The soft-spoken Kermit Tipton’s legacy spoke for itself long before he died at the age of 90 this past April.
And fittingly, it was the voices of others singing the praises of the former Science Hill quarterback and coach during a ceremony Thursday afternoon at Science Hill’s new gym.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who played for Tipton three seasons (1960-62), was among those who spoke. So did Spurrier’s teammates, center Cotty Jones and guard Ken Lyon.
Among the other speakers were former Science Hill head coach Bob May, who was an assistant for Tipton, and former basketball coach Elvin Little.
Tipton’s widow, Ann, and children — Jonathan and Amy Cortner — were present, and Jonathan presented Spurrier with his father’s whistle, which Tipton had wanted Spurrier to have. The emotion was palpable for Spurrier, who annually visited Tipton and Little in the summer since probably 1980.
“I was in the ninth grade and I wasn’t much of a football player,” Spurrier said. “But I was pretty good in baseball and basketball. In fact, some of my buddies told me, ‘You probably won’t play football in high school.’ I was nothing in football; I was a fullback-linebacker. There wasn’t much passing back in those days.
“But anyway, for some reason, I just never quit. And in the ninth grade, Coach Tipton got me in his office at the old high school down there … and he looked at me and said, ‘Steve, you’ve gotta chance to be one of the finest athletes in Science Hill history.’”
Spurrier was impressed that Tipton wanted him to play all sports.
“He wanted me to play baseball and basketball (in addition to football),” Spurrier said. “I mean, there was nothing jealous about the coaches up here at Science Hill when I was here. … Coach Tipton was for all the sports.”
Tipton coached junior-high basketball before moving to Science Hill, where he was head football coach from 1956-66. Bill Bays played basketball for Tipton, and later had him as a teacher. Bays wrote Tipton’s daughter a letter with his memories of her father after Tipton’s death.
Bays was in the seventh grade in the fall of 1953 — the year Tipton arrived in the city school system from Lamar. He recalled how Tipton spoke up for African-Americans the morning after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that began the end of segregated schools.
Of course, it was more than a decade until most schools in the South were integrated, but Bays said that Tipton was touting the move some 10 years earlier while expressing support for African-Americans and pointing out that they had “fought and died in our nation’s wars.”
In 1965, the first year Science Hill was integrated, Tipton’s team gave Science Hill its first undefeated season since he quarterbacked in 1939. Tipton was a rough-and-tumble field general while leading Stuart “Plowboy” Farmer’s 1939-40 teams to a 20-1-1 record.
One of Tipton’s favorite coaching victories was a defeat of top-ranked Oak Ridge in 1957. Hale intercepted three passes. Spurrier was a wide-eyed 12-year-old in attendance.
Four years later, in his junior season, Spurrier quarterbacked the Hilltoppers to the first of two straight wins against Dobyns-Bennett on the same Memorial Stadium field. Bays said people ran on the field, and he and former Hilltopper Kent Bradford had Spurrier on their shoulders.
Shortly thereafter, Bays said, Tipton was ordering him to get the people off the field. Tipton liked order, and wasn’t one to draw attention to himself.
But Bays, like many, said Tipton could speak softly but pack a wallop.
“Your father was tough to be sure, but he had a tender streak,” Bays wrote to Amy. “He didn’t hesitate to discipline. He was noted for giving very hard spankings at Junior High.
“He would also get you off to the side and talk with you. I think most of us would prefer to run the laps rather than receive one of his lectures. The lectures were awful. That quiet voice and penetrating sad eyes would let you know how sorry you were, without him ever directly saying so.”
May said he and fellow assistant coach Emory Hale got the lecture of a lifetime for their behavior at a Carson-Newman coaching clinic. A coach from North Carolina was speaking, perhaps a bit proudly, about a pass play that produced 12 touchdowns the previous season.
“He went back to demonstrate and the deflated football went about two yards and fizzled out at his feet,” May said. “It was certainly not a pass you could win with. Emory Hale looked at me and I looked at him, and like two little kids in church, we started giggling. Then we laughed so hard we had tears. We couldn’t stop laughing. We got up and went out to the bathroom and tried to get over it. As soon as we came back in and sat back down we started laughing again.”
No one was laughing on the ride home with Tipton.
“He told us we were an embarrassment to Science Hill’s football program,” May said, “and what it meant to represent the ’Toppers maroon and gold, and that we needed to be an example wherever we were at. ... That always stayed with me throughout my coaching career.”
Hale won three state championships at Oak Ridge (1975, ’79-80) and was the head coach at Austin Peay (1981-87). May went on to be a championship-winning head coach at Science Hill, not to mention mayor of Johnson City.
Lyon, who has helped organize the Kermit Tipton Scholarship in 2000 and continues to be a key cog in the annual golf tournament, is a Washington County commissioner. He said Tipton was tough but fair, and quick to forgive, if not forget, some of the mischievious Lyon’s missteps.
Tipton didn’t quit on his players, and they returned the respect.
Science Hill rallied to win its final four games Spurrier’s senior season after a disappointing 3-4 start that included two close losses in which Spurrier said he missed some extra-points.
“We could’ve cashed it in and gone in the dumps and felt sorry for ourselves,” Spurrier said, “but Coach Tipton wouldn’t let us. He said, ‘Fellas, we can still salvage this year. We’ve got a lot to play for. That’s history. You can’t change it.’
The Hilltoppers responded with wins against Elizabethton and Erwin, concluded the regular season with a dominant victory at Dobyns-Bennett and pulled off a second-half rally to beat Church Hill in one final dramatic display of the resilience Tipton instilled.
“And (we) finished ninth in the state in the AP poll,” Spurrier said. “We finished strong … and that was Coach Tipton. That was him never letting his guys go in the tank, be disappointed and what have you.”
Those in attendance included Science Hill football coach Stacy Carter and members of his staff, Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner and former ADs Mike Voitlein and Sidney Smallwood, who hired Tipton.
“He was a special guy,” Spurrier said. “So many of us have gone on and been pretty successful ... and that, I really believe, is a direct reflection on Coach Kermit Tipton. … I just want everybody to know how fortunate and blessed I was that I had a chance to play for him three years here at Science Hill High School.”