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GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Doyle High Pioneers produced ‘The Turnaround’ in 1984

Doyle High noseman Dale Murr shows off his rat Rowdy, the team’s mascot, during the Pioneers’ amazing 1984 football season. Rowdy is sporting a custom made Pioneers helmet. Photo from author’s personal collection.

By Steve Williams

A movie could have been made of the 1984 Doyle High School football season, ranking right up there with Hoosiers.

The title?

The Turnaround.

Such a movie actually would have to begin with a replay of Darrell Burch’s field goal kick in the fourth quarter of the 1983 season finale that gave Doyle a 3-0 win over Bearden. That wasn’t just any old win. Both teams had come into that game with identical 0-9 records!

The Pioneers, who had lost 26 in a row dating back to the 1981 season, liked the taste of victory so much, they won all 10 of their regular season games in ‘84, completing arguably the greatest turnaround in Knoxville high school football history.

Pioneers moved out and Cherokees moved in when Doyle and South-Young high schools merged in 1991 to form South-Doyle High. But the memories of that Doyle season 28 years ago are special enough to be recalled today and for years to come.

It wasn’t just the winning that made the season fun to follow. It was how the Pioneers won and the motivational tactics that emerged throughout the campaign.

Doyle had a new coaching staff, led by Richard Bridges, an excellent motivator. Each week he came up with a new slogan and accompanying helmet sticker to inspire players, students and fans.

Bridges smoked King Edward victory cigars and so did his players (in 1984 you could do stuff like that). In the dressing room prior to his team’s Week 3 showdown with arch-rival South-Young, he banged his head into the helmets of his players to get them fired up, and there was a noticeable bloody cut on his forehead after the game as a result (a coach probably wouldn’t be allowed to do that either in this day and age).

Doyle’s defense became known as The Rat Patrol, since Kenny Ratledge was defensive coordinator. Dale Murr, small but tough senior noseman, added to the defense’s notoriety by having a pet rat and making it the team’s mascot. A tiny replica Doyle helmet was made that Rowdy wore on game days in his cage on the sidelines.

Rowdy became a local celebrity. An exclusive interview with the furry mascot ran in The Knoxville Journal on Nov. 16, 1984, along with a picture of Rowdy wearing his helmet. (It’s still on microfilm at the downtown library, if you want proof).

The Pioneers became the talk of South Knoxville that season. The school and community really got behind their team. As victories mounted, so did the number of fans’ cowbells.

To get a better feel for what the excitement was like, consider the following numbers. In the 26-game losing streak, Doyle was outscored 722 to 93. That figures out to losing by an average score of 27-3 every Friday night for close to three seasons. During the sad stretch, the Pioneers were shut out 15 times.

Making the ‘84 season even more exciting was the fact that the outcome in five of Doyle’s 10 games was not decided until late in the contests.

The Pioneers beat Seymour 21-7 in the season opener, then used a fake field goal in the fourth quarter to break a 6-6 tie and win at Anderson County 13-6.

After just two wins, Mike Carroll, the school’s athletic director, sensed the start of something special. “Many times the football program can be the focal point for the community to rally around,” he said. “It is happening at Doyle.”

Coach Bridges announced, “This week the motto is ‘mo’ . . . as in 2-0 and we want mo.”

Doyle ended a string of three straight shutout losses to rival South-Young, beating the Trojans 21-6. Mike Montgomery, 210-pound tailback, blasted over from the 2 to cap a game-opening 15-play, 61-yard march. An action picture in the next morning’s Journal showed Montgomery following the blocking of Scott Lasorsa. The Pioneers executed a flea-flicker – Robbie Kidd passing to Phillip Freels and Freels lateraling to Montgomery – for the knockout punch. in the fourth quarter.

Doyle’s defense was a stubborn bunch all season. The Pioneers had 10 tackles for losses against S-Y. The Trojans finished with minus 24 yards rushing, 28 yards total offense and only three first downs. Doyle came up with three fumbles and two interceptions in the second half. Making big plays were Murr, Steve Spurling, Brent Trentham, Freels, Kevin Zurcher and Lance Gobel.

The big test was next: a trip to Farragut. The Admirals were rated No. 3 in the state. The versatile Zurcher scored both Doyle touchdowns in a 13-7 victory, hauling in a 27-yard pass from Kidd and returning a punt 54 yards in the fourth quarter.

“I can’t say I was surprised by Doyle’s showing,” said Farragut Coach Dan Bland. “I was impressed.”

Kidd, senior quarterback, sized up the huge win by saying, “We’ve got good athletes with a lot of desire and that makes a team.”

A winless Karns team almost chopped Doyle down in Week 5. The Pioneers escaped with a 7-6 win as Kidd passed 79 yards to Spurling and Burch booted the extra point in the third quarter. The Beavers had taken a 6-0 lead in the first quarter but missed their extra point. They also had a 25-yard field goal attempt foiled by a high snap in the fourth quarter. Kidd said his team had been overconfident.

The Pioneers started thinking an undefeated season was really possible after getting past Heritage 28-13. Taking advantage of three turnovers, Doyle scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to erase a 13-7 deficit. Murr led the way, despite being double-teamed.

A banged up Doyle team scored 16 points in the final quarter to pull out a 23-7 win at Sevier County. Montgomery went out with a possible shoulder separation in the first half and Kidd had an elbow injury. Chris Fortune, junior fullback and linebacker, was honored as Player of the Week.

The Pioneers got off to a better start and the spotlight shone on the Rat Patrol defensive unit as Doyle turned back William Blount 28-12 in a pivotal District 4-AAA battle. It was the Governors’ first district loss. Doyle’s defense set up three touchdowns and produced a safety. Murr pounced on two fumbles in the first quarter. Montgomery played with a sore shoulder but still scored all four touchdowns.

Doyle wrapped up the district championship and clinched a playoff berth with a 10-0 victory over Carter, but it wasn’t easy. The contest was scoreless until Burch booted a 23-yard field goal with 2:17 remaining. Montgomery tacked on a 27-yard interception return for a TD with 1:14 left. The Pioneers got a couple of scares in this one. But Trentham blocked a 25-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter and the upset-minded Green Hornets were wide left on a 30-yard try early in the final period.

Doyle players and fans celebrated the title-clinching win with hugs and cigars. Bridges’ stogie reportedly was at least a foot long and two inches in diameter.

The 10-0 win over Carter also was seen as a sign of things to come – a 10-0 season.

Sure enough, Doyle completed its perfect regular season the following week, rolling to a 36-7 win at Bearden.

Heading into the Region 2-AAA playoffs, the Pioneers wanted to have some more fun. They made a good showing against the homestanding Oak Ridge Wildcats, the state’s No. 2 rated team, but lost 21-14 before a crowd of 8,000 at Blankenship Field.

Yeah, in the end, the cat got the rat, but he’d had a good run. It would be great to have a DVD of it.

Notre Dame football has Rudy.

Doyle had Rowdy.

 

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