1979 Fighting Tigers pulled off the unexpected with state title
It was the kind of script that you can only find in Hollywood, except this one was a true story and it happened in Ironton.
It was 40 years ago this season that the 1979 Ironton Fighting Tigers hoisted the program’s first football state championship at the end of the season with a thrilling come-from-behind win over the Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s Fighting Irish.
The would have come as no surprise the previous season when Ironton steamrolled through 10 games but failed to make the playoffs due to a teachers’ strike at Logan High School and giving Ironton an average of points instead of the full amount.
But in 1979, fans and others knew Ironton would be good, but nowhere near what was witnessed in 1978.
It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature or the Fighting Tigers.
Expected to finish behind Jackson in the SEOAL race and have a good but not great season, Ironton surprised everyone with the season they put together.
“The 1979 team was the greatest group of overachievers I ever had during all my years at Ironton,” said former Ironton head football coach Bob Lutz.
“We had some really great athletes. Brent Wilcoxon was the quarterback, Joe Fletcher an end, Tim Hodges moved from end to fullback, and Gabriel Lewis was a halfback and corner who would just explode into a tackle. We had a group of linemen who accepted their roles and blended together beautifully and it all culminated with the big upset of Akron. This team will always be special because it was our first state championship.”
Hodges was the backside end with Fletcher on the strong side the previous season. But needing a fullback to replace Rodney Boykin, Lutz moved the athletic Hodges who ran for more than 1,000 yards in just nine games.
Wilcoxon was a junior who took over for the graduated Greg Ainsworth. Lewis was a returning starter as was halfback Terry Royal who averaged more than 10 yards a carry the previous season.
Senior tackle Joe Hacker was the biggest lineman at 6-3, 215. The guards were Darwin Conwell (5-9, 175) and David Clay (5-9, 165), the center Adam Ainsworth (6-1, 175), and the other tackle spot was shared by John Moritz (6-3, 190) and Brian Jenkins (6-1, 210).
Fletcher (6-2, 200) and Gene “Tink” Williams (5-11, 165) were the ends along with Craig Thomas (5-10, 150).
In 1978, Ironton outscored their opponents 358 to just 85. The closest game was 35-20 over Meigs. The 1979 team wasn’t as potent offensively, but the defense was strong again as the Fighting Tigers outscored 230 to 80 in the nine regular season games.
“We had a great team with some great athletes the previous season that just blew away the competition every week. The irony of that was we failed to make the playoffs under the playoff system at that time,” said Lutz.
“It was a team loaded with size, speed and depth. Our tackles were Robert Clay and Darryl Womack and they were so good you could line up on their inside shoulder and they would still turn you out.”
Ironton began the season with a 6-0 win at Ashland who was playing its third game of the season.
Ashland threatened twice but was stopped. With 13 seconds to go and Ashland at the 8-yard line and no timeouts left, Fletcher stripped quarterback Scott Crank of the ball. Crank recovered but time ran out.
Next came a 22-18 upset at home against rival Portsmouth. With Wilcoxon out due to an illness, Steve Sutton and Hodges split the quarterback duties.
Sutton scored on a 1-yard sneak and Hodges had an 82-yard TD run. Ironton had a goal line stand at the 2-yard line to end the first half and it was 14-0. Ironton fumbled the second half kickoff that led to a Portsmouth TD and an interception return set up the Trojans next score and it was 14-12.
A shanked punt led to a 48-yard Portsmouth scoring drive and they led 18-14 with 2:59 left. But Ironton got a first down on a fourth down run by Hodges, Royal ran twice for 34 yards to the 9, and after an incomplete pass to stop the clock, Sutton hit Fletcher with the game-winning pass with 30 seconds left.
The next week was a 13-13 tie at Washington Court House in a game Ironton actually dominated but some costly mistakes let the Blue Lions get the tie.
Ironton recovered a muffed punt and Royal ran 59 yards for a score on the next play for a 7-0 lead, but Jon Jon Thomas hit Brian Dodd with a 17-yard TD pass and the game was tied.
Ironton scored just before the half on a 1-yard run by Wilcoxon after he hit Fletcher with passes covering 15 and 25 yards and it was 13-7 at the half.
The Fighting Tigers’ defense shut down the Lion in the second half but they tied the score when Dodds ran back an interception 60 yards in the third quarter. Ironton had two chances to score with drives deep in Court House territory only to fumble away the ball once and have a drive stall due to penalties.
“A lot of those players from the 1978 team graduated and the 1979 team wasn’t expected to do much,” said Lutz. “We struggled early and we tied at Washington Court House when we should have won. But then our game starting coming together each week and then we had a big game with Jackson the final week of the regular season.”
Ironton opened SEOAL play with a 22-8 win over Waverly that saw the Fighting Tigers eat clock with time-consuming drives. Hodges carried 28 times for 173 yards and scored all three touchdowns.
