SAN ANTONIO — Robert Zamora was there for the start of South San Antonio High School’s dynastic baseball run 62 years ago, finishing the Bobcats’ 11-3 victory against Corsicana in the Class 3A state final on the mound after relieving Bobby Lara.
Only a freshman in 1958, Zamora was too young to fully grasp the magnitude of South San’s big moment in Austin that day. Of course, no one could have foreseen how the Bobcats would go on to dominate Texas high school baseball for the next decade.
“It’s just unbelievable how it all turned out, because you’re talking about growing up in a little community,” Zamora said Monday. “In those days, that’s what South San was. The baseball program unified the community more than anything else.”
Led by legendary coach Cliff Gustafson, who went on to an iconic career at Texas, South San won an unprecedented seven state championships in 10 seasons from 1958 through 1967. No other school in the state has ever come close to equaling the Bobcats’ run.
Now 89, Gustafson said he thinks of those glory years at South San and the boys who played for him “many, many times a day." The memories of that era have become more poignant with the passage of time.
Gustafson's emotional bond with South San transcends sports. He met his late wife, Janie, a teacher at Athens Elementary in the South San district, a few months after leading the Bobcats to their first state title, and developed deep roots in the predominantly Hispanic community.
South San won all seven of its titles in Class 3A, then the UIL’s second-largest classification. The Bobcats took back-to-back titles three times – 1960-61, 1963-64 and 1966-67 – before another coaching legend, Darrell Royal, offered Gustafson the baseball job at UT. Royal, one of the icons in college football history, was also the Longhorns’ athletic director.
More than 50 years after coaching his last game at South San, Gustafson remains inextricably linked with the Bobcats and one of the greatest dynasties in Texas high school sports history.
“We had a lot of talent and a great coach who stressed fundamentals,” Zamora said. “Gus knew the game but he got better as a coach every year. Once we won that first one, things fell in place for us. The expectations were high each year and that motivated us. But we knew we had to work hard.”
Now 78, Zamora still lives in San Antonio. He won three baseball state championships in his four years at South San, and returned to coach the Bobcats for 11 seasons (1969-78 and 1986). Zamora was the first Hispanic head baseball coach in South San history. He went into administration after leaving coaching and rose to the position of South San ISD superintendent before retiring in 2010.
Zamora was also a standout on the South San basketball team that won state in 1961, his senior year. He went on to play baseball at Baylor for four seasons under coach Emil “Dutch” Schroeder before starting his coaching career in 1965 at La Salle High School in San Antonio.
“Playing sports at South San opened up a lot of doors for me,” Zamora said. “When you’re an athlete, it gives you more opportunities because you’re exposed to the media more. People are going to know who you are if you’re successful as an athlete. I wouldn’t have gone to college if it hadn’t been for baseball. I really didn’t care to go to college.
“I wanted to work at Kelly Field. My older brothers and other people I knew, the parents of some of the guys, they all worked at Kelly. Those were good jobs that paid well, had good benefits. When somebody asked me, ‘Where are you going to go to college?’ the light bulb in my head turned on. I thought, oh, I’m supposed to go to college?”
Zamora was the sixth of seven children born to Bonifacia and Ricardo Zamora. The fifth of six boys in the family, Robert was the only Zamora brother coached by Gustafson for four seasons.
“Of course, he means a lot to my life because he was so great a contributor on the baseball team, and he started that as a freshman,” Gustafson said of Robert. “He carried that all the way through.”
Jill Gustafson Balderama, Gustafson’s oldest of three children, said her father has a special relationship with Robert and the Zamora family.
“He was always close to the whole family,” she said.
Tony Zamora, who graduated in 1955 and was the fourth son in the family, was a standout shortstop for four seasons and played on Gustafson’s first team as a senior.
Raul, the youngest of the Zamora brothers and a 1968 graduate, played on Gustafson’s last three teams and won two titles. He was the Bobcats’ third baseman and leading hitter in 1967, when they went 39-0 and extended their winning streak to 45 games in Gustafson’s final high school season.
South San won 12 district championships in its 13 seasons under Gustafson, who was 344-85-5 with the Bobcats.
For Robert Zamora, the memories of South San’s dynasty have crystallized with time. After all these years, he still remembers the first state-championship season vividly. For all the Bobcats’ success in 1958, their climb to the summit got off to an inauspicious start.
“We lost eight games in a row my freshman year,” Zamora said. “Gus took us to the football field after practice one day and sat us down in the end zone, and he told us what he thought. We took exception to what he said. He said there were too many guys on the team that just wanted to eat chicken-fried steak (on road trips).
“All the guys got upset, especially the Hispanic. We had some pride. We weren’t well off, but we weren’t starving. We took it personally, even though he didn’t say, ‘You Mexicans.’ We thought, ‘We’re going to show him.’ I’m sure Gus didn’t know what our reaction would be. But, psychologically, it worked. Everything started to fall into place after that.”
Zamora, who has drawn closer to Gustafson as they’ve aged, laughs at the memory now.
“I think we needed that,” he said. “Think about it. We had lost eight straight games and we didn’t know what was going on. I was just a freshman, so I didn’t know what was going on.”
Gustafson still remembers how his players responded after the pivotal meeting.
“They felt like they owed the school, their families and the community more than what they were giving,” Gustafson said. “They decided they wanted to do whatever was necessary. They thought I would know what was necessary.
“They worked hard for me. We worked on fundamentals a lot, things you would expect a junior high team to be working on. They worked on all that stuff and when it happened in a ballgame, they were ready for it.”
Born in Kenedy but raised in San Antonio, Gustafson graduated from Harlandale High School in 1948 and had a stellar baseball career at UT. He is the younger brother of the late Martin Gustafson, who coached Uvalde to a football state championship in 1972 before becoming head football coach at Churchill. He later was athletic director of the Northside ISD.
Cliff recalled some sound advice Marvin gave him after watching one of his baseball games at South San.
“We went to my mother’s house for dinner that night, he and I both, and I asked him how he liked the ballgame,” Gustafson said. “He said, ‘It was a good ballgame, but I couldn’t play for you. You do too damned much hollering. You need to cut that out. They can play without that. So, I gave that a lot of thought because I respected what he said all the time.
“I was just getting ready to go to Texas about that time, so I said, ‘Now would be a good time to change that.’ I got to where I didn’t yell and scream during the ballgame at all. People would ask me, up there (Austin) all the time, ‘How do you stay so calm during a ballgame?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I might not be as calm as you think I am.’”
Gustafson was noted for his stoic demeanor when he coached at UT, where he went 1,466-377 in 29 seasons and led the Longhorns to College World Series championships in 1975 and 1983. UT also won 22 Southwest Conference titles in its 29 years under Gustafson.
The Gustafson brothers and Robert Zamora are members of the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame.
“I think it’s always an honor to be in a hall of fame with whoever is already in there,” Zamora said. “It just proves that we accomplished something that was worthy of getting recognized for.”
Zamora's son, Robert Zamora Jr., has continued the family's baseball tradition at South San. Besides being the school district's athletic director, he has been the Bobcats' head baseball coach for 24 seasons.
Gustafson, who has remarried, has six grandchildren and three great grandchildren. He and his wife, who died in 2012, had two other children, Deron and Jann. Deron is deceased.