Hoover High School
1969 Berry Bucs established standard in striving for championships
By Wayne Wood
For 45 years, from 1920-1965, the process of selecting a state champion in Alabama high school football was determined and awarded by various newspapers and wire services across the state. There was no playoff method. Unless two great teams happened to meet because they were local rivals or because it was scheduled during the regular season there would be many cases where unbeaten or once beaten teams couldn’t prove themselves due to media politics. So it became a highly scrutinized process for years and even today arguments from many years ago still exist about who was the better team. Teams from that era are referred to as “mythical champions” whether it was a large or small school. The last large school to win a state title with that method was Banks of Birmingham (which no longer exists). In 1966, the Alabama High School Athletic Association finally decided to implement an early form of a playoff system though it was still far from perfect. It consisted of only one 1st round playoff game normally based on the season record. After a team could win that game then you would move on to the championship game. It was still not a very valid method.
Sidney Lanier of Montgomery won the first three large school titles from 1966-68. Lanier and their city rival, Robert E. Lee, were two of the state’s most consistent powerhouses through the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lee had a very successful stretch of their own in winning mythical titles in 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962 and 1963. It was during this era of time that a south Jefferson County high school named Berry was becoming established and their Bucs football team began playing in 1962. For 4 years through 1965 the Bucs had winning records each season but then hit hard times in 1966 and 1967 with losing records.
Bob Finley had been an assistant football coach since 1964 and in 1968 was selected to be head coach. By already knowing the players and the problems contributing to the losing records, Finley and his assistants instilled a very tough work ethic and went about changing attitudes. It worked because the Bucs won their first 7 games over Mtn. Brook, Tuscaloosa County, John Carroll, Hueytown, Tarrant, Minor and Erwin before losing to Shades Valley 21-6. They turned it around quick the following week while facing the same team in Shades Valley and this time won 27-15. The Bucs were selected to play against the powerful veteran state champions in Sidney Lanier at Montgomery’s Crampton Bowl. Berry suffered a 42-0 whipping but nevertheless a 9-2 record and their first time in playoffs was a positive and remarkable step of progress.
Berry had several excellent players returning for 1969 along with the confidence gained from the season before. Players on offense such as center Kneeland Wright, guards Gary Ruzicka and Wayne Boren, tackles who played both ways such as junior Andy Steele (who signed with Auburn a year later), Tim Lundy, David Porter and Johnny Baumgartner (who had a younger brother-backup QB Clyde who also signed with Auburn a year later).The QB was Bud Stephens with backup QB and holder Jay Wells. Pete Stover played tight end and the wide receivers were the Thompson twins (Mark and Mike) and Tom Buck. The fullback was Charlie Patten and the tailback was Rusty Fuller (who signed with Auburn that year). On defense there were ends Phillip Arnold and Stover, the aforementioned defensive/offensive tackles and noseman Kent Fulllington (who signed with Tennessee that year). Playing linebackers were Eddie Johnson, Doug Holmes and Mal Beckham. Cornerbacks were Buck, Fuller and the safety was Steve Mobley. The punter was Beckham and the kicker was Bill Hawkins. The team trainers included Richard Blankenship,Chuck Clark and Jimmy Tracey. (My apologies to any left off this list).
The Bucs opened the season beating Mtn. Brook 18-0 following that with wins over Tuscaloosa County 46-21, John Carroll 36-0, and Hueytown 26-0 before facing their toughest test of the season at Birmingham’s Lawson Field against the Banks Jets (who were led by QB Gary Rutledge who later played at Alabama). The game was tied 7-7 before the Buc defense forced a safety to gain a hard fought 9-7 win. The rest of the season included wins over Tarrant 27-0, Minor 23-0, Erwin 36-19 and big rival Shades Valley 17-9 as the team finished its first season undefeated at 10-0 and gained a playoff berth. As mentioned earlier, the playoff system wasn’t truly valid and fine teams like Banks were left out. In the 1st round the Bucs beat Booker T. Washington 31-0 setting up a state championship game against the 10-0 Robert E. Lee Generals after having wrested power from their city rival in Sidney Lanier.
It was a very cold night when the two teams squared off on Birmingham’s Legion Field. The Bucs took on 7-0 lead in the 1st quarter on a 1-yard Mark Thompson run and maintained that small lead into the 4th quarter. It was a tight defensive struggle especially evident when the Bucs made a great goalline stand in the 3rd quarter. Hawkins had earlier missed a 50 yard FG attempt when the ball hit the middle of the crossbar. Eventually, Lee scored on a 4 yard run in the 4th quarter to tie the score at 7-7. Then disaster struck when the Bucs, attempting to move the ball by passing, were intercepted at midfield and Lee ran it in for a touchdown and kicked the PAT to lead 14-7. The Generals held on to win the game and the title. Lee won the title the next year in 1970.
Coach Finley obviously referred to the game as a heart breaking loss but praised his Bucs in saying, “This team hasn’t quit all year and they didn’t quit tonight. Time just ran out on them.” The Bucs wouldn’t make the playoffs again for another 7 years until 1977 although they had winning records each season. But in 1977 the Bucs finally won a state title this time after having played 3 playoff games to gain the championship game.
“Almost” doesn’t count in some people’s opinion but it does gain a strong measure of respect from a worthy opponent. That 1969 Bucs team helped strongly establish a precedent in working hard to get the opportunity while striving to win a championship. Many members of that team went on to successful business careers in various fields along with military service, ministry, lawyers, doctors and many other ways of contributing to society. They along with many other Buc players from the following season banded together to form a group called the Finley Player’s Association. Every spring they award what’s called the Robert O. Finley Foundation Scholarship to a graduating high school senior who had a parent who graduated from Berry and meets certain criteria such as having been an athlete graduating from Berry (now Hoover High) who has high academic standards, good character and other various recommendations meeting the standards set forth by Coach Finley. Those players from the mid-1960’s through the mid-1990’s are giving back in various ways to their alma mater as well as society. The traits they learned as Buccaneer players helping others coming after them is a tradition worth even more than a state championship. But it’s sure extra nice to win them. GO BUCS!