Gary Rankin lost his first game as a high school football coach.
The new coach at Smith County with the start of the 1981 season would lose the remaining nine that first year as well.
Not the best way to debut as your alma mater’s new coach.
Beginning with the first game of the next season, the Owls initiated one of the winningest careers Tennessee high school football has ever known.
Rankin, recently named 2010 Tennessee Titans High School Coach of the Year, remembered that game on Monday. Smith County/Gordonsville is a midstate rivalry on par with Alcoa/Maryville in many respects, said Rankin, who directed Alcoa to a record seventh consecutive state championship last month in Cookeville.
Gordonsville entered as the state’s top-ranked team that season. Smith County was on a school-record 28-game losing streak, Rankin inheriting a team the year before that hadn’t seen a win in almost three seasons. In that year’s state power rankings, the Owls were one spot from last place.
“They had the longest losing streak in the state at the time,” Rankin said.
An old, black-and-white photograph now hangs next to the door in Rankin’s locker room office at Alcoa. Rankin is careful with his emotions as he talks about it. The Owls are not only carrying their coach off the field after his first win, they’d just shocked the state’s No. 1 team, Gordonsville, their biggest rival, 21-14.
The Titans honored Rankin for his selection as coach of the year during ceremonies at a December game. Football at the professional level is “the best of the best of the best,” Rankin said, but he’s never wanted to coach there. He’s declined offers to coach at the collegiate level as well.
An assistant principal at Alcoa, the high school game, working with kids, Rankin said, has always been the right fit.
Rankin left Smith County after seven successful seasons. His work with the Owls had drawn quick notice, with Riverdale principal Hulon Watson hiring Rankin to jumpstart the Warrior program.
Riverdale had never advanced beyond the state playoff quarterfinals before Rankin’s arrival for the 1990 season. At the time, the Warriors didn’t even have a field, playing their home games at Middle Tennessee State University’s Floyd Stadium.
Talk about your harbinger of things to come.
Riverdale would eventually get a field, christening Tomahawk Stadium in Rankin’s 10th season in 2000, but the Warrior coach had really taken a liking to Floyd Stadium. He would lead the Warriors back there to take part in nine state championship games in 14 seasons in Murfreesboro, winning the first four of now nine state crowns.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn into what it did,” Rankin said.
The championships are one back of former Brentwood Academy coach Carlton Flatt’s state record of 10. The Tornadoes put a school-record win streak at 43 games with last month’s 56-14 rout of Goodpasture at Tennessee Tech. Alcoa is 71-4 in Rankin’s five seasons, with three of the losses coming to Maryville, the Tornadoes winning the last two meetings.
Rankin’s 323 all-time wins has him within 33 of former St. George’s coach Ken Netherland’s state record. Netherland, 77, retired after last month’s Division II championship game loss to Webb. Rankin, 56, said Monday he hopes to coach for at least another 10 years.
“What he brings to Alcoa is a lot of discipline,” Alcoa athletics director Josh Stephens said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior, he treats everybody the same, and he’s got great expectations. I would put him up there with the best of them.”
The wins run together, Rankin said. The teams, the players, endure.
He’s had his favorites along the way. Former Owl Scott Dirkson served notice Smith County would be pushovers no more. Riverdale speedster Fernando Bryant went all the way from Murfreesboro to the University of Alabama and on to the NFL. A second former player is on the verge of a professional career, former Tornado and University of Kentucky junior Randall Cobb projecting as high as one of the first 40 players taken in this spring’s NFL Draft should The Associated Press All-American and the Southeastern Conference record holder decide to leave Lexington early.
“There are so many Saturday afternoons that Alcoa has been mentioned on national TV because of what he has done,” Rankin said. “I’ve been fortunate to coach some good players. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve been fortunate to be around some coaches that have stayed together for a long time.”
Stability has always been big with him, Rankin said. When he took the Alcoa post five years ago, he left much of the staff intact, including defensive coordinator Brian Nix. Alcoa Middle coach Tim Russell and assistant coach Mike McClurg were already doing a great job at the development level, so he stayed out of there way, Rankin said.
“Tim and Mike work those guys real hard,” Rankin said. “They spend a lot of time with those kids.”
Former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight were both big influences on him during the early years, Rankin said.
“When I was younger, I studied a lot of guys,” Rankin said, “anybody who had won, not just football. I tried to figure out how to do it by watching people I thought had done it the right way.”
Rankin said he includes Maryville coach George Quarles in that list. The Rebels and Tornadoes share the state record for state championships in the playoff era, each now with 12 each.
“George is a good friend of mine,” Rankin said. “I respect him more for the kind of person he is, the kind of husband he is, the kind of dad he is. That’s what sets him apart.”
The walls of Rankin’s Alcoa office are stuffed with mementos, so much so last month’s championship coaching plaque sits awaiting a spot on his desk. Sharing space with two national coach of the year awards on the shelves are scores of commemorative game balls still in their plastic.
“Football is such a team effort and a team sport, there are a lot of people who had a lot to do with all these things,” Rankin said.
It isn’t coach speak when the Tornado coach says he’s hard on his players. Alcoa practices these days bristle with intensity, promptness and regimentation. Being late is a really bad idea.
“If practice starts at 4 o’clock, it starts at 4 o’clock,” Rankin said, “not 4:01. I’m never late for anything, and I think that’s a good habit for kids to have.”
The wins, the championships, it’s a lot to take in, but the secret of her husband’s coaching philosophy is actually quite simple, Sandra Rankin said.
“He once told me, ‘It’s not the wins,’” she said. “‘I just can’t stand losing.’”
Winners seldom do.