During these unprecedented times, I thought we would take a look at some sports’ memories from the past. I want to revisit the history of bowl games in which the Grundy County Yellow Jacket football teams were participants. Bowl games were the highlight of the postseason prior to the playoff system implemented in the fall of 1969.
Even though playoffs were the goal for every team, the bowl games stayed relevant well into the 1990s. The Yellow Jackets competed in seven bowl games between 1963 – 1992. Their record was 4 – 3 in their bowl history. They participated in the Industrial Bowl in Lafayette in 1963, the Civitan Bowl in Cookeville in 1964, the Butter Bowl in Pulaski in 1977, and the Walking Horse Bowl in Lewisburg in 1978, 1989, 1990, and 1992.
The Jackets capped off an unbelievable season in 1963 with a 14 – 7 victory over the Lafayette Tigers in the Industrial Bowl. The Jackets finished with the best winning percentage in Yellow Jacket history with a 10 – 1 season. The Jackets regular season wins included Manchester, Jasper, Whitwell, Sequatchie County, Bledsoe County, McMinnville Central, McMinnville City, Bridgeport, and Stevenson. The lone loss was a home loss to South Pittsburg in what many people say was the largest crowd they had ever seen at what would later be named John A. Anderson Stadium.
In 1964, the Jackets played a rematch with the Marion County Warriors in the Civitan Bowl in a frigid Cookeville. As a young five-year-old, I still can remember the bone chilling weather of that November Saturday afternoon game. The Jackets had lost to the Warriors earlier in the year and had a chance at redemption. The Warriors score early for a 7 – 0 lead that would prove to be the final score on the frozen field on the Tennessee Tech campus.
The Jackets finished 8 – 3 during the 1964 season with their other loss coming at the hands of the McMinnville City Rebels. The Jacket wins consisted of a second consecutive win over Manchester, a great accomplishment at the time. The Jackets also defeated the South Pittsburg Pirates in South Pittsburg, which marked the last time the Jackets and Pirates would play on the old field, where the Lady Pirates’ softball field now stands. The Jackets also defeated the McMinnville Central Bulldogs, Whitwell, Sequatchie County, Bledsoe County, Bridgeport, and Stevenson.
The 1977 Jackets ended a 13-year bowl and winning season drought with an appearance in the Butter Bowl, in Pulaski, on a Saturday afternoon in November. The much-anticipated winning season didn’t come without some suspense.
The Jackets started slow with a 1 – 3 record as they dropped decisions to South Pittsburg, Notre Dame, and Soddy – Daisy. A 20 – 0 win over Marion County was sandwiched between the Notre Dame and Soddy – Daisy losses. The Jackets were faced with the task of winning five of their six remaining games for a winning season and an even more difficult job of winning all six games to have an opportunity for a bowl invitation.
The Jackets started their uphill climb with a 37 – 11 win over the Whitwell Tigers on Homecoming night and the final home game of the season. Oh, I forgot to mention that their last five games were on the road that season. If that wasn’t enough, McMinn Central was the first road test and they were 5 – 0 and ranked number 4 in the state and featured future Vanderbilt Commodore Norman Jordan.
The Chargers made their number four ranking seem fitting on the opening kickoff as Jordan hit the Jackets’ star lineman, the late” Terry Thomas, head on and spun off the hit and made a couple more Jackets miss and scampered 93 yards to give the home team a quick 7 – 0 lead and many of the Jacket faithful weren’t sure things would get better.
Ahh, but the Jackets had arguably one of the greatest players to wear the purple and gold in the late, great Jerry Bryant at tailback. The Jackets settled down and played the Chargers toe to toe and was able to pull one of the biggest upsets in Yellow Jacket football history with a 21 – 14 victory.
The hard running of Bryant was the key behind a small but tough line that consisted from end to end in Danny Coffelt, Thomas, Keith Cook, Todd Hendrix, Allen Layne, Dale Hornbuckle, and Chris Grooms. Running backs Ricky Sanders, Ted Nunley, and the late Carl Brewer were also instrumental in the blocking for Bryant’s valiant effort.
As the Jacket faithful was accustomed to Bryant’s efforts, it was a 3rd and 14 run by fullback Sanders that proved to be the biggest play of the game. His effort included carrying over half of the Charger defense the last five or six yards for the first down. The Jacket drive continued and they took the lead for good when Grooms recovered a Bryant fumble in the end zone for the eventual winning score.
