When the doors to Cleveland High School opened for the first time in 1966, a tradition of excellence began that has carried on for more than four decades.
On Oct. 11, the school will honor that legacy with a “Reunion of Champions” tailgate at 5:30 p.m. and a 7 p.m. recognition celebration prior to the start of the Cleveland vs. Bradley Central High School football game.
The events will include recognition for players and coaches of the football, cheerleading, and band squads of the 1960s and 1970s.
The next morning at 11, a special “Reunion of Champions” brunch will be held at Creekridge, the home of Allan and Janie Jones.
For those who attended Cleveland High during the school’s first decade of excellence, the memories remain fresh.
“We grew up in a time where there was much unrest and racial strife in our country, yet we were able to live in a vacuum where most of these conditions simply did not exist,” said Bill Emendorfer, a 1969 graduate and the school’s first state wrestling champion.
“We did not see the differences in each other nearly as much as we saw the similarities. It is unfortunate the rest of the world can’t be more like this group.”
Emendorfer said, the vision of the city school board in the 1960s was to create a high school that truly had its foundation on academic excellence.
Emendorfer remains the only player at Cleveland High to have his football uniform number retired (number 74) and was an All-American in both high school and at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“The education we each received at Cleveland High rivals those found only in private institutions,” he said. “The original faculty had energy and passion for their students and their role in developing a tradition of excellence, academics, athletics, the arts, music and drama all had a significant role in shaping the school and each of our futures.”
Emendorfer said the group who will be honored on Oct. 11 are the men and women who created the sense of pride that is now recognized with Cleveland High School.
“We only had one losing season in 35 years. Kids today don’t understand what it is like to never consider that you might lose – to always expect that you will win,” he said. “The team was more important than the individual, but yet the individual would still flourish.”
Bobby Scott, the school’s first head football coach, agreed with Emendorfer that both winning and academics were important at Cleveland High.
Scott notes in the early years of the school, the team went 32 games without a loss, won a state championship and was at one point ranked 19th in the nation.
“We believed that being successful was important, whether it was on the football field or in the classroom,” said Scott, now 80. “In my 13 years as a coach, we always had a very special group of parents, teachers, administrators, and young people.”
Scott said his best memory at Cleveland High came in 1968. Although one poll ranked Oak Ridge as tops in the state, another ranked Cleveland as number one. When the two teams finally met, it was a hard battle but Cleveland emerged as the victor.
“That was the turning point that led us to the state championship,” Scott said. “Nothing was ever the same after we beat those kids at Oak Ridge.”
Greg Davis, a 1969 graduate, has been called by some former students “the best all-around athlete that ever played at Cleveland High.”
Davis was all-state in football, basketball, and baseball, and was also the first-string quarterback in his senior year.
Ironically, he nearly became a student at a nearby high school, but transferred to Cleveland after a week.
“I left because of some of the racial problems that were going on at the other school,” said Davis, an African-American. “I came to Cleveland and everyone treated me like a human being. Some of the kids even invited me to their homes for a snack. The racial problems that were going on throughout the nation were not a factor at Cleveland High.”
Davis said he realized how special the school was when the football team was traveling back from a trip to the Sugar Bowl and stopped at a Louisiana restaurant. When the waitress refused to bring water to Davis and the other two African-American players, the coaching staff stood up and walked out.
“That experience showed me what we meant to each other,” Davis said. “People like Coach Scott, Louie Alford, Jim Woodall, Brian Draper and Jim Tanara — they were good men who led by example. We had some great moments.”
Steve Hixson, also a 1969 Cleveland graduate, described Cleveland as “booming” when the school was established in 1967.
“It was a magical time for the city, because we had a new high school but also George R. Stuart, which was a new grammar school,” said Hixson. “The students at Cleveland High were closer than most groups because we had spent at least six years in school together at Arnold, which was operating as a high school until Cleveland High opened. We were determined to make our new school the best that it could be in a short amount of time.”
Hixson points to the football team’s first state championship in 1968 as proof of the commitment to excellence.
“We had a bond that created lifelong friendships,” Hixson said. “The students were in many ways a family. It started back at Arnold School and continued on the day when Cleveland High opened and everyone marched across town to the new building.”
Jim Woodall, who coached at Cleveland, from 1965 until 1976, also recalled the beginnings of the new school.
