There is one final regular season College Football game this weekend, the annual Army-Navy game in Baltimore. I’m not going to spend much time on it because it doesn’t require much time. It’s a great atmosphere, but it hasn’t been a great game in a while. Army has been mostly dreadful for the last decade and this year while the Black Knights are bowl eligible, two of their wins are over FCS opponents. I would expect Navy to continue its dominance.
The game does hold historical significance however in two respects. At this game in 1963, the CBS Television Network introduced a concept into sports television that exists to this day…instant replay. Likewise, as CBS broadcasts the game again, it’s the final college football broadcast for one Merton LaVerne Lundquist better known as “Uncle Verne” who retires from CBS’s football production although he will continue on college basketball and select golf events like the Masters and PGA Championship. He’s in his mid 70s, and it’s fantastic that he continues to broadcast events, but let’s face it, the travel has to be brutal in the SEC. He lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and unless you have a private jet (and he might), the only way to get to any SEC city with the exception of maybe Nashville is by taking the regional jet tour of the Southeast.
Instead I’ll revert back to my first football love…high school football. It’s Championship Saturday in Virginia. For those of you who don’t know and I suspect most of you reading this do not, Virginia divides its high schools into six classifications ranging from 6A (the biggest) to 1A (the smallest). The six title games are spread among three locations in Virginia. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Other states manage to put all the title games in one location over two days and why Virginia can’t do the same is a complete mystery. Instead, the small schools 1A and 2A are in Salem, 3A and 4A are at the College of William and Mary for the first time after the VHSL decided it no longer wanted to do business with Liberty University and its buffoon President Jerry Falwell, Junior and for the first time Hampton hosts 5A and 6A after several years at the University of Virginia. The format isn’t ideal, but it’s a lot better than it was 20 years ago when the title games were held on home fields and not based on merit, but rather on some weird rotational system.
The 3A title game is an interesting story with an interesting back-story as well. It matches Blacksburg High School against Staunton River High School. Blacksburg is of course the home to Virginia Tech. Staunton River is located in Moneta about a 20 minute drive outside of Roanoke on Smith Mountain Lake. Honestly when we started Friday Football Extra in 1985 at WDBJ, Staunton River wasn’t very good and they haven’t been good for a long potion of the school’s history. But, they have now become extremely good and have a running back whose set to smash all the VHSL rushing records and apparently feature a single-wing offense (and let’s be honest, the spread offenses today are nothing but fancied up versions of the single wing) that no one has figured out how to tackle. This is Staunton River’s first State Championship game.
That’s not the case for Blacksburg. This is the school’s 5th state title game, but the most unexpected. At one point this season, Blacksburg was 2-4 and going absolutely nowhere. Since then they’ve won 7 of their last 8 games and 5 in a row to take a 9-5 record in to the Championship game. Everyone has been waiting for the clock to strike midnight but it hasn’t and it might not. I’ve seen this before. In 1988, Lexington high school finished the regular season 5-5 and won 4 straight to win a State Championship. Just last year Galax High School shook off a 1-4 start to win 10 in a row and the school’s first State Championship.
That set up brings me to the back story and the symmetry that sports seems to provide us sometimes. For 40 years, Blacksburg High School was coached by Dave Crist, one of the finest people you would ever hope to meet. Crist was essentially a soft-spoken, humble math teacher who could coach the hell out of a football team and he did so at Blacksburg from 1975 – 2014 winning 239 games while losing 196 with 4 ties. He won a state championship in just his third season in 1977 and put teams in the Championship Game in 1984 and 1985, losing both.
But, if you ask him no doubt one of the highlights of his career had to be 1989. That year his team rolled through the playoffs beating their rivals from nearby Christiansburg in the first round 14-9, Lee High from far Southwest Virginia the next weekend setting up a semi-final match-up with powerhouse Salem. Salem is also in the 4A championship game this weekend, seeking the schools 8th state championship, but in 1989, they hadn’t won their first yet and on semi-final Saturday in Salem Blacksburg handed them a 26-14 loss to advance to what was then called Virginia Group AA, Division 4 Championship Game. Blacksburg due to the strange VHSL rotational system had to travel nearly 4 hours to just outside Fredericksburg to face Courtland High School, the same school they’d lost to in the title game in 1985. This time Blacksburg won 19-6 and why was this most likely the highlight of Dave Crist’s career? The quarterback was his son Brian. The WDBJ camera picked up the priceless shot of father hugging his son as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Crist retired from coaching in 2014. The school’s football field is now named after him. I’m not sure where he’ll be this weekend. You see while his beloved Blacksburg High School team plays for a state title, his son Brian is an assistant at Youngstown State University. Youngstown State hosts Wofford in the FCS playoffs this weekend.
