Ironically the thread that ties together the mapdot towns making up the Sequatchie Valley is the same one that often divides its people. Besides politics and religion, few subjects unite or separate the residents faster than high school football, and it's a point of pride that no other region in the Chattanooga area can rival the Valley programs in accomplishment and expectations.
Seven high schools make up the Sequatchie Valley, stretching from Pikeville and Coalmont and snaking through the fertile farmland of Sequatchie and Marion counties and ending at the red-clay northeastern tip of Jackson County, Alabama.
While the region's average family income is nearly $6,000 less than the state averages, it is an area rich in football success and tradition. Teams from Bledsoe County, Grundy County, Marion County, North Jackson, Sequatchie County, South Pittsburg and Whitwell have combined to win more than 200 playoff games, appear in 21 state championship games and claim 10 state titles.
But blind devotion to school colors also creates high drama, and in the last year Sequatchie Valley football has produced more plot twists, budding villains, heroes and would-be divas than a daytime soap opera.
Five of the Valley's seven schools underwent coaching changes, and the coaching carousel spun out of control at North Jackson and South Pittsburg, which combined for five head coaches in the last calendar year.
The final stroke of theatrical genius in this far-off-Broadway comedic tragedy came when Ricky Ross was hired last week as the new head coach at Marion County High, less than a year after he abruptly left bitter rival South Pittsburg just two months into that job. That move was the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a tire fire that's been burning white-hot for decades already.
"That definitely raised a lot of eyebrows in the Valley, and I'd say the whole area," said legendary former Marion County and current Sequatchie County coach Ken Colquette. "When Marion goes to play at South Pitt this year, I'd say it'll be the high school version of Lane Kiffin going into Neyland Stadium."
There is perhaps no better judge of the level of absurdity within the Valley in the past year than Colquette, who was recently announced as an inductee into the TSSAA Hall of Fame. He played at Grundy County and most of his 254 career wins were claimed as a head coach at Valley programs, from his start at Bridgeport, Ala., to winning four state titles at Marion and his later stints at Grundy and Sequatchie.
"I don't think there's ever been anything nearly as crazy as what's happened in the last year around here," Colquette declared. "I've never seen or heard of anything like it anywhere, to be honest."
Here is a timeline of the dramatic events involving prep football in that area in just over a year:
Jan. 6, 2013 -- Despite posting a 50-13 overall record in five years as the head coach, and having been with the program a total of 12 seasons, Shawn Peek resigned under some pressure as head coach at North Jackson (Ala.), along with four assistants. The Chiefs were coming off a 7-5 season, losing in the second round to eventual state champion Oneonta.
Before becoming head coach, Peek had been the Chiefs' defensive coordinator, and in his 12 years there the program averaged 12 wins, earned 10 region championships and finished state runner-up once.
Jan. 15 -- Sequatchie County made a sizable splash by hiring coaching legend Ken Colquette to run its football program. The 65-year-old Colquette came out of retirement and would lead the Indians back to the playoffs the following fall.
Jan. 23 -- Calhoun (Ga.) defensive coordinator Ricky Ross was named head coach at South Pittsburg. It was his first head coaching job, and he was chosen from more than 140 applicants to replace Vic Grider, who had stunned the school by resigning at the postseason banquet in December after 16 seasons.
"Everything he said was exactly what we wanted to hear in terms of his plans for the future of the program," Grider said of Ross at the time. "If there's a coaching lottery, we feel like we hit the jackpot with him."
Jan. 30 -- Less than three weeks after departing North Jackson, Peek took over at nearby Pisgah (Ala.), his alma mater. That same day, North Jackson announced David McKinney as its new coach. McKinney was a former all-state quarterback at Stevenson, where he played for his father, Kenneth, who won two state titles there in the late 1970s. Stevenson and Bridgeport consolidated to form North Jackson High. David McKinney, who had quarterbacked Stevenson to one state final, returned home after six successful seasons as the head coach at Gordo (Ala.).
"The fact that he wants to be here was the biggest factor in making sure we got him," North Jackson principal Sam Houston said at the time.
March 23 -- Two months after accepting the offer to become South Pittsburg's coach, Ross informed administrators that he no longer wanted the job. It was not an amicable parting as Ross and Grider, the school's athletic director, launched verbal grenades at one another on the day the news broke.
"The bottom line is we're on different levels as far as commitment," Ross said then, referring to the date he felt he had been told his employment within the county school system would begin. While Ross contended he was promised he would be hired by the first of March, Grider stated that the job would not begin until the school year ended, later in the spring. School superintendent Mark Griffith said both Ross and his wife were guaranteed teaching jobs in the system, beginning after positions came open at the end of the semester.
"I think he's completely accurate about us having a difference of opinion in what commitment means," Grider retorted. "He committed to me, to our school, to 45 kids on the team and to our community. He's right. There was a lack of commitment, but it wasn't on our part."
April 22 -- Citing "family reasons," McKinney resigned as North Jackson's head coach just two months after taking the job and one week before spring practice was to begin. He had started working full time Feb. 4 and had been driving back and forth from Gordo, where his wife and family still lived. McKinney said his wife would not be able to transfer her job and the family had decided to stay put.