“The students had a tremendous attitude about everything pertaining to school: athletics, academics, arts, band, and a desire for excellence,” Woodall said. “We also had a young, energetic faculty. Everyone got along famously. If you compared Cleveland High School to an automobile, it was hitting on eight cylinders. Everything ran smoothly!”
Woodall estimates that in the first five years of the new school, between 10 and 12 football players received Division One football scholarships.
“As a young coach and a teacher, I loved every moment I spent there,” he said. “I looked forward to going to work every day.”
Bill Talley, a football coach at Cleveland from 1968 to 1975, agreed that the entire school was focused on excellence. His teams won 94 percent of their games, compiling a record of 32-2 with three undefeated seasons.
“Imagine going to a store and seeing so many things that you want that they won’t all fit in the buggy – that was Cleveland High School because it had everything,” said Talley. “The new school was the envy of the surrounding area and we all took pride in it. There was no drugs or graffiti. The world was different then — the music was oldie goldie stuff where you could understand the words.”
During his time at Cleveland, Talley was famous for his motivational advice and often told his players:
“"If you think you are a loser, then you will be a loser, but if you think you are a winner, then that is what you will be. Even if you don’t win every time, you will be an over comer.”
One of Talley’s fondest memories of Cleveland involved the year the ninth grade team traveled to play Madisonville. Talley knew in advance that the Cleveland ninth graders would have to face Madisonville’s junior varsity squad, but instead of giving the team the bad news in advance, he kept it a secret.
“I didn’t want the players to worry about it, so once we got to the stadium I told them I was as surprised as they were and gave an emotional pep talk,” said Talley. “Some of the players say that I actually cried, although I’m not sure about that. But our ninth graders went out and beat the bigger boys from Madisonville. I was proud to be a Blue Raider and am still proud today.”
Allan Jones, a 1972 graduate and member of the undefeated freshman team of 1968 that took on Madisonville, said:
“I remember noticing during warm-ups before the Madisonville game that their team looked much larger than us. When we got back into the locker room, Coach Talley told us there had been a terrible mistake and Madisonville intended to play their junior varsity team instead of the smaller freshman team — and that some of those boys were even seniors!”
According to Jones, Talley had tears rolling down his cheeks as he gave the team the speech.
“Coach actually told us that he was so mad that he was going to just put us on the bus and take us home,” Jones remembers. “But instead of going back to Cleveland, he told us he was so mad that he had decided we were going out there and kick their butts!”
Jones said it was the most emotional pre-game speech he had ever heard.
“The first play was C-right 24 power, where we ran straight up the middle at the linebacker,” Jones said. “Doug Mizell and I carried the linebacker about 10 yards and crammed him into the ground, as Robert Ware — the fastest guy ever at Cleveland — went 80 yards for a touchdown. I think we ended up beating them 40-0.”
Jones said in his four years playing at Cleveland High, he never exceeded his ability as he did that afternoon in Madisonville thanks to Coach Talley. He also revealed that 30 years later, Talley admitted that he had actually requested that the young Cleveland team play the older Madisonville players because Talley knew Cleveland could beat them.
“He just had to convince us we could beat them,” said Jones. “What a great memory.”
David Beckler, a 1967 graduate, transferred to Cleveland High from Polk County as a sophomore. He knew immediately that he was in a unique environment.
“Cleveland High was the total package – it had everything,” Beckler said. “There was a dedication to the youth, enthusiasm from the teachers and so much energy.”
Beckler said the enthusiasm started with the school’s administration.
“Every student felt that the teachers wanted them to do their very best,” said Beckler. “I can still remember three teachers who took a personal interest in me. It was much different than the college atmosphere, where you were lucky if a teacher even knew your name.”
Beckler’s girlfriend at Cleveland High, Carol Rose, was a cheerleader who would eventually become the school’s first homecoming queen. The two would later marry during college.
“I remember the day we walked from Arnold to see the new building,” said Rose. “It was so big and clean and beautiful. For the rest of my life I will always be so proud and appreciative that I was a student at Cleveland High School.”
Graduates from the ‘60s and ‘70s who wish to be included in the celebration should call Duane Schriver at (423) 593-4139 or by email at duaneschriver@gmail .com. Information is also at the Cleveland High School website at www.chsraiders.com.