Remembering the 1980 Pioneers
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
It may have been 40 years ago, but bring up the 1980 football team to any member of those Pioneers and their eyes light up. The memories come flooding back as an unbreakable bond was formed during a run to the state semifinals.
Warren County will honor members of the 1980 team Friday night on Homecoming, which feels like the perfect time to salute one of the best teams in program history. The 11-2 Pioneers, who won their first nine games and were a game away from the state title, will get to be on hand to see the current 6-0 Pioneers.
As Homecoming approaches, the Warren County Sports Authority staff took time to reach out to members of the 1980 team. Here’s some of their tales from a magical season:
It all started in ninth grade
Everybody remembers the 11-2 season on the varsity squad, which featured 30 seniors. What some may not remember was the dominant season those seniors had as freshmen. Edd Cantrell led the group to an 8-0 season, giving everybody the idea they could be a team to beat if they stuck together.
“When we were freshmen, we went 8-0 and only had maybe eight points score on us that season,” said Randy Mullican, starting QB on the 1980 squad.
“We all stuck together,” added Charlie Boyd, a defensive back on the 1980 team. “We started in night grade and played together through high school.”
James Bennett was coaching the varsity squad when the Class of ’81 arrived at Warren County Senior High. It didn’t take long to realize the group had lots of potential.
“When they came over as sophomores, I could tell they were going to be pretty good,” said Bennett, who served as a quarterback and running backs coach in the ‘70s and 80s.
Defensive tackle Tim Wilcher added, “We had a chemistry together. First, just to go undefeated in junior high, but also we had all played ball together through JCs. You take that many years playing together and you know everyone. It’s trust – everybody had everybody’s back. It was more of a family because you create a bond.”
From left, 1980 QB Randy Mullican, CB Charlie Boyd and DT Tim Wilcher.
A dominant defense
Having a state record holder in the backfield is something that people remember most about the 1980 team, but the Pioneers weren’t just as good as Jeff Womack could be on any given night. Most of the time, Warren County only needed one score to seal the deal.
The Pioneers recorded shutouts in six of their first seven games, with only Tullahoma scoring in a 47-7 loss. “Tullahoma scored on a fluke play,” Mullican recalled.
The Warren County defense recorded seven shutouts during the regular season and allowed just 23 points during the regular season. Loaded with a nasty front, fast and physical linebackers and ball-hawking DBs, nobody wanted to go face the Pioneer defense.
“We got to the ball and were some hitters,” said LB Frankie Martin, who recalled a defense which leaned heavily on Gary ‘Big Baby’ Womack, linebacker Mark Smith, Harold Solomon and Hal Cook.
David Upton, who went on be an assistant coach at WCHS for a number of years, remembers his running mates on the front line.
“Tim Wilcher, Big Baby Womack and Charlie Ervin – they were some of the greatest guys I’ve ever played with,” said Upton.
Smith was a fan favorite and a leader in the middle. His teammates still speak about him with reverence, including Cook thanking him for setting up one of Cook’s career highlights. Cook had a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Riverdale on the turf at MTSU.
The Pioneers had their backs against the wall after a high snap on a punt gave Riverdale the ball at the Warren County 5, but Smith and Cook teamed up to turn the tide against the Warriors.
“Riverdale tried a power run to the right side and we stacked up – Mark knocked the ball loose and it landed right in my breadbasket,” recalled Cook. “I yelled ‘Oskee’ and started running the sideline. At about the 50, I noticed one of the Riverdale guys getting the angle on me. As he was getting close, I cut a little to the middle of the field which disrupted his angle, causing him to lose his momentum. He slowed up and I scored – I believe it was the turning point of the game.”
Warren County went on to win 28-7, securing an 8-0 start.
Nobody was surprised by the stop at the goal line. The Pioneer defense was a prideful group – gaining a yard on them, either in a game or practice, lit a fire.
“We had talent and were tough to score on,” said Gary Rankin, Alcoa’s legendary coach who was the DB coach on the 1980 Pioneers. “It was a lot of tight formations – not so spread out. It much more physical game and we had a physical team.”
Bennett agreed, saying, “if somebody moved the ball on the defense, they were wanting to hurt somebody. When we went 1’s versus 1’s in practice, if the offense moved the ball 4-5 yards on the first play, you had to get ready. Those next five yards were going to be tough.”
“When you played Warren County, we brought the pain. When we got done, people were hurting,” said Wilcher.
The players all credited their coaching for helping get the job done. Wilcher especially recalls a time where he had one of his best games, despite being exhausted from a day of work.
“We were out of school and I thought I would sleep in some, but my father got me out of bed and we were logging all day. I got to the game sweating and tired and my coach said I needed to tell my dad I needed to rest before games and I told him, ‘You tell daddy that,’” Wilcher said with a laugh. “It ended up being one of the best games of my life. We practiced on a trap play and coach (Bobby) Haile told me, ‘This is what is going to happen and this is what you have to do.’ Everything was coming true – I stepped to the side and here comes the running back. He got hit head on.”
The 1980 Pioneers are still the stingiest defense in school history, surrendering only 73 points in 13 games.
