The current decade hasn’t been up to Lincoln County’s high football standards, so Red Devils fans will welcome the chance Saturday to reminisce about the bar they set.
At roughly 4 p.m. – before kickoff of the Class AAAA state championship game between Blessed Trinity and Marist – Lincoln County will be recognized as the “Team of the 80’s” when the Georgia High School Association celebrates the state’s football legacy in its new championship home at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Red Devils, who advanced to the late Georgia Dome for the state semifinals a record 10 times, will be represented in a new place by some familiar faces. Retired coach Larry Campbell and former school superintendent Dr. Randall Edmunds will accept the plaque on behalf of the school for its storied success during the most glorious stretch of football for the Class A powerhouse.
The presentation is scheduled to be televised at approximately 4 p.m. between championship games on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
“We feel honored to be a part of it,” said Campbell, the winningest coach in Georgia prep history with 477 wins in his 42-year career at Lincoln County. He coached the Red Devils to 11 of their 14 state championships.
Retired GHSA executive committee member Dave Hunter informed Campbell of the honor that celebrates moving into its new championship home in the gleaming stadium adjacent to the wreckage of the demolished Georgia Dome. Hunter said the only prerequisite for becoming one of the 27 teams honored from the 1940’s through the 2010’s was to have won at least two state titles in the decade.
That made Lincoln County eligible for every decade from the 1960’s through the 2000’s – including all four decades in which Campbell coached. The Red Devils won twice in the 70’s (1976-77), three times in six championship game appearances in the 90’s (1990, ’93 and ’95) and twice again in the 20OO’s (2005-06). Lincolnton also won three state championships from 1960-63 under coaches Buddy Bufford and Thomas Bunch.
Those four state championship wins (1985-87 and ’89) not to mention a finals loss in 1984 and semifinal appearances in 1982-83 earned the all-decade team recognition. Lincoln County’s resume for the decade was a 122-15 overall record that included winning streaks of 12, 15, 26 and a state-record 44 games that spanned from Sept. 1, 1989 to Dec. 6, 1991 when its bid for three consecutive perfect seasons was stopped by Clinch County in the championship game.
“It was super, ain’t no question about that,” Campbell said of the Red Devils’ incredible run of success that included seven state championships from 1985 to 1995. “I did have some athletes. I don’t care who coaches or where you coach, you’re only as good as the players you coach. Boy I had a run of them there.”
The most recognizable superstar in that era was running back Garrison Hearst, who after his standout varsity run at Lincoln County went on to star at Georgia and eventually the NFL. From 1986-89, Hearst scored 71 touchdowns for the Red Devils including 36 as a senior in 1989 before leaving as the statewide player of the year with his third state title in four seasons.
Hearst played at Lincoln County and Georgia with standout linebackers Curt Douglas and Dwayne Simmons and ran behind John Ludwig, an eventual four-year starting offensive lineman at Furman.
Asking Campbell his favorite moment from a decade filled with so many is like asking him to pick a favorite grandchild. But one instance did stand out. It was the 1989 state championship in Lincolnton against Bowdon.
Hearst was such a valuable commodity at running back and the drop-off after him was so significant that Campbell couldn’t afford to use his best athlete both ways. But with the game tied going into the fourth quarter, Hearst was sent in at cornerback.
“He made the interception and ran it back for a touchdown,” Campbell said of what eventually ended up a 24-7 Lincoln County win. “He very seldom went on the field on defense because we couldn’t afford to lose him.”
Campbell, who retired after the 2013 season and was succeeded by Kevin Banks, will get his first look at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday morning for the Class A public school championship pitting Clinch County against Irwin County, which eliminated this year’s Red Devils in the second round of the playoffs.
“We had some great skill athletes this year,” said Campbell, who still attends every game at home and away. “We got close. We played Irwin, who’s playing for (championship), and it was a dead-even football game. We were very close this year to being as good as anybody else in Class A.”
It’s been 11 years since Lincoln County last played for a state title, tying the longest stretch since 1974. Part of that was due to the rise of the private schools, which Class A finally took care of by splitting into separate playoffs in 2012. The Red Devils haven’t made it past the second round of the public school playoffs in five seasons since the split.
While the Red Devils of the past will be honored Saturday, the next goal is for Lincoln County to compete in Atlanta’s new dome in the near future.