As one who lately has been remembering what all was going on in my life 50 years ago, I cannot forget what was taking place in the world of football in late November 1971, when I was a starry-eyed young fan.
Perhaps most significant was the Oklahoma-Nebraska football game played on Thanksgiving afternoon, Nov.
25 – the same day of the month as 2021’s Thanksgiving. No. 1 Nebraska, coached by Bob Devaney, rallied to defeat No. 2 Oklahoma and coach Chuck Fairbanks, 35-31, in one of the most memorable regular season games of the second half of the 20th
I can remember as a 12-year-old throwing the football with my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, out in my Valleybrook front yard at halftime and talking to a member of the Collins family across the street and letting it be known I was for Oklahoma. It was the same front yard I walked across this Thanksgiving while walking my 97-year-old father’s Yorkie, Daisy.
I have also not forgotten the Oklahoma wishbone backfield of quarterback Jack Mildren, fullback Leon Crosswhite and running backs Greg Pruitt and Joe Wylie, the latter of whom carried a 4.0 GPA in accounting to dispel any myths of dumb football players.
And Nebraska, which was quite dominant at that time against about everybody but Oklahoma, featured quarterback Jerry Tagge, running back Jeff Kinney and the great flanker/punt returner Johnny Rodgers, who would win the 1972 Heisman Trophy.
And that Saturday after Thanksgiving, undefeated Auburn and undefeated Alabama would meet at Birmingham’s Legion Field in what was supposed to be a key matchup featuring Auburn’s quarterback and future Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan and receiver Terry Beasley.
Alabama, meanwhile, had switched to the wishbone offense, and the season would bring coach Paul “Bear” Bryant a renaissance after two or three bad-for-Alabama seasons.
Although the Iron Bowl game was supposed to be close and some thought Auburn might win, the Crimson Tide prevailed, 31-7.
But two games more significant to Chattanoogans during that time period were the Georgia-Georgia Tech game on national TV on Thanksgiving night, when few games were televised, and the Red Bank-Tennessee High of Bristol state semifinal game the Friday before.
I paid only scant attention to the Red Bank game at that time, but the disappointing result for the Lions was still significant in that it was the second time a Hamilton County team had reached the Class AAA playoffs, which had only begun in 1969. East Ridge had reached the post-season the year before when only four teams from each division qualified. Beginning in 1972, eight teams would qualify for the playoffs.
But with the help of a player from each team, I learned a little more about that high school game.
I vividly remember watching the Georgia-Georgia Tech game on TV with my family in our den. As a Georgia fan and son of an alumnus, about all I remember is the final drive for the Bulldogs. But it is a drive that is still ingrained in the minds of Georgia fans everywhere of a certain advanced age.
Georgia Tech had led 24-21 and appeared headed to an upset victory when Georgia got the ball deep in its territory with just over a minute to play. That is when Georgia sophomore quarterback and Athens hometown star Andy Johnson, who always seemed to have a little star quality, engineered a drive for the ages.
Not only did the now-deceased player scramble for 22 yards on one run, but this quarterback who was more of a runner suddenly became accurate with his arm and threw three pass completions, including the final one to flanker Jimmy Shirer to the Tech one-yard line.
Just a short run was required for a go-ahead TD, and the Bulldog faithful everywhere erupted when tailback Jimmy Poulos took the ball over for the score that would result in a 28-24 win. I remember I got quite excited as a sixth grader, and I later heard that weekend at Red Bank United Methodist Church that fellow member Ann Jumper, a former Georgia cheerleader, became so excited also watching on TV that she broke her arm or injured it somehow in the celebration.
And I read in the writeups by Chattanooga News-Free Press sports writers Sam Woolwine and Dan Cook that coach Vince Dooley’s wife, Barbara, excitedly ran into his press conference and gave him a hug and kiss after the game.
Chattanooga Georgia Tech fans had something about which to get excited, too, as Baylor School graduate Rob Healy gained 130 yards rushing and would likely have been named player of the game had not Andy Johnson’s last-minute heroics eclipsed him.
It was a little bit of a “star is born” moment for the junior Mr. Healy, as he had been a blocking fullback, until regular tailback Greg Horne went out with an injury. Mr. Horne and quarterback Eddie McAshan were among the Deep South’s first black players under coach Bud Carson, who later became the defensive coordinator for the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s.
Mr. Healy, who wore No. 42 for Tech, went on to serve as the parks and recreation director for the city of Chattanooga after a career in wholesale foods sales and ran for mayor in 2009 and 2013. He is probably best known today as the father of Charlotte football coach Will Healy in the collegiate ranks.
Regarding the Red Bank game, it was likely a game to forget locally, as Tennessee High of Bristol went on to win 49-0 at the old Rankin Field on Friday night, Nov. 19, when the now-razed school was on Dayton Boulevard.
But it was a season to remember, as Red Bank that year lost only to Bradley Central High in the regular season.
