By Lee Davis
More than 40 years later, Mat Whatley vividly remembers the first time he met Robert Higginbotham.
Whatley, a rising sophomore tackle at Mountain Brook, was attending the initial team meeting with Higginbotham, who had just been named the Spartans’ new head coach.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Whatley recalled. “He was all business and didn’t smile a lot. We may have all been a little nervous about what was in front of us.”
When Higginbotham met with his team that day, he spoke with authority. He had played for Paul Bryant at the University of Alabama and coached under Banks High School legend Shorty White. But Mountain Brook was a place that few believed could produce a consistent winner in football – much less a state championship.
“I was always optimistic that we could have a good team,” Higginbotham said. “When I took the Mountain Brook job, I knew it could be a better situation than most people realized. I wouldn’t have gone there if I didn’t think we could win.”
Higginbotham’s confidence was genuine, but perhaps even he and his young staff – Mark Bradley and Marty Brenner – couldn’t have seen how quickly the turnaround would come. His first Spartan team in 1973 won only a single game. A year later, Mountain Brook rose to 7-3.
Then, in 1975, Spartan football would reach the pinnacle.
Mountain Brook raced to a 13-0 record, with only a handful of close calls along the way, to win its first-ever state football crown.
“This was just a special group,” Higginbotham said. “We had some great athletes, but we also had a great mix of personalities. We were fortunate to have a lot of guys who really wanted to be successful in football.”
Certainly there were plenty of reasons to believe the Spartans would be formidable that fall. A strong senior class was returning along with a talented junior class that had gone undefeated as ninth graders. On top of that, there was a move-in from Vestavia Hills who seemed to have a lot of potential. He was a rising junior running back named Major Ogilvie.
“We thought we were going to be really good,” Higginbotham recalled. “And Major coming to Mountain Brook got us over the hump. I had seen him play at Vestavia and knew what he could do for us.”
Richard Burg, who had quarterbacked the undefeated junior high team two years previously, would be the signal-caller in Higginbotham’s veer offense.
“We went into the season with very high hopes,” Burg said. “Coach Higginbotham met with us all individually and said that we could be contenders for the state championship. A lot of us had been playing together since we were in fourth or fifth grade, so we believed in each other and that meant a lot.”
The Spartans opened the season with easy wins over Vestavia and John Carroll. From the beginning, the pattern was clear: With Burg at the controls and Billy Morris and Ogilvie running behind an impressive offensive line, Mountain Brook’s slashing ground game methodically chewed up yardage, averaging more than 270 yards against the Rebels and Cavaliers. The Spartans didn’t throw often, but they were effective when they did. In the first two games, Burg completed 10 of only 15 attempts, but two of his completions went for touchdowns.
Defensively, Mountain Brook physically dominated rival offenses and came up with big plays at crucial times.
After a closer-than-expected win over Hewitt-Trussville and a rout of Erwin brought their record to 4-0, the Spartans faced their biggest test of the year on the road against Coach Bob Finley’s Berry Buccaneers.
“Berry had always been Mountain Brook’s Achilles heel,” Burg said. “We had never beaten Berry in the history of the school.”
It was even worse than that. The Spartans had only scored nine total points in eight previous meetings between the schools. “Berry was Mountain Brook’s biggest rival at the time and that game meant a lot to our community,” Higginbotham said. “Our guys went into the game very confident and weren’t worried about what had happened in the past.”
At the beginning, it appeared that the Spartans might overwhelm their long-time tormentors. Ogilvie dashed 71 yards for a touchdown and Rem Miller booted a 39-yard field goal to give the visitors a 10-0 lead late in the second period. But Berry rallied for two quick touchdowns to take a stunning 12-10 lead at the half.
Would this be the point where Mountain Brook’s dream season met reality?
If the players were expecting a tongue-lashing from their coaches, they were surprised.
“I really thought we’d get chewed on,” Burg said. “But Coach Higginbotham was as calm as I’d ever seen him. He said if we took care of business, everything would be fine.”
A key play in the second half may have shifted momentum and defined the season. In the first half, Berry had frequent success with a short pass from quarterback Randy Cook to standout running back David Shepherd.
“Berry was gaining five to 15 yards virtually every time it ran the play,” said Dan Tourtellotte, a standout Spartan linebacker. “In the first half my responsibility was to watch Shepherd and their tight end. In the second half, the coaches said forget the tight end and concentrate on Shepherd.”
