In 7 years covering the Southwest District, I was witness to some of the best football in Southwest Virginia, and at least one unforgettable story. Graham, Richlands, Tazewell, and Grundy formed a four team league that could not only compete amongst themselves, but on the state level as well. Graham won a State Title in 1995, Grundy pushed Salem to overtime in the 1996 Semi-Finals on a muddy field in Tazwell, and Richlands won a 1992 State Championship only to have the title tainted by the actions of their head coach.
Then Richlands Head Coach Dennis Vaught admitted (eventually, after persistently lying about it) to outfitting his team in illegal 3/4 inch cleats in the Blue Tornadoes State Semi-Final win over Salem. He tried to do the same in the State Final a week later against Orange County, but was caught before the game and his team spent most of the pre-game trying to get legal. The thing is that Vaught who could really coach didn’t need the illegal cleats as his game plan had his team pushing Salem around all afternoon. I’ve said a thousand times, Richlands would have won that game playing barefoot on a parking lot because Vaught plain out prepared and out coached Willis White.
The incident came to light when Salem started filtering the story to the local Roanoke media, who ran with it. Richlands fans were pissed and threatened just about everyone with bodily harm while calling Salem a bunch of cry babies.
Salem even went 007 producing an invoice from Roanoke sporting goods store CMT, which showed Richlands ordering the illegal spikes for the cleats. Vaught was caught in a lie that he thought he could weasel his way out of and CMT (which has now gone the way of the dinosaur) was forever known as “Cleats Mailed Today.”
The episode cost Vaught his job as the Head Coach and the ensuing years just got weirder. Richlands kept the State Title, but were put on something the Virginia High School League called “Strong Probation” which I guess is akin to “Double Secret Probation”. The team was ineligible for the post-season in 1993 and played the season under Interim Coach Terry Wess.
Wess made it clear to the local media that he wasn’t going to talk about what came to be known as “cleat-gate”. Then Wess quit after a year. The Tazewell school board appointed principal George Brown to be the Head Coach. Brown is an extremely nice man but was really nothing more than a CEO type with assistant coaches running the show. One of those assistant coaches was none other than Vaught who served as the Offensive Coordinator.
Brown apparently had some type of hidden agenda to teach not only Vaught a lesson but Richlands’ fans as well. With a chance to actually win or tie the Group AA; Division 4; Region 4 Final at Blacksburg and banking three time outs, Brown stood by and let the clock run out not using a single time out and basically giving the Town of Richlands the middle finger.
Brown was out after one season, and guess who was back. You got it, Vaught. But, once again, the state’s resident head case struck again. In 1996 Vaught was shown the door permanently after an internal investigation ordered by Tazewell County Schools Superintendent Woodrow Mullins showed Vaught ordered his players to intentionally hurt Grundy Quarterback Steven Copenhaver and Lineman Luke Owens during the Blue Tornadoes game with the Golden Wave. Copenhaver suffered a torn knee ligament in the game.
Vaught never coached again and was replaced by assistant Greg Mance, who enters his 22nd season this year having taking Richlands to heights that Vaught couldn’t achieve because he couldn’t get out of a his damn way.
Former Richlands Coach Billy Haun once told us at WVVA that Richlands was no place to raise a family, but like most of Southwest Virginia, the town loves its football and they along with the current configuration of the Southwest District teams typically put on a good show.
Graham G-Men (Class 2; Region 2D)
2017 Record: 11 – 2 overall; 5 – 0 Southwest District
Head Coach: Tony Palmer – 4th season overall; 4th season at Graham (Career Record: 28 – 10) (Record at School 28 – 10)
2017 Points Scored: 471 (36.2 average per game)
2017 Points Allowed: 208 (16.0 average per game)
It appears that one of Southwest Virginia’s traditional football powerhouses is back. Graham is coming off two consecutive 11 – 2 seasons, both which ended in the Regional Finals. Palmer is a former player and assistant coach at Graham and loves the school and the community. After an average 6 – 6 first season, he is 22 – 4 over the past two years and that includes a win over rival Bluefield in 2016. Prior to Palmer taking over as head coach, Graham had been floundering since the untimely death of coach Glynn Carlock in 2005. Carlock won 244 games in 31 seasons at Graham and two state titles in 1989 and 1995. He also coached Graham to the 2001 Group AA; Division 3 state championship game. His immediate successor Doug Marrs – a longtime assistant to Carlock – couldn’t repeat his bosses’ success as wins dropped in each of his six seasons bottoming out at 1 – 9 in 2010, and his support in the community eroded quickly. The school then made a curious outside hire in Mike Williams who never messed with the community and lasted four seasons and left with a 25-19 overall record and no playoff victories. For a time this year it appeared Graham would not be playing its home games at long time home Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield, WV as the City and the Tazewell County schools haggled over a new contract. They eventually worked something out but had they not, as the home team Graham’s traditional home opener against Bluefield would have been played at Tazewell High School which would not have been able to handle the annual 10,000 + capacity crowd. In anticipation of having the game there, Tazewell moved its opening game to Thursday night where it remains.