“I remember after the first couple of game we were focused on shutouts. It got to the point where we didn’t want the other team to even get past the 50 – that is how focused we were on being a dominant defense,” said Cook.
Womack running wild
The offensive playbook for the Pioneers in the 1980 season was pretty thin. Womack left, Womack right and Womack up the middle was enough to beat – and blow out – most of the schedule. Jeff Womack finished the season with 2,550 yards rushing and 34 TDs, still both single-season records in Warren County.
Womack was a workhorse, toting the rock 441 times (33.9 carries per game) in 1980.
“He was shifty and fast – it was three yards at a time running behind our line. Jeff would bust ‘em, bust ‘em and then break one loose,” said Mullican.
Despite a heavy workload, Womack never seemed to slow down or show any signs of fatigue.
“He had a lot of things – he was really, really tough and physical,” said Rankin. “He was very unselfish kid, even though he was touching the ball more than anybody else. He was a tough kid who was talented. He ran hard, ran strong and had breakaway speed.
“There’s no doubt he’s one of the top backs from Warren County.”
Boyd added, “He was a natural talent who worked hard every play, every game and every practice.”
Natural talent was something which came up a lot when discussing Womack’s presence on the Pioneers.
“It was a pleasure to coach Jeff – you can’t teach the moves he had,” said Bennett. “How he cuts, the peripheral vision – a good running back just has a way where they don’t get hit. He was an outstanding player.”
Cook remembered facing Womack most days in practice. When Womack did get hit, he would keep getting up looking for more.
“Oscar was very tough. During practice, we would lay some pretty good hits on each other and I would remember him getting back up with a smile on his face. He enjoyed the game and I believe his greatness is what made our defense better,” said Cook. “If we can tackle him, we could handle anyone else that another team had to offer.”
Like any great running back, Womack had one of the best lines in the state paving the way. The Pioneer front relished doing the hard work needed to put points on the board.
“The best part of that team was the offensive line. It was by far the best offensive line that any of us lined up against that year,” said Upton. “Nobody I ever stepped up against on Friday was better than our OL. They were mean and nasty.”
The line featured John Gouge, Rodger Grieves, Eddie Forth, Paul Meachum, Kirk Webb and Hal Mayfield while Scott Haile and Brent Brock rotated at tight end.
“The line moved people out of there. It didn’t matter if it was eight in the box, I don’t remember losing yards. We always went forward,” said Mullican.
The Pioneers ran what many players and coaches on the team referenced as the ‘Dead I-formation.’ Womack was often ushered to the line by Darrel Martin and Kevin Whiteaker, two physical lead blockers.
“Kevin did a lot of the dirty work to allow Jeff to have that kind of success,” said Rankin.
Cook added, “Let’s not forget Moose (Daryl Martin) and Whit who blocked for Jeff. It was a team effort all around.”
While Womack touched the ball most plays, the Pioneers did have success when others got a look. Mullican ran for 508 yards and six touchdowns, Martin bulldozed his way to 567 yards and four touchdowns and Nelson Ramsey and Robert Lusk each had two TDs rushing.
Mullican also threw for 362 yards and three TDs, while Todd Willmore had a passing TD and rushing TD in action as a sophomore.
“Randy was a great athlete. He did a lot of things for us. He’s a guy who would play today in these spread offenses,” said Rankin.
Working hard, playing harder
Tough practices was something every Pioneer from the 1980 team referenced when recalling their magical run. Warren County didn’t play ironman football that season. With a roster full of 30 seniors – and 60 players overall – the Pioneers went hard every day.
“We had 22 starters and probably could’ve went 44 deep before you had somebody who would go both ways. It made for a heck of a practice,” said Mullican.
“My biggest memory was to see how they competed and worked against each other to get better every day,” said Bennett. “Their determination was so strong. The harder we worked them, the harder they wanted to work.
“I remember one time when coach (Bobby) Newby was just going to do a shoulder pad, helmet and shorts day on a Wednesday. We didn’t play well that Friday and the guys said, ‘we don’t want to do that again.’ They wanted to work every single day.”
The Pioneers never mixed during practice. The offense knew its role and the defense did as well. They groups worked separately in drills and came together for contact.
“We didn’t cut corners. It would be 100 degrees and they would bring you a paper cup of Gatorade,” recalled Wilcher. “Conditioning was key for our team. We never got tired.”
While the Pioneers worked hard, they could play harder too. There were plenty of fun times off the field – even if winning of the field was the most fun.
“We were singers. We would sing going to the ball game in our offensive and defensive buses. We liked to sing ‘We Will Rock You,’ going to the game and “We are the Champions,’ going back,” said Wilcher, who said the late Robert Savage was a ring leader of the chorus.
Upton also remembered the time the Pioneers had a good laugh before a game as an opponent approached the field.
“We went to Bradley and they were coming down some narrow steps. There was a bunch of us down in the grass and you could hear them running down the stairs. They came flying through and ending up laying out and bending the goal post,” said Upton. “We thought they were on drugs – we didn’t know what we had gotten into.”
The Pioneers beat Bradley County 14-7 in the quarterfinals.