Hodges had a 3-yard run early for a 7-0 lead but Waverly went up 8-7 on a 67-yard run by Rick Conley and a conversion pass. Fletcher appeared to have scored at the end of the half only to be ruled a yard short of the end zone.
Hodges ran 12 yards in the third quarter for a score and ran for the conversion and it was 15-8. He then carried 11 of 15 plays in a 76-yard drive and scored on a 4-yard run behind Jenkins, Conwell and Fletcher. Ironton had 370 total yards to 157 for Waverly.
Ironton then began to roll with a 35-0 win at Athens, 42-6 against Logan — the team that prevented them from making the playoffs the previous season — 41-15 at Wellston and 42-20 over Gallipolis.
Hodges ran for 161yards and also passed 63 yards to Jimmy Morris to lead the rout over Athens. Royal had 58 yards on 11 carries and Morris — filing in for the injured Lewis — had 50 yards on eight carries with a 20-yard TD run. Wilcoxon was 6-of-6 for 130 yards including a 24-yard TD strike to Williams.
This was a Hodges’ highlight reel with 14 carries for 148 yards and five touchdowns. Fletcher caught a 15-yard scoring pass from Wilcoxon for a 7-0 lead and then Hodges scored on runs of 2, 5, 2, 27 and 72 and it was 42-0 at the end of the third quarter.
Moritz, Ainsworth, Fletcher, Clay, Conwell, Willis, Thomas and Williams paved the way for 357 yards rushing in the win over Wellston. Hodges carried 34 times for 205 yards and four TDs. Lewis returned and had 62 yards on 13 tries.
Conwell got the scoring going with an interception of Wellston quarterback Jeff Montgomery — a future All-Star relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals — and Ironton drove 85 yards in 11 plays with Wilcoxon keeping on an option for 21 yards and a score.
Lewis took to the spotlight against Gallipolis with 149 yards and Hodges added 94 yards and four scored.
Gallipolis took a 7-0 lead on a 45-yard run by Mark Sheets, but Ironton drove 71 yards to score on a 2-yard run by Hodges and Sutton’s 57-yard punt return for a score gave the Fighting Tigers the lead for good at 14-7.
Hodges 2-yard run and Wilcoxon’s 29-yard keeper put Ironton up 28-7 at the half and Lewis had a 57-yard scoring run to start the second half.
The regular season finale was at home with co-SEOAL leader Jackson. Both teams were 5-0 in the league and the winner not only got the championship but the Class AA playoff berth.
Rain began to fall early in the day and continued to fall throughout the game, thus slowing down Ironton’s decisive speed advantage.
“Jackson had a great team and it rained the whole game, but Tim Hodges made a long run for the only touchdown and we won 7-0. With that win, we made the playoffs and then got the exciting win over Hamilton Badin,” said Lutz.
Hodges burst through the Jackson defense and outran the secondary 79 yards for the game’s only score in the second quarter. Fletcher kicked the conversion. Hodges had 196 yards on 32 carries and the defense held Jackson to 33 yards and one first down in the second half.
Ironton had two other scoring chances. A first quarter drive stalled at the 23 and a fourth quarter march ended at the Jackson 1-yard line.
In the state semifinal game against Badin and coach Terry Malone, the Rams took a 6-0 lead just before halftime on a 5-yard run by Jeff Black with 29 seconds on the clock. Badin had dominated the first half with 95 yards rushing and 69 passing to Ironton’s 4 yards rushing and 18 passing.
But that all did an about face in the second half.
Ironton marched 58 yards in 10 plays to begin the third quarter with Lewis scoring a on a 4-yard run with 7:27 on the clock. Fletcher’s conversion kid put Ironton up 7-6.
Lewis recovered a fumble at the Rams’ 38 with 3:02 left in the third quarter and Willcoxon hit Lewis with an 18-yard scoring pass four plays later for a 14-6 lead after Fletcher’s kick.
Ironton drove into Badin territory and on a fourth-and-9, Wilcoxon hit Lewis for 20 yards to the 11-yard line. Wilcoxon ran for one-yard and then Hodges finished the drive with carries of 8 and 2 yards and it was 21-6 with 8:21 left.
Conwell had an interception with 6:31 to go and Ironton proceeded to run out the clock.
After beating Badin in the semifinals at Groveport High School, Ironton had to play St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in their own backyard at the Akron Rubber Bowl.
“The championship game was against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s who was a big, strong team that ran power right at you. We were really outmanned up front, but our guys did what we asked and battled their tails off the whole game,” said Lutz.
The Irish were 11-0 and ranked second in the final Class AA poll while Ironton was 9-0-1.
St. Vincent-St. Mary’s drove 66 yards in 12 plays capped by Ron Ross’ 5-yard run with 6:48 left in the half. The conversion kick was good but an off-sides penalty was called on Ironton and coach John Cistone elected to go for the two-point conversion.
The Irish tried a pitchout to Edwin Wallace but Lewis and Conwell came up to make the stop.
