Prep football: Wonders won title 20 years ago
By Mike London
Sunday night had merged with Monday morning by the time A.L. Brown’s football team completed its return trip from Chapel Hill to Kannapolis.
Fire trucks were everywhere. Police sirens wailed. General commotion was widespread.
Seated on one of the buses, straining to figure out what was happening, a Wonder reserve turned to A.L. Brown coach Bruce Hardin and said, “Coach, the school must’ve burned down.”
Hardin has been coaching 44 years, but he hasn’t forgotten that remark or that December night 20 years ago.
“Thinking about it, even now, it still cracks me up,” Hardin said.
The school was fine, still in one piece. People were just celebrating at 1:45 a.m. because Brown finally had claimed a state championship in football.
The recent snowfall got Hardin, who played fullback at Appalachian State from 1962-65, thinking about 1989 because the Wonders won their championship on one of the snowiest of weekends.
“The snow helped us,” Hardin said. “It really did.”
Brown was WNCHSAA co-champion in 1960, then waited until 1979 for its next conference title. Bob Boswell’s arrival as head coach in 1976 led to sustained excellence that continues today. Boswell’s 1988 team was 8-2 competing in 4A and finished in a four-way tie for first, but it lost out on a playoff berth in a drawing that brought tears of disbelief to Wonder fans.
That was Boswell’s final season. His record: 102-38-1.
Brown returned to 3A in 1989. Hardin was at the helm.
Hardin was a native of Forest City and a graduate of Chase High. He’d posted an impressive track record at Harding and West Charlotte, twice taking West Charlotte to the 4A championship game.
Hardin was blessed with a great quarterback in Mo Blakeney during his first year in Kannapolis. Blakeney is now in the Elon Hall of Fame. He accounted for 41 TDs in college.
Hardin’s Brown debut was a 20-0 win on the road at South Rowan, but 1-0 quickly turned into 1-1 when Statesville whipped the Wonders 29-13.
“Lost my first home game, and I could hear people yelling they wanted Boswell back,” Hardin said. “But we rolled up our sleeves and went to work.”
Hardin figured it out.
“We needed a running game, but we didn’t have a running back,” he said. “So we brought Carl Lipscomb over from the secondary. We also figured out linebackers don’t cover the tight end ó they want to stop the run or blitz ó and we were able to do a lot with Mike Morton as our tight end. We’d just clear things out for him.”
Morton, who went on to play in the NFL, is Hardin’s dentist now. The coach’s appointments usually lead to a discussion of the 1989 season.
“The receptionist always says, ‘Oh, no, not you again,’ when she sees me coming,” Hardin said, “but Mike does most of the talking.”
Brown was rolling by midseason, won the SPC and took a 10-1 record into the playoffs.
The playoff road was rugged. The Wonders had to win a rematch with Statesville in the third round.
“We beat them with the belly and the option,” Hardin said. “Statesville had two great defensive ends. We got them going the wrong way with some misdirections.”
In Round 4, Brown beat Shelby to earn a berth in the 3A title game against a Burlington Cummings team that averaged 31 points a game and was considered unbeatable. Coach David Gutshall’s Cavaliers had won 27 straight, including a 41-14 wipeout of Shelby in the 1988 title game.
Cummings’ record-setting quarterback Donnie Davis, who would go on to play at Georgia Tech, was enjoying an extraordinary prep career that included 8,565 passing yards and a 517-yard outing against Burlington Williams.
The Wonders headed for Chapel Hill on a Thursday, practiced at Kenan Stadium and prepared to play.
And then it snowed. And snowed. And why not? That calendar year also included a measles epidemic and the destruction of Hurricane Hugo.
Hardin remembers that the Wonders turned the weather into a positive. Extra preparation time meant more hours to break down Cummings’ offense and drill Brown’s defense. When the game was finally played on Sunday night, Dec. 10, the Wonders’ staff knew exactly what play Gutshall would call when he saw a certain defense.
“We were able to disguise some coverages, and we got a couple of picks,” Hardin said.
Brown rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. The front four got great pressure on Davis and held Cummings to negative rushing yardage in the first half.
Davis threw for 248 yards, but the Wonders’ defense never broke. Brown shocked the state and won 24-0.
Reggie Wells, the 138-pound MVP, went both ways. He scored on a third-and-goal end around from the 18 and a 53-yard bomb from Blakeney. Wells also intercepted a pass and tipped another one that Lipscomb picked off.
Greg Jones returned a fumble for a TD to cap the win.
Hardin, wearing a green toboggan, blew kisses to Wonder fans and rode on the shoulders of his players.
Then he got on the bus.
“That ride back home was as gratifying a feeling as I’ve ever had in football,” he said. “I’ve never had a team execute a gameplan any better.”
In 1997, Davis was MVP of the Arena Bowl, and Hardin guided Brown to a second state championship in Chapel Hill.
Hardin’s twin sons, Blair and Justin, were Wonder sophomores in 1997. Justin (Weddington) and Blair (Porter Ridge) are head coaches in Union County now.
Bruce watched his son’s jayvee teams play against each other on a Thursday night, but he had to coach his own team (Providence Day) that Friday.
Hardin has an arthritic hip and he shook off a summer cancer scare, but he’s still going strong at 65. He returned to Chapel Hill last month for his induction into the NCHSAA Hall of Fame at halftime of the Miami-UNC game.
He also visited Kannapolis in November, watching the Wonders beat Asheville Erwin in the playoffs. He joined his former assistant Buddy Amerson as a radio guest and shook a few thousand hands.
Obviously, Hardin’s love affair with football is still a long way from being over.
“I’ve coached 44 years now, and all the hobbies I had when I was a young man I’ve given up,” he said with a laugh. “Football is my hobby now.”