The game against the maroon-colored Tennessee High Vikings – who brought four busloads of fans from Bristol to the already crowded stadium – was tight early on. But after Red Bank star quarterback Tom Baggett suffered a serious rib injury in the second quarter, Tennessee High soon pulled away for a romp.
If there was any consolation for Red Bank, the Tennessee High Vikings, whose helmets looked like those of the Minnesota Vikings, beat Covington in the Class AAA finals by a worse score of 52-0. Covington had upset then-top-ranked Montgomery Bell Academy the night of the Red Bank game at a time when private and public schools still played against each other in the post-season.
With many of their players back, the 1972 Tennessee High team repeated as state champions with a 39-6 win over an also-good Baylor School and coach E.B. “Red” Etter in the finals. They were also named national high school champions that year by a Minneapolis, Minn., poll, the same one that gave the honor to Baylor in 1973.
David Bibee, the star quarterback on the Bristol team, who later became the head football coach at Baylor in the early 2000s and was an assistant at UTC in recent years before retirement, called the Tennessee High team that came into Red Bank a perfect storm.
“We had just a bunch of good kids and really good coaching,” he recalled over the telephone, also remembering that Red Bank had allowed Tennessee High to use their nice and newer locker room in which to get dressed.
The Bristol head coach was John Cropp, who was then only in his early 30s and would go on to become an offensive coordinator for Steve Sloan and get into college administration, with the softball complex at Kentucky now bearing his name. Today, the octogenarian lives in Oxford, Ms., Mr. Bibee said.
Coach Bibee has nothing but high praises for coach Cropp and said he was the reason he got into coaching. “He was a class act. He was a Christian and never swore,” coach Bibee recalled, although adding that coach Cropp also knew how to discipline properly when needed.
Mr. Bibee was a fleet-footed runner who could also throw skillfully at the high school level, and he was surrounded by such skill position players as running backs George Heath and Gil Kyle, who later played at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, respectively. The split end, Larry Silcox, played at East Tennesee State, while flanker Eddie Hirsch played at Vanderbilt.
Both Mr. Hirsch and backup quarterback Mark Wedel had late TDs for Bristol when the Red bank game got out of reach.
Mr. Bibee played some in the secondary for Tennessee, but injuries negated much of a varsity career.
The Tennessee High player who likely had the biggest impact in college was Greg Jones, who became a starting linebacker for the Vols.
And despite the lopsided score, Red Bank also had plenty of talent. Mr. Baggett, who wore the unusual quarterback number of 41, signed with Alabama and coach Bryant, and junior running backs Eddie Lawson and Mark Atchley signed with Tennessee and Georgia, respectively.
The only Red Bank player from that team I was able to reach was Mr. Lawson, who recalled with a laugh that he did not have a whole lot of happy memories from that night.
“They were running the veer offense (an option offense with two running backs split to the sides), and it was new, and we were not used to trying to defend something like that,” he said. “It was a long night for Red Bank.”
He does, however, remember the electric atmosphere before the game, with the Lions under coach Frank Cofer having an obviously good program at that time.
“It was sold out,” he recalled. “Red Bank always had a good following. It was a packed house.”
About the only other games at that old field that compared to it were maybe the 1974 Baylor victory over Red Bank in five overtimes (when Mr. Lawson’s younger brother, Tim, was the Lion quarterback), the 1978 Red Bank upset playoff win over Baylor, and the very memorable 1978 state title game loss to Gallatin.
Among the other Lion players written up in the Chattanooga News-Free Press articles on that game by Roy Exum and Terry Hardwick were backup quarterback Greg Levi, kicker and regular Ron Merritt, and Gary Parker, Mike Cripps and Bob Ward, who each recovered a fumble. Ricky Reachard also had a nice opening kickoff return.
Mr. Lawson, who also had at least one good punt for Red Bank during that game, became a running back at Tennessee and was part of the varsity rotation as a sophomore under coach Bill Battle for several games during the 1974 season until he said he became disenchanted.
The fast runner left the program and later enrolled at UTC, but he said his life has worked out quite well. “I got an engineering degree, which I never would have been able to do” at UT with the time commitment of football, he said.
For about the last 35 years, he has operated Interior Trim and Supply on Bonnyshire Drive in Chattanooga, focusing mainly on the interior needs of a home.
And he has certainly not forgotten being outside on that night of 50 years ago, when more than 8,000 fans showed up. It is a memory that has come up over the years, including while he was at Tennessee.
He said he roomed across from Mr. Bibee in the now-razed Gibbs Hall athletic dorm, and they would talk about the Red Bank-Tennessee High game of 1971 some early on, he and Mr. Bibee both remembered.
Like everyone else, Mr. Lawson could simply admit that Tennessee High was pretty good.
“They had a heck of a ball team,” he said. “There were not many high school teams that dominant.”
Mr. Bibee added that the 1971 Tennessee High team had a 50-year reunion this fall, and that was the first one he had been able to attend after being tied up with coaching the other times.
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