Second in a two-part series
Take one team loaded with talented players, a savvy coach and strong community support. Pour into a pressure cooker. Sprinkle in an off-season training program, team unity and tradition and stir continually over 10 weeks of the regular season. And don't forget a dash of luck. Bring to a boil in the playoffs, making sure not to overheat, and you've got all the ingredients for a state championship season.
Sound easy? It's far from it for high school football teams working toward the same ultimate goal.
Since the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association began its playoff system 50 years ago, the brackets have expanded six times, including a public/private split, reached the point that 230 teams earn playoff berths and nine champions are crowned each season. The recipe for claiming one of those gold ball trophies, however, remains uncertain.
"It's gotten to be easier to make it to the playoffs, but it will never be easy to win a championship," said Bill Price, who quarterbacked Red Bank to the 1978 Class AAA championship game and later coached Soddy-Daisy to its first playoff appearance and Signal Mountain to the Class 2A state championship in 2010 before retiring with 172 career wins. "You have to have a lot of talent, good coaches and community support just to have a chance. The further you make it, the tougher it's going to be.
"When you start having success, you're happy to win eight or nine games. Then you have to win 10 or 11 to keep everybody happy, and then you reach the point where you have to win a championship. There's nothing like Friday night football — especially in the playoffs."
WINNING UP A BLUE STREAK
In the first 24 years of the playoff system Chattanooga-area teams played in 19 championship games, winning just five. But since 1993, when the playoff classifications began to expand, more and more area teams have found postseason success. In the 25 years since expansion from the original three classifications, area teams have played in 32 title games, winning 15 — including 13 championship appearances in the last decade alone.
For the first three years after expansion it was Cleveland that became the most feared program in Tennessee. From 1993 to 1995, it seemed no other team in the state had the championship formula in Class 4A, as the Blue Raiders won three consecutive titles and built a 54-game unbeaten streak that finally was snapped in the 1996 quarterfinals at Anderson County.
"Coach (Benny) Monroe told us before the '93 season started to go make some memories. None of us knew at the time just how big a memory we were making," said Heath Ware, a senior offensive lineman on the 1993 team that finished 14-0.
Cleveland's 1992 team had gone undefeated in the regular season before falling in the playoffs, but a year later the Blue Raiders outscored opponents an average of 45-8, with no team coming within 21 points of them until a five-point win over Brentwood Academy in the title game. In the 22 seasons since the '96 quarterfinal loss Cleveland has advanced past the second round only once.
"It's hard to win just one championship," Monroe said. "There are thousands and thousands of kids who play football every year, and most never get to experience that. There are lots of other lessons you get from the game, but a state championship is really the only thing you're playing for.
"Our run was before the public/private split when we had to play the private schools, too, so we really had to beat the best teams. What we did, the streak and those consecutive titles, it just doesn't happen. Alcoa and Maryville are the exceptions in the state, but in this area the only other schools that could come close to what we did are Marion County and South Pittsburg."
BULLIES OF THE VALLEY
The Blount County beasts of Alcoa and Maryville have combined to win 33 crowns — Alcoa leads the state with 17 titles in 19 championship game appearances, including 13 of the last 18 in its classification. But locally, South Pittsburg and Marion County have long been the area's most successful playoff programs, combining for more championships, finals appearances and playoff wins than all other area teams.
"We don't feel like it's a great sense of accomplishment just to make the playoffs," said Pirates coach Vic Grider, who has been a part of seven of the program's 11 title-game appearances and four of the five championships. "There are programs in the state who get excited about that, and I know this sounds egotistical, but you either win a championship here or the whole season is a disappointment to the coaches, the players and everybody in town. That's just how it is."
As consistently good as the Pirates and Warriors have been, both programs also have plenty of experience with coming up painfully short — combining for 11 state runner-up finishes and 21 losses in the quarterfinals or semifinals to eventual state champions — proving just how difficult a championship season can be.
South Pittsburg led the nation in points in 1998 (outscoring opponents 716-135), but turnovers cost the Pirates in a semifinal loss at eventual champion Trousdale County. Marion County won four state titles in six years in the 1990s and put together one four-year stretch of 56-1. But narrow playoff losses in 1991 (by six points) and 1993 (by one point) prevented the Warriors from potentially owning six straight titles to begin the decade.
"If you play in enough big games you'll know how to respond to any situation," said then-Warriors coach Ken Colquette, who won 82% of the games he coached at Marion and retired from coaching with 257 wins. "Our kids know how to win. I guess you call it tradition. You can't teach it. It grows with you."
