50 Years Ago-The 1969 Berry Bucs
By Wayne Wood
Fifty years ago in 1969, the city of Hoover had only been incorporated as a city for 2 years. That summer, the U.S. Space Astronauts, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin, were the first people to land on the moon. That fall, college football was celebrating its’ 100th anniversary (it’s celebrating 150 this year) and the Berry High School Football Bucs under Coach Bob Finley were about to have a great season and make it to their first state championship game.
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 format or method. Unless two great teams happened to play because they were local rivals or because it was scheduled during the regular season, there would be many cases where unbeaten, once-beaten or tied teams couldn’t prove themselves further due to media politics at times.
So it became a highly scrutinized process the years and even today arguments from many years ago still exist about who was the “better team back then.” Teams from that era are referred to as “mythical champions” whether it was a large school or a small one. The last large high 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 they would move on to the championship game. Of course, it still had very little validity to it.
Sidney Lanier of Montgomery won the first three large school playoff titles from 1966-1968. Lanier and their city rival, Robert E. Lee, were two of the state’s most consistent powerhouse teams 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 W.A. Berry High School was becoming established and their Bucs football team began playing in 1962. For 4 years through 1965 under Larry Wilson, the Bucs had winning records each season but then hit hard times in 1966 & 1967 under Wayne Sims with losing records.
Bob Finley had been as assistant Buc football coach since 1964 and in 1968 was selected to be the head coach. By already knowing the players and the problems contributing to the losing records, Finley and his staff 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 Shades Valley team in the Dental Clinic Game at Legion Field and this time won 27-15. The Bucs were selected to play in the 1st round of the state playoffs against Sidney Lanier in Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl. Berry suffered a 42-0 whipping but nevertheless a 9-2 record and their first time in the 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 center Kneeland Wright guards Gary Ruzicka and Wayne Boren, tackles who played both ways such 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 kick holder Jay Wells. Pete Stover played tight end and the wide receivers were the Thompson twins (Mark & 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 both way tackles Steele, Porter & Baumgartner and noseguard Kent Fullington (who signed with Tennessee that year). The 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 trainers included Richard Blankenship, Chuck Clark and Jimmy Tracey/ The assistant coaches were Joe Perkins, Gerald Gann, Bob Willis and Wayne Williams. (My apologies to any left of this list).
The Bucs opened the season beating Mountain Brook 18-0 at home followed by a 46-21 road win at Tuscaloosa County. A 36-0 home win over John Carroll was followed by 26-0 road win at Hueytown. At Birmingham’s Lawson Field, the Bucs faced their strongest test to date in the Banks Jets quarterbacked by Jeff Rutledge who later played at Alabama). The game was tied 7-7 before the Bucs forced a Jet safety when Rutledge (who also punted) while punting deep in his own end zone inadvertently stepped on the backline giving the Bucs 2 points thus Berry gained a hard fought 9-7 win.
The rest of the regular season included a 27-0 road win over Tarrant, a 23-0 home win over Minor, a 36-19 home win over Erwin and a 17-9 road win at Shades Valley. The Bucs played Minor again in the Dental Clinic Game at Legion Field winning 18-0.
As mentioned before, the playoff format back then several times excluded fine teams like Banks who was left out of the playoffs for their one loss to Berry. In the 1st round of the state playoffs at Legion Field, the Bucs beat Booker T. Washington of Montgomery 31-0 setting up a championship game against the 10-0 Robert E. Lee Generals after having wrested power from their city rival-Sidney Lanier.
It was a very cold night on Friday-November 28th when the two teams squared off on Birmingham’s Legion Field. The Bucs took a 7-0 lead in the 1st quarter on a 1-yard Mark Thompson TD run and maintained that lead into the 4th quarter. It was a tight defensive struggle obviously especially when the Bucs made a great goalline stand in the 3rd quarter. Hawkins had earlier missed a 50-yard field goal 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 a 7-7. The disaster struck for Berry when the Bucs, attempting to move the ball passing, were intercepted at midfield and Lee ran it in for touchdown and kicked the PAT to lead 14-7. The Generals held on to win the game and thus the state title. (Lee won again the next year in 1970).
Coach Finley obviously referred to the game as a heart breaking loss but praised the 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 every season. However, the Bucs won the title in 1977 after having played 3 playoff games to gain the championship game where they beat Walker County/Jasper 21-0 at Legion Field.
That 1969 Bucs team helped strongly establish a precedent in working hard to get the opportunity while striving to win a championship. Although they came up short that night in Legion Field on the scoreboard, they established themselves as true champions especially later in the game of life.
Many members of that team went on to successful business careers, military service, doctors, lawyers, teachers, coaches, ministers, etc. in contributing to society in a highly positive way.
They, along with many other Buc players from the following seasons, banded together to form a group called the Finley Players’s Association. Every spring they award what is called the Robert O. Finley Foundation Scholarship to a graduating high school senior who a parent who graduated from Berry High and meets certain criteria such as having an athlete graduating from Berry (and now Hoover High) who also has high academic standards, great personal character and other various recommendation meeting standards which Coach Finley had set forth for those early players he coached.
Those players from the mid-1960’s though 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 a lot more than a state championship (although it’s sure nice to win one!).