SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - Seasons, names and offenses change, but the expectations remain the same.
While four of the area's five remaining playoff teams have switched to run a variation of the spread offense over the past three seasons, changing formations is nothing new at South Pittsburg. Most programs make wholesale changes to a philosophy only after a coaching change or when their offense is struggling, but the Pirates have done so to maintain the level of success that few small schools can match.
As the only program to have played for a title in each of the last six decades, the Pirates have run everything from the single-wing, the "I" formation, the power-I and the wing-T to the spread and even have tweaked the type of spread offense they use.
"We still keep a pretty simple set of base plays, but we make changes based on the type talent we have," Pirates coach Vic Grider said. "I'm just not one of those guys who's going to be stubborn and say we have to win with just one way of doing things.
"We're not flashy. Our coaches aren't trying to be gurus; we just try to be fundamentally sound. If you're physical running the ball and getting after people on defense, you can break a team's spirit and wind up putting up a lot of points."
In the last 10 years Calhoun has averaged 12 wins, North Jackson and South Pittsburg 11 each and Boyd-Buchanan nine. Calhoun is still looking for an elusive first state title under Hal Lamb but has played in three straight state finals, while Boyd-Buchanan has reached at least the quarterfinal round 11 of the last 14 years, including four appearances in state-title games, and Baylor is looking to make its second straight trip to the Division II-AA final.
But South Pittsburg remains the measuring stick for all area programs, having reached the quarterfinals 14 times in the last 19 seasons.
The Pirates have won more state championships (5) and appeared in more title games (9) than any other program in the area, and their 61 playoff wins are 13 more than Dalton, which is the next closest area team. Going into tonight's quarterfinal game at sixth-ranked Coalfield, South Pittsburg is trying to become the first Class 1A program to repeat as state champion since Trousdale County in 1997-98.
Playoff success alone isn't what has established one of the area's smallest schools as the most dominant in its classification.
Despite having winning records in all but five seasons from 1969 to '90, South Pittsburg scored 50-plus points just once during that time. But in their last 186 games played, the Pirates have scored 40-plus points 91 times and 50-plus 67 times. The next closest area program in putting up points is Cleveland, which during the same time has scored 50-plus 25 fewer times than South Pittsburg.
But it isn't just video game scoring that has carried the Pirates year in and year out. They also lead the Chattanooga area in fewest points allowed and most shutouts in the last 20 seasons.
"The spread fits them perfectly because the smaller schools don't have the number of athletes you need to have enough good tacklers out in space," said Lookout Valley coach Tony Webb, who has guided his team to the playoffs six of the last seven seasons.
"Most of the coaches you talk to who have to play them don't want to admit it, but when their kids see the black helmets with the orange 'P' come onto the field, there's an intimidation factor. You know immediately you had better buckle it up, because for all the praise they get about being fast, they're one of the most physical teams around, too. They will light you up."
50-plus point games
South Pittsburg 67
North Jackson 30
Others: Calhoun 22, Marion County 17, Red Bank 17, Signal Mountain 17 (in 3 varsity seasons).
South Pittsburg 22
North Jackson 10
South Pittsburg 9
Signal Mountain 2
Games allowed fewer than 10 points (shutouts in parentheses)
South Pittsburg 119 (52)
North Jackson 118 (38)
Red Bank 110 (35)
Calhoun 103 (35)
Dalton 100 ((40)
Others: Cleveland 98 (35), Tyner 91 (29), Marion County 89 (24), Boyd-Buchanan 81 (25), Polk County 74 (33), Sequatchie County 73 (33), McCallie 72 (17), Meigs County 72 (24), Baylor 70 (15).