville, Texas, on February 19, 1900. His father Rodolfo was a member of the Mexican landowning class that immigrated to Texas after losing their property during the unrest of the Mexican Revolution. His mother Carolina claimed to be a descendant of José Francisco Ruíz, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The family later relocated from Brownsville to San Antonio, Texas, about 1907. Their relatively privileged social status allowed Nemo, as he was best known, to grow up as part of the Mexican American middle class that was fairly assimilated, and, as a result, he avoided many of the racial, economic, and political issues that plagued much of the Mexican American community.

Herrera attended public schools in San Antonio and began playing organized sports at age twelve as a shortstop on the Newsboys, a team sponsored by the San Antonio Express. At age thirteen, Herrera became the batboy for the San Antonio Bronchos [sic] of the Texas League. During his time as batboy the team bestowed upon him his lifetime nickname, “Nemo,” after the protagonist of the popular comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. In part, it was also an Anglicization of his family nickname “Memo,” a diminutive version of Guillermo (the Spanish equivalent for William). While he attended Brackenridge High School in San Antonio, Herrera excelled as a second baseman on the baseball team and a forward on the basketball team. He also played football in the fall.

In 1918 Herrera was recruited by legendary Texas high school and college coach Peter Willis Cawthon to play at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Herrera lettered in basketball and baseball in all four years that he attended Southwestern, and he was the leading scorer and captain on the basketball team in his third year. Additionally, he was a two-time member of the All-State college basketball team and a one-time member of the All-State college baseball team. Herrera also lettered in football during his freshman year but decided to quit the sport after sustaining a serious leg injury. Outside of sports, he was a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and a private in the Student Army Training Corps. Although he did not graduate from Southwestern, likely due to financial difficulty, Herrera eventually earned a degree from the University of San Antonio (now part of Trinity University).

Beginning in 1919, Herrera played for a number of different semi-professional and minor league baseball teams in Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri, as a way to earn money for school while on summer break. During this time he played alongside future World Series champion coach Eddie Dyer and future Hall of Famer Ted Lyons and enjoyed brief stints as an infielder for the Galveston Sand Crabs of the Texas League and the St. Joseph Saints of the Western League. In 1923 Herrera obtained his first high school coaching experience at Beaumont High School, where he served as an assistant coach under former Georgetown, Texas, mayor and future Texas A&M coach Lilburn “Lil” Dimmitt. While at Beaumont, Herrera focused his attention on the basketball team and helped them to win a district title in 1924. He also played for a semi-professional basketball team sponsored by the Gulf Oil Company in Port Arthur. 

A year later Herrera took a job with the Gulf Oil Company subsidiary in Tampico, Mexico, where he continued to play baseball for various semi-professional and company-sponsored teams from 1924 to 1927. While in Mexico, Herrera also coached a baseball team sponsored by Luz y Fuerza, a state-owned Mexican electric company. In July 1927 he was injured during a baseball game in Tampico and sent to the local American hospital for treatment. While there he met Mary Leona Hatch, a nurse from San Antonio, Texas. They married in Tampico on August 20, 1927, and returned to San Antonio shortly thereafter, where Herrera took a job with the Public Service Company of San Antonio. The couple eventually had two children, Charles and William.

In August 1928 Herrera was hired to coach all sports at Sidney Lanier Junior High School in San Antonio’s poor, mostly Mexican and Mexican American West Side barrio. In his first year, he led each of the school’s three basketball teams to a district championship. The following year, when the school was transformed into a junior-senior high school, Herrera was denied the senior head coaching position. However, he was later promoted to head coach of all senior sports in 1933. This likely made him the first Mexican American head coach of a major high school sports program in Texas. Although there were years when he did not coach football at Lanier, he always coached basketball and baseball. Additionally, he supplemented his income by working as a college basketball referee and, in the summer, as an umpire in the American minor leagues and the Mexican National League. 

