Who Was This Area’s
Greatest Football Coach?
By Lee Davis
Journal sports writer
Although the actual kickoff of the 2013 high school football season is about a month away, the weeks that precede it are still some of my favorite times of year. In July, every team is undefeated. Every player is a major college prospect and serious candidate for all-state honors.
And every coach is perceived as the prep version of Bear Bryant/Nick Saban/Shug Jordan/Knute Rockne (take your pick).
Since there is so much agreement this time of year, that means you have to look elsewhere if you want to start a friendly football debate at the barbecue pit, the men’s grill at the club or the church fellowship hall.
And here is a great question with which to do it: Who is the greatest Over the Mountain high school football coach of all time? Pick your choice and make your case, but please follow these short ground rules.
First, remember there is really no right or wrong answer. Greatness can be subjective or in the eye of the beholder. Our area has been so blessed by the quality of men who have directed our high school programs for the last 40 years that it’s truly difficult to make a bad pick. So if somebody has a different pick than you, don’t let it ruin the friendship.
Second, let’s establish parameters for the period we are discussing. For practical purposes, let’s begin the Over the Mountain era as circa 1974, where by that time Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Homewood all had independent school systems, with high schools that fielded varsity football teams. Plus Shades Valley, Berry and John Carroll Catholic had well-established athletic programs. So the fall of 1974–nearly 40 years ago–is as good a place to start as anywhere else.
Third, a coach must have led a team to at least one state championship in a classification during his tenure. But winning a title does not guarantee a spot on the list of candidates.
Before we get to the final list, let’s point out some very deserving coaches for honorable mention status. Homewood and John Carroll Catholic’s Gerald Gann, Homewood and Vestavia Hills’ Alvin Bresler, Mountain Brook’s Gene Ellison and Joey Jones and Spain Park’s John Grass were all top-flight coaches and first- class individuals. But something–often a short tenure in high school coaching–keeps them just a little short of the final list. But if you want to make the case for any of them, there’s plenty of ammunition there.
So here, for the purposes of friendly debate and discussion, is one writer’s choice of the Magnificent Seven Over the Mountain coaches, ending with the choice of No. 1.
7-Robert Higginbotham, Mountain Brook/Shades Valley. The former University of Alabama defensive back was one of the state’s most consistent winners for decades, and it all started with his work at two Over the Mountain schools. Higginbotham achieved what many considered impossible when he led the Spartans to the Class 4A crown in his third year at the helm in 1975.
After a controversial dismissal at Mountain Brook, he moved on to Shades Valley, where his Mountie teams were consistent playoff participants and came within a hair of another state title in 1994.
Higginbotham finished his career with a long run at Tuscaloosa County, but his record at Over the Mountain schools raised the overall bar for quality football in the area.
6- Fred Yancey, Briarwood. The Lions were perennial doormats when Yancey took the reins of the struggling private school program in the early 1990s. Since then, he has built Briarwood into a Class 5A titan.
Yancey actually directed the Lions to two consecutive Class 3A titles in 1998 and 1999, before a vindictive Alabama High School Athletic Association rule pushed all private schools up two classes higher than their student enrollments dictated. Instead of faltering, Briarwood under Yancey flourished and added a Class 5A crown to its trophy case in 2003. Yancey’s teams have also been competitive with Class 6A schools.
The popular coach is 67 but looks 10 years younger, and he has no plans to step down. That’s bad news for the Lions’ upcoming opponents and good news for football in general.
5-Bob Newton, Homewood. Newton was a longtime assistant at Homewood who was promoted to head coach when Gerald Gann moved to Hoover in 1995. At the time, many Patriot fans weren’t happy with the choice, but none of them would admit it now. Newton took a very good program and made it great. Homewood won the Class 5A title in his very first season.
Newton would win four more championships in the first decade of the 21st century before his retirement due to health reasons after 2005. In many ways, Newton was the classic old-school coach: He was tough, relentless and demanding on the field but cared about his players as if they were his own sons. In turn, his players would run through the proverbial brick wall for him. Over the Mountain football is much better because he was a part of it.
4-Josh Niblett, Hoover. This choice may surprise some people who think he’s ranked too high; it will surprise others who think he’s ranked too low. Niblett came to Hoover in 2008 after a highly productive run at Oxford. His mission was to replace the ultra-successful Rush Propst, who brought the Bucs five state championships, national prominence and a boatload of off-the-field scandals.
