Among Tennessee’s high school football community, there is such a thing as the bogeyman.
With a record seven consecutive state championships, a 43-game win streak that includes victories over much larger schools and an average victory margin of 35 points, Alcoa’s dominance is something to be admired and even feared. But apparently not challenged.
At least that’s the thinking by head coaches at two of the Chattanooga area’s best teams, which consider tiny Alcoa so formidable they’ve taken calculated steps to avoid playing the school.
Last year’s Class 2A state champion, Signal Mountain, was moved up one classification by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association because of a 20 percent enrollment increase. But the Eagles chose to take yet another step up, to Class 4A, in order to be in a different playoff bracket than Alcoa.
“I’m not stupid. To have a shot of winning a state championship we knew we had to take a different route that didn’t include playing Alcoa,” said head coach Bill Price.
Meanwhile, last year’s 1A champion and perennial small-school power, South Pittsburg, chose to play one fewer regular-season game than is allowed rather than scheduling the Tornadoes.
“Why would we want any part of that monster if we don’t have to play them?” said South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider, whose team will play only nine regular-season games rather than the allowed 10. “That’s just where their program is. Nobody in their right mind wants a piece of them. You don’t try to tackle them unless you absolutely have to.”
The South Pittsburg Pirates’ nondistrict schedule already included annual playoff contenders Boyd-Buchanan, Polk County, Sequatchie County and Grundy County as well as Signal Mountain, but the idea of taking on Alcoa was too daunting.
Had South Pittsburg agreed to schedule Alcoa to a two-year contract, the teams would have taken turns hosting, but even the potential for a home game that could bring in as much as $25,000 in gate receipts wasn’t enough to sway Grider.
And his program has played for state titles in three of the past four seasons.
“We had a hard time finding teams our size that would play us, but when Alcoa called to say they had an open date the same week as us and wanted to play, I knew we couldn’t afford to risk playing them and get beat up right before the playoffs start,” Grider said. “You’d like to say there’s another reason why we couldn’t work it out and play, but it’s Alcoa and that’s the only reason we needed not to do it.”
Signal Mountain won its state championship in only its second year of varsity competition, the fastest in state history. The Eagles won all 14 games last year with an eye-popping scoring average of 51.6 points per game.
Yet coach Price said he felt it was in his program’s best interest to compete as the school with the smallest enrollment in 4A rather than face Alcoa.
Price’s team does have a tough nondistrict schedule that includes such larger schools as Blackman and Polk County as well as Tyner and South Pittsburg. But Alcoa? No thanks.
“They’re the best team in any public school class, and they proved that by beating the best 6A team the last couple of years,” Price said.
“I don’t think we can play with them right now. I don’t think anybody in the state can.”
Earl Nall, director of technology for the TSSA, said Signal Mountain’s move was a big topic of discussion during a recent staff meeting.
“We had to ask ourselves why they would want to do that, and it was pretty obvious to all of us at our meeting that they didn’t want to have to play Alcoa,” Nall said. “We’ve had teams in other sports move up for financial reasons, so they could earn more money on gate receipts, but this is the first time it was clearly for athletic reasons.”
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
With 550 students, Alcoa not only has one of the smallest enrollments among schools competing in its classification, but is actually just 20 students over the limit of being moved down one class.
However, the Tornadoes have no problem beating teams from higher classifications.
Maryville High is less than six miles from Alcoa and competes in Class 6A, Tennessee’s highest classification. The Rebels have won 101 of their last 105 games, with five state titles and two runners-up since 2003. Maryville’s only other losses in that time came to Alcoa in each of the past two seasons.
“Losing to them the last two seasons made us change some things we do in our off-season workouts,” Maryville coach George Quarles said. “They were just tougher and in better shape than us. We don’t typically see a better team all year than Alcoa, and that includes some of the teams that are about three times bigger. I’m not sure I want to see the team from their classification that can play with them.”
Students who live outside Alcoa’s zone can pay $500 to attend. The football program’s success has drawn talented athletes from other zones willing to pay the tuition in exchange for a better chance of winning a championship or being noticed by college recruiters. With 96 players currently going through summer workouts, 40 percent of Alcoa’s male student population is on the football roster.
“Kids want to go where they know they’re going to win, so as long as you’re willing to drive a little further to school, $500 is a small price to pay for what’s a pretty safe bet on a state championship,” said Polk County coach Derrick Davis, whose team competes in Class 3A. “They’re not doing anything illegal. Winning breeds winning, so they’re just taking the kids who come to them.
