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One conference, 28 state football titles in 40 years

Smoky Mountain has dominated since 1972


9:53 PM, Nov. 29, 2012 EST

Babe Howell

ASHEVILLE — 

This weekend the North Carolina High School Athletic Association will conduct state championship games in football for the 99th season.

The Smoky Mountain 1-A Conference hasn't won a championship every one of those years -- it just seems that way.

When Murphy High and Swain compete for titles on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, they will be looking to extend an incredible conference record in championship games.

The past 40 years ( is considered the NCHSAA's modern era, in which each of the four classifications (sub-divided into eight classes for the postseason since 2002) began in'72 playing an east-west title game to determine a champion.

During that span, a total of 10 of the 29 WNC public high schools have combined to win 36 state titles and post an impressive championship-game record of 35-9-1 (Tuscola was a 3-A co-champion in 1972 after playing Sanford to a 14-14 tie, thus the discrepancy in state titles and record).

The SMC, a collection of small schools tucked into the far western corner of the state, has produced 28 of those champions.

The SMC's record is 28-5 in title games, and five schools have won championships as members of the state's most prolific league.

Proudly playing a brand called "mountain football," no other conference in the state comes close to the standard of excellence the SMC has established in title games.

"Here's the thing about those mountain boys," said Joe Caldwell, 79, who spent most of his 39 years of coaching in Georgia but won that 1972 title at Tuscola.

"They are tough as knots. They're usually a little slow in getting there, but when they arrive, they will knock your head off."

Terry Smith played on the '72 Sylva-Webster SMC team that won a 2-A state title. Now 56 and living in Sylva, he had moved from California and the championship season was his first experience with how the game is played around here.

"I have a ton of respect for mountain football, even more since I've settled here," he said. "A lot of these kids are just raw-boned, tough country boys who play for the purest aspect of the sport.

"They are not going to play in college, but they come out every Friday night and lay it on the line for their school and their community."

Setting the standard

While Swain (8 state titles) and Murphy (6) have been the standard-bearers of excellence (in a seven-year span from 1985-91, either the Bulldogs or Maroon Devils won the 1-A crown every year) over the past four decades, it was another SMC school that built the legacy as the state's best at producing champions.

Robbinsville High, under coach Bob Colvin and a wishbone offense that bulldozed opponents, won 11 1-A championships in 15 years (1969-83).

In the modern era that began in '72, the Black Knights claimed nine crowns in 11 seasons, including five straight from 1979-83.

And they weren't just squeaking by. In that dominating stretch of football, the nine state titles were won by an average score of 39-4.

Robbinsville outscored opponents 356-33 in those nine championship games, pitching four shutouts, allowing no teams to reach double digits and scoring 40 or more points five times.

How did the Black Knights do it?

"Mountain football," Colvin, 72, said with pride from his Robbinsville home earlier this week.

"We beat a lot of teams that were a lot better than us physically and ability-wise, but we were more aggressive and we just out-hit them.

"That's the way we did it, and I'm sure that's how Murphy and Swain are doing it now."

Coach David Gentry, who has been at Murphy High for 29 years and may know as much about SMC football as any man alive, concurs with Colvin's theory.

"You watch (SMC) teams warm up before the game and then look over at the other team (in the playoffs) and they usually look bigger, stronger and faster, and you think you know who's going to win the game, easily," said Gentry, who goes after his WNC-record 334th win and sixth state 1-A title Saturday against Plymouth.

"But then the game starts and it's a different story."

"It's a mentality of toughness," said Colvin, who retired in 1985 with a career record of 182-57-2 in 20 seasons (.761).

"You had to have it if you wanted to win football games, especially (in the SMC)."

Coach Boyce Deitz won 201 games and five state titles in 20 years (1977-96) at Swain and had memorable duels with Gentry most seasons to decide the SMC regular-season crown.

"The (SMC) always played a brand of ball that took a lot of pride in defense and toughness," said Deitz, 63.

"In the playoffs, we feel like we are representing this part of the state, and our signature is being mountain boys that are rough and tough and know how to play winning football."

Murphy-Swain, Swain-Murphy

In a run that began in 1985, Swain (7) and Murphy (5) have won 12 state championships in 27 seasons.

After they combined for the seven straight titles from 1985-91 (Bulldogs won in '86 with '87 with receiver Carl Pickens and again in '91, Swain claimed the '85 title and three straight from '88-90 with quarterback Heath Shuler), Robbinsville made it eight in a row for the SMC with the '92 championship.

"Swain's success made us better, and I think our success has made Swain better," Gentry said.

"It's been a great rivalry for a long time, and people look forward to us playing each other and fighting it out."

"Swain and Murphy always play the last game of the regular season, and it's usually for the conference championship," Deitz said.

"There was a lot of incentive to get better during the season because you know it was going to be settled that last game."

And rather amazingly, the SMC's championship-game record could have been better.

From '93 to '97, either Swain, Murphy or fellow SMC member Rosman reached the 1-A state title game all five times but lost four, the exception being Murphy's championship in 1996.

Before that slump, SMC 2-A and 1-A teams from '72-'92 were 23-1 in championship games, including a run of 13 consecutive wins after Cherokee lost to Midway in '78.

In a 25-year span (1973-97), an SMC program played in the 1-A title game 23 times.

From '72-80, the league's 2-A schools were 6-0 in state title games (Sylva-Webster won three, Franklin, Murphy and Swain one each).

From 1998 to 2010, the conference hit a state-title lull after setting such a strong presence in the past.

Swain's 1-A crowns in 2001 and '04 were the SMC's only title-game appearances in a span of 13 seasons, but the league got back on track last year when both Murphy (1-A) and the Maroon Devils (1-AA) brought home championships, a feat they hope to repeat on Saturday.

Looking at the record of excellence of those programs and the league they've played in over 40 years, you shouldn't bet against them.

 

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