During his tenure at Lanier, Herrera developed a reputation for his strict and paternalistic coaching style. He was known to use corporal punishment regularly and often spent his weekends tracking down truant students. On the basketball court, he compensated for Lanier’s perennial lack of size by speeding up the tempo of the game; he emphasized aggressive defensive play and instituted an early form of the largely unknown full-court press. The strategy worked—between 1938 and 1945 Lanier won five district titles and reached the final four of the Class A state basketball playoff four times, winning the state title in 1943 and 1945. This consistent success attracted the attention of Texas A&M University, whose head basketball coach Marty Karow took a leave of absence to serve in the military during World War II. Herrera was offered a job as Karow’s wartime replacement in 1944, but he declined, citing the temporary nature of the position.

In August 1945 Herrera left San Antonio to become the head coach at El Paso Bowie High School. Similar to Lanier High School, Bowie was located in a highly segregated, under-served, and predominantly Mexican American neighborhood known as El Segundo Barrio. As coach of the varsity basketball team, Herrera led Bowie to four district titles and one appearance in the final four of the state basketball playoff in 1948. Additionally, he organized Bowie’s first baseball team in 1946 and led them to two consecutive city titles in their first two seasons. In 1949 Bowie’s team qualified for the first-ever state high school baseball championship tournament, where they were the only all-Hispanic team to compete. Unable to find accommodations in Austin, the team slept on army cots under the bleachers of Texas Memorial Stadium for the duration of the tournament. Despite this, they went on to win the Class AA state title, and seven Bowie players were named to the All-State team. With that victory, Herrera joined William Jewell Wallace and George “Red” Forehand as the only Texas high school coaches to win a state championship in more than one sport. 

Herrera remained at Bowie High School until 1960 and won three more district baseball titles in 1950, 1958, and 1959. He retired from coaching varsity basketball in 1955 but continued to coach both baseball and football. From 1960 to 1962 Herrera took a job as varsity baseball coach at Edgewood High School in San Antonio. Afterwards, he returned to El Paso to coach at the newly-built Coronado High School. Once again, he organized the school’s first-ever baseball program and led the team to a Class AAAA district title in 1967. Outside of high school athletics, Herrera organized several commercially-sponsored summer baseball leagues in El Segundo Barrio and served as director of a county-wide youth baseball league funded by Project BRAVO in El Paso. He also coached El Paso’s under-fifteen baseball team to the 1958 Babe Ruth League World Series in Toronto.

Herrera left public education upon reaching the mandatory retirement age in 1970. He returned to San Antonio and began a new career at the age of seventy as the director of civilian recreation at Kelly Air Force Base, where he worked from 1970 to 1981. Herrera died in San Antonio on April 5, 1984, and was interred at San Jose Burial Park. 

Over the course of his forty-three-year coaching career, William Carson “Nemo” Herrera was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Perhaps most impressively, he was the first Hispanic inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor in 1967. Herrera was also inducted into the Southwestern University Athletic Hall of Fame (1995), the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame (1969), the El Paso Baseball Hall of Fame (1988), the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame (1999), the San Antonio ISD Athletics Hall of Fame (2016), and the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame (1997). Additionally, the gymnasium at Lanier High School, the baseball stadium at Bowie High School, the youth center at Kelly Air Force Base, and an elementary school in El Paso—as well as scholarship funds in both San Antonio and El Paso-- were named in Herrera’s honor.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

El Paso Herald-Post, March 2, 1966; May 26, 1970. Ignacio M. García, When Mexicans Could Play Ball: Basketball, Race, and Identity in San Antonio, 1928–1945 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013). San Antonio Express-News, August 6, 1967; July 29, 1973. Alexander Wolff, “The Barrio Boys,” Sports Illustrated, June 27, 2011.

William A. Brkich and R. Matt Abigail

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Handbook of Texas Online, William A. Brkich and R. Matt Abigail, "Herrera, William Carson [Nemo]," accessed December 18, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fheab.

Uploaded on October 20, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.