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Alcoa coach closing in on state record

Douglas Fritz • Jul 15, 2014 at 8:36 AM

If Alcoa does what Alcoa usually does, head coach Gary Rankin will become the state’s all-time winningest football coach this season.

Rankin, who started coaching at Smith County in 1982, has compiled a career mark of 356-69. That total currently ranks him No. 2 as he passed Carlton Flatt with last year’s Class 3A state championship win over Christ Presbyterian Academy.

At the top of Tennessee’s list is Ken Netherland, who recently died at the age of 74. In his 50-year coaching career, Netherland amassed a record of 368-131-3. He coached at Germantown, leading it to the Class AAA state title in 1983, winning by a 37-6 decision over Jefferson County ? which needed a fourth-quarter rally to survive a first-round encounter with Dobyns-Bennett.

“Ken Netherland was a great coach, and a great man,” said Rankin on Monday. “He affected a lot of kids.”

Rankin needs 12 wins this year to tie Netherland and 13 to pass him. For some programs, that would be a stretch. But for Alcoa and Rankin, not so much.

In his previous eight seasons with the Tornadoes, Rankin’s teams have won 13, 14, 14, 15, 15, 8, 11 and 14. So if the 2014 version is traditional, Rankin has a good chance of surpassing the legendary Netherland.

Rankin said his impressive win total is the result of a combination of factors.

“I’ve been fortunate to be in a couple of football-town situations,” said Rankin. “I’ve been in good communities, had good administrations, and been able to hire good coaches ? the whole ball of wax. I’ve been in places with good players, but a lot of places have good players.”

Rankin actually did not hit the ground running. His first team at Smith County went 0-10, a perhaps unsurprising result considering Rankin inherited the state’s longest losing streak at 18 games.

“I took the job because it was my home town (Carthage),” said Rankin. “I had been away from my parents for about 10 years, and I wanted to get back home.

“The football program was one of the worst in the state. I had no idea what would happen over the next 30 years.”

Rankin was 29 years old that first season, and was chomping at the bit to guide a program. Becoming a head coach in the early 1980s was a more difficult proposition than it is these days simply from a numbers standpoint. It was an era where many football coaches settled into their jobs and stayed for 30 years or more.

“It’s not that hard now to become a head coach, but then it was hard,” said Rankin. “When I took over, I had no thoughts of winning state championships. I just wanted to get the program turned around.”

Rankin did just that, leading Smith County to a pair of 10-0 seasons in 1988 and 1989. He caught the eye of the Murfreesboro Riverdale administration, and was hired to lead the Warriors’ program.

“When I first got there, football wasn’t important,” said Rankin, whose first team went 4-6. “We established importance in the town and the community. Football has to be important in the community.”

Rankin led Riverdale to four state titles, and has added six more since moving over to Alcoa prior to the 2006 season.

“A lot of great coaches haven’t won a single state championship,” said Rankin. “But they are still great coaches. I would want my kids to play for a guy like (Dobyns-Bennett’s) Graham Clark. There are fewer and fewer coaches like Graham Clark or (former Sevier County coach) Steve Brewer.

“It seems like guys who are getting in it now are ‘win at all costs’ and ‘get it done right now.’ I don’t know if those guys will stay in it as long as I have. And it’s tougher now for some places because the community isn’t as involved.”

Rankin said the success matters, but not to him so much individually.

“The win total doesn’t mean a lot to me personally, but I think it does to the school, the assistant coaches, and the kids we’ve worked with,” said Rankin. “Football is not a one-man game. I’ve never made a big thing about winning. It’s just a record that one day somebody will break.

“You watch us practice and you will think you’re watching a team that hasn’t won two games in a year. We keep them hungry, and stay on an even keel. That’s one reason we’ve had consistency.”

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Here is a list of Northeast Tennessee’s winningest coaches, ranked according to winning percentage:

Coach, School W-L Pct.

Caine Ballard, Greeneville 60-10 .857

Graham Clark, Dobyns-Bennett 225-51 .815

Mike Lunsford, Hampton 180-52 .776

Stacy Carter, Science Hill 95-29 .766

Brock Pittman, Cloudland 17-6 .739

Shawn Witten, Elizabethton 60-29 .674

Robbie Norris, Sullivan North 60-31 .659

Jeremy Jenkins, Daniel Boone 67-43 .609

Sam Haynie, Sullivan South 28-18 .609

Mike Mays, Tennessee High 6-5 .545

Larry Shively, Happy Valley 21-21 .500

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A pair of Cloudland standouts have been chosen for Murphy Fair’s preseason all-state football team.

Defensive back Zac Benfield and linebacker Austin Whitehead were honored. Benfield is a senior while Whitehead is a junior.

Douglas Fritz is a staff writer for the Johnson City Press. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dfritzjcpress or follow on Twitter @FritzBlitzzz.

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