Fun Fact: Palmer was a running back on Graham’s 1989 State Championship team which had its scoreless streak broken in a loss at Salem late in the season. He served as an assistant for 3 coaches including Carlock, Marrs and Williams and gave up an 18 ½ year career as a uniformed police officer in Bluefield, WV to obtain his teaching license and become a fulltime teacher and coach at Graham.
August 24 – vs. Bluefield
August 31- at Tazewell
September 7- at Giles
September 14- Open date
September 21- at Central-Wise
September 28- vs. Princeton, WV
October 5- vs. Lebanon
October 11- at Virginia (Thursday)
October 19- vs. Richlands
October 26- vs. Fort Chiswell
November 2- at Marion
Lebanon Pioneers (Class 2; Region 2D)
2017 Record: 2- 8 overall; 0 – 5 Southwest District
Head Coach: Michael Webb – 2nd season overall; 2nd season at school (Career Record: 2 – 8) (Record at School: 2 – 8)
2017 Points Scored: 102 (10.2 average per game)
2017 Points Allowed: 387 (38.7 average per game)
A school that frankly sits on an island in Southwest Virginia not close to much of anything. Webb was promoted to head coach from an assistant job at the school last season. Pioneers are coming off 3 consecutive losing seasons in which they’ve won a total of 8 games.
Fun Fact: One of Lebanon’s best seasons came in 2004 when the Pioneers started 9-0 and finished 10-2 after losing in the regional finals. Since then, they’ve won 9 games twice, and 8 games twice, but are currently on a run of just one winning season in the past 8.
August 24- at Honaker
August 31- at Lee
September 7- vs. Grundy
September 14- vs. John Battle
September 21- Open date
September 28- vs. Marion
October 5 – at Graham
October 12- vs. Castlewood
October 19- vs. Virginia
October 26- at Richlands
November 2- vs. Tazewell
Marion Scarlet Hurricane (Class 2; Region 2D)
2017 Record: 9 – 3 overall; 3 – 2 Southwest District
Head Coach: Joey Carroll – 8th season overall; 8th season at the school (Career Record: 42 – 35) (Record at School: 42 – 35)
2017 Points Scored: 363 (30.3 average per game)
2017 Points Allowed: 239 (19.9 average per game)
Followed a 7 – 4 season in 2016 with a 9 win season in 2017. Lost in the Regional Semi-Finals to eventual regional champion Union. Started 2017 8 – 0 before losing 3 of their last 4 games.
Fun Fact: Take out a 1-9 record in 2015 and since 2014, Marion has won 10 games (2014), 7 games (2016) and 9 games (2017)
August 24- vs. Chilhowie
August 31- at Northwood
September 7- vs. George Wythe
September 14- Open date
September 21- at Grayson County
September 28- at Lebanon
October 5- vs. Gate City
October 12- at Richlands
October 19- at Tazewell
October 26- vs. Virginia
November 2- vs. Graham
Richlands Blue Tornadoes (Class 2; Region 2D)
2017 Record: 4 – 7 overall; 3 – 2 Southwest District
Head Coach: Greg Mance – 22nd season overall; 22nd season at Richlands (Career Record: 190 – 69) (Record at School: 190 – 69)
2017 Points Scored: 208 (18.9 average per game)
2017 Points Allowed: 185 (16.8 average per game)
A Very unlike Richlands season in 2017 as the Blue Tornadoes suffered a losing season. They didn’t allow their opponents to score many points, but also didn’t score many themselves. Expect this year to be better, but probably not up to the level of the 11 win team of 2015 and the 13 win state runner-up team from 2016 as Richlands facing a particularly challenging schedule including a three week period in which they play Blacksburg (one of the best teams in Class 4), William Byrd on the road, and Bluefield, WV., the defending West Virginia Class AA Champion. Mance – a native of Giles County – played on the Spartans 1980 Class AA State Championship team which beat Park View Sterling 33 -32 in the Championship game. Park View was led by future NFL player Allen Pinkett who scored all 32 of his teams points that afternoon. Mance was a three-year starter at second base for the Virginia Tech baseball team before going to Richlands to begin his coaching career. Things began clicking for Richlands when Mance employed the spread offense at Richlands in 2004. That began a run of 9 seasons of at least double digits wins.
