When Ben Rutherford stepped down as Tennessee High’s head baseball coach shortly after the 1995 season ended, he wasn’t sure how many victories he had accrued or how many championship trophies his teams had hoisted.
“I honestly don’t know all that stuff,” he told the Bristol Herald Courier’s Lori Worley. “It was never important to me. What was important to me was that the kids had fun and learned how to play the game.
“I can tell you one thing though. We’ve had 67 players earn scholarships since I’ve been head coach and five kids get drafted. That’s what I’m proudest of.”
Rutherford finished with 353 career wins during his 21 seasons at the helm of the Vikings with three District 1-AAA tournament titles, two Region 1-AAA championships and a pair of trips to the TSSAA state semifinals.
Rutherford, who died on June 9 at the age of 72, left a lasting legacy that goes well beyond just being the all-time winningest baseball coach in THS history.
“Great coach,” said Mike Hoffstatter, an outfielder for the Vikings from 1985-87. “But better man.”
Rutherford was a class act and a gentleman, a guy who wasn’t a self promoter or prone to theatrics. He took a cerebral approach to the game.
“The biggest thing I learned from Coach Rutherford was how to always keep your composure. Whether we were winning by 10 runs or losing by 10 runs he was always calm and in control,” said Greg Stallcup, a 1991 THS graduate who played third base and pitched for the Vikings. “I never remember Coach panicking in a game no matter the circumstances.”
That was a contributing factor to why Tennessee High played so well under his leadership.
“Coach was never a yeller or screamer,” said Brandon Ware, a 1992 THS graduate. “He always spoke to us with respect, while still getting his point across. We had a lot of success in those days, but Coach never let it get in our heads. He always kept his cool in the big moments, which made us relax and have fun. Having fun was a big part of our success. We were always loose, which reflected his demeanor.”
Rutherford loved to win like any good coach and that competitive spirit wasn’t limited to the baseball field.
“We used to take two vans to away games,” Ware said. “Coach Rutherford would drive one van, while [assistant] Coach [Ralph “Hoot”] Gibson drove the other. It was always a race to see who could make it to the park first, which determined bragging rights for the day. … These van races always produced some fierce battles and still make for great stories.”
A standout at Tennessee High, Rutherford later became a two-time All-Ohio Valley Conference selection as an infielder at East Tennessee State University.
He spent four seasons as an assistant at THS before taking over as head coach at his alma mater in 1975. In his second season on the job, the Vikings compiled a 29-4 record and reached the state semifinals.
His tenure coincided with what was a golden age for high school baseball in the Mountain Empire when some of the area’s greatest stars and legendary coaches excelled on both sides of the state line.
“Ben and I both became head coaches in the early-70s,” said former John Battle coach Don Pridemore. “We always played each other in early-March when it was really cold most of the time. I always considered him a dear friend throughout our coaching careers. I remember one game when I had a runner at third and decided to suicide squeeze. Ben and Hoot, his assistant, liked to talk to you when you were in the third-base coaching box. I told my kids the squeeze was on when I started talking to the coaches and it worked like a charm. Ben asked me what my signal was. When I told him he got a big laugh out of it. Those were the good ol’days and Ben will be missed by many.”
Rutherford could practice some clever gamesmanship of his own.
“In 1993 I had just gotten glasses and instead of getting contacts for baseball I played with them on,” said former Tennessee High pitcher Dustin Walters. “I looked a little bit like Wild Thing from the movie Major League. In the beginning of the game I pitched I would be warming up on the mound and Coach would have me throw the ball as hard as I could, but not anywhere near the catcher.
“I would throw pitches as high as the press box behind home plate as well as several feet to the left or right and the opposing team was always caught off guard; this kid with thick-rimmed glasses throwing fastballs all over the place. Needless to say the first few batters never really dug in and got too comfortable in the batters box. Coach would sit in the dugout and shrug his shoulders to the other coach, saying ‘We don’t know where the ball is going, so be careful.’ I remember to this day he used to get such a laugh from that.”
Rutherford’s younger brother, Dave, coached at Sullivan East and Sullivan North when Ben was calling the shots at Tennessee High. With each brother in the dugout, those teams played some classics.
“I never enjoyed that at all because no matter what happened you could never feel completely good,” Ben Rutherford told this newspaper in 1995. “We like to talk baseball with each other but that head-to-head competition was just never fun for either of us.”
Tennessee High had a banner season in 2019, winning the first regional title since 1980 when Rutherford guided the Vikings.
“Ben came to several games over the past two years and I was able to speak to him then. … Even though I didn’t know Ben as well as most within the school and community, his reputation was, and is, great,” said current THS coach Preston Roberts. “His players loved him and I have never heard a bad word said about him.”
That’s one of the highest compliments any coach – or any individual for that matter – can be paid and there were plenty of compliments for Ben Rutherford.
“I honestly believe that no one ever cherished the game of baseball more than Coach Rutherford – the history of the game, teaching the fundamentals of the game and leading young men,” said Mike Moncier, a first baseman and outfielder at Tennessee High from 1972-75. “Coach loved to win but the most important thing was just hearing those words play ball.”