By Steve Williams
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association has crowned 255 state champions in football since 1969.
Twenty-five of those have been high school teams in Knox County. On average, that would be about one state champion every two years for the Knoxville area.
Winning a state championship is pretty rare.
Knoxville and Knox County teams, as a whole, have held their own.
Only Brentwood Academy, with 13 state champs in its history, is close to state leaders Alcoa and Maryville, the two Blount County perennial powers which have 16 titles apiece.
But Webb School is No. 5 on the state list with most overall state championships. The Spartans have eight. And the Fulton Falcons are No. 7 with six titles.
Eight programs in Knox County have won at least one state championship since 1969. Two others have gone the distance only to come up short.
Webb, a private school, also has three runner-up finishes to go with its eight titles and the Spartans own the distinction of winning the first championship in Knox County in 1981, defeating Memphis Prep 7-6 under Coach Ron Gratz.
David Meske guided Webb to the first of seven crowns under him in 1996. The Spartans’ nine other appearances in the finals occurred after the TSSAA separated public and private school teams in post-season play in 1997.
Fulton has six gold footballs and three second-place trophies. While Coach Jim McClain’s Falcons were the first Knox County team to play in a state championship game in 1974 – they lost 29-28 to Nashville Father Ryan in the Class AAA finale at Cookeville – their second title appearance didn’t happen until 18 seasons later in 2002 under Coach Buck Coatney.
Fulton celebrated its first state title in 2003 in Class 3A under Coatney, who also led Falcons to state crowns in 2004 and 2006.
Rob Black has been head coach at Fulton since 2011 and his Falcons won three straight starting in 2012.
Austin-East, which consolidated Austin and East high schools in 1969, is a distant third in the trophy count with three championships and two runner-ups. Coach Sam Anderson’s Roadrunners ruled Class AA in the mid-1980s, capturing state crowns in 1983 and 1986 and taking second place in 1985 and 1987.
A-E’s third state title came along in 2001 when Stanton Stevens was head coach.
Knoxville Catholic, which has remained in Division I to this day, although that will change in 2019-20, is 3-1 in state finals. Mark Pemberton coached the Irish to their first title in 2008 and Steve Matthews led Catholic to crowns in 2016 and 2017.
Christian Academy of Knoxville and Rusty Bradley’s pass-happy attack won back-to-back state titles in 2011 and 2012.
Halls, with Larry Kerr the head coach, enjoyed a Class AAA state championship in 1986. With A-E also tops in Class AA that year, Knoxville was declared “The City of Champions” in The Knoxville Journal. Halls also was runner-up 10 years later.
West came up just short in 2013, but Scott Cummings took the Class 5A Rebels all the way the following year.
Farragut, playing in 5A, joined the champions’ circle in 2016 under longtime coach Eddie Courtney.
Central and Powell have been to the finals twice but have yet to bring the gold football home.
Knox County’s only other state finalist – Rule High School – was sadly closed in Lonsdale over 25 years ago, but the Golden Bears’ great season of 1980 under Coach Don Ward hasn’t been forgotten. In fact, I was in Brentwood the night mighty Brentwood Academy pulled out a 21-20 win over Rule in the Class AA state championship game.
The other eight local schools in existence today have never made it to the state finals in football.
Five other schools that existed when the playoff era began but have long been closed – Doyle, Holston, South, Young and South-Young – didn’t reach the finals either.
In addition to Maryville and Alcoa, other football programs from neighboring counties that have had plenty of success in the playoff era include Oak Ridge, which has four state titles (1975, 1979, 1980 and 1991).
The Loudon Redskins were Class AA champions the first year of the playoffs and added two more crowns in 1974 and 1975.
Jefferson County was a Class AAA state power in the mid-1980s, claiming the title in 1987 after a runner-up showing in 1983. The Patriots also were runners-up in 1996.
Greenback, Class 1A school in Loudon County, won its first title in 1987 and was runner-up in 2015 and 2016 before kicking the door down again in 2017.