Ram tough: Wayne Turner's legendary Chattanooga coaching career built on father's fundamental advice

THUMBNAIL ONLY - Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mark Wiedmer's drawing of Wayne Turner is seen in the studio at the Times Free Press on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mark Wiedmer's drawing of Wayne Turner is seen in the studio at the Times Free Press on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

On the surface there would seem to be little common ground between the 1997 Tyner and 1987 Kirkman football teams.

Both ended their season with a win but that's pretty much where the comparison would seem to end. The Rams ended that one-loss 1997 season by claiming the Class 2A state championship game on the frigid artificial turf at Vanderbilt Stadium, while Kirkman's lone win of the '87 season came on a muddy makeshift field on the grounds of Taft Youth Center.

The common link between those two otherwise distinctly different teams is Wayne Turner, who was on the coaching staff for both and does not see them as being dissimilar at all.

That's because for Turner - who was the defensive coordinator at Kirkman when the team snapped the nation's longest losing streak at 51 straight games with that 12-8 win at Taft, and the head coach at Tyner when the Rams became Hamilton County's first public-school to win a state title - the lasting image from both teams is not the won/loss records but the smiles on the players' faces as they walked off those fields.

"The looks on those kids' faces, just how happy they were and the sense of accomplishment and relief, it was pretty much the same for both teams to me," Turner said. "I'm still awfully proud to be associated with both groups of kids for having a goal and working hard to reach it."

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tyner head coach Wayne Turner works with the Rams before the game. The Howard Hustlin Tigers visited the Tyner Rams in a TSSAA rivalry game on Sept. 11, 2020.

A coaching foundation built on respect

One of the most successful and respected coaches in the history of Chattanooga prep football, Turner's time as coach at Tyner ended shortly after last Friday night's playoff loss at Trousdale County.

As with most divorces, the two sides still do not agree on the reasons for their public break-up. Tyner principal Gerald Harris has said he and Turner had met previously to discuss this season being Turner's last as head coach and that the two had even gone so far as to discuss possible replacements to run the program.

"Through all the conversations we had, I believed we were all on the same page," Harris said. "I have always had the utmost respect and always will for Coach T. I have nothing but love and respect for him and his players. He built the program and dedicated his life to the students and players. He eats and breathes football and the success speaks to that. Whoever comes to replace him will be filling big shoes."

Meanwhile Turner still contends that there was never an agreement and that he had wanted to take time after the season ended to decide whether he would step down or return. Instead, he said he was forced to resign and did so in the Rams locker room after their playoff loss, which ignited an angry collection of current and former players to rally behind their beloved coach in the days that followed.

Either way, the abrupt ending to such an otherwise accomplished career should not overshadow the amount of success - both on and off the field - that Turner has influenced within those who played for him during his 40-year career.

"I never had to call ahead to see if Coach T was at his office," said Darmecus Rawls, who played on the 1997 state championship team. "I would just hop in the car and drive there because I knew he was going to be there.

"His door was always open for former players or any of the kids at Tyner to come in and talk about anything or just visit because he cares about the school as a whole. A lot of guys who play for him come from one-parent homes so Coach T becomes like a parent in how he looks out for kids.

"Coach T doesn't look at color. He just loves kids. If you did something good he would praise you and if you did something wrong he would get onto you pretty bad, but then he'd put his arm around you and explain why you were wrong. He's just genuine and kids know that. I love him more as a man than a I do as a coach and I still use things that he taught me 24 years ago in my life today. He's the reason a lot of us went on to become successful men after we left Tyner."

Donald Turner owned a service station on the corner of 20th and Broad Street and taught all three of his sons that one of the most important life lessons was to treat everybody with the same respect. His late father's words became the foundation on which the oldest of the three siblings built his coaching career.

"I can still hear my dad say 'You're no better than anybody else and if you can't remember that you'll never amount to anything'," said Turner, who also coached baseball and wrestling and worked as Tyner's athletic director. "My dad and mama both had big hearts and for them it was all about doing for others and not about yourself. I've always tried to live up to that."

Key moments

› Turner’s overall head coaching record is 235-141, with 231 of those wins coming in 30 seasons at Tyner, where the field is named in his honor.› In the 10 seasons before he took over the Rams program compiled a 61-53 overall record and had never won a playoff game. During one decade-long stretch from 1996-2005, the Rams put together an impressive 204-27 overall record, winning 60 of 61 region games by an average of 44-8 and had 36 players sign college scholarships.› Tyner reached the playoffs in 27 of Turner’s 30 seasons, won 10 or more games 11 times, claimed 16 region championships, 32 playoff victories, had 12 Mr. Football finalists (6 players won the award), finished state runners-up in 1996 and 2017 and became Hamilton County’s first public school to win a state title in 1997.› While Turner has been Tyner’s only head coach since 1991, during that same time the Chattanooga-area’s 38 other in-state teams have made a combined 227 coaching changes.

Lasting connection

One year after falling short in the state title game, Tyner sent a message across the state by opening the 1997 season with a resounding 95-3 thumping of Boyd Buchanan. The Rams went on to score 60-plus points six times - including a 60-0 humbling of Harriman in the semifinals - and also shut out six opponents.

On a refrigerated Nashville evening, with an 18-degree windchill and snowflakes fluttering in the air, the Rams put together a gutsy 63-yard drive - converting on third down twice - to rally late for a 13-10 win over previously unbeaten Union City and become the first Hamilton County public school to claim a state championship.

Like a shooting star flashing across the night sky, Rory Hinton lofted a high-arching pass that Windarek Stewart dove and caught in the end zone with 1:33 remaining that lifted the Rams to the win.

"That team simply refused to accept defeat," said Turner of a squad that had just 32 players and seven of the 13 seniors signed college scholarships. "The seniors had played together for a long time and they set the example that everybody else followed."

"Really, the kids who have played at Tyner ever since then have tried to keep up with the expectations those guys set."

Conversely, by the time Kirkman took the rain-soaked field on the day before Halloween for the 1987 season finale, it had been nearly six full seasons since the Golden Hawks last won a game. The school, which would close its doors for good just three years later, had seen a dramatic drop in enrollment and the lack of numbers on the football team had resulted in the Hawks scoring just one touchdown or less in 45 straight games - including being shut out 22 times - during the miserable 51-game losing skid. They hadn't come within nine points of any opponent during the streak.

But it was the defense, coached by Turner, that preserved the epic win by intercepting two second-half passes, then stiffening for two goal-line stands - each inside Kirkman's 5-yard line - late in the game.

"We had so few kids at Kirkman that we would just be worn out by the second half and that's where we would lose games," Turner said. "I got real tired of picking up the paper every week and reading about the streak. It definitely made me appreciate winning a whole lot more."

"But it was the same type celebration after that game as when we won it all 10 years later at Tyner. Those are the things I think about, the kids, and I'm just really glad I got to be a part of it for so many of them. I hope I've meant as much to the kids who played for me as they have to me."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

photo Tyner head football coach Wayne Turner talks with a fan before their prep football game at East Hamilton High School on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff file photo