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Members of the THS band on a trip to Troy in 1955
Courtesy of W. C. Bryant

A Century of THS Football
Part IV - Following O'Brien

By Michael Butler

Usually, following a legend is not an enviable task. There were two instances in the 1950s when football coaches got the challenge - both to follow the same fellow.

John Edward O'Brien retired from coaching at Tallassee in 1952. In those 17 years, he had just one losing season. Ten of those teams had one loss or less. From 1941-47, O'Brien's teams went 59-2-1 including the renowned 57-game unbeaten streak.

O'Brien did come back to coach in 1957 and '58 and retired again.

From 1953-56, three men became head coaches after O'Brien; John North, Charles Hattaway and James Edwin Newby. After O'Brien's second retirement, former O'Brien pupil Jackie Davis took over in '59. Davis would coach for four seasons.

Coach O'Brien's last team in 1958. Pictured with him on the back row are Bennie Little and O'Brien's successor Jackie Davis. Photo courtesy of Bill Patterson.

North followed O'Brien in '53. His team went 2-5-3. North, from Gillam, La., played end at Vanderbilt. He also played basketball and ran track.

As a college fresman at the age of 17, North enlisted in the Marines and fought in World War II. He was awarded a Purple Heart after being shot multiple times in both calves during combat. His parents were told that he had died.

Doctors told North that he would never walk again. While in the hospital, he walked around on his hands.

North defied the skeptics and was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the sixth round of the 1945 NFL Draft. North played with the Baltimore Colts from 1948-50.

After the one season in Tallassee, North left for a college position at Tennessee Tech. He would go on to coach at Kentucky and LSU, as well as in the NFL at Detroit and New Orleans. North was the head coach of the Saints from 1973-75. He spent his final years in coaching as an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons before reitiring after a season with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL.

Charles Hattaway took over in 1954 in what would become Tallassee's best season since the last year of the O'Brien undefeated streak. The Tigers went 9-1.

The late Howard Earl Stalnaker was interviewed on WTLS for the 50th anniversary of the '54 season in 2004. 1954 was the year WTLS came on the air and began broadcasting Tigers' football.

"Coach O'Brien said this was the best Tallassee team since the winning streak," Stalnaker recalled.

Stalnaker actually felt that the '54 might have been the best team THS had ever fielded. Seven players were all-state picks. And, seven went on to play college football, including Danny Wilbanks, who would play at Alabama. 

Wilbanks

"John North had built the team the year before. We had some great players on that team," Wilbanks said in another interview on WTLS. "We had some big players for those days."

In big, Wilbanks means 200-pounders. Wilbanks was a 200-pound fullback.  J.W. Woodall was a 200-pound guard.  Tommy Higgins weighed in at 205 as a tackle. All three played in the AHSAA All-Star Game.

Woodall and Higgins went on to Auburn. J.B. Ashurst went to Troy. Jerry Golden went to Clemson. Ed Christian and Lafayette Peters joined Wilbanks at Alabama.

The Border Conference champions in 1954 outscored its opponents 250-65, allowing just 6.5 points per contest.

The Tigers beat Lanett 14-12 in the first of five straight road games starting in October. The victory came at a cost. Five starters did not play the following week at Valley due to injuries sustained at Lanett. Valley handed Tallassee its only loss of the season 13-0.

In early November, Tallassee played host to a stout Holtville team. The Bulldogs had outscored their first seven opponents 226-0.

"When we played Holtville that year, they had a great running back James Shaw," Wilbanks remembered. "They were untied, unscored on and undefeated when they played us in Tallassee. We beat them 34-0."

Jack Hornsby of the Tallassee Tribune gave the recap with a headline, "Bulldogs See Unbeaten, Untied and Unscored on Record Bite the Dust."

Holtville finished the '54 season ranked No. 4 in Birmingham Post Herald rankings. Tallassee was No. 8. Bulldogs coach Herb Chapman would later coach Tallassee's Woodall, Higgins and Wilbanks in the state all-star game.

