Having already announced that the 1964 season would be his last at the helm of the Richlands High School Blue Tornado, Kenneth McNabb “Ernie” Hicks was asked what retirement held.
“Guess I’ll have to learn to do a little fishing,” Hicks jokingly told reporters that August during his team’s media day.
While it’s uncertain what kind of angler Hicks became, the man could certainly coach some football.
From 1926-1964, save for a brief hiatus during World War II, Hicks served as the boss of the Blue Tornado and became a Southwest Virginia icon in the process.
He won 168 games during his lengthy stint on the sidelines and picked up a couple of cool nicknames – “The Master of the Clinch” and the “Gray Fox” – along the way.
He also saw the game transform from leather helmets and single-wing offenses to facemasks and multiple formations.
Just consider that the first football clinic he ever attended had Knute Rockne as the featured speaker and that Calvin Coolidge was the President during his initial season leading Richlands.
By the time he hung up his whistle, Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House and Johnny Unitas was slinging the ball all over the field for the Baltimore Colts en route to being named the National Football League’s MVP.
Yet, Hicks was able to adapt with the times and that was evident during his final season.
Virginia High was loaded in 1964 with head coach Jerry Watford guiding the Bearcats to a 9-1 record and the Southwest District championship. The team’s only loss came courtesy of Richlands.
On a Saturday night in the Stone Castle, Jack Compton scored two touchdowns as the Blues held off VHS for a 13-12 victory.
“I didn’t think [Richlands was] up for this game because they were fired up last week against Saltville and lost,” Hicks told the Bristol Herald Courier following the game. “But they played their best game of the season and gave us a fine team effort.”
Some of Hicks’ greatest moments and toughest defeats came against Virginia High.
In 1948, his team suffered a 54-0 beatdown at the hands of the Bearcats.
Some vocal Richlands supporters felt the boys from Bristol had run up the score and urged Ernie Hicks to remove the Bearcats from the schedule. He relented.
“Our own mistakes helped to get us beat this badly,” he told those reactionary rooters. “And besides, if I quit playing them when I will have a chance to get even?”
Nine years later, on a night when the stadium his team called home was dedicated to Hicks, Richlands rolled to a 40-0 victory over Virginia High.
Hicks’ final win was a 7-6 thriller over Big Creek (West Virginia) in November of 1964 as Dave Lowe’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Bob O’Malley and Billy Kid’s extra point kick would be all the Blues needed.
A couple of weeks later it was time to go fishing for the ageless Hicks.
Homecoming will be celebrated tonight at Ernie Hicks Stadium when Richlands plays Wise County Central. If you attend, make sure to take a moment and remember the man the place is named after.
Now, for a look at high school football games which appeared this week in history:
Sept. 19, 1958
Mike Pinkston and Billy Joe James scored touchdowns and Tennessee High amassed 266 rushing yards in a 19-0 victory over Maryville. … Jim Owens and Ed Norris scored two touchdowns apiece as Glade Spring dominated Damascus for a 33-6 win. … Roger Whited and Bucky Bentley’s touchdowns highlighted Big Stone Gap’s 18-7 triumph over Pound.
Sept. 18, 1964
Curtis Adair and Don Rector supplied touchdowns as Patrick Henry posted a 14-13 win over Saltville. … Marion received three touchdowns from Ray Millard in outlasting Graham for a 44-34 victory. … Bill Jackson’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Ronnie Blankenship with less than four minutes remaining clinched Garden’s 6-0 win over Honaker.
Sept. 18, 1970
A 67-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Charlie Wells in the second quarter was the only highlight for Sullivan East in a 33-7 setback to Elizabethton. … Gary O’Quinn rushed for two touchdowns in Haysi’s 42-0 thumping of Twin Springs. … Graham and Marion battled to an 8-8 tie. Marion’s touchdown came from Letcher Wagner, while Randy Compton supplied Graham’s TD.
Sept. 18, 1987
Virginia High earned a 28-6 victory over John Battle as Lorenzo Johnson rushed for two touchdowns. … Eric Smith threw for 351 yards and six touchdowns in Abingdon’s 48-20 win over Lebanon. … Calvin Talford needed just two carries to gain 101 yards in Castlewood’s 38-12 triumph over Northwood. Jeff Cook scored three touchdowns for the Blue Devils. … Danny Asher amassed 205 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Holston’s 20-12 win over Fries.