SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. -- Wherever South Pittsburg's football program plays, the sideline and press box are noticeably more crowded with coaches than with most Class 1A programs.
Between paid assistants and volunteer coaches, it's not uncommon for the Pirates to have nearly a dozen coaches working at practice and on Friday nights. It's not just the number but the experience on the staff that separates the Pirates from most small-school program, as they have four former head coaches from other programs working on head coach Vic Grider's staff.
Defensive coordinator Danny Wilson was the Pirates' head coach in 1994 when they won their second state title and later led both Maryville Heritage and Cleveland to the playoffs as head coach at those programs. First-year linebackers coach Fred Tidmore has been a head coach at Alabama programs Scottsboro and Pisgah, while offensive line coach David Hale is a former starter at Vanderbilt and was the head coach at City High before that school dropped football, and Jim Thomas was head coach at Bridgeport and North Jackson (Ala.) before joining the Pirates as a volunteer assistant.
Thomas also was North Jackson's offensive coordinator when the Chiefs won the 1993 state title.
"It's been 15 years since I've had a team practice on Thanksgiving, so that's pretty special," Tidmore said. "The level of dedication on the whole staff is what caught my eye when I first got here. I've told them they're kind of spoiled on this staff. I've been in it 28 years and never coached in a championship [game]. Just to be a part of the tradition and being in a championship atmosphere is something I hope to get to do."
Tonight the Pirates will travel to ninth-ranked Gordonsville in their third straight road game against a state-ranked playoff opponent. No team in program history has had to travel that many weeks in the postseason, and if the Pirates are to become the first 1A program to repeat as state champion since Trousdale County in 1997-98, the staff's ability to prepare the team mentally for such a difficult run can't be overlooked.
"The biggest compliment I can pay that staff is that when you're preparing to go against them, you know you have to beat them for four quarters because their kids won't stop coming at you," said Polk County coach Derrick Davis, whose team has played the Pirates the last two seasons. "They do such an incredible job of getting those kids ready every week.
"I mean, everybody else has put up their equipment, but pretty much every year you can count on those guys to still be playing for a championship. That's not just athletes, that's a group of coaches who know what the heck they're doing."
The staff also includes strength and conditioning coach E.J. Bradford, who coaches special teams and played defensive line at the University of Georgia and was East Ridge's defensive coordinator before this season, as well as former Pirates all-state player Eddie Moore, who went on to become an All-SEC linebacker and played in the NFL with Miami and Denver.
Three other South Pittsburg graduates -- Heath Grider, Tim Starkey and Wesley Stone, all with more than 10 years experience -- complete the staff. Grider is Vic's younger brother, Starkey was a Mr. Football finalist who played quarterback on the 1999 championship team, and Stone was a lineman on the 1994 team.
"You can't put into words how much having that kind of experience on staff means," Vic Grider said. "It eases my mind because I trust all of them so much, and even though I'm accountable for the program, we don't have any ego contests.
"It allows me to just concentrate on what we're doing offensively every week, because all our guys are seasoned football coaches who have been in about every situation you can think. Honestly, I don't think there's a better coached team around."
He was the Pirates' defensive coordinator on the 1994 championship team, and since taking over as head coach he has guided his alma mater to a 34-10 postseason record and three more 1A titles.
And while a win tonight would put the Pirates in the title game for the fourth time in five years, it would mark the first championship appearance for Tidmore and Bradford.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has 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. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...