SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - It was exactly one year ago to the day that Vic Grider stunned a packed room of players, parents and supporters at South Pittsburg's football banquet by announcing his resignation as head coach. The ripple effect of that decision set off an exasperating six months of uncertainty for one of the area's most successful programs before Tim Moore returned home to steady the Pirates' ship.
And now, on the anniversary of Grider's surprising decision and in a season when Moore was still learning his players' names by the first kickoff, he has met the lofty expectations, guiding South Pittsburg back to the Class 1A state championship game. In their fifth title-game appearance in the last seven seasons, the top-ranked Pirates (12-1) will take on second-ranked Union City (12-1) today at noon EST at Tennessee Tech University.
"I couldn't be happier for Tim and this staff," said Grider, who still is South Pittsburg's athletic director. "I'm not sure a lot of people understand how tough his job was, coming in late and with so much expected out of this group against a really tough schedule. To overcome all that just to get here is awfully impressive."
In his 16 seasons as coach, Grider's teams won 81 percent of their games with three state titles and two runner-up finishes, making it one of the most coveted small-school jobs in Tennessee. Two months after he stepped down, the school announced the hiring of Calhoun (Ga.) defensive coordinator Ricky Ross, but less than two months later Ross decided he no longer wanted the job, and as spring practice began, the program again faced an uncertain future.
"I think a lot of people outside our community were watching what was going on and were hoping we were going to struggle for a while," Grider said. "And a lot of people in our community were really worried.
"This program is just at a level where there are a lot of people who care about what happens to it one way or another. We knew we had no choice, there was no room for doubt: We had to get the second hire right."
That's when Moore, an all-state offensive lineman for the Pirates in the late 1970s, took the job, bringing a calming presence the team needed and placing the weight of a football-crazed community's expectations across his broad shoulders.
"With this group of seniors, and just where this program is, I knew there would be high expectations," said Moore, who didn't apply the first time the job came open because of an illness in his family. "It's great to get them here, because I knew this has been their goal all along.
"When the job opened up again, I thought maybe I'm supposed to get it after all. I think some people felt better since I had played here and knew how important the program is to a lot of people. But it's always a challenge to step into a home that's already built and try to remodel it to fit you. The bar is set pretty high here, and I didn't want to let it fall."
Moore became only the Pirates' fourth head coach in the past 50 years, taking over the only program in Tennessee that has played for a state title in all six decades of the TSSAA's playoff format. Today's game is the 11th time the Pirates have played for a championship, and they won five of those first 10.
This was also the first season since 1961 for South Pittsburg to play without a Grider on the sideline. While Grider's coaching personality was more similar to a Pentecostal preacher getting lathered up, Moore portrays a more relaxed confidence, taking every perceived missed block, tackle or officials' call in stride.
"Coach Moore is a lot different, a lot more laid back," said senior two-way lineman Ricky Fehr, a three-year starter. "They both pushed you to get better, but just in different ways.
"Honestly, I was kind of worried before our first game, just because there was so much unknown. But after that first game, I knew we would be fine with Coach Moore."
Moore came to South Pittsburg after a successful career coaching mostly in the midstate. After playing at Vanderbilt, he worked as defensive coordinator at Livingston University for five years and then spent 15 seasons at Battle Ground Academy, first as defensive coordinator, where he helped the Wildcats win three state titles and finish runner-up once. They then won two more state titles with him as head coach, with one runner-up finish as well.
"I'm a big believer in fate," Grider said. "Sometimes things happen for a reason. Looking back, we went through a stressful time, but things worked out best for our football program. We have a quality person who knows the expectations and traditions here.
"Tim's the kind of guy you want your kids to play for. There was a lot of pressure because everybody knew the talent we had. But to get there with all the distractions of coming in late and just living up to those expectations, that says a lot about what kind of coach and person Tim is."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.