To say Baylor School fans have waited a long time to win a state championship before Thursday night might be an understatement.
But it certainly was sweet for the red-clad faithful when victory did arrive at Finley Stadium.
The last time the Red Raiders won it all was in 1973. I remember it well, as I was an eighth grader at Baylor and had ridden a bus with my schoolmates all the way over to Memphis to watch us beat Memphis Hillcrest and their wishbone offense, 6-0.
Star running back Andy Rutledge was hobbled during that cold night at the Liberty Bowl, but fellow offensive teammates like Bob Worthington, Mike Shuford and Tim Tucker rose to the occasion. And the defense held off the green-colored Vikings with a goal-line stand late. I believe linebacker Rob Davis may have single handedly made one or two key tackles to help seal the victory.
For me as an alumnus who still follows the football team, that is all part of the storyline I have embraced.
Unfortunately for us Red Raider fans, that storyline usually always had a feeling of incompleteness after that, due to no followup title in subsequent decades. As a result, the cherished memories became almost proverbially dusty. Good Baylor teams in 1974 and 1975 were bounced in the first round of the playoffs, as was the very-capable 1978 team the year after I graduated.
During our senior year of 1977, we had returned to the Liberty Bowl stadium for another state final, only to lose on an end around pass back to the quarterback in the waning minutes against Christian Brothers High School. Victory was snatched at the last minute and, little did Baylor fans know, it would not return for a long time. A real long time.
As E.B. “Red” Etter moved closer to his retirement, Baylor struggled to even hint of their 1970s greatness throughout most of the 1980s. Pete Potter at McCallie and Tom Weathers at Red Bank started heading the better Chattanooga programs along with Tyner and some other schools, and Baylor took a seat about halfway back.
Baylor did rebound under coach Fred Hubbs and later head coach Ralph Potter in the early-to-mid-1990s with very exciting and successful Red Raider teams. But three trips to the quarterfinals in 1991, 1995 and 1996 after winning the first two rounds were the tops.
And then when Baylor moved to Division II in 1997 and Ralph Potter moved on to his first stint at McCallie, Baylor would soon struggle to keep up with many of the other private schools and, of course, McCallie.
Coach Phil Massey arrived in 2006, and the program did start looking like its old self for a period. But trips to the state finals in Cookeville in 2010 and 2011 I witnessed in person brought two losses to Nashville Ensworth, with the 2010 game lost at the last minute.
But through it all, I and many other Baylor fans were there rooting them on and hoping for that elusive state championship at some point.
I was also there cheering them on at other times, even while knowing they were not always tops in the town. Since graduating nearly 45 years ago, I have been to Baylor games in Memphis and Nashville and been in the Baylor home stands when I still knew many of the teachers and when former schoolmates my age started having children attend there. I even had several seasons in the 1990s when I took my nephew, young Baylor fan Logan Julian, to games before he later went on to other schools.
I even rooted Baylor on from afar while covering high school games around Knoxville nearly every late summer and fall Friday night from 2006-16.
And in recent years since moving back to Chattanooga in 2017, I have enjoyed watching them in person regularly again with three or four classmates amid a Baylor cheering section mostly far younger than I am, other than a few proud grandparents. I even faithfully attended games by sitting on the visitors’ side during those COVID-19 days of 2020, when spacing out was required.
This fall, I became excited when I started watching the team under new coach Erik Kimrey, and I could almost immediately tell they seemed to be playing with better execution and crispness than they had in recent years. That was, of course, helped with new quarterback Whit Muschamp, son of college coach Will Muschamp, and seasoned players like running back Caleb Hampton and speedy receiver Amari Jefferson.
After watching them on my computer somehow beat always-tough Brentwood Academy on the road to reach the state finals, I was ecstatic. And I was also quite relieved they would not have to face McCallie again in the finals after McCallie lost a heartbreaker to MBA in the semifinals. Baylor was fortunate to beat the Big Blue in the first game for the first time in seven years, and a rematch with the talented Ralph Potter-coached team would have been difficult.
Getting a sense that the echoes of those Baylor teams of yesteryear were being woken up with this season’s team, several classmates also became interested in following the exploits. As a result, more than 15 of us class members were gathered in the stands to cheer on our alma mater Thursday night. That included Jim Cooley, who has probably attended more Baylor games in person than any other 1978 classmate.
We were all hoping to somehow see Baylor grab that elusive gold championship ball, but it did not seem likely. Slightly favored MBA went out to a 21-7 lead, with Baylor’s lone touchdown coming after Baylor player Louis Vincent scored but appeared to possibly lose grasp of the ball just before crossing the goal line.
But Baylor and defensive coordinator Chris Brown somehow adjusted against the MBA team featuring Ole Miss commitment Marcel Reed at quarterback and came back to take a 38-28 lead late in the game. And despite fears of 1977 being repeated with a late comeback and win by the other guys, Baylor was able to hold off an MBA team disappointed in the finals once again and win.
And cheering them on as much as anybody like we were students again were members of my 1978 class both in the stands and following online or via text from afar. Yes, there is nothing like cheering together for your high school team at an emotional and important time!
And for Baylor fans, the title had obviously been a long time coming, as mentioned. But the longer the separation, the sweeter the reunion with the victor’s hardware.
The same could be said for our class members getting back together to celebrate this happy title finally won after we had long ago experienced a disappointing loss!
* * *