In retrospect: Bulldogs’ 1971 state championship season
The fall of 1971 would be the second year the VHSL used the three-classification playoff model introduced the previous season. As two-a-days rolled around in the coalfields, many local teams had aspirations of representing their district in the new playoff format with a chance at the Virginia state championship in the balance. The 1971 football season in Virginia may sound familiar to many football fans thanks to the 2000 blockbuster film “Remember The Titans”. However, for anyone from Appalachia, that season has a personal, deeper rooted meaning.
When I was given the opportunity to write this piece, I knew I’d like to reach out to some existing players. The first name that came to mind was former coach Randy Blair.
Blair has the reputation in being a walking encyclopedia of local and sports history. He coached Appalachia’s JV teams for decades while scouting for the varsity program. I knew Coach Blair was getting up in years, but I was still eager to talk with him one on one. After a quick game of catch up, I asked him what the mindset was going into those two-a-days and what expectations they had.
“Oh we knew we were good,” Blair replied matter-of-factly. Then came the history.
Coach Blair started rattling off scores from the Bulldogs’ ‘71 season and he was spot on. In my research, I had the scores in front of me and it was like he was reading them to me. The man’s mind is sharp as a tack. He rattled off the returning players and their positions. Keep in mind, this is 50 years ago. His knowledge is impressive to say the least. I had planned on finding old articles about the state game. As it turned out, I didn’t need them.
Blair shared stories of the time of Edd Clark “The Stonega Stallion” as well as how my dad, the late Gary Summers, was brought up from the JV to start on the varsity during his first year. Coach Blair firmly believed that had “Power Pony” Roy Talley not suffered a season ending injury in the 1970 season, the Dawgs would have won the title that year as well. He also noted that Talley never played in a losing game while in high school. Appalachia posted a 7-3 record in the 1970 season.
Things were different as far was making the football playoffs went. My dad would always say, “back then, you had to go 10-0 or listen on the radio.” The Dawgs missed the 1970 playoffs. With a roster of returning starters including Luke Marsengill at tight end, Ron Davis at corner back, Talley at full back, future VHSL Hall of Fame coach Tom Turner at tight end, David “Duck” Stacy on the line, and sophomore David Jones at QB, their sights were set on making a statement for ‘71. Many of the players would play both ways. It was ironman football at its best.
The opposing teams and the Lonesome Pine District had no idea about the buzzsaw heading their way from Appalachia head coach Jim Riggs. Assistant coach Jackie Robinette had the Bulldog offense clicking and their defense didn’t give up many points.
The 1971 regular season went as Coach Riggs had hoped as the Bulldogs ripped off 10 straight wins with little resistance en route to the coveted Lonesome Pine District title. The scores were (special thanks to fourseason.com for the scores):
40-14 vs Saltville
40-13 vs JJ Kelly
32-06 vs Clintwood
48-22 vs Pennington
54-32 vs Pound
32-06 vs JI Burton
22-06 vs Jonesville
28-00 vs Coeburn
30-08 vs Ervinton
44-11 vs Powell Valley
The playoffs didn’t offer much more resistance. The Lonesome Pine District has long been a source of pride for those who played represented it in the playoffs. One could argue that the LPD was at the epicenter of football dominance during its time in the VHSL. Appalachia hosted all three playoff games. Round one had Castlewood come calling. The Dawgs weren’t interested, posting a 44-0 win. The next round would bring the defending Group A Virginia state champion Chilhowie Warriors. If Appy was supposed to be scared, no one told them. The Bulldogs stamped their ticket to the state title game with a 32-8 win.
The state title game would be held at Riggs Stadium. Rain pounded down on the area leading up to game day. Madison County head coach Eddie Dean had practiced at Bullitt Park the day before the game and was requesting the Appalachia principal Jack Rose to play there as opposed to Riggs Stadium. Appy’s field could be a source of contention for opponents. Talk to most and they will share their disdain for the hard, mostly grassless surface. But, those who cut their teeth on that field would have it no other way. We all proudly show our scars and share the story of when and which game we received them. Coach Blair noted that the field was a wreck leading up to game day. The town poured hundreds of gallons of fuel on the surface and set it ablaze to try and dry it out. Loads of saw dust followed. Blair mentioned that a Madison County coach arrived in town to see the field. He said he could see the field burning as he came up the hill.