"I'm stunned," principal Houston said. "We'll just have to pick up the pieces and start the search over again."
April 29 -- With a skeleton staff of just two remaining assistants after McKinney's sudden departure, Houston, who had been an assistant before moving into administration, decided to oversee spring practice himself. Once word began to leak throughout the community that the program was in need, former Chiefs players Josh Harding, Todd Hughes and Matt Barnard, as well as former Chiefs and University of Alabama players Ali Sharrief and Tana Patrick volunteered their time for two weeks.
May 3 -- Barely more than a month after restarting its coaching search, South Pittsburg named one of its own as the program's new coach. Tim Moore, a former all-state lineman, took over at his alma mater after helping Battle Ground Academy win three state titles as defensive coordinator and later winning two as head coach there.
June 14 -- While most teams were attending passing-league camps and going through summer conditioning, with preseason practice looming just more than a month away, North Jackson finally hired a head coach. The Chiefs settled on former Leeds High offensive coordinator Tony Johnson, whose only previous head coaching experience was at Dora (Ala.), where he won two games in his lone season.
Sept. 17 -- Grundy County suspended head coach Nick Bryant for one week after an issue with a player during halftime of the previous week's home loss to Silverdale Baptist Academy. According to the parent of one player, Bryant kicked a garbage can as he entered the locker room at halftime and the can struck a player in the face but did not injure him. Citing a violation of the school's code of conduct, director of schools Jody Hargis announced Bryant would be suspended for the entire week, including practice and that Friday's game at Signal Mountain.
Sept. 19 -- All three schools in Marion County (MCHS, South Pittsburg and Whitwell) came under fire from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for continuing to have open prayer over the public-address speakers before games on Friday nights. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the FFRF carried its fight to eliminate prayer and the mention of God at any function held on public school property across the U.S.
"We're not a Christian nation," said FFRF co-founder and co-president Annie-Laurie Gaylor. "We have Christians within our nation, but there's a difference. I would give many of these schools an 'F' in civics for not knowing the Constitution."
While the schools stopped P.A. prayers, they all continued to allow students and fans to meet on the field before games to pray. When Marion County played at Whitwell, the two fan bases set aside their rivalry to form a prayer circle that stretched around the entire field before the game.
"I'm not a coach who's a Christian. I'm a Christian coach," Whitwell coach Billy Barnhart said afterward.
Nov. 1 -- On the morning of the renewal of one of the state's oldest rivalries, Marion County fans were outraged to find the team's fieldhouse had been vandalized. Trash was strewn across the parking lot and orange and black spray paint was used to write vulgarities and call Warriors players and coaches derogatory names on the side doors and along the back side of the fieldhouse, as well as a storage building, the concrete parking lot and a sign that hung from the chain link fence outside the fieldhouse. Thanks to social media, pictures of the vandalism had spread before classes even began that morning, and Marion fans blasted South Pittsburg supporters for what they perceived to be taking the rivalry too far.
"I've coached for a long time and been around a lot of rivalries in a couple of different states, but nothing comes close to the intensity I've seen and felt around this one," Marion coach Mac McCurry had said the day before the vandalism took place.
Trusties from the Marion County jail were brought on campus to paint over the obscenities before fans began to show up for the game that night in Jasper. Later that evening, with stands on both sides already full more than an hour before kickoff, rumors already were beginning to swirl from both sides of a suspicion that at least some members of the Marion staff were in on the vandalism. But as he looked over the huge crowd, McCurry said he thought the ordeal would "blow over soon" and that "some people just take football way too seriously, I guess."
The game itself, which would decide the District 6-A championship between two teams ranked in the state's top three in their respective classifications, turned out to be a back-and-forth affair for three quarters before South Pittsburg put the game away late, claiming its eighth consecutive win in the series.
Nov. 2 -- Although Whitwell went unbeaten in the month of October, winning its four games by an average of 51-9 to finish 5-5, and despite having six teams in the state qualify for the Class 1A playoffs with the same or worse records, the Tigers were left out of the playoffs as the TSSAA brackets were released.
Nov. 7 -- On the heels of the worst season in the program's 26-year history, North Jackson fired first-year head coach Johnson just five months after he had taken over. With a roster of only six seniors and starting seven offensive and eight defensive players who were freshmen or sophomores, the Chiefs, who had won 10 region titles in the previous 13 seasons, finished 2-8, missed the playoffs for only the second time ever and were outscored an average of 34-12.
"Once he got here, he just never seemed to be the right guy," Houston said. "The pieces never seemed to fit between him, the program and the community."
Nov. 13 -- Less than two weeks after the school's fieldhouse had been vandalized, a joint investigation by Jasper police and the Marion County Sheriff's Office led to a surprising arrest when MCHS teacher and assistant coach Michael Schmitt was arrested on charges of vandalism of $1,000-$10,000.
