Monroe directed height of CHS success
by JOE CANNON Banner Assistant Sports Editor
Aug 25, 2014 | 500 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
LONGTIME CLEVELAND HIGH coach Benny Monroe poses with the three TSSAA Class 4A state championship trophies his 1993-95 Blue Raider teams captured. Contributed photo
LONGTIME CLEVELAND HIGH coach Benny Monroe poses with the three TSSAA Class 4A state championship trophies his 1993-95 Blue Raider teams captured. Contributed photo
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The winningest part of Cleveland High’s illustrious gridiron history began in 1979 with the hiring of former SEC quarterback Benny Monroe as head coach.

Monroe played a couple of years for the University of Kentucky, before finishing up his collegiate career at Maryville College. He also spent a year with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League before beginning his coaching career.

Starting off in Maryville for seven years (one at the junior high and the last six with the high school team), Monroe helped the powerhouse Rebels to a 56-9 record during his time as an assistant.

A former standout signal caller for “Ace” Adams’ McMinn County squads of the late 1950s, he returned to his alma mater as head coach in 1972.

Monroe led the Cherokees to their only undefeated season, with former Tennessee standout Hubert Simpson leading the way. After five seasons in Athens, Monroe took an assistant coaching position on the MTSU staff, but after his second season the head coach resigned.

“I had to scramble for a job. I got a teaching position in Lebanon,” he related. “I applied for and got the head coaching job at Knox Central, but they only wanted to give me credit for five years of my teaching experience.

“In the meantime, Dr. (Donald) Yates and ‘Red’ Henslee (the CHS athletic director) called. They were willing to give me credit for all of my experience if I took the head football job here (CHS),” Monroe explained. “I called Knox Central, told them I changed my mind and they offered to give me full credit as well. I decided to go ahead and take the job here, because of the interest they (Yates and Henslee) had in program.”

Monroe’s first team bounced back from the school’s lone sub-.500 season the previous year with an 8-2 mark in the regular season before winning a playoff game over Tyner and seeing the season end in the second round of the postseason against Tullahoma.

“The thing that sticks out the most to me from that season was the intensity of the whole week before the Bradley game,” commented Monroe, whose inaugural Raider squad beat the Bears for the first time in six years.

“It took so much out of the team, it was hard to get ready for the playoffs the next week. I had never been involved in anything like it before. I knew it was a big rivalry, but that was the most intense week of football I’d ever been involved in.”

After a 7-4 record in 1980, including a 17-13 victory over Giles County in the Pulaski Butter Bowl, and a 6-4 mark in ’81, Monroe posted his first of eight double-digit victory seasons with a run to the 1982 state championship game.

Cleveland went 8-2 during the regular season with their losses coming by one point to Red Bank in the season opener and by a touchdown to Rhea County in Game No. 5. Finishing the regular campaign with five straight victories, the Raiders then shut out McCallie (10-0) in the opening round of the playoffs, defeated Hendersonville Beach (17-12) and Maryville (26-6) to earn the right face Brentwood Academy in the Class AA title game.

The undefeated Middle Tennessee private school powerhouse had put up 424 points in is first 13 games, but Monroe’s defense held them to a single score. However, the Raider offense, which had averaged better then 20 ppg couldn’t break into the end zone in a 7-0 defensive struggle.

Cleveland came back just as strong in 1983, going undefeated in nine regular season games, but was upset by McCallie (21-14) in the opening round of the playoffs.

A 7-3 defeat at the hands of Red Bank was the lone blemish on the 1984 record, but neither the Raiders nor Bradley, which went 8-2 on the year, made the playoffs, and both turned down bowl game bids.

The crosstown rivals wrapped up their seasons against each other as Cleveland held off a late charge for a 29-22 final for its first-ever victory in Bear Stadium (the previous nine CHS victories in the series had come either at Raider Field or at Jimmy Lovell Field at the old Bradley facility on North Ocoee Street).

Beginning a run of 20 straight TSSAA playoff appearances in 1985, Cleveland returned to the postseason with a vengeance, advancing to the state quarterfinals before falling to Jefferson County 9-7. The Raiders went 9-1 in the regular season, with their lone loss coming to Rhea County, which later lost to Hillcrest in the state championship game that year. CHS defeated McCallie and Franklin County in the first two rounds of postseason play.

After a first-round exit in the playoffs of 1986 gave the Raiders a 7-4 mark, the next four Cleveland seasons ended in the second round, including a 9-2 mark in 1987 and 8-4 in ’88.

“Monroe Madness” hit its peak from 1989-96, when the program posted an incredible 91-7 record, including the 54-game winning streak with three straight state crowns.

