It’s the game that defined Earl McMahan as a coach better than any other.
William Blount High School’s stunning upset of then top-ranked Dobyns-Bennett in the opening round of the playoffs eight years ago will also tell you a great deal about the man.
McMahan and nine others will be inducted into the Blount County Sports Hall of Fame during ceremonies at the Airport Hilton on Monday night at 6:30. Class of 2009 inductees Archie Anderson, Ken Chambers, Annie Baird Frick, Dennis Godfrey, Jimmy “Flash” Harris, Bill Padgett, Johnny Morgan, Larry Satterfield, Ron Waters and McMahan comprise a genuinely worthy collection of Blount County sporting history.
Each beat back the odds during their playing and/or coaching careers, and McMahan was no different, the Dobyns-Bennett shocker revealing more about the current Heritage High School principal than his ability to win football games.
“To know all the athletes and coaches that are in (the Hall), it’s certainly an honor,” McMahan said.
The Governors could hardly have been more of an underdog that 2001 season. The Indians were unbeaten at 10-0. William Blount had amassed a 5-5 record over the course of an injury-riddled season.
Dobyns-Bennett was the state’s No. 1-ranked team in the largest classification for football. The Indians roster was dotted with Division I prospects.
Not only would the game be played in Kingsport, but William Blount had won only one playoff game in the school’s then 22-year history.
At practice that Monday, McMahan, then the Governor coach, took all those reasons why William Blount couldn’t win, placed them in a trash can and reduced them all to ashes.
“He had all the players write down three things that were good about playing them,” former Governor assistant coach Stan Burnette said. “Then he had them write down one bad thing.”
McMahan collected all the reasons William Blount would be blown out and deposited the slips of paper in a nearby trash can. After setting the contents ablaze, he turned to the Governors and said: “Now, let’s go practice.”
Four days later, with McMahan’s son, Reese, at quarterback, William Blount stunned the state, knocking off the Indians, 26-19.
All he asked of that team was that they work and hustle, McMahan said.
“If an athlete does that, that’s all you can ask,” he said.
His friend of 35 years was no different during a decorated career at Maryville College in the early 1970s, Loudon High School principal David Clinton said.
“Earl was just a steady Eddy at his job,” he said.
Few Scots in school history have enjoyed as storied a career as McMahan, especially so considering where he played. To make a name for yourself as an offensive lineman, you have be good. To be named to every All-American list in existence at the time requires a rare fire.
“He was also a heckuva punter,” Clinton said.
The Maryville College long snapper, Clinton said he’ll never forget one particular kick their senior season. Neither, likely, will Bridgewater College.
“They had a real good return man, and Earl punted it on our 15,” Clinton said. “I downed it on their seven. It was a rocket.
“He was a good target to snap to; he also had to catch some of my skips back there.”
To appreciate McMahan’s selection as a Kodak and Associated Press All-American, among others, requires some turning back of the clock.
NCAA Division III, the classification in which current Maryville teams compete, came into existence in 1969. Maryville College, however, was still competing in Division II McMahan’s senior season in 1974.
A truly menacing pulling guard, McMahan garnered All-American acclaim on two vastly different teams at Maryville College. Record-setting Maryville quarterback Joe Costner directed a pass-oriented offense his junior year, with a ball-control ground game becoming vogue after Costner’s departure.
“It was one of those times where I got the opportunity to play with a good bunch of guys,” McMahan said.
Eclipsed by McMahan’s successes on the gridiron was the kind of baseball player his friend was, Clinton said. McMahan led the Scots in runs batted in in both his junior and senior seasons. As a senior, the left-handed first baseman/relief pitcher helped Maryville College to the NCAA baseball tournament for the first time in school history.
McMahan never lost his taste for the game, continuing with amateur slow-pitch softball as he married and began raising a family. The competitor in McMahan never lessened, said Heritage High School assistant principal Steve Stout, an assistant during McMahan’s tenure as football coach at Heritage High.
McMahan and he were teammates on an area slow-pitch team once when the former misplaced his glove prior to a game, Stout said.
“He turned a right-hand glove inside out and made every play you can make,” he said, “shagging everything.”
Asked for one word that best describes his longtime friend and mentor, Stout had a ready response.
“Intensity,” he said. “That’s it. He was intense from the time practice started to the time it finished. He was intense watching film on Sunday. It’s still that way as a principal. He wants to have the best school out there.”
Why he became a teacher and coach had much to do with his youth and upbringing, McMahan said.
“Mom worked three to eleven,” he said. “I was kind of on my own a lot. There were a lot of chances to go a different route. There were some coaches along the way who really helped me out.”
It’s a debt McMahan said he’s spent a lifetime paying forward.
“We’re human beings,” he said. “We get down sometimes, thinking about things we don’t have. You just have to get going.”
Earl and Teresa McMahan’s two children, which includes daughter Cait, would both go on to stellar sporting careers themselves, with Cait fulfilling a lifelong dream to sign a basketball scholarship with the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. Just as that dream was realized, McMahan and his children would suffer a loss far outweighing the fortunes of any sporting venue.
Teresa McMahan succumbed to a decade-long battle with cancer following Cait’s freshman season at Tennessee. Few things in his life, Earl McMahan said, have wounded him as deeply.
“She was the toughest member of the family,” he said. “She was my best friend. It was tough. It was real tough. I’ll miss her.”
A life filled with so much makes McMahan uniquely qualified for his current post, Clinton said. His successes as a principal will only mirror his accomplishments as a sportsman. One thing, he said, will always ring true.
“He’s been a good friend,” Clinton said.
The best coaches, the ones that can take a .500 team and do what William Blount did eight years ago, always are.