By Lee Davis
Journal sports writer
Sometimes greatness begins in unlikely places.
Amid the long tables, the stacks of trays and the aroma of yeast rolls, Alvin Bresler told a group of teenage boys too young to drive that if they did what he asked, they would become state champions one day.
“I remember it like yesterday,” said Pat Weaver, one of the attendees of that meeting in the spring of 1972. “We were just a bunch of ninth-grader, and here came this coach from the high school, asking us to believe in his program, and more importantly, believe in ourselves. We were in awe of him.”
At the beginning at least, the new coach had more charisma than resume. Bresler had been a stellar two-sport athlete at Shades Valley before signing with Auburn University in 1967. As a Tiger, he became a favorite target of All-American quarterback Pat Sullivan in the 1970 season. After graduation, Bresler spend a single season as an assistant coach before being hired to guide the football program at brand-new Homewood High School early in 1972.
“I’ll always be grateful to the folks at Homewood for giving me that opportunity,” Bresler said years later. “I wanted to prove that their confidence in me was justified.”
The decision to hire Bresler was certainly was one of the best the Homewood Board of Education ever made. After two seasons of building, Bresler and his staff directed the Patriots to a Class 4A state championship in 1974, scoring impressive victories over some of Alabama’s best teams in the process.
Bresler’s comparative youth was definitely a plus in his favor, according to Murray Legg, who starred at quarterback and defensive back for Homewood prior to an outstanding career at the University of Alabama.
“Coach Bresler was the perfect combination,” said Legg. “He was old enough that we respected him but at the same time Coach was close enough in age to us that we could relate to him. That was all part of the chemistry that we had.”
The new coach decided from the opening whistle in 1972 that Homewood would approach everything in a first-class manner, much like a college team. The Patriots traveled in Greyhound buses – as opposed to using school transportation – to games both far and near. They would eat first-class pre-game meals. And they would attend movies as a team the night before games.
“If we were going to ask our players to give 100 percent, it was important to give them 100 percent as well,” said Bresler. “I can’t say enough about the support we had from Michael Gross, our principal at the time. If we needed something, he got it for us.”
Homewood’s big-time approach to football paid immediate dividends. The Patriots posted a respectable 6-4 record in their first varsity season of 1972. The next year was even better, as Homewood went 7-2 and earned a berth in the prestigious Crippled Children’s Classic to face mega-power Banks at Legion Field.
While the heavily-favored Jets coasted to a comfortable victory, an event that night would forever stick in the craw of Bresler and his players.
“Banks was ahead 28-10 and was close to scoring again with only eight seconds to play,” Bresler recalled. “Their coach called time-out and they scored another touchdown on the last play to make the final 35-10. They rubbed our noses in it. We used that as motivation to get ready for the next season.”
In reality, Homewood had much more than motivation on its side as the fall of 1974 approached. The Patriots had accumulated an impressive array of talent, led by a nucleus of more than two dozen seniors. Many of the upper classmen had played together since their pre-teen years at Edgewood or Shades Cahaba elementary schools.
“We called audibles at Edgewood,” said Weaver, who played center. “With Murray (Legg) in the backfield, we felt like we’d gain at least 10 yards on every play.”
While senior tight end Wade Kirkpatrick, linebacker Rick Powers, Legg and junior wide receiver Mark Robbins would eventually earn scholarships to SEC universities, it may have been the lesser-known players who took Homewood to the top.
“It’s extremely important to remember that the reason we won was because of the guys who didn’t get much publicity,” said Legg. “Everybody had a role to play. Everyone was an important part of the team and they knew it.”
Bresler’s policy toward dressing players for a game was consistent with Legg’s words.
“Some schools liked to dress out a lot of players for games – some of whom had no chance of getting to play that night,” said Bresler. “We were different in that if a young man dressed for a game, there was a good chance he was going to play. Whether it was offense, defense, special teams or just coming in for extra point or field goal attempts, any young man in a Homewood uniform had to be ready to come in and play at any time.”
But if the Patriots’ prospects for a strong season were promising, Bresler and his staff took nothing for granted.
An intense off-season program included boxing and wrestling-style drills. Another patented workout included players running up and down the steep set of steps near the school parking lot.
“Nobody got in trouble because if they did those drills weren’t going to be fun,” said Weaver, laughing. “It was the ultimate in peer pressure. If somebody didn’t toe the line, they were made to understand that it was going to hurt the entire team. But most of our guys were too tired to be getting into much trouble anyway.”
Bresler didn’t let up with the coming of fall practice. He took his team to Camp Mac at Mount Cheaha near Munford. And while the Patriots’ experiences at Camp Mac may not have been quite comparable to Bear Bryant’s legendary practices at Junction City, Texas, they may have been the closest thing to it.
“We didn’t go to Camp Mac in a Greyhound,” Weaver recalled. “And this definitely wasn’t like going to summer camp. All we did was eat, sleep and practice football. But it was a great experience because some of us had never spent any time together away from school or football practice. Camp Mac brought us together in a way that nothing else could have.”
The pre-season practices weren’t for the faint-hearted but once the season began the pace slowed a bit.
“We didn’t really practice on Thursdays before games” said Bresler. “We just did a little walk-through. We were big believers in our players having fresh legs in the fourth quarter.”
As bright as things looked for the Patriots, they still weren’t getting much respect from the local sports media. Coach Shorty White’s Banks teams had claimed two consecutive Class 4A state championships and were heavily favored to win their third in a row. Woodlawn – led by the great Tony Nathan – was also expected to be among the state’s elite. Homewood was largely overlooked.