After an undefeated nine-game regular season (CHS often had trouble filling a 10-game schedule because teams didn’t want to play them) in 1989, the Raiders downed Tyner in the opening round of the playoff but then were stunned by Oakland 29-28 on MTSU’s field the next week. Cleveland averaged scoring 32.7 ppg that season, while giving up just 9.5.

Putting up an average of 33 points an outing in 1990, Monroe’s crew went 8-1 in the regular season before nipping Red Bank 18-16 in the opening playoff game, but fell to Lincoln County 19-14 the following Friday.

Despite averaging more than 36 ppg and allowing less than 10 in 1991, CHS finished 8-2 with a regular season loss to MBA and Red Bank upsetting them 10-7 in the first postseason round.

The beginning of five straight double-digit win seasons came in 1992.

The Raiders won their first 10 games, including a 36-0 whipping of Red Bank in the playoff opener, but then fell to Riverdale in the second round of the playoffs when Warrior defensive coordinator Ron Crawford’s crew held the high-powered Raider offense (averaging of almost 39 ppg) to just two touchdowns in a 28-14 contest.

“That was my first encounter with Cleveland football and I was very impressed,” commented the current Raider head coach. “What I saw from them back then is part of the reason I wanted to come here when I got the chance.”

That defeat to close out the ’92 campaign would be the last loss Cleveland would have until the 1996 state quarterfinals.

Averaging an astronomical 44.5 points per game on their way to the 1993 state championship, the Raiders gave up just 62 points in 10 regular season games and then recorded playoff winning margins of 32, 35 and 21 points to make the title game.

Facing Brentwood Academy for the crown, Cleveland gained some revenge for the 1982 title game loss with a 26-21 victory, allowing the Eagles just two first downs in the second half.

“Everybody talked about our offense that year, but our defense was just as strong and gave us several opportunities to score,” Monroe related. “We could afford to be patient on offense, because we knew our defense was so good. You’re going to win a lot of games if the other team doesn’t score.”

With a near 25-point scoring difference in 1994, the Raiders once again breezed through the competition, winning 10 regular season games and five playoff battles, including a 7-6 victory over Haywood County for their second straight state title.

Continuing to average more than 30 ppg and allowing less than 10, Cleveland didn’t allow any of its nine regular season opponents to score more than two touchdowns in 1995. Five straight playoff wins, including a 14-3 rematch with Haywood for the crown finished off the “three-peat.”

The phenomenal winning streak continued through the 1996 regular season, withstanding a 41-40 shootout over Baylor and a 7-6 battle with Howard. The Raiders had little trouble in the first two rounds of the playoffs, dispensing with Smyrna (41-14) and Greeneville (28-14), before being stunned by Anderson County 31-7 in the state quarterfinals.

“We had a string of real good athletes and a great feeder program at Cleveland Junior High,” proclaimed Monroe. “Johnny Borders and Richard Shaw ran our freshmen program. They ran the same thing we did, so the players had already been running our system for a couple of years before coming to the high school.

“One of the things I asked before I took the job here was how much input I’d have on the junior high level and they said I’d have complete say-so. Having a strong feeder program is key to the success of your high school team,” he added. “We were a split-veer team and we switched to the Wing-T, with a lot of reverses and such to utilize our speed, and nobody could stop us.

“We had guys like Tez Davis, who played on all three state championship teams, Dante Hickey, who played on two and was the defensive MVP of the ’94 title game,” Monroe related. “Chris Whaley had two football championship rings, plus three in wrestling and one in track.

“Keith and Kevin Cobb, who went on to play at Memphis. And David Jackson was a linebacker at MTSU. Carlos Thompson was a fullback and linebacker on the ’93 team. Cory Prigmore was our quarterback that year and MVP of the title game.

“Demetrius Smith, Terrance Constance and Stepfon Woods were big on the ’94 team, along with Tez and Dante.

“In ’95, Tez was still our quarterback, Ronnie White was a thousand-yard rusher and Tony Styles, who later signed with UT, was just a sophomore but was the defensive MVP of the title game,” Monroe continued. “Stepfon Woods and Jason Deaver were also big parts of that year’s team.”

“We had been real successful at McMinn and Maryville and we just continued those things here,” commented the man who only had one losing season (his second at McMinn County when he only had six seniors) in 42 years of coaching. “When you win a lot, you have a lot of kids that want to play for you and be a part of it.

“I invested myself fully into the program. Not only in the kids on the field, but in their lives as well,” he continued. “Winning solved a lot of problems and gave the kids a lot of confidence in themselves. It didn’t enter our minds that we were going to lose. Everything fell together right for us.”

After 18 years at the Raider helm, Monroe admits the pressure of winning took its toll, and he stepped away from football. “It (coaching) requires so much time. I was the kind of coach that thought about the game every minute. I got burned out. I needed a break.”

Choosing to retire during the summer of 1997, Monroe worked for a year in the Bradley County Juvenile Court with Judge Van Deacon before going to work for BellSouth.