Nov. 19 -- Just days after the initial arrest, a second Marion assistant, Joe Dan Gudger, also was arrested and charged with the vandalism of the school's fieldhouse. When county investigators pulled coaches' cell phone records, they discovered conversations among them admitting to buying the paint that was used to vandalize the Marion fieldhouse and stating that head coach McCurry had initiated the plan. Other allegations also came to light that day, including another MCHS assistant breaking into South Pittsburg's fieldhouse to steal play sheets and the coaching staff paying a former college player to practice with the team in preparation for its game against the rival Pirates. The story would make national news with recounts airing twice on ESPN as well as The Dan Patrick radio show.
Nov. 20 -- On the morning that the Times Free Press article was published, detailing his alleged knowledge of what was rapidly becoming a national story, McCurry resigned amid the swarm of controversy. McCurry requested an off-campus meeting with school superintendent Mark Griffith and MCHS principal Larry Ziegler before school and said it was in his best interest to separate himself from the program.
"When I saw the newspaper [that] morning, I had already pretty much made up my mind what needed to be done," Griffith said. "But Coach McCurry resigned and in the interest of making it a quicker separation, we accepted his resignation."
Longtime assistant Larry Richard took over as interim coach for the rest of that week's practices and that Friday's state quarterfinal game at perennial power Trousdale County.
Nov. 22 -- Marion County's football players were given a heroes' send-off on their way to take on second-ranked Trousdale County. Thousands of purple-clad fans lined the streets of Jasper to cheer as the bus rolled out, and even more than 100 from South Pittsburg -- including players, cheerleaders, coaches and fans -- stood in Kimball to wave and wish the Warriors well. Fireworks were shot as the bus headed toward the interstate, and a police escort led the two-hour trip. That night, however, Trousdale proved too much to overcome.
Nov. 29 -- On the same night senior Kahlil Mitchell had a career highlight, rushing for 283 yards and five touchdowns to lead South Pittsburg to a 43-22 semifinal win at Coalfield, his brother and starting two-way lineman Kyan Mitchell was ejected after his second unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. Late in the game several South Pittsburg players stepped from the sideline toward an on-field scuffle. Kyan Mitchell was suspended from playing in the state title game the following week, and South Pittsburg later would be fined $250 for having players leave the sideline.
Dec. 2 -- In a rarity, two players from the same county, whose teams play in the same district, were finalists for the state's Mr. Football awards. South Pittsburg senior running back Jajuan Lankford won the state's 1A Back of the Year award at the annual banquet, while Marion County's Blake Zeman was a Lineman of the Year runner-up.
Dec. 4 -- The TSSAA accepted the two-part, self-imposed sanctions by Marion County for violating the state's practice rule by having a former college athlete work out with the team. Marion's 10 days of spring practice for 2014 were canceled and the program extended the state's two-week dead period by two more weeks for itself. According to TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress, once those steps are completed, the state's high school sports governing body will consider the case against Marion closed.
Dec. 6 -- Exactly one year to the day after Grider announced his resignation, new coach Moore led South Pittsburg onto the field at Tennessee Tech for the 1A state title game. But without attempting a single pass, Union City bulldozed its way to the championship, outrushing South Pittsburg 319-131 in an 11-point win.
Dec. 9 -- After initially turning down an offer to become the head coach at Coahulla Creek, South Pittsburg athletic director and former coach Grider accepted a more lucrative offer from the Georgia school. Up to that point, Grider had spent his entire coaching and teaching career at his alma mater.
Dec. 13 -- The offer from Coahulla Creek, which had been too good to pass up, turned out to be too good to be true for Grider. Once Whitfield County school superintendent Dr. Judy Gilreath was told of the added incentives that Grider had been promised, she contacted the coach to inform him the school could not honor that offer. In addition to an estimated salary of $100,000 and a $7,500 athletic supplement, Grider had been extended an additional incentive package of around $20,000, which would have come from the school's football booster club.
"We have a board policy that states boosters can't pay coaches' salaries," Dr. Gilreath said.
"It was a punch to the gut when I got the call that the deal I was promised wasn't there," Grider said.
Jan. 14, 2014 -- Despite having more than 100 applicants, North Jackson decided to go with a known commodity in hopes of restoring the program's lofty status and announced it was bringing back former coach Mark Rose to take over the program again. Rose went 85-15 in his first stint with the Chiefs (2000-08) and had guided Smith's Station to six successful seasons before being coaxed back to Stevenson.
"The financial deal was something I couldn't pass up," Rose said. "I'm coming back for one reason and that's to win the state championship."
Jan. 17 -- Barnhart stunned the Whitwell administration and community by abruptly resigning after three seasons, leaving the school to look for its seventh coach in 11 years. Barnhart appeared to have the program headed in the right direction, yet he didn't leave to take another job elsewhere, saying, "I don't have anything else lined up. I'm just going to trust in the Lord to guide me where he wants me."
Whitwell principal Josh Holtcamp was stunned by the decision, admitting, "I'm floored. I never saw this coming, so I'm just in complete shock."
Feb. 14 -- In a Valentine's Day move certain to assure no love will be lost between the rival county programs, brief South Pittsburg coach Ross accepted an offer to become Marion County head coach. The announcement opens the curtain on yet another bizarre chapter in one of the state's most heated rivalries and sets the stage for further drama in a football-crazed region.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.