Nine of the 20 area programs that have claimed a title did so one year after coming agonizingly close, losing in either the championship game or semifinals the season before.
In one of the best examples that nothing is guaranteed, no matter how talented a team is, Red Bank's 1990 squad was loaded with more than a half dozen future college players and appeared poised to break through and bring Hall of Fame coach Tom Weathers his first championship. The Lions reached USA Today's No. 12 national ranking and outscored opponents an average of 42-5 in rolling to a 10-0 regular season. But several mistakes, and a missed 47-yard field goal by future University of Tennessee All-America kicker John Becksvoort as time expired, left Red Bank on the short end of a stunning 18-16 opening-round loss to Cleveland.
A decade later, just one year after a disappointing 5-6 finish and without lofty expectations, the Lions put together all the right ingredients to finally deliver Weathers the championship to highlight his stellar career. The 2000 Lions also became the first Hamilton County team to claim a title in the state's largest classification in 27 years and finished No. 11 in the USA Today national rankings.
"The first thing that comes to my mind from that season is the community involvement," said former Lions All-America running back Gerald Riggs Jr., who later worked as an assistant on Signal Mountain's 2010 title team. "There was so much pride around the school because of what that team was doing. It felt good to be a part of the team that helped Coach Weathers finally get a championship.
"Talent alone doesn't guarantee anything. We were basically the same group of guys who had gone 5-6 the year before, but the difference was our attitude was more focused on team goals and not selfish ones."
Area coaches who have won state titles have different philosophies on how to go about it, but all agree on five essentials: avoid key injuries, have a balance of strong linemen and speedy runners, team unity, a fan base that breathes football and hope the ball bounces the right way.
McCallie's 2001 Division II-AAA championship team was made up of each of those ingredients, especially getting the breaks to go its way at the right time. The Blue Tornado had to rally from late deficits in six of their 12 wins — including scoring the game-winner four times in the final minute. Not only did they fight back from a 10-0 halftime deficit to Brentwood Academy in the title game, but they converted a fourth-and-16 to keep alive a 16-play drive in the final three minutes to set up the winning field goal.
Those were examples of how gritty the Blue Tornado were. The fact that sophomore Trey Meyer was even there to make the 22-yard kick, with just 11 seconds remaining, to lift McCallie to a 17-16 win was a turn of good fortune. Earlier in the day, as the team bus was approaching Monteagle on the way to Nashville, assistant coach Kenny Sholl got a call on his cellphone informing him that two players — Sholl's son and Meyer — had been left behind at the school.
"None of us even realized they weren't with us until Coach Sholl's wife called his cell about an hour into our drive," McCallie head coach Ralph Potter said. "We never take a head count. I always look to see if I have my quarterback, and then I'm ready to go. I was ticked at first, but after we had arranged for them to get a ride to the game, I remember looking at Kenny and saying, 'Just watch, this game is going to come down to a kick.' Sure enough.
"If you do it long enough, you realize you're not in control of a lot of things once the teams get on the field. As a coach all you can do is prepare your team the best you can and then hope for the best."
Similar to McCallie's run, Whitwell earned its first state title last fall by mastering a flair for the dramatic. The Tigers won each of their last three playoff games with climactic late-game heroics — advancing with a double-overtime win in the quarterfinals and a winning field goal in the closing seconds of the semifinals, then scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter before holding off a late drive for a one-point championship win.
The cardiac cats' crown also marked the ninth time in 12 years that a team from Marion County had played for a state title — an impressive feat for such a small, rural area.
Every team begins the season with a clean slate and the chance to make lasting memories together. But the reality is that only nine of the 330 programs in the state will end the season accomplishing the ultimate goal of a championship.
Veteran Tyner coach Wayne Turner has seen both ends of the spectrum. He coached at Kirkman in the late 1980s when the Golden Hawks suffered through a 51-game losing streak — the nation's longest — but later built Tyner into one of the city's most formidable programs. The Rams finished state runners-up in 1996 and 2017 and became the first public school team from Hamilton County to win a title when they claimed the 1997 2A crown. They have been contenders almost every season, reaching at least the quarterfinals nine times under Turner's direction.
"If you have any weaknesses as a team, the playoffs are when those get exposed," said Turner, who keeps the championship gold ball trophy in his office as a reminder to each season's players what the standard is. "Because it's so hard to do, that's what makes it so memorable when you do win a championship.
"Something I'll never forget is the feeling we all had that night walking off the field as champions. To see the looks on the kids' faces, knowing all that hard work had paid off, was something you have to feel to believe."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis