Former football coaches offer perspective on big game

Published 6:26 pm Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When Chilton County High School and Jemison High School are mentioned in the same sentence, chances are the conversation is about football.

The two largest schools in the county also represent the county’s longest-running rivalry in high school football.

That rivalry will be on display once again Aug. 29 as the Tigers travel to Jemison for both teams’ season opener at 7 p.m. at Panther Stadium.

As heated as the rivalry might be, some people view the schools’ annual gridiron showdown as an indicator of how the rest of each team’s football season will unfold.

Former CCHS head coach Don Hand is one of these people.

Hand coached at CCHS for 18 consecutive seasons, from 1970–1987, during which the Tigers won 125 games and made the playoffs 13 times.

From his spot on the CCHS sidelines, Hand knew if the Tigers could beat Jemison, they were normally on track to have a good season.

“I always looked at it as a must-win,” Hand said. “It’s been like that since 1970. They (Jemison) were always very competitive, very strong and they played hard in that game because most of the time they’d been the underdogs. It was a must-win for us, so we played hard, too.”

Hand said the game he remembers perhaps more clearly than all others happened in 1973 during his third year of coaching.

Jemison was leading at home, and they had the ball and kicked a field goal. It was no good.

The Tigers thought they had won, but referees threw out their flags.

“They claimed we were off sides,” Hand said.

So, Jemison came back and kicked another field goal but missed, and the Tigers received more penalties.

Jemison’s third field goal attempt was good, giving the Panthers a 2-point victory, 23-21, over the Tigers, Hand said. CCHS went on to finish 4-6 that year.

“That was a hard loss,” Hand said. “It was just a heartbreaker loss.”

But Hand said he also sees friendship underneath the competitive layer of the rivalry between Clanton and Jemison.

“I never did look at it as a rivalry, really, as a coach,” Hand said. “It was always a good game, where people know each other. It was good to play against friends.”

In Hand’s case, one of his good friends during the game happened to be a coach on Jemison’s sidelines for several years.

Hand and former JHS head coach Gene Cost looked forward to the game for reasons including simply having something to talk about when they went fishing together.

Cost, who coached at Jemison from 1962–1972, said he knew Hand before Hand accepted the coaching job at Clanton in 1970.

“I’ve always thought a lot of him,” Cost said.

Under Cost’s leadership, the Panthers won 42 games and went to the playoffs once.

He echoed Hand’s statements about the outlook of the teams’ seasons hinging on the rivalry game.

“That was probably the most important game we played,” Cost said. “If we beat them, we had a good year. Beating Clanton was an achievement.”

Neither Cost nor Hand remembers the physical intensity among players on the field translating into fights outside of the game.

“I would say we got along well,” Cost said. “There weren’t any fights between the schools that I knew of … a lot of rivalry, but no fights.”

Hand agreed.

“It wasn’t like a cutthroat deal; it was a game,” Hand said. “We played hard, the best team won and after we got through shaking hands, we’d help each other any way we can the rest of the season. When the game’s over, it’s over.”

Perhaps the most memorable game for Cost came in his first year as Jemison’s head coach.

In 1962, the Panthers blasted a 17-year losing streak against the Tigers, winning 13-7 at Tiger Stadium.

Cost said the win was so appreciated that school was canceled at Jemison the following Monday.

“That was the game I remember more than any other one because we won it,” Cost said, laughing. “After 17 years, it was important.”

Cost, 81, said he still goes to the football games, particularly the Jemison–Clanton game.

“It’s the game between the two biggest schools in the county, and that makes it real important,” Cost said. “I don’t miss that ball game.”

Hand said he still goes to the CCHS football games, but only as a spectator now.

Hand’s son, Donnie Hand, became the Tigers’ head coach in 2011.

After helping his son for two years as defensive coordinator, Don Hand said he is ready to just watch the game as a fan and see which team will earn “county bragging rights” for the rest of the year.

“I still love it,” Hand said. “I still wish I could coach, but I feel like when you’re 71, you should let some young folks have fun.”