Niblett took a great program and made it better. Hoover has made the Class 6A finals every year since he took over the program, winning championships in 2009 and 2012. Just as importantly, Hoover has been winning without the fanfare and soap opera-style drama so characteristic of the Propst years.
Niblett’s back-to-the-basics approach to football at Hoover is likely to keep the Bucs at or near the top for years to come. Hoover has so much talent pouring in that some people think their grandmother could coach the Bucs to 10 wins a year. They are wrong. It takes a special coach to understand Hoover and thrive there. Josh Niblett is that man.
3-Rush Propst, Hoover. No coach ever stirred more controversy than Propst. But no coach ever had so much on-the-field glory.
It’s easy to forget that Hoover was a mediocre program when Propst moved north from Alma Bryant in 1999. Under his tenure, Hoover posted a 114-9 record (discounting forfeits) and played for seven Class 6A state championships in nine years, winning five of them.
Propst saw himself as far more than a coach–he felt tasked to be a tireless promoter of the Hoover program in particular and Alabama high school football in general. Nobody except Propst himself can truly know the purity of his motives, but he certainly succeeded in bringing the glare of publicity to his program. Hoover’s game against high profile out-of-state opponent Nease of Florida (led by Tim Tebow) was carried live by ESPN. The popular reality series “Two-A-Days,” produced and aired by MTV, focused on the daily lives of the Hoover team members and coaches and turned some of the Bucs into minor celebrities.
At the end, the spotlight got too hot for Propst, who later admitted he was often bored during his final years at Hoover. His personal life began to unravel in full public view, which led to his resignation and move to Georgia. Propst had a human side that far too few people saw, but even his severest critics can’t argue that his influence and success on the field will impact the area–and all of Alabama high school football–for decades.
2-Buddy Anderson, Vestavia Hills. For sustained excellence over a long period of time (try four decades), nobody in Alabama can top Anderson. Vestavia’s program–in many ways–is a throwback to another era. And that’s a good thing. Anderson insists on dedication from his players but also understands that time away from football for a family vacation or a church mission trip is important in a young man’s life, too.
The coach’s dislike for the digital age is almost legendary. He rarely sends emails and uses his cell phone strictly for talking, and woe be upon the Rebel player caught texting in a team meeting.
Under Anderson’s tenure, Vestavia has won two state championships (1980 and 1998), a slew of region titles and most importantly has done it all the right way. In Anderson World, national publicity for your program isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not nearly as important as playing neighborhood rivals such as Homewood and Hoover.
On the field, Anderson’s conservative approach to the game is simple: He says, “Here is what we are going to do. See if you can stop us.” Most of the time, the opponent can’t.
If you really want to know what Vestavia football is all about, look at the staff. Many of the coaches have been with Anderson since the 1970s. One coach, defensive coordinator Peter Braasch, has been by Anderson’s side for every game he has ever coached. That speaks to the power of loyalty and continuity.
With 296 wins to his credit, Anderson will almost certainly earn his 300th victory this fall. At a youngish 63, the coach may well be around long enough to clinch victory number 400 one day.
1-Bob Finley, Berry. Other coaches may win more games or championships than Finley, but none will be remembered any more fondly than the man called the Father of Over the Mountain Football. From his first season at Berry in 1968, Finley set a standard for winning and class by which all other area coaches will rightfully be measured.
The University of Tennessee graduate won state championships for the Bucs in 1977 and 1982 and produced an endless procession of winning teams. Finley’s development of Berry as a statewide power coincided with the overall growth of the Over the Mountain area and led to the development of strong rivalries that often drew standing room-only crowds to cramped high school stadiums. Berry’s early battles with Shades Valley, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills and Homewood in the 1970s planted seeds that have grown to sequoia-size proportions today.
As high school football in this area continued to develop exponentially in size and importance, Finley’s influence was a reminder that while winning was very important, how winning was achieved was even more important.
Sadly, Finley never lived to see high school football come to the lofty plateau it’s achieved today. In 1994, the coach died on the Berry campus, working on the football field that bears his name, just a short time before he was to move to the sparkling new Hoover High School.
Bob Finley literally gave his life to Berry/Hoover athletics, and his level of commitment lifted so many others. That’s why Bob Finley will always be No. 1.