CCHS Football: How it all began, 50 years ago

Posted September 12, 2023 at 11:08 am

[Editor’s note: In recognition of this being the 50th anniversary of the first football team at Clinton County High School, a reunion of players from that 1973-81 era is being held prior to the CCHS vs. Jenkins High School game Friday, September 15.
Local attorney, historian and a member of the first 1973 gridiron Bulldog team, David Cross, has penned this historical piece about those first years on Bulldog Field.]

By David M. Cross
For nine seasons, from 1973-1981, Clinton County High School fielded a football team.
In 1981, due to declining numbers, the program was discontinued.
Originally the idea was to play a JV schedule and then bring it back on a varsity level the next season.
The next season turned out to be 2005, when George Hatcher took over the program and  brought Clinton County football back to life.
On September l5, before the CCHS-Jenkins football game, a reunion of all players coaches, cheerleaders and support staff who were involved in the program from 1972 when we  played a JV schedule only to 1981 will be held under a big tent at the CCHS football field.
This is the 50th anniversary of the first varsity football season, 1973.
Everyone who was involved with the program during that “First Era” of CCHS football is  encouraged to attend and bring your family.
Previous coaches and many others involved in the  program in those days are planning to attend.
So how did Clinton County ever get a football team?
The origin goes back to two people: Jim Dick and Brucie Sloan, with a lot of help from  numerous others.
Jim Dick played basketball at CCHS for his uncle Lindle Castle, then graduated from WKU  and returned to teach high school in 1969. Also hired to teach about that same time were two other young CCHS graduates, David Gene York and Rudy Thomas.
Jim had taken an interest in football and suggested that they start a flag football program at  the old high school in town, in the valley in front of the school that was also used as a softball field  (this would be near what is now the First and Farmers branch bank). They had three teams with Jim,  Rudy and David Gene each coaching a team.
The sport became popular, and Jim began thinking about trying to start a full-fledged  football program at the high school
A new high school was under construction, and there would be  room for a football field there.
Most other schools in the area had programs. Cumberland County  had a program since 1964, Adair County had just started a program, and Wayne County and Russell  County had recently began playing.
Brucie Sloan was on the local school board and was a great sports fan. Jim and Brucie had several conversations about starting a program and Brucie went to Superintendent Robert  Polston persuading him and the Board to vote to build a field and start a program.
Jim was to lead the program initially until a head coach was hired. In the fall of 1971, they  made it known that boys could sign up for football, and that fall and winter Jim began practicing  the boys without pads, teaching them fundamentals of the game.
That first group of players  included sophomores Teddy Aaron, Willie Arms, Dale Cole, Mike Massengale, Ned Sloan, Jr.,  Junior “Bear” Conner, Junior Melton, Gary Elmore, Kevin Lowhorn, Bobby Ruel Reneau, Garland  McWhorter, Kenny Sells, Earl Stearns, and Greg Summers.
Interestingly, there were almost none of these boys that played high school baseball or basketball.
Bear Conner was an important piece of putting the program together.
Bear came from an  athletic family. His brother, Kenneth, had been one of the greatest athletes in the county’s history.
But Bear had quit school to go to work in the log woods. Jim Dick went to see him and persuaded  him to re-enroll and become a part of the team. Bear was to become a main running back in the first year of the program.
Two important things happened in the Spring of 1972: the uniforms arrived, and, some time in April, practice began with full pads.
The other thing was that, for the first time in history,  basketball players were told after the season that they could no longer hang out in the gym and play  ball; they had to go to Study Hall or go out for football.
This policy was established by Athletic Director Lindle Castle, who was very supportive of building a program, and understood that in a small high school your good athletes needed to play multiple sports.
This policy did up-tick the  numbers a bit.
We were to play on the Junior Varsity level in the Fall of 1972.
That summer the school  board hired Tom Gaebler as high school coach.
Tom was fresh out of Eastern Kentucky University, where he had played football under the great coach Roy Kidd.
Tom was primarily the punter for the EKU squad.
Jim Dick was to be the assistant coach.
Practice was called and it was pretty intense conditioning, as the coaches wanted us ready to play when we started playing against live competition.
Scheduled were games with Adair County, Metcalfe County, Russell County, Wayne County and York Institute.
Tom Thrasher was quarterback that year with Kenny Sells, Bear Conner and  Garland McWhorter as running backs.
The first scrimmage we went to Adair on October 5, 1972 and we played them close, which surprised everyone.
We played some home games on the outfield of the high school baseball field, which sure was short of 100 yards.
They turned the student body out to watch the game, and it was all a great  experience.
We beat Adair on our home (out)field. We finished with a 2-4 record.
The highlight was  the final game of the season, when we defeated Wayne County 14-0.
Kenny Sells scored both  touchdowns and Bear Conner ran for over 100 yards.
That summer, Coach Gaebler left and at the last minute Tom Atkinson was hired to be the  head coach for our first varsity season.
Tom was originally from Paris, Kentucky, and he had most recently been head coach at Fleming County.
Tom called a team meeting before school started and  only 13 players showed up, and Tom said he was initially quite discouraged. However, when school started, the numbers went up.
We played Barren County on our home field on September 7, 1973, the first varsity game  in school history.
