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Reeltown's Duane Webster (right) with THS coach Woody Weaver. Webster, a Tallassee grad, coached at both schools during his 30 years as a head coach.

A Century of THS Football
Part V - 1963-73

By Michael Butler

From 1959-62, Tallassee High School head coach Jackie Davis had three 7-win seasons in four years. His record at his alma mater was 25-9-5, not bad in a follow-up to J. E. "Hot" O'Brien.

Davis' final Tiger team went 4-6 in 1962, his only losing season.

The Alabama High School Athleitc Association classification system was implemented in 1963. Tallassee was placed in Class 3A and would remain there during the 20 years of the four-class system. The AHSAA expanded to six classes in 1984.

John Whatley took over in '63 becoming one of three coaches to take the reins at THS over the next decade. Over that span, Tallassee would have just two winning seasons which would come under Ken "Tank" Mitchell in 1968 and 69. Duane Webster, an O'Brien disciple, left Reeltown for Tallassee but was unable to garner the success he would find with the Rebels, the success that would later put him in the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.

Whatley, who had three losing seasons at THS, had a similar fate as Webster but not to the same scale. He found success at Holtville putting together a 15-5 record in 1961 and 62. After just seven wins in three years at THS, he returned to Holtville in '66.

The 1967 Tigers

Mitchell was player for Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama.

"When I went to Alabama I weighed 238 pounds. After the end of the first spring I weighed 169 pounds," Mitchell said. "There were 89 players when I came in as a freshman. When I graduated there were 11 of us left. It was very competitive.

"At the end of my first year at Alabama, I had an interview with Coach Bryant before we left to go home in the summer. He said, 'Tank, when you came to Alabama you was too fat. Now you're too skinny. You need to go on back to Florence, Ala. and get you a job working with the city or something. I don't think you'll ever play at Alabama.'

"I said, 'Coach, it's cool here in the summer. I've never lived in an air-conditioned place. It's warm in the winter. I haven't had to build a fire since I've been here. I get three good meals a day. Whatever you've got for me is better than what I've got to go home to. You can take my scholarship away if you want to, but I'm not going to quit.' He kind of laughed and said, 'We'll see you in September.'

"We had some great players there at the time. We won a national championship in 1961 when I was a redshirt sophomore. In my senior year we won a national championship again. The next year in '65 they won it again. I was there when Namath was quarterback and Steve Sloan after him. Then Kenny Stabler was after him."

Mitchell told of a time when after his playing days he teamed up again with Namath on the golf course.

"He just had both of his knees replaced. I had developed some arthritis. We got out of the cart walking to the first green. He was hobbling along. I was kind of bent over a little bit. He said, 'Tank, you know that free education we got wasn't quite free was it?' I said, 'No. It sure wasn't.' Neither one of us would take anything for that."

Mitchell's final team at THS in '69

Mitchell came to Tallassee after his first head coaching gig at Gordo for one season in 1965. His first season in Tallassee was not good. The Tigers recorded the first winless season in school history.

The '66 Tigers were 0-8-1. The tie came in week one against Auburn (7-7). Tallassee has had just one season since with no victories (2002).

1968       1969    
at Dadeville W 19-6   vs. Dadeville W 28-0
vs. Auburn W 13-6   at Auburn L 7-0
vs. Lyman Ward W 38-0   at Handley T 0-0
vs. LaFayette W 49-14   at LaFayette W 20-13
at Chilton County W 19-0   vs. Chilton County W 44-0
at Opelika W 39-13   vs. Opelika W 36-6
at Wetumpka L 13-7   vs. Wetumpka W 20-0
vs. Alex City L 20-14   at Alex City W 20-15
vs. Lanett L 7-6   at Lanett L 19-16
at Stanhope Elmore W 21-0   vs. Stanhope Elmore W 30-0

The turnaround was quick for Mitchell; however, as Tallassee improved to 5-5 in '67 and had back-t0-back seven-win seasons in '68 and '69.

"We had a great bunch of kids. They worked really hard," Mitchell said. "It was a good time in our life. My daughter was born while we were in Tallassee. The people in Tallassee have a love for football. Win, lose or draw, they were always with you. The reason I left, I wanted to get into college coaching."

Mitchell left Tallassee in 1970 and became an assistant coach at Florida State for one season before leaving for Troy State and coaching for four years. He then left coaching to take a job with the Alabama Private School Association.

Webster (far left) in 1970 with Melvin Barker, Coach Paul Taylor, Jimmy Brodzinski, Coach Lamar Godwin

In 1970, one of O'Brien's boys followed Mitchell. Duane Webster was named head football coach.

"I had no idea if Coach (O'Brien) had anything to do with it or not," Webster said. "Mr. (Bennie) Little and (Earl) McArthur came to see me. I took the job on the second meeting. Money was a big part of it. I had been successful at Reeltown and I thought I deserved more money than I was getting. I wasn't getting but $500 a month to coach and coached football and basketball. At Tallassee I got a good raise and a place to live for $40 per month in the old teacherage."

Webster had already built a name for himself at Reeltown where he coached 14 seasons after graduating from Auburn. The Tallassee alum was 98-33-8 in his first stint at Reeltown. The Rebels were 9-0-1 in 1969.

The mentor with successors; current Reeltown coach Matt Johnson (left) and Jackie O'Neal
Photo by Suzannah Solomon Wilson

Webster had allegiances to both schools prior to getting into the coaching profession.

"I was in school at Tallassee. Mr. Little was my shop teacher in seventh grade," Webster remembered. His younger siblings Carolyn and Charles were also enrolled at Tallassee.

It was during that seventh grade year in Novmember of 1943 when Webster's entire world would turn upside down.

