September 4, 1992, marked the beginning of football season for southern Oklahoma. Like every other year, the start of football season is special. It signals the start of school, and it serves notice that within a couple of months the stifling heat and humidity will change to beautiful foliage and cooler temperatures.

September 4, 1992, marked the beginning of football season for southern Oklahoma. Like every other year, the start of football season is special. It signals the start of school, and it serves notice that within a couple of months the stifling heat and humidity will change to beautiful foliage and cooler temperatures.

That date was especially meaningful to me, because that was the first sporting event I would cover for The Ardmoreite. I did not know at the time it would develop into something that would be a part of my life for so long.

This year will mark the beginning of my 20th football season working as a stringer for The Ardmoreite. Initially it was just football I covered, but gradually it grew to encompass all area high school sports. In addition, I have attended many college and professional sporting events.

My assignment that first night was the Dickson-Kingston game played in Kingston. Mark Finley, the Ardmoreite sports editor at the time, helped me set up football stat sheets, and he gave me an overview of how to compile those stats and turn the game’s highlights into a readable format.
Added pressure was there. This would be the first night of an Ardmoreite experiment to produce a Saturday morning edition. That meant I had a deadline to meet following the game. I had to work quickly to get a story written before cut-off for Saturday’s edition.

And to complicate issues, the game went into overtime. The two teams fought to a 0-0 tie in regulation. How could I get it done in time?
Ultimately, Zack Birth kicked a field goal for Kingston, and the Redskins’ Jerry Bailey blocked a Comet field goal attempt by Jim Porter to give Kingston the 3-0 victory.

Now I was really under the gun. A 32.1-mile drive back to the newspaper and a quick writing job on an Apple computer (new to me) got the story in by cut-off. The Ardmoreite abandoned the Saturday edition a few months later. Readers seemed to like the Saturday paper, but they did not like losing their Monday edition.

Since that 1992 season, many things have changed in southern Oklahoma football. Thankfully, many of the ingredients that make football in southern Oklahoma great are still with us.

The most important factor that was true then and is true today is that a high school football game is the best possible place to be on a Friday night in a small town. The entrance fee is a bargain, and most of the community will be there. And when the game is over, win or lose, it will be re-played repeatedly during the next week at water fountains, over the fence and in business offices.

Someone related to you or to a close friend is probably on the team. And people in the stands listen carefully for the name of their “player” to be announced so they can cheer his recent play and call out his name. People share the same weather issues to attend the game, and that becomes a topic of conversation as well.

Hopefully by now most people understand that a school’s football program funds most of the other athletic programs in a school. The revenue generated by football admissions and concession stand profits provide a host of benefits for the basketball, baseball, softball, track and cross country teams. The Friday night football game is the place to be in small-town southern Oklahoma, and it continues to help every participant in other sports programs.

Another ingredient that was present in 1992 and is still present is the ability at some schools for fans to pull their cars right up to the field to watch the game. It greatly benefits the elderly and those that because of handicaps could not handle the bleachers.

Great traditions come and go, but at some southern Oklahoma schools, tradition is what sets a few teams apart from others.

Davis and Ringling are two good examples. Davis, once coached by Joe Weber, now has his son, Jody at the helm. Ringling, who was coached many years by Rick Gandy, now has his son, Tracy, as head coach. And Sulphur’s Jim Dixon is a wonderful story of longevity at one football program.

I covered state championship wins for Davis under Joe Weber and for Ringling under Rick Gandy. When Sulphur, under Dixon, won their state championship, I was honored to be there. We nearly lost Coach Dixon just before that season when he was stricken with encephalitis. But assistant coach Jeff Nye stepped in and piloted the Bulldogs to the state championship. Coach Nye and Coach Rick Gandy were tragically taken from us a few years later. I never go to a Saturday morning coaches’ show that I do not think of both of them.

For the most part, southern Oklahoma continues to produce some solid officiating crews. They possess an amazing ability to tune out the undisciplined yelling in the crowd and still officiate a good football game. The excellent officiating crews converse with the players during the game.  When that takes place, those crews do not need to use the yellow flags quite as often to get players’ attentions. I cannot remember a single game in my 20 years of covering football games in this area in which a bad officiating call cost a team a win. I have heard stories from others about that happening, but I have not seen it in person.

At almost every school, the press box is woefully undersized. And it has gotten worse since 1992. In my early days, a clock operator, an announcer and a newspaper person were the only people in the press box. Now teams are covered by radio stations, and those radio stations like to travel with the team when they have out of town games. The addition of 25-second clock displays at some schools further complicates the press box seating issue.

Now the press box contains an announcer, clock operator, 25-second clock operator, newspaper person, offensive spotter, defensive spotter, music operator and at least two radio announcers. And if a visiting team brings their radio station, two more must be crammed in the box. That is at least nine, and sometimes eleven, bodies squeezed into an area designed for four or five. Therefore, we must learn to get along for the three hours it takes to play the average game.

Perhaps the biggest change to affect southern Oklahoma football in the past 20 years has been the widespread use of the “spread”, no-huddle offense. While traditional powerhouses like Davis, Ringling and Sulphur continue with the basic “power” offense run primarily from an “I” formation, many others have gone with the spread as their offense of choice.

A huge difference-maker in football in recent years has been a stronger emphasis in offseason preparation. Many teams in 1992 did not even have an off-season weight program. It did not take long for that to be exposed by the schools that did have that extra preparation. It always showed in the fourth quarter.

Now football players are encouraged to participate in powerlifting and offseason running and track programs. In addition, players will opt to attend summer camps and clinics to get in better shape and to get a better understanding of how the game works at the next level. Today off-season conditioning is necessary if you want to be successful.

The events of 9/11 changed everything about security at a football game. This I noticed more at the college and professional games. Every bag or piece of equipment is carefully scrutinized at NCAA and NFL games. More security is visible, and police dogs trained in sniffing out explosives are on the scene. But high schools had to beef up as well. Because of those events, I now find more gates locked that were once unlocked at high school events. More monitoring now takes place when you enter and exit a game. You may not always know it, but it is there.

One thing that makes a high school game even more exciting now is the way that most teams focus on a 2-minute offense. They are able to hold all their timeouts until the end of the half or the end of a game. And since many have been running a no-huddle throughout the game, they simply speed things up and try to put the defense back on their heels. It makes those final two minutes more exciting, but it can become a challenge to keep up with the paperwork.

In short, the key elements that made football great in southern Oklahoma in 1992 are still present in 2011. The great rivalries (Sulphur-Davis, Ardmore-Ada, Madill-Kingston, Plainview-Dickson, Plainview-Lone Grove, Dickson-Lone Grove) are all still alive and well. And the Madill-Marietta rivalry continues to be the longest running rivalry in southern Oklahoma.

Football bonds a community and rallies citizens around a common cause. And let there be no misunderstanding about this — no matter what the weather now, if your team is good, you will be freezing before the season is over. Playoff action ultimately moves north, and late November and December games can be brutally cold and/or wet. The cold and rainy weather seems to favor the team with the best running game. I have never attended a state championship game that was comfortable.

Twenty years of covering southern Oklahoma football has been a great thrill. Coaches and their philosophies come and they go, but the fundamental greatness of the game continues to unite communities on Friday nights. Football has been a great developer of young men for a long time, and the local stadium remains the best place around. Twenty years from now, southern Oklahoma football will still be the “greatest game on turf.”

See you at the game.