The Jackets were building momentum with four games remaining. The first game was an 82 – 6 win over an obviously overmatched Sequatchie County Indian football team. The next game was a hard-fought overtime victory over the Riverside Trojans 28 – 20. The Trojans were led by future NFL player Michael Jones, who played receiver for the Saints and Vikings.
The next game was a trip across the state line into Alabama, and a game against the Bridgeport Tigers, who were coached by former Jacket and future Hall of Fame coach Ken Colquette. The Jackets struggled in the first half as the Tigers played the Jackets to a 14 – 14 tie. The second half was all Grundy County behind the 200 yards on 14 carries by Bryant that led the team to a 34 – 14 win.
The final game of the season saw the Jackets defeat the Ooltewah Owls 60 – 26. Bryant had scored 46 points in the game against Sequatchie County and topped that effort with a 50-point performance against the Owls.
The improbable run came to a disappointing end when the Jackets lost a 21 – 20 heartbreaker to the Rhea County Golden Eagles in the Butter Bowl. Nevertheless, the 1977 season will go down as one of the most exciting seasons in Grundy County history.
The 1978 Jackets almost repeated the feat a year later. The Jackets opened the season at 2 – 2 with losses to South Pittsburg and Notre Dame, but bounced back with wins over Marion County and Soddy – Daisy. The Soddy – Daisy win included a goal line stand for a 9 – 7 victory. The Jackets defeated Whitwell for their third win in a row, before losing to McMinn Central. The Jackets then won four games in a row over Sequatchie County, Riverside, Bridgeport, and Ooltewah, all at home to secure an invitation to the Walking Horse Bowl in Lewisburg.
The game was played on a Sunday afternoon, in November, and the Jackets lost a tough defensive battle to the Lewisburg Tigers 7 – 3. It was the second straight year they had lost in a bowl game and it was the third bowl loss in a row.
An 11-year drought followed the Walking Horse Bowl of 1978, but the late Chris Pickett era as head coach of the Yellow Jackets started with a bang as the Jackets would be regular visitors to Lewisburg for postseason football over the next four years. The Jackets played in the Walking Horse Bowl game in 1989, 1990, and 1992. They won all three bowl games. The only reason they didn’t play in 1991 was because they made the playoffs for the first time. (That will be highlighted in another story).
The 1989 game had been the most thrilling game and, yes, ranks up there near the top of the greatest games ever played by a Yellow Jacket football team. At least the last 4:38 of the game was. The Jackets trailed 10 – 0 and was punting to the Franklin Road Academy Panthers. After an FRA returner fielded the punt, Yellow Jacket Dearick Knight leveled the returner causing him to fumble. Fellow Yellow Jacket Devin Combs scooped the up the ball and raced 38 yards for the touchdown. The Jackets added a two-point conversion to make the score 10 – 8. An inspired Jacket defense forced a three and out and the Jackets got the ball back. Jacket QB Jason Tate (the offensive MVP) hit Knight (the defensive MVP) at the right pylon of the goal line for the winning score. The Jackets added another two-point conversion and Knight knocked down a pass in the end zone on the final play of the game to preserve the Jackets first bowl win in 26 years with the 16 – 10 victory. The Jackets went 8 – 3 on the season.
The 1990 Walking Horse Bowl was exciting as well as the Jackets scored on the first play of the game on a Paul Conry 60-yard run and then rallied for a 21 – 20 victory over the DeKalb County Tigers. The 1990 version of the Jackets went 7 – 4.
In 1992, the Jackets took on perennial private school power the David Lipscomb Mustangs. The Jackets used a dominating running game and a tough defense to defeat the Mustangs 17 – 0. The Jackets’ offense had the ball for 36 minutes and took a knee on the two-yard line three times to end the game. A very dominating performance and the third bowl victory in a row for the Jackets. The Jackets went 7 – 4 in 1992.
The 1992 bowl game was the last for the Jackets. Nevertheless, all seven games were very exciting for the huge group of fans that always followed the Jackets. The Jackets became a little more of a common playoff contender during the 1990s and even later on under Coach Colquette and Coach Nick Bryant. I hope to review those games in future articles as we wait out this dreadful pandemic.