By Lee Davis
Gerald Gann holds the distinction of having been the head football coach at three Over the Mountain schools – Homewood, Hoover and John Carroll Catholic.
When he began his career with the Patriots in 1979, the former Berry assistant showed his understanding of the importance the game held in this area.
The day Gann accepted the job, he told the gathered media: “Our goal is to make the Homewood game the most important thing in town on Friday night.”
As the record shows, Gann and the coaches who followed him succeeded in that goal.
Homewood, of course, isn’t alone. The home game is the biggest thing going on in communities across the Over the Mountain area on any given Friday night. And there is plenty of evidence that the bond between communities and high school teams is stronger than ever.
There are many factors that can bring a team close to a community, and there’s one that stands above all: winning.
“Everybody loves a winner,” said Gene Ellison, who coached Mountain Brook to a long string of successful seasons in the 1980s.
“When I became head coach, Mountain Brook hadn’t had much success for a few years. I could feel the hunger for a winner in the community,” he said. “Then we got a group of kids who were really good athletes, and we started winning. The crowds got better and the excitement was there, notjust among the students and parents, but for the townspeople. Our games became a social event for the whole city.”
That’s when true tailgating began to take place at the Spartans’ school parking lot before games – a tradition that continues today.
Another factor is the neighborhood rivalries that develop throughout time. Students at Over the Mountain schools socialize and attend church and other activities with students from other area schools. Many of them are close friends – which makes them all the more eager to win bragging rights on Friday nights.
Long-time Vestavia Hills coach Buddy Anderson believes strongly in the neighborhood matches. The Rebels have played close-by neighbors Homewood, Mountain Brook and Hoover (formerly Berry) virtually every year since the 1970s.
“Those games are important to our players and draw the most interest from the fans and the community at large,” Anderson said. “Our best gates of the season usually come from the Over the Mountain rivalries. It means a lot to our fans for us to play those schools.”
The city of Hoover is unique among Over the Mountain municipalities as it is served by two high schools that bring an intercity rivalry into the mix. Hoover High School, in its earlier incarnation as Berry, had a monopoly on the affections of fans until the opening of Spain Park in 2001. The Buccaneer program dominated for the better part of 14 years before the Jaguars finally claimed two wins over their rival in 2015.
Hoover fans, who see their team frequently schedule made-for-television matches with out-of-state powers, understand the importance of games with local rivals. No coach has had more success against the Bucs over the years than Vestavia’s Anderson. Ask most Hoover fans whom they would rather see their team defeat, a school from Florida or Vestavia, the likely choice would be the Rebels.
In addition to its rivalry with Hoover, Spain Park has developed a heathy competition with close neighbor Oak Mountain, which draws its student base largely from unincorporated Shelby County. The Eagle program, which began in 1999, also at one time had a rivalry with private school power Briarwood, just down the road on U.S. 119.
The brotherhood of community associated with high school football shows itself in other ways. Take a look at any Over the Mountain school’s game program or stadium and you are likely to see advertisements from local businesses supporting the area’s teams. Corporate sponsors also step up to support special events such as a local hamburger chain’s sponsorship of this year’s Homewood-Pelham season opener at Samford University’s Seibert Stadium.
“Games like this are a special experience for our players,” Homewood coach Ben Berguson said. “Anytime they get the opportunity to play at a college venue, it’s a great opportunity. We’re grateful for the sponsors who made this happen.”
The special support that high school football enjoys appears to be undented by modern technology. If anything, the proliferation of social media has increased interest as an exciting play or game can be transmitted to thousands in a matter of seconds.
Even television saturation of college football hasn’t seemed to seriously hurt attendance. For years, high school coaches warned that if college games were ever televised on Friday nights, it could lead to the death of the sport at their level. So far, that hasn’t happened.
In fact, Gerald Gann’s premonition of many years ago has proved accurate. When it comes to the Over the Mountain area, the high school football game really is the biggest thing happening on Friday nights.