Fun Fact: Mance got his start as an assistant coach at Richlands in the late 80s when he was hired by Richlands Head Coach Billy Haun, who is now the Executive Director of the Virginia High School League.
August 24- at Gate City
August 31- vs. Union
September 7- Open date
September 14- at Blacksburg
September 21- at William Byrd
September 28- vs. Bluefield, WV
October 5- vs. Tazewell
October 12- vs. Marion
October 19- at Graham
October 26- vs. Lebanon
November 2- at Virginia
Tazewell Bulldogs (Class 2; Region 2D)
2017 Record: 4 – 6 overall; 2 – 4 Southwest District
Head Coach: J’me Harris – 2nd year overall; 2nd year at school (Career Record: 4 – 6) (Record at School: 4 – 6)
2017 Points Scored: 250 (25.0 average per game)
2017 Points Allowed: 333 (33.3 average per game)
I’m convinced there isn’t a tougher place to work than Tazewell. Long-time coach Dave Litz resigned at the end of the 1996 season. Since then the Bulldogs have had 7 coaches, one of which simply quit before he ever coached a game. Former Coach Nick Colobro was set to return to Tazewell in 2017 and actually took the job before changing his mind and saying that he didn’t have what it took to do the job. Translated, he couldn’t fathom putting up with Tazewell bullshit. The school is notorious for running coaches off and this one will likely meet a similar fate sooner than later.
Fun Fact: Tazewell hasn’t had a winning season since 2008. Since 2009 the Bulldogs are just 25-67 and have actually made the playoffs twice in that span. The arrival of the two division playoff system in 1986 was met with Tazewell winning the Group AA; Division 4 state championship beating Martinsville in the Semi-Finals and Nottoway in the Championship game, both at home.
August 23- vs. Virginia (Thursday)
August 31- vs. Graham
September 7- vs. River View, WV
September 14- Open date
September 21- vs. Bluefield, WV
September 28- at Hurley
October 5- at Richlands
October 12- at Fort Chiswell
October 19- at Marion
October 26- at Grundy
November 2- at Lebanon
Virginia Bearcats (Class 2; Region 2D)
2017 Record: 7 – 4 overall; 3 – 2 Southwest District
Head Coach: Michael Crist – 6th season overall; 6th season at School (Career Record: 24 – 29) (Record at School: 24 – 29)
2017 Points Scored: 270 (24.5 average per game)
2017 Points Allowed: 193 (17.5 average per game)
Part of the coaching Crist family, Michael Crist enters his 6th season at Virginia High coming off his best season in his tenure. Crist is one of three sons of Hall of Fame coach Dave Crist who played for their father and followed his lead into the coaching profession. The Bearcats have been to the playoffs three straight seasons but haven’t advanced past the opening round. They also haven’t beaten their biggest rival Tennessee High in 6 years.
Fun Fact: Crist was hired at Virginia High by then school superintendent Mark Lineburg, the son of another Virginia Hall of Fame coach Norm Lineburg, who coached at Radford.
August 23- at Tazewell (Thursday)
August 31- vs. John Battle
September 7- at Tennessee
September 14- vs. Central-Wise
September 21- Open date
September 28- at Chilhowie
October 5- vs. Abingdon
October 11- vs. Graham (Thursday)
October 19- at Lebanon
October 26- at Marion
November 2- vs. Richlands