By Rubin E. Grant
As he embarks on his 41st season as Vestavia Hills’ head football coach, Buddy Anderson remembers his first season as if it unfolded yesterday.
In 1978, Anderson was elevated to the head job after spending six seasons as a Rebels assistant.
Vestavia Hills reached the 1978 Class 4A championship game – the highest classification level then – but lost 21-7 to Jeff Davis in the final, finishing with a 10-4 record.
The outcome wasn’t as close as most of the Rebels’ games that year.
“They had a nickname, the ‘Cardiac Crew,’” Anderson recalled. “We had no blowouts the entire season. I was 28 years old at the time, but if I was 68 like I am now, I probably would have had a heart attack.”
The Rebels will honor Anderson’s first season and Vestavia Hills’ 1998 championship team this fall. Details were still being worked out at the time of publication. Both seasons will be commemorated in the Rebels’ all sports program that will be sold during home football games.
Vestavia Hills actually started the 1978 season 0-2, losing 3-0 to Mountain Brook in the opener.
“We fumbled on the two-inch line late in the game,” Anderson bemoaned all these years later.
The next week, the Rebels went to Jasper to play Walker and its high school All-American tailback Linnie Patrick.
“We got inside the 20-yard line five times and we scored only once,” Anderson said. “Linnie scored on two long runs, I believe one was 78 and the other 80, and we lost 14-7.”
In desperate need of a win, the Rebels visited Hewitt-Trussville in week 3 with both sporting 0-2 records. The Rebels shut out the Huskies 14-0, using two goal-line stands.
The next week they rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Minor 15-14, with tailback Scott Waggoner scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 30-yard run, following a Minor fumble.
“They were up 14-9 and were about to score,” Anderson said. “They ran a quarterback sneak and our defensive tackle reached up and knocked the ball loose. (Rebel defensive end) David Jordan caught it and started running. I was faster than him and I was running down the sideline yelling at him that he’s got to score, but they tackled him. But then Scott scored to put us up.”
With less than a minute to play, something peculiar happened.
“Our quarterback, John Murphy, came up to the line and called time out and came over to the sideline, and I said, ‘All you had to do was take a knee,’” Anderson said. “He said (center) John Simonetti’s pants were split from end to end and all that’s under there is his athletic supporter. I told him he better go back out there and take the snap,” Anderson added with a laugh.
The wardrobe malfunction was a product of some used uniforms. When the Birmingham Americans of the defunct World Football League folded, their uniforms were repossessed.
Anderson was working under a tight budget and had just enough funds to get their helmets and shoulder pads reconditioned, but not enough to buy new uniforms. Since the Americans’ colors were the same as Vestavia’s – red, white and blue – he was able to make a deal for those.
“We were using those pants and they were about 10 years old,” Anderson said, explaining the wardrobe malfunction.
After evening their record at 2-2, the Rebels lost the following week 21-14 to rival Berry, then reeled off eight consecutive wins, including playoff victories over Tuscaloosa County, Banks and powerful J.O Johnson.
The 27-25 victory against Johnson in Huntsville was a major upset since the Jaguars had two defensive players, Donnie Humphrey and Chris Martin, who later played at Auburn and in the NFL. Plus, their tailback, Clarence Johnson, went on to become the University of North Alabama’s all-time leading rusher and career touchdown leader.
“We were outweighed across the front by about 60 pounds,” Anderson said. “We had a 20-19 lead and they scored to go up 25-20 and decided to go for two. They had Humphrey and Martin lined up in the backfield and Clarence Johnson behind them. We couldn’t see Clarence with those big guys in front of him, but for some reason they threw a pass and we knocked it down.
“Then we came back and scored. We threw a screen to Ry Oglivie and he made a great run and scored, and we kicked the extra point and won 27-25.”
Oglivie, a senior running back and defensive back, was named All-State that season, as was end Jim Brown.
The Rebels’ hopes of their first state title ended against Jeff Davis.
“We got beat by Jeff Davis, but I remember every game was nip and tuck,” Anderson said. “Everything fell into place and guys started believing they could succeed. That’s what I remember most about that season.”
Since then, Anderson has gone on to become the winningest high school football coach in Alabama, with a record of 329-146 in 40 seasons.
He was inducted into the National Federation of State High School Association Hall of Fame on July 2 during a banquet in Chicago.
In his second season, the Rebels finished as 1979 Class 4A runner-ups to Enterprise before Anderson won his first state title in 1980 against Parker.
Anderson would have to wait another 18 years to get another, in 1998 when Vestavia Hills won the Class 6A championship with an unblemished 15-0 record. They defeated rivals Shades Valley and Mountain Brook twice, once in the regular season and again in the playoffs, and beat Vigor 10-7 in the championship game.
“That was a real special bunch,” Anderson said. “Over their three-year period, they were 39-3. The chemistry of that bunch was unique. Every Friday night, they came to play. You didn’t have to motivate them.”
Brent Speigner, a three-year starter, was the quarterback. He had experienced the Rebels losing in the 1996 quarterfinals to Jeff Davis as a sophomore and in the 1997 semifinals in a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Benjamin Russell as a junior.
Finally, his senior season, Speigner and the Rebels were able to clutch the blue championship trophy.
“We had a great group of guys,” Speigner said from Cumming, Georgia, where he lives his wife, Lindsey, and their two children, Addie and Bo. “We didn’t have anybody who was a superstar, but we had guys who were just great teammates, great high school football players. We loved each other and we made a bond to play for each other. We had a great group of coaches.
“We knew we were good enough to win and we kind of expected to. We had some close calls.”
The closest came in the semifinals against Shades Valley. The Rebels prevailed 42-35 in overtime.
“They had three great linebackers,” Anderson recalled, referring to the Mounties’ Saleem Rasheed, Mayo Sowell and Pierre Brown. Rasheed went to Alabama and played in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers, Sowell went to Auburn and Brown to Arkansas.
The Rebels didn’t have any lineman who weighed more than 235 pounds, but “they were scrappers and they knew how to block,” Anderson said.
In the finals against Vigor, the Rebels scored the winning touchdown on John Holloway’s 8-yard run with 3:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“That was a game that had a lot of hard licks,” Anderson said.
Safety Robert Evans made a big play with 1:52 remaining in the game to secure the win.
“They had a big receiver named Larry Howell, who was about 6-4, and they had the ball on fourth-and-four or five from about our 16-yard line,” Anderson said. “We called timeout and one of the coaches told me to move Robert over to cover Howell. He figured they would throw the ball to him in the end zone.
“I didn’t want to put Robert over there. I said, ‘What if they throw it over the middle?’ Reluctantly I moved Robert over there, they threw it up and he knocked it down.”
Remembering the play, Evans, now the defensive coordinator at Mountain Brook, said he didn’t do anything special.
“Looking back, that play got a lot of notoriety, but it wasn’t that big,” said Evans, who was named the game’s MVP. “I just went up and knocked the ball down. In my honest opinion, there were several other plays in that game that meant more.”
That was typical of how Evans characterized the Rebels’ 1998 championship team.
“We had a lot of experienced guys who had been in big games in multiple sports,” he said. “We were not great in any one phase, but we played our best in big moments.”