That viewpoint slowly began to change on a rainy and muddy opening night in late August when the Patriots opened against always-rugged Jess Lanier in Bessemer. A spectacular catch of a wet ball by wide receiver Joe Wurtele of a pass from Legg gave Homewood its first touchdown of the season.
“It was a typical Joe Wurtele catch,” said Legg. “The only player I ever saw who had better hands was Ozzie Newsome.”
Legg wasn’t the only player with a high opinion of Wurtele’s ability.
“Joe won’t admit it but it’s true,” added Weaver. “He would dive for ball and we would say ‘did he really catch that?’” We were more of a veer-oriented running team, but we couldn’t have had a better receiver than Wurtele.”
The score got Homewood off to a strong start as they blasted the Tigers 22-0.
Bresler’s team got its first signature win of the season a week later with a 21-6 over perennial power Jeff Davis in the first game ever played at Homewood’s newly-christened Waldrop Stadium. The Legg-to-Wurtele passing combination and spectacular running of Jimmy Lee Edwards, along with great defensive play from tackle Mike Wald and linebacker Tommy Wingo, sparked the hosts to a 21-6 win.
The Patriot Express was derailed the next week when Hueytown upset Homewood 30-23 on Friday, Sept. 13.
“It was disappointing to lose but we didn’t let it get us down,” Wurtele recalled. “And we had a feeling we’d see them (Hueytown) again.”
Homewood rebounded with an easy win over Shades Valley. The Patriots showed their versatility against the Mounties by moving Legg to running back, while star defensive back David Fleisher – the backup quarterback – assumed most of the work behind center.
After the 37-0 domination of Valley, stern tests against Walker County and Minor were next. Against the Vikings, Legg’s touchdown pass to Robbins in the fourth quarter gave the Patriots a 22-18 come-from-behind victory. A week later, Legg’s pass to Wurtele put Homewood in position for Larry Riffe’s scoring run and a 29-24 comeback against the tougher-than- expected Tenacious Tigers.
Solid–– if unspectacular–– wins over Vestavia Hills and John Carroll brought Homewood’s record to 7-1 as the Patriots journeyed to Columbiana Road to play Berry, the traditional over-the-mountain kingpin coached by the already-legendary Bob Finley.
Homewood controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage and physically dominated the Buccaneers. The final verdict of 14-0 marked the first time Berry had ever been shutout at its home field.
Bresler felt the win over Finley and Berry marked a late turning point in the season.
“After that, I felt we had the confidence to win the state championship,” he recalled. “We had three components going our way: went didn’t have any serious injuries, we had great team chemistry, and we had ‘luck.’ When I say ‘luck’ I mean the kind of good fortune any team has to have when it wins a championship.”
After a 48-6 rout of Mountain Brook, the Patriots concluded their schedule with a 9-1 record and earned a berth in the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s new post-season format.
Homewood didn’t draw an easy number in their first-ever playoff game. As Wurtele had predicted, the Patriots visited Hueytown in the first round.
The venue was different and so was the result. Legg’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave Homewood a 21-14 victory.
Next up for the Patriots in the quarter-finals was Bresler’s long-anticipated rematch with Banks. The Jets were handicapped by the loss of All-American quarterback Jeff Rutledge due to injury but brought a champion’s pride to Legion Field where they found themselves the unexpected underdog.
“Without Rutledge, we knew Banks didn’t throw the ball well, so we put as many people in the box as we could,” said Bresler.
The strategy worked. The Jets fumbled on their first three possessions and never mounted a serious offensive threat. David Zarzaur’s touchdown run and two field goals by Tim Calloway gave Homewood a decisive 12-0 win and ended Banks’ dynasty forever.
There was nothing stopping Homewood after dethroning the Jets. The following week, the Patriots rolled over a gigantic Anniston team 18-0, in a game far more lopsided than the final score indicated.
The AHSAA’s new format called for the Class 4A state championship game to be played the first Friday night in December at Legion Field. Homewood’s opponent was a rising power from the wiregrass, Dothan High School, led by quarterback Steadman Shealy.
The visitors from the South weren’t daunted by the Patriots’ accomplishments and fought to a 7-3 halftime advantage. But Edwards’ 21 yard touchdown dash in the third quarter gave Homewood a 10-7 lead it never relinquished and the Patriots’ long road to a state championship was complete.
“There may have been more talented teams that year,” said Bresler. “But we just had a group of blue collar type guys who were smart and determined to win. That’s what made this group so special.”
First and foremost the story of Homewood in 1974 was about the value of teamwork.
“Our success was all about everybody working together,” said Legg. “The guys who didn’t get their names in the paper very often were the ones who made it happen for us. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
The victory was sweet, but time – as the case with life itself – marched on. Bresler – by then a hot coaching commodity – took a lucrative position at Talladega and coached at other schools before entering private business. The heroes of ’74 moved on as well, going on to success in athletics, academics, business or other fields.
At least one of those 1974 veterans enjoyed championship glory a second time. Wurtele’s son Houston played on the 2002 state championship team.
“It was exciting to me that my son got to share the same experience as I did,” said Wurtele. “That was a lot like reliving our championship year.”
For the last 40 years, the 1974 Patriots have had much to relive – and celebrate. And it all started in a cramped junior high lunchroom when a young coach shared a vision with a group of young boys that became a modern legacy.