Barren County at that time was a new school with the consolidation of Temple Hill and Austin-Tracy.
Temple Hill had previously been state champions of the eight-man football class in  Kentucky, which was popular for smaller schools.
We weren’t quite ready for Barren; they beat us 22-0, but after struggling in the first half we played them tough in the second half.
This was a home game, held during school hours because we did have a new football field, but did not have lights.
Again, the entire student body turned out to cheer us on.
I remember vividly that both teams had to dress in the same dressing room since the visitor’s dressing room was unfinished, and I remember one of the Barren players telling me after the game when he asked who we next played, saying “You’ll beat them”, as Barren had  previously defeated  Gamaliel  by 17 points.
He was right. The boys, the year before who didn’t know how to tackle, got their first victory against the Tigers, which a few years after that, consolidated with Tompkinsville into Monroe County  High School.
Senior Garland Mc- Whorter ran for the first touchdown in school history in our 12-0  win.
Bear Conner scored the other TD.
Mike Mann had transferred in from Indiana and as a freshman was starting quarterback.
Mike was a real good athlete. Sometimes we didn’t protect him  enough.
The next week we traveled to Casey County, stunned the Rebels on their home field, winning by a score of 10-0.
Bear Conner had a big game, rushing for 151 yards, 53 of them on a 53-yard run  for a TD.
He also rushed for the two-point conversion.  They just couldn’t handle The Bear.
Our  other score came when we tackled their punter in the end zone.
Dan McIlvain and Kevin Lowhorn  were our leading tacklers in the game.
We felt pretty good going to Park City the next week to play (this was their last season before being absorbed by Barren County) because  Gamaliel  had previously tied them 6-6.
However, they had a big running back named Mike Mitchell and he ran all over us. We just couldn’t handle the Bears, who had played football for years. We lost 42-0.
It didn’t get much better the next week; we went to Butler County and played a very good  team and got blown out 60-7. The only highlight we had was Kevin Lowhorn kicking an extra point  after our only TD.
We felt better about going to Hancock County the next week.  They were just starting their  program.
However, long bus rides have a way of taking their toll on you, and we just didn’t get ready to play in time.
Hancock was fired up and beat us 31-14.  Things were looking a bit bleak for  the Bulldogs.
We had Wayne County the next week.
The game, originally scheduled as an away game, was moved to Clinton County and played as a day game on a Friday.
The Cardinals had been  playing for a few years and, despite having a tough season, were expected to handle us with ease.
However, we gave an outstanding team effort and were defeated only by a two-point conversion, 8-6.
We lost on the scoreboard, but that was the game that turned the season around.
The next week we had Cumberland County at Burkesville.
The Panthers had been playing for years, and had some pretty decent teams.
I’m not sure what their record was that season, but they had beaten some teams and had won the week before.   They expected to roll over  us.
It was an  intense battle, played in front of a huge crowd on the Cumberland County Fairgrounds field,  crawfish holes and all, and by the second half the river fog had rolled in.
This was a game that  players on both sides still remember. It was a memorable night for Clinton County.
Clinton led 12-0 at halftime on scores by Mike Mann and Garland McWhorter, but had fallen  behind late in the final period when (Judge) Darryl Coffey had scored on a 45-yard touchdown pass from Newgene Buford to put the Panthers up 14-12.
Clinton County eked out an 18-14 win when Bear Conner scored on a one-yard dive on third down with only 20 seconds to play (Actually, the  Cumberland County players claim they stopped him short, but in the big pile-up he stuck the nose of the ball across the goal line).
All we know is it counted for six points and we were the victors.
The Panthers continued their program the next year, but after a close loss to  Gamaliel  on  their home field, several of their players quit and they were forced to discontinue their program, never to be resurrected on the varsity level.
Their scheduled game with us was forfeited. We were really  looking forward to playing them again.
Lack of a rivalry game with Cumberland was very  detrimental to the Bulldog program.
Our final opponent was Edmonson County, at Brownsville.
We didn’t know much about  the Wildcats but they had won some games that year and had a big sophomore named Phil Rich, who was to lead the Wildcats to the Sweet Sixteen as a senior and won the state championship in a tournament that will be remembered for the ages.
Rich went on to be a starting lineman at WKU.
We stunned the Wildcats on their home turf, winning the season finale by a score of 18-6.
We finished the year 4-5.  Most folks didn’t think we would win a game.
We had great support from the student body, the teachers, parents and the town.
Flag coaches Rudy Thomas and David Gene York worked on the chain gang with Gene Latham.
Gene once made the statement that he might have gained more yards than anyone on the team that year.
Gerald Dryden was always  around, doing whatever he could.
Tom Atkinson made the statement years later that of all the teams he coached, we were the  hardest hitting team.
He also complimented Tom Gaebler, saying that “Tom had you guys ready.”
Adkinson left after that year and Rick Highsmith, from Austin Peay, became our coach.
The next year we started out 3-1-1 and then had some tough losses, notably a home  heartbreaker to Butler County.
We didn’t get to play Cumberland and with that forfeit, we finished the year at 4-6-1.
In later years, both wins and numbers dwindled for the program, until it was finally  discontinued.
We are all glad that it came back.
For those folks who continue to say that Clinton County can’t have a good football program, they need to look back at those boys, who in 1973 didn’t know how to do anything but play hard, give 100%, and fight until the end.

1979 Football Game vs Metcalfe