Coach brought GHS first state title

Published 4:37 pm Friday, January 30, 2009

Watching a replay of the Greenville Tigers 1987 victory over Russellville for the state championship, Gene Allen turned and looked at quarterback Jody Powell. Powell – who quarterbacked that title team – had just thrown a deep pass to a racing Tiger receiver.

The ball bounced just out of reach.

“You should have took something off it,” joked Allen, who was defensive coordinator for the Tigers then.

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“It was there,” replied Powell. “The receiver slowed up.”

The architect of the Tigers first AHSAA state championship Willis Wright stood nearby, mingling with old friends: Former Superintendent Jimmy Lawrence, Mayor Dexter McLendon, coaches Allen, Ronnie Faulk and Arlton Hudson, boosters Lamar “Cot” Giddens and Rodney Bush, Mark Davis, and many more. All came Monday night to the Tigers’ new athletic complex at Greenville High School to welcome back Wright, who helped turn the school’s football team into champions when he arrived in 1986.

One year later the Tigers beat Russellville in a 21-20 double-overtime thriller in north Alabama for the championship.

Wright’s offense was built on power and misdirection. Three running backs lined up behind Powell in the offensive backfield and passes were a rarity. Powell attempted just six passes in the game.

“One of their (Russellville) guys at the game said ‘they’re in that old T-formation from the 1940s…they can’t run that against us,” Wright recalled. “You weren’t supposed to be able to run it in 1987. But when you’ve got some pretty good blockers, a big old fullback and some good athletes you can run just about anything you want to.”

Russellville broke a scoreless tie in the third quarter with a 30-yard touchdown pass, but Greenville answered with a 100-yard kickoff return by running back Curtis Peterson. It stayed that way until overtime. Cyrus Smith gave the Tigers the lead with a one-yard touchdown plunge, but the Golden Tigers responded with a six-yard scoring pass.

The recipient of that pass, Roy Lee “Chucky” Mullins, would attend Ole Miss where he would suffer a neck injury that left him paralyzed in 1989. Mullins died in 1991.

Mullins hauled in another touchdown catch in the second overtime, but Russellville’s point-after-attempt failed and, after Smith tied the game with a seven-yard run, Pat Davidson kicked the winning point.

The Tigers’ sidelines erupted. McLendon, who attended the game, pointed to a small pile of players at the upper part of the screen during the replay.

“That’s me under all of that,” he said.

Wright remembered a game full of emotional highs and lows.

“Somebody asked me what was the most amazing thing I remembered about that game and I said the most amazing thing I thought happened in it was me living through it,” said Wright.

Greenville is a special place, he said.

“I made some of the most wonderful friends in my life while I was down here,” said Wright, who stayed only three years in Greenville but compiled a 28-8 record, including a 24-game winning streak between 1987-88.

Wright won four state championships at four different schools during his career as a head coach. He came out of retirement in 2001 and became defensive coordinator at South Panola High School in Mississippi. South Panola won five state titles and boasted an 89-1 record during Wright’s tenure there, which included a 75-game winning streak. He is a member of the Mississippi Coaches’ Hall of Fame.

He also left behind a legacy of winning at Greenville. Allen became head coach of the Tigers soon after Wright’s departure and GHS captured a second state title in 1994.

Wright is currently outside linebackers coach at Northwest Community College in Mississippi where his son, Jack, serves as offensive coordinator.