1954    
vs. Auburn W 20-7
vs. Elmore County W 39-0
vs. B.B. Comer W 43-6
at Lanett W 14-12
at Valley L 13-0
at Opelika W 26-7
at Wetumpka W 12-0
at Dadeville W 48-14
vs. Holtville W 34-0
at Lanier W 14-6

The '54 season marked the last time the Tigers would beat Sidney Lanier. It came in the final game of the season 14-6. Lanier took the next three games from 1955-57. The teams have not met since.

"We didn’t have that many guys," Wilbanks added. "We went to Lanier and they dressed about 95 to 100. We dressed 23 guys, but we had 18 that could play."

Among the other notable victories were Auburn, Opelika and Wetumpka.

The 1950s was an era before playoff games; however, the Birmingham News proclaimed Tallassee as the Class A state champions from District 2.

"It was a once in a generation type thing," said Wilbanks."And as small a town as we are, we were just fortunate to have that many guys come together."

Coach Hattaway, a Troy native, played college football at Auburn for Ralph "Shug" Jordan from 1951-53. Fans would say, "Hattaway went that-a-way."

The tailback led Auburn in rushing with 433 yards in 1953. As a senior, he scored the Tigers' only touchdown in the regular season-ending 10-7 loss to Alabama. The next year, he was head coach at Tallassee where he stayed for just the '54 season.

James Edwin Newby took over in 1955 and coached two seasons going 8-12 which prompted the return of O'Brien. He went 4-5 in 1957 and 4-5 in '58.

Davis

"We begged him to stay,” said Bill Patterson, who played on O'Brien's final squad. He said, 'Bill, it’s not like it used to be, and I’m going to move on.' He turned it over to Jackie Davis."

There would be no return for O'Brien to coaching. He did take a role as an adminsistrator spending three years at THS as principal.

Davis was a 1946 graduate at Tallassee and played for O’Brien. He went on to play football at Troy after two years in the Army.

His first coaching job was at Elmore County High School. His team's 7-0 win over Verbena in 1955 broke the Red Devils' 50-game win streak securing his alma mater's and O'Brien's 57-game record.

After six years in Eclectic, Davis joined O'Brien as an assistant in 1957. He took over as head coach in 1959 going 7-3. Also in '59, Davis' track team was the state champion.

The next year he was 7-2-1. In 1961, Tallassee went 7-1-1 and won the Border Conference Championship. His last season at THS was 4-6 in '62. Davis would coach one more season at Macon Academy in 1964.

During Davis' years at Tallassee as head coach, the Tigers were consistently in the state rankings. In 1959 Tallassee peaked at No. 6 in the Montgomery Advertiser poll. They climbed to No. 3 the next season and finished at No. 5 in the ASWA rankings, as well as No. 8 in the 1960 Birmingham Post Herald year-end poll. In 1961, the purple and gold ended the season ranked No. 5 in the ASWA poll and No. 9 in the Post Herald rankings.

Coach Davis' 60 Tigers

Davis, like O'Brien, went into administration after coaching. He served as assistant principal at THS from 1966-70 and became principal at Stanhope Elmore High School in 1970. He was inducted into the 2020 Class of the Tallassee High School Hall of Pride.

1959       1960       1961    
at Auburn L 7-6   vs. Auburn W 18-6   at Auburn T 7-7
at Lee L 26-6   at Lee L 35-0   at Lee L 19-0
vs. B.B. Comer W 7-0   at B.B. Comer W 26-7   OPEN    
at Lanett W 18-13   vs. Lanett W 34-0   at Lanett W 33-0
vs. Dadeville W 13-6   at Prattville W 12-6   vs. Prattville W 41-0
vs. Opelika L 13-7   at Opelika W 19-6   vs. Opelika W 34-6
vs. Wetumpka W 30-7   at Wetumpka T 0-0   vs. Wetumpka W 34-6
vs. Elmore County W 24-6   at Elmore County W 27-0   vs. Valley W 20-7
at Alex City W 20-6   vs. Alex City L 12-0   at Alex City W 14-6
at LaFayette W 20-19   vs. LaFayette W 26-0   at LaFayette W 13-7