Ironton couldn’t sustain a drive against the Irish defense and when the intercepted Wilcoxon with 4:35 to play, it appeared the Fighting Tigers’ fate had been sealed.
But Ironton hit running back Jerry Gaydash on a second-and-3 play causing him to fumble and Hacker pounded on the ball at the Ironton 27 with 3:32 left.
What followed was possibly the most dramatic drive in Ironton football lore.
Wilcoxon hit 12-of-14 passes for 82 yards for the game, but he was 6-of-6 for 64 yards in the winning drive, often having to scramble or improvise with dump off passes to Hodges.
A pass for 6 to Fletcher, a Lewis run for 2 yards and then a short 2-yard pass to Royal gave Ironton a first down.
Then on a bootleg pass, Wilcoxon hit Fletcher who made a leaping catch between two defenders for 32 yards to the Irish 30. Hodges and Lewis each caught passes for 7 yards and then Hodges another dump off pass for 9 yards to the 7-yard line. An off-sides penalty put the ball on the 4 and Lewis followed a block by Moritz on a quick pitch left to score the tying touchdown.
Fletcher kicked the extra point but a penalty for Ironton to move back 5 yards and force him to kick a second pressure-packed kick.
Thomas had the snap, Jeff Jackson the hold and Fletcher split the uprights.
The Irish had one more possession but Sutton’s interception sealed Ironton’s first state football championship.
“Hodges, Joe Fletcher and Brent Wilcoxon made some big plays in the final drive at the end of the game and Fletcher had to kick the extra point twice and made it both times. And Craig Thomas had to snap the ball twice under pressure and was perfect. He didn’t have a bad snap all year. It was a great win for our players.”
When questioned about Ironton not playing as tough a schedule as Akron, Lutz just shrugged it off.
“When you’re tough enough and good enough, it doesn’t matter, does it,” said Ironton’s legendary football coach.Now that is a Hollywood ending.
1979 Ironton Fighting Tigers
Class AA State Champions
Ashland, Ky. (A) 6 0
Portsmouth (H) 22 18
Wash. Court House (A) 13 13
Waverly (A) 22 8
Athens (A) 35 0
Logan (H) 42 6
Wellston (A) 41 15
Gallipolis (H) 42 20
Jackson (H) 7 0
Hamilton Badin (N) 21 6
At The Akron Rubber Bowl
Akron St. V-St. M 7 6
Head Coach: Bob Lutz
Assistant Coaches: Pat Sheridan, Mike Burcham, Paul Fugitt, Mark Lewis, Jeff Handley, Louis “Buck” Foglesong, Lynn Schrickel, Tom Ben, Jimmy Payne.
1979 Ironton Fighting Tigers
No. Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Gr.
5 Steve Sutton QB-S 5-09 155 Jr.
7 Tim Hodges FB-LB 6-02 190 Sr.
8 Jeff Underhill QB-DB 5-10 160 Sr.
9 Brent Wilcoxon QB-DE 6-01 180 Jr.
20 Jimmy Morris RB-DE 6-02 170 So.
22 Craig Thomas E-CB 5-10 155 Sr.
24 Gabriel Lewis RB-CB 5-10 170 Sr.
26 Terry Royal RB-S 5-08 155 Jr.
28 Bruce Taylor RB-S 5-60 125 So.
30 Sam Bacon FB-CB 5-06 135 So.
33 Dennis Bacon FB-DT 6-01 195 So.
37 Brian Carter FB-CB 5-10 185 Jr.
40 Gene Williams E-S 5-11 165 Sr.
45 Jeff Jackson RB-S 5-09 145 Jr.
46 Dick Carter RB-S 5-09 140 Jr.
50 Adam Ainsworth C-LB 6-01 175 Sr.
55 Brian Rodehaver C-NG 5-11 180 So.
57 Scott Willis G-LB 5-09 185 Jr.
60 Darwin Conwell G-CB 5-09 175 Jr.
62 Patton Riffe C-LB 5-10 165 Jr.
64 David Clay G-LB 5-09 165 Jr.
65 Mark Dickess G-LB 5-09 165 Jr.
67 John Lewis G-NG 5-09 160 Sr.
68 Eric Scior T-DT 5-09 175 So.
70 Rick Fritz T-DE 6-01 150 So.
71 Billy Allen T-NG 5-09 180 Jr.
72 John Moritz T-dT 6-03 190 Sr.
75 Joe Hacker T-DT 6-03 215 Sr.
76 David Kelly T-DT 6-03 220 sr.
77 Brian Jenkins T-DT 6-01 210 Sr.
78 Dale Spencer T-DT 5-10 165 So.
80 Jeff Crockrel E-DE 6-00 150 Sr.
81 Kent Koerper E-DE 6-00 150 Jr.
82 Lon Hilton E-DE 5-10 150 Jr.
83 Kraig Koerper E-DE 6-01 155 So.
89 Joe Fletcher E-DE 6-02 200 Sr.