Both Appy and Madison County had senior leadership, a stout run game and solid defense. They also sported matching 12-0 records.
Madison tested the Dawgs defense twice in the first quarter. The first time resulted in a missed field goal. The next resulted in history.
Madison started the possession at the Appy 33 yard line, driving the ball solidly into Bulldog territory. Madison attempted a six-yard touchdown pass, when Ron “Flash” Davis picked off the pass four yards deep in the end zone and was off to the races. After a cut and some key blocks, he recorded the longest interception returned for a score in VHSL history. The record officially is 100 yards, as they did not add the end zone yardage to the total. Talley would plow in for the two point conversion to give Appy an 8-0 lead. It’s hard not to imagine that the play call was Belly Right or Left.
Late in the second quarter, the Bulldogs would muster up their most productive offensive drive of the game, marching 75 yards in 14 plays for in a seven-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Davis. Talley would again punch in the two-point try for a 16-0 halftime lead.
The Appy offense would not threaten again the second half. As it turned out, they didn’t need to. The smothering Bulldog defense would handle the rest led by brothers Luke and Delmer Marsengill, Gary Summers, David Stacy, Bo Needham, Jim Price, Vic Williams, Talley and Turner. All of these names were listed in historic articles about the game.
The level of talent and dominance hammers home the comment that Coach Riggs would make after the game, “I’m proud of every one of them. I couldn’t pick out a single star from this squad today. Each and every on of them has been a star for me in getting the job done. Just be sure to give them the credit…and that goes for my coaches, too.” It is obvious why Riggs is held in such high regard, even to this day.
Madison would recover an Appalachia fumble at midfield, just 10 seconds into the final stanza. The Dawg defense flexed its muscle yet again as Turner, Stacy and Summers smashed the Madison quarterback and forced a fumble. Luke Marsengill scooped up the ball off the bounce at the 42-yard line and returned it for six.
Appy went for two as usual. The Jones pass was tipped in the air and Turner reached up to haul it in with one hand. The score stood at 24-0 until the final buzzer. All three state title games in Virginia that season resulted in a shutout.
Appalachia would beat Madison County again in 1989 for their second state title. This time, Tom Turner was the head coach instead of star player.
This title marked the first state title for Wise County and the LPD in football, but it wasn’t the last. LPD teams won the following three out of four titles and a total of five titles in the 1970’s. The people of Appalachia presented Riggs with a brand new 1972 Chevrolet after the game to show their appreciation for the man he was and the leadership and mentoring he provided for his players and student.
The Dawgs offense racked up 438 points in thirteen games, while only giving up a meager 126 points. The offense averaged 33.7 points per contest, never scoring less than 22 points. The defense more than did its job by only allowing an average of 9.7 points per game. The defense only allowed single digit points in five games with three shutouts. Two of those shutouts were in the post season. Appy would steam roll their competitors in the playoffs to the tune of 100-8. Not bad for a bunch of kids from Appalachia and its several coal camps.
Five of the football players were also members of the 1971-72 basketball team that would capture the Group A basketball title, coached by Gary Holloman.
Many of the players and coaches have since passed on, but the season they were able to put together in the fall of 1971 was stuff that many of us kids grew up idolizing and emulating. My family moved away from Appalachia shortly after my birth. All my life, my dad told me the amazing stories about that season and Coach Turner. By the time I met Coach Turner for the first time at the ‘89 football state title game, it was like meeting a celebrity. We moved back to Appy the following summer and I got the chance to play for Coach Turner and win a state title in 1992. Like many other players of that era, it was a dream come true.
The Bulldogs would go on to win six state titles in all. My dad was quick to remind me that the ‘71 team was the best. I would argue that our team was the best because we played three AA teams. That was never enough, as the 1971 team was the only Appalachia team to go undefeated. It’s hard to argue with perfection.
This season marks the 50th anniversary of that dominant seasons. Many stories remain, while some memories may fade with time. Thanks to Hollywood, many of us in Southwest Virginia may remember the Titans. But, we will never forget the Bulldogs.
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