Monday, October 29, 2007

Hoover High and Me

In a recent post, we mentioned a possible connection between the legal woes at the heart of this blog and the search for a football coach at Hoover High School. Both started almost eight years ago, in late 1998.

The Hoover search concluded with the hiring of Rush Propst, who has had spectacular success on the field, leading the Bucs to five Class 6A state championships and two second-place finishes. Propst also brought the school unprecedented attention, through No. 1 national rankings and the popular MTV series Two A Days.

But the downside of the Rush Propst regime has recently bubbled to the surface, with the school embroiled in an ugly controversy that involves alleged academic, financial, and personal wrongdoing connected to the football program.

Hoover High is again in the spotlight, with Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and The New York Times among the national publications covering the story. Attention this time is coming in a negative wave, and many Hoover residents are concerned about what it means to their school system and the overall community, both of which have long enjoyed stellar reputations.

So why do I think my tale of legal intrigue--what we've come to call the Legal Schnauzer case--has anything to do with the hiring of a football coach at Hoover High School?

Well, here's the story. See what you think.

In November 1998, there was unrest over the football program at Hoover High. Longtime coach Bob Finley had died unexpectedly in 1994, and Gerald Gann, one of his former assistants, had not been able to restore the Bucs to their usual lofty status. Hoover had gone 4-6 and lost several years in a row to arch-rival, and next-door neighbor, Vestavia Hills.

To fire a high-school football coach after a 4-6 season might have been unheard of 10 or 20 years earlier. It probably still would be unheard of today, in some places. But in many towns around Alabama, especially in the suburbs surrounding Birmingham, the line between high school and college athletics was becoming blurry. Coaches were expected to do more than manage the team and teach several classes of gym or driver's ed. They were expected to win.

Gerald Gann, cut very much from the Bob Finley mold, had started with an 11-2 season. But good will from that season had washed away with three straight losing seasons. Gann was summarily canned, and the relatively young Hoover School System went looking for a coach who could win big.

About this time, your humble blogger was living peacefully with his wife and miniature schnauzer in north Shelby County, just 2-3 miles from the winding Hoover city limits. My two main concerns in life were trying to figure out how to keep crabgrass out of my yard and wondering if my alma mater (the University of Missouri) ever would be competitive in football again. (Answers: Mizzou is UNDEFEATED and nationally ranked right now; my yard still has crabgrass.)

Life for my little family unit was about to get much more complicated.

My next-door neighbor to the east was a fellow named Fred Yancey. My wife and I bought our house (our one and, we hope, only) in 1989. Fred and his wife, Sharon, and their two teen-aged children moved in a few months later. Fred had been hired as head football coach at Briarwood Christian High School, just a chip-shot field goal from where we lived.

We didn't see a lot of Fred. As a former sportswriter myself, I was familiar with the coaching lifestyle. If Fred was any kind of coach at all, I knew he would be spending lots of time watching film and otherwise trying to figure out how to win games.

So even though we weren't "big buds" with the Yanceys, we considered them very good neighbors. They were always quick with a warm hello. We helped each other through the occasional neighborhood crisis, storm damage, falling trees, and such. And their kids were so straight-arrow and well-behaved that you hardly knew they were around.

In fact, in the eight years or so the Yanceys lived next door I really had no idea where the boundary line to our property was; I never had any reason to think about it.

That was about to change.

And one reason it changed, I think, is that Fred Yancey proved to be one heck of a football coach. (I can't tell you how many times since late 1998 I've looked to the sky and said: "Sweet Jesus, why couldn't Fred Yancey have been a sorry-ass football coach?" My hair probably would still be brown. My wallet would be thicker. And if I hadn't used crude language with the Lord, maybe He would have helped me.)

As Hoover High football was struggling, the Lions of Briarwood Christian were turning into a powerhouse. And this was a new development on the Birmingham sports scene.

I had worked for 11 years in the city as a sportswriter, much of it spent covering high-school sports, and I don't recall writing a single word about Briarwood Christian athletics. We all knew the school was connected to Briarwood Presybyterian Church, a massive, wealthy, evangelical, conservative congregation in Birmingham's suburbs. Sometimes you would hear about a conservative politician, say a Dan Quayle, visiting the church. And members occasionally made news by getting involved in an anti-abortion protest. But sports? Briarwood Christian was pretty much off the radar screen.

Fred Yancey changed all of that, in a major way. He immediately turned the Lions into winners, and by 1998, his team was pushing for a state championship.

One reason the Lions were so good that year was a multitalented offensive star named Tim Castille, and he was only an eighth grader. And a year or two behind him was his brother Simeon, and people said he would be even better than Tim. The Castilles came by their talent honestly. Their father, Jeremiah, had been a star defensive back at the University of Alabama under Bear Bryant and gone on to have a distinguished career in the National Football League.

My understanding is that Briarwood was pretty much an all-white school at one time. Of course with the coming of integration, church-affiliated "seg academies" sprung up across the South. It might be unfair to call Briarwood a "seg academy." But in the '70s and '80s, I think it's safe to say that Parliament and Funkadelic were seldom heard on the school sound system. In fact, Lionel Richie probably would have caused serious consternation.

The Castilles, and a few other black players, added diversity--and some serious athletic talent--to the Briarwood mix. With Fred Yancey at the controls, and Jeremiah Castille joining him on the coaching staff, the Christians no longer were everybody's favorite Homecoming opponent. In fact, they were whuppin' some major Friday-night butt.

It culminated on December 10, 1998 (a Thursday) when the Lions won the Class 3A title, the school's first state championship in football (and probably in any sport).

I remember reading about the game in the newspaper the next morning and feeling happy for Fred. In fact, I hollered upstairs to my wife, "Hey, we've got a state-championship football coach living next door."

Two days later, our lives would turn upside down.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, the prior Saturday, Briarwood won their first ever 3-A state championship in men's cross country. Also, I would like to remind you that the Castille's were attending BCS from the time they were old enough to go to school, as were most other "stars" of Briarwood football that you have mentioned. "Star" players would not have followed Yancey anywhere. The kids parents wanted them to have a Briarwood education, so that is where the kids went.