Peter Willis (Pete) Cawthon, football coach, was born on March 24, 1898, in Houston, the tenth of thirteen children and the oldest surviving son of Peter W. and Frances Pauline (Harrison) Cawthon. After graduating from Houston Central High School in 1917 he entered Southwestern University, Georgetown. There he lettered in football, basketball, and baseball his freshman year and coached the baseball team after the coach left to fight in World War I. Cawthon earned four letters his sophomore year and was selected as an All-State halfback. At Southwestern he met and married Virginia Smith of Mexia; they had two sons.
In 1919 Cawthon took his first coaching job, at Beaumont High School. The following year he became varsity baseball and basketball coach at Rice Institute (now Rice University) and also directed freshman sports. He took charge of athletics at Terrill School for Boys in Dallas in 1921 and carried its football team through two victorious seasons. When Cawthon went to Austin College at Sherman in 1923 to become head coach there, seven of the gridders who had played under him at Terrill followed him. Already he had begun to establish a reputation as a hard-nosed but big-hearted disciplinarian. When Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne (see ROCKNE, TEXAS) came to conduct a coaching school at Austin in 1925, Cawthon met him; thereafter he utilized many of Rockne's methods. Cawthon also established the annual Cawthon Trophy, awarded to an outstanding individual on the basis of athletic participation, leadership, and sportsmanship, at Austin College. In 1927 he resigned his position because of poor health resulting from overwork and went to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas for a rest. After a few months of recuperation, he returned to Texas, where he spent the next two years working as an official for the Southwest Conference.
In February 1930 Cawthon was hired as head football coach and athletic director at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) in Lubbock, with Russell T. (Dutch) Smith and John O'Dell (Dell) Morgan as assistants. By 1932 his Matadors had become the highest-scoring team in the nation. Elmer Tarbox and Ed Irons were among "Pete's Boys" at Tech. In Lubbock Cawthon taught the men's Downtown Bible Class and helped begin the city's first Jewish synagogue. During his tenure the Tech athletic programs and facilities were expanded and improved. In the fall of 1934 he outfitted his team in red satin uniforms and set out to build their reputation by scheduling games across the nation. As a result sports writers began referring to the Matadors as the "Red Raiders." In 1937 they became the nation's first college football team to fly to a road game when Cawthon, backed by the Tech athletic council, chartered a DC-3 to fly from Meecham Field in Fort Worth to Michigan to play the University of Detroit. In all, Cawthon led the Raiders through seventy-nine wins, twenty-seven losses, and six ties, including an appearance in the Sun Bowl in 1938. In 1939 he led the Tech team through its first undefeated season to an appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Controversy developed over his use of an ineligible player, however, and Tech was expelled for two years from the Border Conference. Even so, Cawthon coached for two more seasons. His traveling schedules increasingly conflicted with attempts by the athletic council, headed by W. L. Stangel, to gain Tech's admission into the Southwest Conference. Cawthon resigned in January 1941, after presenting a schedule without a single Texas team on it.
He and his family retreated briefly to Daytona Beach, Florida. When the United States entered World War II, Cawthon helped recruit coaches for the navy's preflight athletic program at Annapolis, Maryland, before taking a job as line coach at the University of Alabama in the fall of 1942. In 1943 he launched his professional football career as head coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He stayed in Brooklyn for two seasons and then served three years as associate coach and head scout for the Detroit Lions. He returned to college football in 1952, when he became athletic director for the University of Alabama, a position he held for two seasons, both of which brought the Crimson Tide to postseason bowl games. After 1953 Cawthon devoted full time to his summer youth camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lexington, Virginia.
He and his wife maintained homes in both Sherman and Tuscaloosa during his last years. Among the honors bestowed upon Cawthon was the Meritorious Service Award from Austin College in 1957. He was enrolled in the Sports Hall of Fame in Dallas, inducted into the Texas Tech Athletic Hall of Honor, and recognized at a testimonial dinner in Houston, all in 1961. Late in December 1962 he was stricken with infectious hepatitis, and although he recovered from that, he subsequently suffered two heart attacks. He died at the Wilson and Jones Hospital in Sherman on December 31, 1962, and was interred in the Mexia Cemetery.