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South Pittsburg football coach Vic Grider sends quarterback Jaylyn Hubbard in with the play during last month's rivalry victory against Marion County. This past Friday, the Pirates won for Grider's 192nd victory as a head coach, tying him with his later father Don, who also coached South Pittsburg.
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The late Don Grider, pictured, set a high standard for the South Pittsburg football program, but his son Vic has maintained it by leading the program to three state championships.

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — In large block letters, the 3-by-4-foot metal sign hanging above the black double doors of the main entrance reads "Donald N. Grider Field House." It serves as a reminder to everyone who enters the 5,000-square foot structure — including South Pittsburg High School's current football coach — that a certain standard was set and is still expected.

When Vic Grider was handed the keys to take the wheel at his alma mater, it was his daddy, Don, who told him flatly, "If you can't get the job done, we'll find somebody else who can."

In the 19 years that have followed, Vic has worked at the job as if he were guarding a precious family heirloom. He built on the foundation of a legacy his father laid, averaging 10 wins per season, guiding the Pirates to five state championship games and winning three. This past Friday, with the largest crowd in Beene Stadium's 50-year history watching, he reached a milestone for himself and his family. When the Pirates batted away Whitwell's fourth-down pass in the end zone with one second remaining, the narrow win was Vic's 192nd as a head coach, tying the number his father had during a hall of fame career.

"That's a huge deal for me because I know how hard he worked at it and how much respect he had in the coaching community," Vic said. "I'll never be what he was. He did it with a lot less talent and going against a lot tougher schedule every year.

"For a small Class 1A program to have that kind of consistency, that's what I'm proud of. We've built a program that a lot of people envy and maintained a high standard over a long period of time."

Don Grider led his alma mater to a state title in his first season as a head coach, and since that 1969 crown, South Pitt is the only program in Tennessee to have played for a championship in all six decades of the TSSAA's playoff format. The combined 382 wins also makes Don and Vic the state's winningest father-son coaching tandem.

"Vic's been around this town his whole life, so South Pittsburg football and his family have always been intertwined. It's their identity," said Pirates defensive coordinator Shawn Peek, who coached at Alabama's North Jackson for 12 years, and also spent time coaching at Georgia's Dade County and Alabama's Pisgah. "It's pretty amazing for a town this size to have so much support, and a lot of that is because of what his family has built.

"There's a lot of really good coaches out there, but I don't know of any that would be a better fit for this town and the type kids we have here."

Because of the blue-collar nature of the town, South Pittsburg's players and many of its citizens view themselves as scrappers — unwanted runts from a litter of mutts who have had to develop a junkyard dog's attacking nature: ready to snap and snarl and bite at the first sign of being mistreated.

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Not only does Vic understand that mentality, he coaches with the same type of chip on his shoulder. In his first game as head coach, the Pirates rolled 61-8. By his second season, they were highlighted by USA Today for being the highest-scoring team in the nation after averaging 54 points a game.

Along with Knoxville-area power Alcoa, the Pirates are one of the chief reasons the state implemented a 35-point mercy rule in 2007, a move designed to help avoid embarrassingly lopsided margins. A former TSSAA official once told me that, in short, the state stepped in to find a way to show mercy on outmanned teams because Vic clearly wasn't going to.

In the 10 years since that rule was passed, despite having to play virtually all of their nonregion games against teams from a larger classification, 60 percent of the Pirates' wins have come by invoking the mercy rule on opponents. Against other 1A teams, that number jumps to 80 percent, including 88 times when they have scored 50 or more points.

The video game numbers and the fact Vic welcomes the villain's role are the biggest differences in coaching styles between him and his dad. Just weeks after Vic underwent heart bypass surgery two years ago, I was approached by a fan from a rival school who asked how the coach's recovery was going. Before the man walked away, he said with a laugh, "The most shocking part for a lot of us was finding out Vic actually had a heart."

For decades, the life of this map-dot town has been its football program, and the Grider family — there have been just two seasons over the past 53 years without a Grider pacing the Pirates' sideline — has been at the heart of it all.

When the team is winning, local shops are bustling and the stadium is packed with more fans than the town actually has citizens. During the down cycles, Cedar Avenue, the main artery leading into downtown and the football stadium, is empty.

Vic stepped away from the program five years ago only to be coaxed back by supporters when roster numbers dipped below 20 and the Pirates exited the playoffs in the first round for the first time in nearly two decades. Since his return, the team has gradually rebuilt its swagger — it reached the quarterfinals his first year back, the semifinals last year and is currently unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state.

When Don Grider passed away 10 years ago, he was buried on the hill across the street from the high school, a spot he chose for his final resting place because it overlooks the Pirates' practice field.

For Vic and his younger brother Heath, an assistant on the staff, it is just another reminder that they're never far from their dad's presence.

On early mornings during the fall, Vic will park his Ford F-150 truck next to the school and walk across the street to the grassy hillside, stepping briskly through the rows of tombstones until he reaches the spot where his father is buried. For a few moments, standing alone with just his thoughts, he is no longer the tenaciously driven coach most know him as but is simply a son missing his daddy.

"I talk to him. I just tell him how much I wish he was here to be a part of it," Vic said. "If it's a big game or Jasper week or a playoff game, I'll tell him we're ready to play. It's just my way of letting him know he's still a big part of what we're doing and that we're working hard to keep up what he started.

"I guess I'm just hoping to make him proud."

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

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