So Blacksburg will try to win another state title with another father-son combination in Chad and Grant Johnston. Chad is the offensive coordinator at Blacksburg and Grant – just a sophomore – is the starting quarterback.
I first met Chad in 1990 when I got the weekend sports anchor gig at WVVA in Bluefield. Chad is from Peterstown, West Virginia a small little town in Monroe County literally right on the border with Giles County, Virginia. Chad was playing receiver in 1990 for the Peterstown Pirates as they advanced to West Virginia’s Class A championship game where they lost to Duvall High School. He was a natural quarterback, but was playing wide receiver because he had left Peterstown as a sophomore to play for his father Gordon, who was the coach at Craig County High School in Virginia allowing another player to take over at quarterback. Chad’s coach, Don Jackson (another one of the finest people I’ve ever met) also happened to be his stepfather and married to Chad’s mom. Coach Jackson told me that Chad would have been playing quarterback in 1990 had he not left in 1989, but you couldn’t tell his mother that. I guess mom thought he should be playing quarterback then.
Regardless, he was playing Quarterback in 1991 when small little Peterstown High School finally got rid of its albatross and won the Class A state title. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer town, coaches or players. Chad parlayed his success in high school into a full scholarship at West Virginia University. I’m not sure what WVU expected when they recruited him, but what they got was a nearly three year starter who threw for 5,954 yards and 43 touchdowns. He signed as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers in 1997 and was with them through training camp but didn’t make it in the NFL. He has however become a major success in life, now a practicing physician in Blacksburg and coaching football in his spare time.
What I got out of meeting Chad and his family were some new friends. Chad and his family (which included his step-brother Travis Jackson who was part of Virginia Tech’s 1995 NIT Winning Basketball Team) were just great to me and WVVA. Literally anything that I asked them to do in the name of a story, they would do. Heck, they even fed me lunch one time when I went to Peterstown to do a story on the upcoming WVU Bowl Game against North Carolina when Chad was a Senior. I didn’t ask them to do it and would have never asked them for that, but they did it because that’s just the kind of people they are.
So now here’s Chad with his second son Grant. His first, Isaac played quarterback at Blacksburg and is now on the team at Concord University in Athens, West Virginia. They are plenty of reasons that Blacksburg has a chance at another state title this weekend and I’m sure Chad and Grant would tell you that they are just a part of a bigger operation, but perhaps while the names will be different, about 3:00 p.m. tomorrow another father and son wearing Blacksburg High School’s blue and gold may be partying like it’s 1989.
While Bowl games start next weekend, the FCS playoffs move into the quarterfinals and there’s no question about our FCS Game of the Week. It comes from Fargo, North Dakota where the 5-time defending National Champion Bison of North Dakota State host the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State at the Fargo Dome. This is a rematch of an October 15th game played in Fargo won by South Dakota State 19-17 on a last second touchdown pass. These two schools are only two of 4 FCS schools to make the playoffs each year since 2012, the others are New Hampshire and Sam Houston State. South Dakota State is not only seeking to end North Dakota State’s title run, but also win 10 games for the first time in school history.
Division II and Division III reach the semi-finals. In Division II, the semi-final match-ups are North Alabama at Shepherd and Ferris State at Northwest Missouri State. The winners advance to next Saturday’s Championship game in Kansas City and there’s a chance for a rematch here as last year Northwest Missouri State beat Shepherd in the National Championship game. It’s also the third straight year the toddler Mountain East Conference (based in West Virginia) has put a team in the semi-finals. Shepherd’s back-to-back appearances were proceeded by Concord in 2014.
Division III returns to Salem next weekend for the Stagg Bowl and there’s an excellent chance that for the 20th time in 24 years in Salem, Mount Union will be there. The Purple Raiders face Mary Hardin-Baylor in one semi-final while John Carroll faces Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the other. Wins by Mount Union and John Carroll would set up a rematch of the final weekend of the regular season when John Carroll beat Mount Union and given the relatively easy drive from Northeast Ohio to Salem, the Stagg Bowl may see a large crowd the likes of Mount Union-Bridgewater in 2001. Regardless, my friends in Salem who don’t do anything half-assed will roll out the red carpet and royal treatment again.
See you next week…