Early last week, Kent Roberts was driving home from work when he saw Jack Renfro outside in his yard not far from the Grandview Cemetery in Maryville.
Excited to see his old high school football coach, Roberts stopped to say hello.
It has been 45 years since they played big roles in one of the highlights of Blount County’s high school football history, but that didn’t stop Renfro from picking on Roberts for disobeying his order on a winning play against a county rival all the way back in 1973.
Just a sophomore, Roberts caught a punt on the 13-yard line after Renfro had told him to let it go if it went past the 15. Roberts returned the kick for a touchdown in the final two minutes to give Walland High School a narrow win over Friendsville.
“When I walked off the field he congratulated me, but then he got on me about not listening to what he said,” Roberts said.
Fast forward to last week’s conversation, and Roberts had an explanation for Renfro.
“Coach, I heard you. I just couldn’t do it,” Roberts said. “I couldn’t make myself not catch that ball. I got lucky that time.”
The rest of the Walland story has nothing to do with luck.
The 1973 season was the start of a run in which the Indians made four consecutive trips to at least the Class A state semifinals. The highlight was the 1975 season when Walland capped a 13-0 season with a 22-6 victory over White House in the state championship game.
Walland played only one more season after that. In 1977, Heritage High School was created through the consolidation of Walland, Townsend, Porter and Everett high schools.
Today, Walland is an elementary school. There are large trophy cases in the lobby of the gym filled with awards from the 1970s.
It has been nearly half a century since those trophies were won, but the feats of those teams are still discussed — especially when Roberts visits with Renfro.
“We live about three minutes apart,” Roberts said. “When we run into each other it’s not five minutes before we’re talking about football.”
As the kings of high school football in Tennessee, Alcoa and Maryville have combined to win 35 of Blount County’s 36 state championships. Here is the story about the other one.
Confidence lays groundwork
Renfro graduated from Everett High School and played football at Maryville College before he enlisted in the United States Army and served as a clerk during the Korean War.
When he returned to Maryville he served as an assistant coach at Walland before being promoted to head coach in the 1960s. The Indians ran the T-formation under head coach AJ Wilson but switched to the Power-I when Renfro took over because Renfro liked what he saw when he played against it at Maryville College.
Walland steadily improved during Renfro’s leadership and made the playoffs for the first time in 1973. That was the second season eight teams qualified for the postseason in the state. The TSSAA had three classifications at the time.
As important as the style of offense was for the Indians, Renfro said the psychological factor was the most important.
“We had a bunch of kids that thought they were good,” he said. “I’ve always thought, if you don’t believe you’re good you won’t be good. The main thing I had to teach there and also at Heritage was believing in yourself.
“If you don’t believe you can win you’re probably not going to. At the end at Walland our kids didn’t think anybody could beat them.”
On Nov. 23, 1973, Walland played its first playoff game — a 26-6 quarterfinal victory over Greenback. The following week, the Indians lost to Sequatchie County, 27-0, in the semifinals.
Walland made the playoffs again in 1974 and opened with an 18-0 quarterfinal win over Jacksboro. Another semifinal loss awaited the Indians after that. South Pittsburg beat them, 16-6.
Renfro said he thought Walland was good enough to win it all in 1974, which gave the team plenty of confidence heading into the 1975 season.
Depth made them elite
The enrollment limit for Class A schools back then was about 300. Walland was estimated to have about 250 kids in the entire school. It’s hard for the smallest schools to have the luxury of depth, but that’s exactly what the Indians had.
Roberts starred as an all-state player in 1975. He played wing back and defensive back and was the team’s top return man. In 1974 he returned seven kicks for touchdowns.
Bobby Everett, Steve Compton and Gary Coulter were other top ball carriers. Quarterback Tony Gregory, who Renfro said was an “adequate passer” but “outstanding at faking” was the engineer of the option offense.
Gregory was so good he even fooled the officials. On a play called “double cross look” in a game against Rhea County, Gregory faked it twice before handing to another player. That player busted it wide open for a long gain, but it didn’t count because officials called a play dead when they thought another player had the ball.
As strong as Walland’s rushing attack was, however, the defense was among the stoutest in Tennessee. Most players played both ways, which led to stat lines like the one Tim Ledbetter had in a tough 18-7 win against top rival Porter during the 1975 regular season: One rushing touchdown, one interception, one fumble recovery and 11 tackles.
“For it to be a single-A school, we didn’t have a lot of players, but the first and second string had a lot of good players and were interchangeable players,” said Tim Ivens, who was a junior tailback in 1975. “That was one of our best things. There were enough people for single-A ball that we had enough people that everybody at every position that were pretty good.”
Winning it all
Walland met Porter again in the quarterfinals of the 1975 playoffs and won 30-0. The Indians followed that by racking up 343 rushing yards in a 26-14 win over Rockwood in the semifinals.
The win over Rockwood was significant not only because it was Walland’s first trip to the state championship game but also because it was the first game all season in which it was the underdog.
That set the stage for the championship game against White House on Thanksgiving Day at Middle Tennessee State. In the week leading up to the game, Walland’s top offensive players had to buy special shoes for use on the artificial turf.
White House had bigger players, but the speedy Indians had beaten bigger and stronger teams all season.
The game began with White House muscling its way to the 17-yard line on the opening drive before Walland linebacker Steve Compton forced a fumble that was recovered by Kenny Tucker. That went a long way, Roberts said, to helping the Indians settle down on their first trip to the big stage.
Other highlights included Mike Vittetoe blocking a punt and Roberts making a diving interception on a tipped pass.
Everett rushed for 85 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Compton rushed 12 times for 97 yards and scored on a 25-yard run in the fourth quarter to ice the 22-6 victory.
Roberts said the seniors from the 1975 team followed the 1976 team to every game home and away that season. They hoped to see Walland lift the trophy again, but after extending the school’s winning streak to 24 games, it came up short with a semifinal loss to Rockwood — the final game Walland High School ever played.
By winning the 1975 state title, however, Walland clinched its spot in the TSSAA record books and proved that the little guy can do big things, too.
“It was a feeling like we had made it somewhere being at the college stadium,” Roberts said. “It was kind of surreal being there knowing where we all were from.”