"He was on the road for seven years with BellSouth then he came home and spent a year around the house in my way," joked Monroe's longtime wife, Jane. "I told him he needed to get back out and do something. That's when he got the job at Ooltewah."

Monroe enjoyed tremendous success with the Owls, going 48-12 in five seasons, including a pair of state semifinal runs in 2006 and ’08, before retiring a second time after the 2009 campaign.

At both Cleveland and Ooltewah, one of the keys to Monroe’s success was that he also coached the track teams in the spring, winning several state titles with many of his football players participating.

“Track teaches you how to run. It not only kept the players in shape in the offseason, but it improved their running technique as well,” the veteran coach explained.

When Monroe left CHS in 1997, he turned the reins of the program over to longtime assistant coach Leon Brown.

Coming out of Cumberland, Ky., Brown was a “Little All-American” while playing offensive tackle for Carson-Newman College before joining the Raider staff the year (1978) before Monroe took over.

A receivers and linebacker coach for 18 seasons before taking over the head coaching duties, Brown directed the CHS program for eight years (1997-2004). He posted the second-best winning percentage (67.8) in CHS history. Earning a spot in the TSSAA playoffs each of his seasons, Brown had a 61-29 overall record.

“Being the head coach carried a whole lot more responsibility and took a lot more attention to detail,” Brown stated. “We had so much success (under Monroe), I took the approach of ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’” he adds.

“We continued working and playing the same way we had been doing. I learned the majority of my football from Benny, so that’s how I knew how to coach,” he added.

Coach Brown’s best seasons came from 1999-2003, when the Raiders had a trio of nine-win seasons and advanced to the 2002 state quarterfinals. Cleveland ran into Maryville in the playoffs three straight years (2000-02), while the Rebels were on the way to a trio of state titles.

After being named the Southeast Tennessee Coach of the Year three times, Brown stepped away from the Raider sideline after the 2004 season.

“I felt like it was time to take a break,” he related. “I stayed out for five or six years, but when I had a chance to work with another great coach like Coach Crawford, I came back. I wanted to be a part of what he is doing here.”

With the head coaching job available for just the fourth time in four decades, the administration tapped Danny Wilson, who had been Brown’s defensive coordinator for four years, for the top spot.

Before joining the Raider staff in 2001, Wilson had coached football, baseball and girls basketball in stops at Maryville Heritage and South Pittsburg high schools. He was the Region Coach of the Year three times while directing the perennial Class A powerhouse football Pirates.

While Wilson had a better than 65 winning percentage, his 28-15 overall record didn’t include a playoff victory. Missing the postseason with his first team going 6-4, Wilson’s Raider squads earned a playoff spot from 2006-08, but fell in the opening round each year.

With Wilson returning to South Pittsburg in 2009, CHS had to find another head coach. After an extensive search and trying to lure several big name coaches, the administration turned to a young coach with just one year of head coaching experience under his belt.

After being an assistant coach for a few years, E.K. Slaughter directed Soddy-Daisy to the playoffs in 2008 and got the call to head up the Raider program.

Despite posting the program’s worst record with just three wins during the regular season, Cleveland still made the playoffs in 2009 under the old TSSAA system that took the top four teams from each region to the postseason. Having to make the nearly three-hour trip to Columbia, the Raiders gave the eventual state runner-up Lions all they could handle in a 28-27 contest.

Slaughter was able to lead Cleveland to a half dozen victories in the 2010 regular season, but another trip to lower Middle Tennessee to face Lawrence County in the opening round of the playoffs ended in a 41-34 shootout that brought the Raider record to a close at 6-5.

A 5-5 mark and missing the playoffs in 2011 brought about the fourth head coaching change in eight years, with Crawford being successfully lured away from the Brentwood powerhouse where he had a half dozen double-digit wins in 10 seasons with the Bruins.

Along with defeating Riverdale, where he had been Gary Rankin’s defensive coordinator for many years, for the 2002 state title, Crawford’s Brentwood squad made a state semifinal and four quarterfinal runs, while making the playoff each year.

After a stunning upset by a one-win Rhea County team in the regular season finale kept the 2012 Raiders out of the playoffs, the next season Crawford led his second team to a place it hadn’t been since Monroe’s final state championship season — the TSSAA state semifinals.

“We feel like we’ve got things headed in the right direction, but now we need to work on consistency.”

Posting a 10-4 record in 2013, Cleveland tied Ooltewah and East Hamilton for the District 5-AAA title before going on the road to win three straight playoffs games.

Opening the new campaign on Thursday against McCallie at Finely Stadium, this year’s Blue Raiders are ranked sixth in a statewide preseason coaches poll, plus are picked by the local media to edge Ooltewah for the district crown.