Getting ready to kick off its 50th football season, the Blue Raiders started off by winning 54 of 65 games in its first half dozen campaigns. That stretch included a streak of 32 straight games without a loss, plus claiming the 1968 state championship and a national ranking in just its fourth year of existence, as well as playing in the 1970 TSSAA Class AA state title game.
Since then the program also won back-to-back-to-back TSSAA Class AAAA state titles (1993-95) as part of a 54-game winning streak, during a 72-3 run from 1991-96.
Cleveland has had 11 double-digit win seasons and just two sub-.500 records in its first 49 campaigns. The Blue Raiders also claimed state runner-up trophies in 1970 and ’82.
Cleveland carries a 397-146-3 overall record into the new campaign which begins in two days at Finley Stadium against Chattanooga private school powerhouse McCallie in the Madaris Best of Preps Kickoff Game. The contest will be one of a half dozen battles across the state Thursday night to open the 2014 TSSAA campaign.
With an overall winning percentage of .727 since its 1965 inception, Cleveland High is among the state’s top public-school programs, right on the heels of programs like traditional powerhouses such as 14-time state champion Maryville (.746), Murfreesboro Riverdale (.746), which has won four state crowns, and 12-time state champ Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett (.750).
The Blue Raiders have a better winning percentage than 13-time state champion Alcoa (.709), which it has defeated four of the five times they’ve played each other, and nine-time state title winner Trousdale County (.708).
The two winningest head coaches in Blue Raider history had very similar comments when asked about the secret of Cleveland’s success.
“We had a great administration from the superintendent (T.C. Bower) and (school) board on down,” remarked Coach Bobby Scott, who posted a 92-31-3 record in the first dozen varsity seasons.
His teams went undefeated in 1967 and ’68, being named the state champions by UPI (United Press International) and ranked 19th in the nation in the latter season.
“The board allowed me to hire good assistant coaches (Jim Woodall and Jim Tanarra). Our principals (E.L. Ross at Arnold and James Traylor at CHS), teachers and students all got involved in supporting our sports programs,” he added.
“The players worked very hard and the parents got involved in getting the program started. Everybody pulled together and we were able to get the program off to a great start.”
“When I came on Dr. (Donald) Yates was the superintendent. He was a former coach. He helped the program tremendously,” declared Coach Benny Monroe, who won 84.4 percent of his game (178-33) while directing the Raider program from 1979-96, including the three straight state titles. “He (Yates) was as instrumental in the program’s success as anyone in the school’s history.”
“It all starts at the top. If you have a good superintendent running the show that cares about the school’s extracurricular activities, then they’re going to be successful,” said the man the school’s football stadium is named for. “We had some tremendous athletes over the years, especially during the run of the 1990s, but we never rested on our laurels. It’s tougher to continue to win when you’ve been winning than it is to win when you haven’t.”
“We have that again now with Dr. (Martin) Ringstaff,” Monroe assessed of the city schools director. “You can tell he’s interested in the success of the program. He’s hired a proven winner (head coach Ron Crawford) to pull the program out of the lull it had gotten in. Now it’s headed in the right direction.”
After a three-year period where the Blue Raiders went 14-18, including a program worst 3-8 record in 2009, Crawford, who won state championships as an assistant coach at Riverdale as well as a head coach at Brentwood, returned Cleveland to the TSSAA state semifinals last November for the fist time since Monroe’s final state title squad in 1995.
Coming off a 10-4 record, including three straight TSSAA playoff road victories before falling to state runner-up Knox West for the second time last fall, the expectations and excitement are running high in Raider Nation for the upcoming season.
Having been part of a three-way tie for the District 5-AAA top spot in 2013, Cleveland is ranked sixth in a statewide Class 5A preseason poll. The Raiders were also picked by the local media to claim the District 5-AAA crown this season.
“Cleveland has a great winning tradition. It’s committed to doing the things necessary to get the program back to the state championship level it once was,” commented Coach Crawford. “It all starts at the top. Dr. Ringstaff and Principal (Autumn) O’Bryan have shown the program’s success is important to them and are very instrumental in what we’ve been able to do here.”
Acknowledging last year’s success is a step in the right direction to return the proud program back toward its winning past, Crawford is quick to point out the past doesn’t guarantee the future.
“Our next hurdle is consistency,” he remarked. “We want to compete for the district championship and the playoffs every year. While it’s great to have a successful year and a strong playoff run, we are looking to have sustained success that will continue year after year.”