Originally created 12/02/05

History fuels state's best rivalry



It might not have occurred to anyone eagerly awaiting tonight's breathing-room-only showdown in Lincolnton, Ga., but they should have been more careful for what they wished for.

It's been 15 years since a similar possibility loomed so large, its potential scaring two giants in the coaching game.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and former North Carolina coach Dean Smith might not share a lot of common wishes, but one hope in particular draws them together - please, don't ever let the Blue Devils and Tar Heels meet each other in the NCAA championship game.

Why? "Too much," they've each said citing burden, pressure, volatility and the long-range ramifications of the ultimate in rival overkill.

Duke and North Carolina are bound together by long histories, mutual dislike, college basketball and a 15-mile stretch of mythical highway commonly referred to as Tobacco Road.

Lincoln County and Washington-Wilkes are bound together by long histories, mutual dislike, high school football and a very real 18-mile stretch of asphalt known simply as Route 378.

Tonight, the ultimate championship showdown that narrowly eluded Duke and North Carolina in the 1991 Final Four will take place on a rural Georgia football scale at Buddy Bufford Field.

Washington-Wilkes and Lincoln County meet at 7:30 p.m. for the 68th time but the first at this magnitude - the Class A state title. They have 16 state titles between them, but never have they met head-on for one.

On one sideline is the winningest coach in Georgia high school history, Lincoln County's Larry Campbell. On the other is a young Washington-Wilkes coach, Russell Morgan, who freely calls this "the biggest game ever for either school" and knows the winning side "will never let the other live it down."

This is a once-in-a-lifetime matchup of bitter rivals. Since more often than not, the two schools don't share the same classification, the chance is strong that a showdown of this proportion between them will never happen again.

"It's kind of reached mythic proportions," said Robert "Skeet" Willingham, the local Washington-Wilkes historian and lifelong Tigers fan. "I don't know if it equates to Troy and Sparta, but I like the Duke-UNC comparison."

Willingham, who earned his doctorate from Duke, understands the implications of a matchup folks can't stop talking about.

Is this matchup "too much" for the neighbors to live with?

"This is the question a lot of people are asking," Willingham said. "Normally it's for bragging rights for a year. Here it's bragging rights for a generation or as long as we live. It will be talked about 50 years from now."

Shrug this off as myopic local perspective all you want, but this is the biggest rivalry matchup ever in the finals of Georgia's state championship football.

Go ahead and gripe all ye Parkview and Brookwood faithful. Sure the Gwinnett County rivals are bigger and were loaded with better players when they met in the 2002 Class AAAAA finale. That rivalry goes back only 23 years and comprises just two districts in a county that has 15 high schools.

Cry foul if you must, Thomas County Central and Thomasville. They were separated by only one mile when they faced off in the 1993 Class AAA championship, but history was too short and boundaries too vague to count in this class.

Every living soul in Wilkes and Lincoln counties has a stake in this game, and has for generations.

Rivalry between the neighbors goes back to the 18th century, all the way to when Lincoln split off on its own in 1796, two years after Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin he developed on a Wilkes County plantation.

The football chapter of the rivalry began 83 years ago - amazingly the only time before this year that the two local high schools met twice in the same season - and it was hot from the start.

The inaugural 1922 meeting in Lincolnton ended in a 7-7 tie. The newly minted rivals - both dubbed Bearcats at the time - met again that season on Thanksgiving Day in Washington. The team now called Tigers won 13-6 in a game officiated by the coaches and attended by an estimated 800 spectators.

Drawing from accounts in the local News-Reporter, Willingham wrote this in his book on Tiger football: "Though holding things in order on the field, the activities of the spectators could not be controlled and, because of unruly fan behavior, the two teams would not reinstitute playing each other until 1939."

Washington-Wilkes still holds the slim one-game edge it established that first year. The Tigers have never trailed in the series they currently lead 31-30-6.

Lincolnton's first win came in 1949, but Campbell has been closing the gap since he took over the Red Devils in 1972, going 23-11 against the Tigers.

The closest the two ever came to another "championship" showdown was in 1925, when 8-0-1 Lincolnton challenged 7-1-2 Washington to a "playoff" game after the Wilkes County team had won what was then called the East Georgia championship. Washington declined the offer. Lincoln County, of course, declared itself "champions" by default.

There will be no such backing down tonight. And the populace of two counties can't wait to be separated by a field and fence for the biggest local sporting event in their lifetimes.

"I think we're all like cats on a hot tin roof," Willingham said. "We're not nervous. Just bring it on."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.