“You think their run will end at some point but when? Everything we hear is that their middle school guys coming up are more talented than any bunch they’ve had.”
JUST LIKE THE PROS
Most high school athletes like to emulate college or professional players, and Alcoa has taken care of those desires by signing an endorsement contract with Under Armour to provide workout gear, uniforms and accessories.
All players also receive gold championship rings each season the team wins a title. Head coach Gary Rankin estimates the jewelry cost during the seven-year championship stretch to be around $180,000. He said the money for the rings comes from donations from local businesses, parents and boosters as well as the city school system.
The team’s latest championship ring simply had the word “Dynasty” inscribed.
Another athletic incentive, for coaches, came five years ago when the Alcoa City School Board voted to give bonus stipends to coaches in each sport, assistants and head coaches, based on how far they advance in the postseason.
“That’s a pretty neat deal and just another way of showing the coaches and community how important athletics are here,” said Rankin, who also has served as the school’s athletic director and is currently an assistant principal.
PRIDE AND FUNDAMENTALS
Alcoa traditionally has been a strong program for decades, winning three straight championships in the late 1970s. While the Tornadoes had only one losing record in the past 25 years, they had claimed just one state title from 1979 until 2000, but now have won championships in eight of the past 10 seasons. They are tied with cross-county rival Maryville for the most state championships in state history by one program, with 12 each.
The program made the jump from small-school powerhouse to the most-feared team in the state after Rankin took over in 2006. Rankin had won four championships at Murfreesboro Riverdale in the state’s largest classification but said the desire to raise his family in a smaller community led him to Alcoa.
A stocky man with a bushy mustache and serious demeanor, Rankin is an old-school football coach who believes that success comes from executing the fundamentals — blocking, tackling and not turning the ball over.
Alcoa has committed just one turnover in the five championships under Rankin, who takes the blame. It was Rankin who ordered a quarterback sneak when he knew the signal caller had a broken hand.
The Tornadoes’ margin of victory in the title games alone is four touchdowns. The Tornadoes haven’t lost to a team in their classification since the 2003 semifinals, and their four losses under Rankin all came against teams that either won or played for a state title.
“We don’t have to ask our kids here to show up for workouts or practice hard,” said Rankin, who has 323 career victories and recently was inducted into the TSSAA Hall of Fame. “There’s a lot of pride in our program and a lot of competition for playing time, and all of that drives the kids to work hard and be the best.”
The football program’s tradition and pride carry over into the community, which routinely turns out crowds of 4,000-5,000 or more for home games. The Alcoa vs. Maryville games typically draw 9,000-10,000 fans.
“It’s not just supported in our community; it’s important in our community,” said Rankin, who turned down an assistant coaching job at the University of Tennessee 15 years ago. “We haven’t lost many here, but I remember the last time we did, I looked up and saw grown-ups crying in the stands.”
The tradition of winning football games on Friday nights at Alcoa is passed along from one generation to the next, like a family heirloom.
“Every year we have players whose dads or uncles or cousins or brothers won championships here, so they grew up understanding just how big a deal Friday night football is,” Rankin said. “It’s become a tremendous challenge for me to try and schedule games lately. Teams our size don’t want to play us, and I understand the bigger schools don’t want to get beat by a smaller school, so they won’t either.”
Alcoa kicks off this season against Class 5A Cleveland, and of their five nondistrict games, one, Austin-East, is against a team in its classification. The rest of the schedule includes defending 6A champion Maryville and defending 4A champ Greeneville, as well as Knoxville Fulton, which advanced to the second round of last year’s 4A playoffs.
The last time Alcoa lost to a Chattanooga area opponent came in the 1995 semifinals to Meigs County. Since then, Alcoa has beaten 13 Chattanooga area foes by an average of 37-10.
“I think that program wins mostly because it just means so much to the guys that play,” said former Alcoa player Taharin Tyson, now a freshman fullback at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “When you grow up there, as a little kid you dream of putting on that silver bullet. That’s what we call the helmets. You go to the games and look around and see how much pride there is and what it means not just to the players but everybody who lives there.
“That’s always a reminder that you’re not just playing for yourself or even just your team. You play for your town. You never want to do anything to embarrass your team, your school or your town,” Tyson said.
“That means we were always reminded to be accountable in class, around town and especially on the field to take care of business,” he said. “We never took any game for granted. We were taught to always go out and dominate our opponent for every second of every game.”
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...