Jimmy Barnett’s battle with congestive heart failure ended last week, and the former Briarwood and Wilkes Academy head football coach was laid to rest in Thomson on Sunday.
Mourners might have noticed a blue-and-gold wreath at the funeral with a ribbon reading “1967 state champion.”
Barnett was a junior in the backfield on the 1967 Washington-Wilkes Class B championship team with mates Jack Leard, Barry Bailey and brothers “Pud” and Bob Wills operating behind a vaunted line that included Tom Nash Jr., Jimmy Echols, Tommy “Fat Rat” Granade, Bob Hendricks, Wilson Long, Charles “Bubber” Hopkins and Robert “Sonny” Waller.
Together, those Tigers capped the greatest decade in Washington-Wilkes history, successfully defending as state champions in a run that included two other state titles in 1960 and ’63, six region championships and a 17-2 postseason record.
In the 50 years since, Washington-Wilkes has won 13 region titles and reached six state championship games but never hoisted another trophy.
“It’s been a long time,” said Jack Leard, who as quarterback led the area in scoring with 126 points in 1967. “There’s been some good football players come through Washington-Wilkes and I hope some more will come.”
Tonight, one of Georgia’s most storied football rivalries reconvenes, with Lincoln County and Washington-Wilkes meeting on the Tiger Stadium field named after coach Charlie Davidson, who led the Tigers to all four of those state championships. Both rivals are 1-3 opening Region 7-A play and hoping to rekindle the magic in their respective programs.
Members of that 1967 Tigers team say it wasn’t magic that was the key to their success. It was simply good coaching, good players and a good system that made the Tigers one of the most formidable teams in any classification.
“If you have about three hours I could probably tell you all about it,” said Leard, who still lives in Washington.
The 1967 Tigers operated a hybrid unbalanced single-wing and “T” offense, the combination of which often left opposing defenses bewildered, as the cumulative 396-82 scoring in the 11-1-1 season attested. But what made it so effective is that all of the players had essentially been running it together since third grade, when Nash’s father – an All-American at Georgia who played for the Green Bay Packers – started teaching them when he was principal of the elementary school.
“We ran an unbalanced-line single wing that Daddy taught us in grammar school and almost everybody played the exact same position from the third grade to the 12th grade,” said Nash Jr., now a lawyer in Savannah. “I always felt like the secret to our success was; one, that we played together forever; and, two, if you were playing somebody new, they could not figure out the unbalanced-line single wing. We thought we could take on anybody.”
Take on anybody they did. The Tigers opened with a 26-0 blowout of Lincolnton and cruised to a 5-0 record before another huge rivalry game against Thomson. With Thomson great Ray Guy withheld from the first half for undisclosed reasons, the Tigers dominated statistically with 12 first downs and 221 total yards to only four first downs and 96 total yards for the Bulldogs. But a slew of red-zone turnovers led to Thomson winning 7-0 – the Tigers’ lone loss and the Bulldogs’ narrowest victory en route to their own Class A state title in 1967.
“We beat ’em everywhere but the scoreboard,” Leard said.
The only other blemish, if you can call it that, was a 20-20 tie against Statesboro and its star running back Johnny Cobb. Leard had a point-after kick ruled barely wide and a 49-yard field goal try fall short on the game’s final play.
“Thomson whooped Statesboro’s butt pretty good the next week because we worked on ’em,” Leard said.
After finishing with wins over Jefferson and Morgan County to secure the region title and state playoff bid, the Tigers prevailed on neutral sites against St. Joseph, 10-7, in front of a raucous crowd in Athens, and Manchester, 13-7, during a relentless downpour in LaGrange that forced the players to shower the mud off at halftime.
Against Manchester, “I remember (right guard) Tommy Granade came back to huddle and said they’d taken a huge split and if you all back up and snap me the ball I can score,” Nash Jr. said. “And he did, which made me insanely jealous that ‘Fat Rat’ had gotten to actually hold the football, because linemen did not get to do that very often.”
The state championship game at Lyons proved anticlimactic as the Tigers rolled 27-0 to claim its second straight state title over a team from Toombs County after beating Vidalia in 1966.
“We beat the dog mess out ’em as soon as we got down there,” Leard said.
According to Skeet Willingham’s 2012 book – From Terrors to Tigers: the Story of Wilkes County Football – Lyons’ coach Tom Avret was effusive in his praise of the Tigers after the game.
“There’s no doubt about it, Washington-Wilkes has the best team in the state,” Avret said. “They beat the devil out of us. I’ve seen some tremendous players in the past but this Washington-Wilkes team was the best I’ve ever seen.”
Willingham, the longtime historian of Washington-Wilkes football, says the 1967 team was definitively “the best team that ever came through.” Davidson finally got his due as the Atlanta Touchdown Club’s Coach of the Year. Nash was named all-state for the second year in a row, first-team prep all-American and honored as the state’s Lineman of the Year before following his father’s footsteps to Georgia.
“I was very fortunate,” Nash Jr. said. “I think I got some free press because Daddy had been so good in football.”
Leard and Echols also were named first-team all-state, while Pud Wills and Granada received honorable mention.
Nash Jr. wonders just how much better the Tigers might have been had the school been integrated prior to 1970 and included Washington Central stars like 6-foot-5, 250-pound lineman Willie Cullars, who went on to play for Kansas State and the Philadelphia Eagles.
“(Cullars) stood up at the initial Wilkes Hall of Fame induction and I was looking at him thinking I would have been the weak-side tackle if he had been on the team,” Nash Jr. said. “If we had been integrated earlier, we’d have killed everybody in the state.”
Coach Davidson left after the 1970 season. The Tigers have reached state championships under Butch Brooks (three times), Frank Vohun, and the last time under Russell Morgan in 2005 when they lost the Class A title at archrival Lincoln County.
Leard, Nash Jr. and other Washington-Wilkes faithful are hopeful that new coach Chad Alligood has imported a winning attitude and re-energized the Tigers program.
“Fifty years has been too long,” said Leard, who still attends Tigers games regularly. “Maybe this new coach … I hope he’ll do well and the kids do, too.”
“I think Coach Alligood is going to do a really good job,” said Nash Jr. “He’s really promoted Washington-Wilkes. He’s getting the community involved and Washington, Ga., has really gotten behind him. Hopefully, he’ll bring them back and do something.”
Generations of Tigers are still trying to clear a bar set high half a century ago. Only the memories live on.
“I would say the highlight was the entire year being with and competing with friends,” Leard said. “I still sometimes dream about it.”