In the 1990s and the 2000s, Zach Thomas and Wes Welker sprang from unheralded recruit status to college all-Americans and long pro careers.

Texas Tech's reputation for finding and cultivating overachievers started years before, though.

Tom Wilson went from far down the Texas Tech depth chart to all-Southwest Conference recognition and quarterback of two bowl teams. Then he became head coach of an SWC rival and later coached his hometown's high school team to the state semifinals and state finals in separate seasons.

As quarterback of the Donny Anderson-era Red Raiders, Wilson did his part to help Tech gain legitimacy during its early years in the SWC, and he would've become the Red Raiders' head coach at age 33 but for lack of support from the university president.

Wilson died early Wednesday, about a year and a half after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was 72.

"He was a great guy," Anderson said last year. "You can't speak highly enough of Tom Wilson. He's an unbelievable person. We couldn't have done what we did without him, I know that. He was a good general."

Tech went 6-4-1 in 1964, Wilson's junior year, and 8-3 in 1965, his senior season. He started all 22 of those games, a prospect on which few would've bet when he arrived on campus in 1962, a 150-pounder trying to distinguish himself among five freshman quarterbacks.

"He started out when he came to Texas Tech as a scrawny little quarterback that probably you wouldn't have given 10 cents to make it," said Johnny Agan, a blocking back in the same backfield. "But he worked very hard and he was dedicated. He stuck with the program and worked hard to try to succeed, and he got that opportunity his junior year and he was very successful, and then his senior year he was more successful.

"In the coaching profession, he was very successful with young men and how to groom them for the future."

Wilson likely would have gone to Baylor, the program for whom he grew up cheering, but he was already married and Baylor campus policy prevented freshman football players from being married.

James Ellis and Ben Elledge quarterbacked the Red Raiders in 1963, and even though both were still on campus in the spring of 1964, Wilson seized the job. A-J editor emeritus Burle Pettit, who covered the team in those years, remembered then-coach JT King's description of Wilson's emergence.

"'He took the fourth team and beat the third,'" Pettit remembered King saying, "'took the third team and beat the second and then when he took the second team and beat the first, we started to get the picture.'

"All that sounds hyperbolic," Pettit said this week, "but it was true. The guy was just a dern winner."

Former Tech chancellor Kent Hance, who was in school at the time, remembered Wilson being called "Tiny Tom" when he showed up and no one giving him much of a chance.

"(Wide receiver Jerry) Shipley lived next door to me in the dorm," Hance said. "Shipley kept telling me, 'The best quarterback out there's Tom Wilson, and he's going to make it and he's going to make it big."

According to A-J accounts at the time, plenty of Tech fans were skeptical. Wilson topped out at 171 pounds his senior year. He didn't really wow anyone with his passing or running. And Georgia shut out Tech 7-0 in the 1964 Sun Bowl, a humiliating afternoon for the Red Raiders' offense.

Still, the 1964 bowl appearance, after a 5-5 season in 1963 stemmed the tide of seven straight losing seasons.

And what followed in 1965 was special. Wilson took part in one of the most famous plays in Tech history, a hook and lateral that he, Shipley and Anderson pulled off to beat Texas A&M 20-16 at Jones Stadium.

Of the Red Raiders' eight wins that season, they trailed in the fourth quarter in five.

"Tom was very studious, and he had a pretty decent arm," Anderson said. "But he understood the game. He understood play calling. And that's what made him as great as he was in our senior year, '65, is he truly understood the game. We were very fortunate to have guys like that."

"They were special players at a special time for Texas Tech," Hance said. "They moved us from being a Border Conference team to being a Southwest Conference team at the top."

Wilson was inducted into the Tech Hall of Fame in 1990.

After his playing career ended, Wilson served as a Tech assistant from 1967-74, went to Texas A&M as offensive coordinator from 1975-78 and succeeded Emory Bellard as Aggies head coach midway through the 1978 season. He was fired after the 1981 season with a record of 21-19.

Wilson would've predated Kliff Kingsbury as the first Tech player to become head coach at his alma mater, but for a disagreement after Steve Sloan left in 1977. In fact, King, having moved from head coach to athletic director, had already called and told Wilson he had the job and was dispatching a plane to College Station. But Tech president Cecil Mackey and executive vice president Glenn Barnett overruled King's choice after Barnett initially sided with King and agreed on Wilson.

"I had never been so devastated in my life," Wilson said in 2012.

Wilson was 33 at the time, and Mackey wanted someone with more experience. Rex Dockery wound up with the job.

After Wilson left college coaching, he took over at Palestine in 1985. He coached Corsicana from 1993-99 and went 62-23. His 1994 team made the Class 4A state semifinals and finished 11-4, and his 1997 team made the Class 4A Division I title game and finished 12-3.

Wilson's wife, Daun, died in April, about a year after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

"The doctor told him the odds were against him," Pettit said. "He said, 'I've spent much of my life being on my own 10-yard line, behind by a touchdown and 90 yards ahead. I never quit to the end, and I'm not going to quit now.'"

Pettit said he was maintaining that determination when they visited in the past year.

"You couldn't tell there was anything wrong with Tom, looking at him or talking to him," Pettit said, "which doesn't surprise me because, even at that stage, he still thought the battle was his, that he'd win it. ... He wasn't only one of the most amazing football players I was ever associated with. He was one of the most amazing human beings I've ever associated with."

This article was written by Don Williams from Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.