"My brother Charles and sister Carolyn had moved with my mother down on the (Lower) River Road. She had left my father. We lived down there about two weeks. Police came to the school. My father had killed my mother and he killed himself.

"We had three older sisters. They each took one of us. I went with Thelma to Reeltown. I went most of the 7th grade though 11th grade to Reeltown. I was having a hard time because me and my brother-in-law couldn't get along too well. I had a lot of friends who took me in from time to time. I lived with different families. In the 12th grade, it was with Emory Daniel and his wife Mary Francis in Carrville.

"Somebody made arrangements for me to work in the mill from 6-10 in the morning. I was making 80 cents an hour. I'd get to school about 11. I played football and basketball. I never played football before. I was a pretty good basketball player. I made all-county at Reeltown the year before. I made all-district, me and Jackie Williams, at Tallassee my senior year."

Coach O'Brien was the basketball coach in addition to football.

"He was a good person. He might have been a better person than coach. It all goes together. He took me under his wing because I was a country boy coming to the city. A few people on the football team didn't like country boys. I had to go through a little harrassment, nothing major. There were days that I wished I wasn't out there. I thought I knew what football was about until I actually got out there. I had always wanted to try and play but didn't have the opportunity at Reeltown because we didn't have a team."

The year was 1948, the season after the 57-game win streak had ended. Webster played end on offense and defense. Tallassee went 6-2-2.

After high school, Webster enlisted in the Air Force and served during the Korean War. Webster went to college at Auburn afterwards.

"I was going to major in accounting. I had played a lot of athletics while in the Air Force and high school too. Sports was always important to me. After the fifth quarter, I changed my mind to go into coaching."

He married Vera Goss in 1953. 67 years later, they are still together.

"I started coaching at Reeltown in August of '56. I graduated in December of '56. I was doing home study."

Webster's position at Reeltown was as head of both the football and basketball programs.

"I had agreed verbally to take a job at Wedowee as basketball coach and assistant in football. I didn't think I was qualified to coach football. I didn't play but one year. Fortunately I got to play for one of the best that ever was.

"Reeltown's athletic program was terrible. They had won one and tied one the past three years before I went there."

In fact, Reeltown had just five wins in seven seasons under six different coaches prior to Webster's arrival. In 1955 under coach Bill Carr, the Rebels were 0-8 and outscored 226-6.

"They kept begging me to take the job. I just didn't feel comfortable. They finally convinced me, so I went to work."

Webster went 6-4 in the first of what would become 30 years of coaching.

Webster turns 89 this June

"I used what I learned from coach Hot," Webster said of O'Brien in W. C. Bryant's book, "Hot and His Boys." "I also consulted with him on a regular basis. He was my Hero."

Reeltown bookends a Hall of Fame career that included four seasons at Tallassee.

"(Tallassee) had good teams the years before I took over," he recalled "Most of the (1969) team graduated. We went 4-6 the first year which wasn't too bad considering the schedule we had to play. The next two years were awful - one win each. We won four again my last year. Coach O'Brien spoiled everybody."

From 1970-73, Webster's THS teams went 10-29-1. The wins might have been less than expected but Webster's influence was strong with his players at Tallassee including Tony Mann.

"I was 15 going up against some seniors on the offensive line and of course I was intimidated," Mann said. "Coach Webster realized that and knew how to talk to me and how to handle the situation. That stuck with me throughout my life. His foot in my rear helped too, but he always had time to talk if you had a problem and would listen. That went on even after he went back to Reeltown."

1970 cheerleaders (seated, left to right): Emily Thompson, Julie Patterson, Leigh Ledbetter. (Standing, left to right): Brenda Mann, Francis Roton, Susan Chambliss.

Webster and Morris Purcell are credited with bringing back youth football in Tallassee with the "Pee Jinks" program in 1971. He also brought back high school baseball to THS the same year.

"There was no program from 1959-70," he said.

Webster coached the 1971 baseball team, followed by Jack Finlayson in 1972 and '73. Dan Bianchi was the skipper of the '74 Tigers. Ronnie Baynes assumed the duties of football in '74 and baseball in '75.

Things worked out for Webster's return to Reeltown in 1976. In 1984, the first ever Tallassee/Reeltown football game was played at J. E. "Hot" O'Brien Stadium won by Tallassee 36-21. It was the Tigers' only victory against their former coach.

"I was 3-1 against them," said Webster. "Marc Rice approached me about playing. Then Steve McCord came on board as coach."

The series returns in 2020 after a 17-year absence.

"A game like Tallassee will pay Reeltown's athletic program for the year. I hope things don't get out of hand. That's what happened the last time. Fans got too involved. I hope it works out because it's good for both schools."

Webster with his wife Vera and daughter Venita after Highway 120 was named in his honor near Reeltown School. Photo by Suzannah Solomon Wilson.

Webster closed out his career with a 12-year stint at Reeltown going 110-31. He won the state title in 1987, his final year as a coach.

"Coach (Terry) Burt won the state championship in 4A. We beat them. We used to play a lot of golf together. We were good friends."

Webster's 2A champs beat the 4A Panthers 28-0 in '87. The Rebels went 15-0 with a 9-7 victory over Winston County in the championship game. From 1984-87, Reeltown was 51-6 with two state title appearances - one a narrow 17-14 defeat against Millport in 1984.

"The '84 team won the title too. We just had a biased official."

In three coaching decades, Webster was 218-93-9 on the gridiron.

"My record at Tallassee wasn't very good, but you take the bad with the good."

In 1982, Reeltown's football facility became Nix-Webster Stadium. Webster was the 1985 2A Coach of the Year. He was inducted to the AHSAA Hall of Fame in 1994. In March of this year, Highway 120 near Reeltown School was named the Coach Duane Webster Highway.

Duane Webster Interview on WTLS