Falling to Father Ryan
Don’t expect the Pioneers to pour out a ton of details of their 11 wins from 1980. Instead, if you ask them which game they remember the most, to a man it will be the season finale against Father Ryan.
“The Father Ryan game – we were both 9-0 and the stadium was packed. There were no seats on both side, just standing room only,” said Boyd when asked for his favorite memory of 1980. “Father Ryan brought six Greyhound buses. TV stations, radio, newspapers – everybody was there. It was a big game.”
Warren County was seconds from completing a perfect season before Father Ryan dug deep in its bag of tricks to shock the Pioneers. Father Ryan completed a hook-and-ladder pass to win, a play all still remember vividly.
“I still remember when me and Charlie hit the receiver at the same time. I looked back and Mike Tubbs was right behind me – then I looked back past him and they were down the sideline,” said Martin.
Wilcher added, “I was right in that quarterback’s face. When he threw it, I thought, ‘We have beat them.’”
“We had stopped them cold in their tracks. Our guys had a collision with their guy when he caught it and they go 75 yards on a trick play,” said Rankin, winner of the last five 3A state championships at Alcoa. “I don’t know if they had 2-3 first downs the whole game. We were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state. It was one of the best ball games.”
Warren County went on to beat Franklin County 22-14 and Bradley County 14-7 in the playoffs before falling to Oak Ridge 29-14 in the state semifinals. Oak Ridge won the state championship the following week.
Newby leading the way
At the helm for the Pioneers in 1980 was Bobby Newby. Still the coach with the most wins in Warren County history, Newby left a lasting impression on his players and his staff, which included Bennett, Rankin, Bobby Haile and Edd Cantrell.
“He made you accountable. You showed up and went to work. You did your job and it didn’t matter if you were second team, third team or what it was. When coach Newby said go to work, we went to work – no questions.” – Randy Mullican, 1980 QB
“He instilled a work ethic. Football is a lot like life – If you got knocked down, you get back up. Football and coach Newby taught a lot of that. If somebody tells you that you can’t do it, you prove them wrong.” – Tim Wilcher, 1980 DT
“Coach Bobby Newby was a good man. As a player I didn't see the behind the scenes of the coaching staff. Coach Rankin was my main football coach as he coached Defensive Backs and Linebackers. The coaching staff kept us focused and I am sure that was due to the fact coach Newby made it happen. Coach Newby also let us be us. He didn't try to push anything extravagant on us. We were smash-mouth football - that was our personality.” Hal Cook, 1980 DB
“He was always about being mentally strong and being tough. He didn’t take anything. I liked him a lot.” – Frankie Martin, 1980 LB
“When I worked with him as a coach, I saw a different side of him than when I was a player. He expected and demanded perfection. He was a hard-nosed guy. There was a respect factor and some of a fear factor.
He was hard – he’d grab you by the facemask. That was just how it was in the day and we didn’t pay attention to it. He was a good coach and I respect him as a man more so today than I did back then (as a player). As a coach, he was a different character off the field. It was night and day different.” – David Upton, 1980 DL
“He was a tough-nosed coach. He didn’t take nothing – you didn’t slack off. He pushed you to the limit and it is what made us great.” – Charlie Boyd, 1980 CB
“Bobby Newby was one of the smartest coaches I have ever been around. He had a relationship with his players and assistants and the line was same with everybody. Everybody had a role and he expected you to do your thing. He was big on fundamentals. He demanded respect. We were disciplined – if somebody got a penalty, they were hoping Bobby wasn’t looking for them.
He taught all of us and treated us the same. He set an example for his players and as coaches, we knew exactly what we were going to do and knew our roles.
I’m a better man because of working with Bobby. He instilled so much into me. I always remember his three things – Courage, Pride and Character.” – James Bennett, 1980 Pioneers QB/RB coach
“Bobby Newby was a great football coach. He loved those kids and had a lot of respect for the kids. They respected him and they played hard for him.” – Gary Rankin, 1980 Pioneers DB coach
Lasting Impressions – Always a Pioneer
“During that 1980 season, we had 10 senior starters on offense and 10 senior starters on defense. We all played with or against each other since Pee Wee league, then up through junior high and into high school. It’s a tight group – I love those guys,” said Hal ‘Cookie Monster’ Cook.
“You take our team from that era and bring it to now and it’d still dominate. It was a special team. We probably would all get thrown out of the game now, but they could stack up against any team from this state over the last four decades,” said Upton.
“I’m very proud of what coach Matt Turner and his staff have done. I watch those players work and play during the game. I like to see players give their best in the game and I see it now. It comes back to coaching,” said Bennett. “This team believes in Matt Turner and the team I coached believed in Bobby Newby. When you have a great leaders, everybody will follow.”
“Warren County used to be feared. Nobody wanted to play us. It can be brought back again, but you have to have the heart and be willing to give,” said Wilcher, who passed along his Pioneer pride to his son Morgan Wilcher – a star who had two big scores against Cookeville, Friday’s opponent for homecoming, in a 2008 Warren County win. “Playing football is not easy. It’s a lot of mental work – you have to keep pushing.
“I’d love for this group now to break every record. You’re always a Pioneer – it never stops.”