Facing a crucial third down possession call, Berry attempted the short pass again – and Tourtellotte stopped Shepherd for a loss of yardage.
“It wasn’t just me, our whole defense was responsible for that play,” Tourtellotte said. “You could feel the shift back in our direction. We controlled the game after that.”
Burg threw a touchdown pass to Pip Mason and Miller added two field goals to give Mountain Brook a 23-12 comeback win. Almost as significantly, the Spartans had physically dominated the Bucs at the line of scrimmage, holding Finley’s usually potent running attack to only 19 yards.
“After we beat Berry, we knew we could beat anybody,” Whatley said.
Mountain Brook rolled over Banks, Shades Valley, Hueytown, Tuscaloosa County and Homewood – yielding only 19 points in five games – to finish the regular season undefeated. Even on rare nights when the Spartan offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders, someone always stepped up to bring home the victory. For example, defensive back Scot Cardwell returned a punt for a touchdown and intercepted two passes in a 13-0 win over Shades Valley.
Despite the perfect regular season, Mountain Brook still had its share of doubters in the media and elsewhere. They couldn’t believe that an upscale suburb could produce football players talented and tough enough to win a state championship.
“The kids at Mountain Brook were just like kids at every other school I coached,” Higginbotham replied at the time. “Maybe they worked harder than anybody. They want to win more than any I’ve seen.”
Under the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s four classification format at the time, Mountain Brook, as champion of Region 7, drew a bye for the first round of the playoffs. In the second round, the Spartans faced Tuscaloosa at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mountain Brook rolled to a 21-0 lead and withstood a furious Black Bear rally in the fourth quarter to win 21-16.
The Spartan offensive machine perhaps was never better than the following week. Overcoming an early 6-0 deficit, Mountain Brook pounded out more than 360 yards in a 50-20 destruction of Coffee at Legion Field. The 50-point total set a state record for most points in a playoff game, as Ogilvie and Morris each rushed for more than 100 yards.
With the Spartans appearing to peak at the right time, they were heavy favorites against Dothan in the Class 4A championship final the following Saturday. The Tigers, who had lost to Homewood in the finals the previous season, were led by quarterback Steadman Shealy. The underdogs came close to pulling the big upset.
After a see-saw contest through the first three quarters, the Tigers put together an impressive 95-yard touchdown drive to take a 23-21 lead with less than nine minutes to go in the game.
“Nobody panicked,” Whatley recalled. “We knew what we had to do.”
Taking the ball on its own 20, Mountain Brook put together a drive for the ages. After runs by Morris and Ogilvie to get a first down, Burg passed to Sam Price for 12 yards. With first down at the Spartan 44, Burg connected to Pip Mason for a 37-yard gain to Dothan’s 19 yard line. Five plays later, Burg’s touchdown put Mountain Brook ahead to stay. His two-point conversion pass to Price gave the Spartans a 29-23 lead they would never relinquish.
Shealy tried to rally his team. Dothan’s last hope ended with 18 seconds on the clock.
“We were a big favorite, but Dothan had a fine team,” Whatley said. “Steadman Shealy was so good that he almost beat us single-handedly.”
And Mountain Brook had completed its improbable three year climb to the top.
The Spartans naturally dominated the post-season all-star teams. Ogilvie, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards, and Burg were named to all-state honors. Others – including seniors Whatley, Cardwell, defensive end Allen Hughes, linebacker Robbie Thomas, tackle Don Smith and juniors Price and Miller – were named to various other all-area or all-independent squads.
“This team wasn’t about all-stars, it was about players and great coaches,” Whatley said. “Somebody was always stepping up to make a big play.”
Mountain Brook’s glory run wasn’t finished. Despite heavy graduation losses and the untimely departure of Higginbotham, the Spartans posted a 14-0 mark in 1976 to win their second straight title and extend their winning streak to 27 consecutive games. “Both championships were great, but the first one is always the sweetest,” Burg said. “We expected to win it the second time.”
The passing of the decades have only strengthened the ties that were bound in those special years of Mountain Brook football. Whatley organizes periodic lunch reunions for the five classes of former players who felt the reach of Higginbotham and his staff’s influence.
“It’s a way for us to have some fun and let the coaches know how much we appreciate all they did for us,” he said.
Time marches on, but the accomplishments of the 1975 Mountain Brook Spartans football team will forever stand as golden.