By Trey Williams
A relaxed man at the Cottage, a former Johnson City watering hole, once said Randy Ferrell was a poor man’s Steve Spurrier.
And Ferrell would certainly have taken it as the compliment it was intended to be.
Ferrell played quarterback, pitcher, shortstop and point guard while piling up victories for Science Hill (class of ’71). He’d grown up going to watch Spurrier play sports for the Hilltoppers, captivating crowds with his ball-handling on the court and clutch play on the diamond and gridiron.
“If I didn’t get to go I was listening to ‘em on the radio – Dick Ellis,” Ferrell said. “And if they got beat I was crying and all that stuff.”
Ferrell recalled basketball coach Elvin Little essentially run the Four Corners before Dean Smith was doing it at North Carolina.
“They’d just sort of spread the floor and let Spurrier just handle it,” Ferrell said. “And nobody could deal with it. Nobody could get the ball away from him, you know, and there was no five-second call. Steve was a really good baseball player, too.”
Ferrell, who went on to play baseball for Joe Shipley at East Tennessee State, was an all-conference player in three sports in high school.
He was 3-0 against Dobyns-Bennett as a quarterback and his 24 career touchdown passes were four more than Spurrier’sprevious record.
Ferrell won the Plowboy Farmer Award (football MVP) in 1970, was a two-time All-Conference player for Dennis Greenwell in baseball and league player of the year as a senior in ’71. He was also all-conference in basketball as a senior, helping Elvin Little’s Hilltoppers to a 27-2 record.
“Randy was a good athlete and a go-to guy,” said Joe Whitehead, who played baseball with Ferrell at Science Hill and ETSU. “He was a guy you looked for in the clutch. … Randy could play any sport. And he hated to lose.”
His competitiveness could get the best of him. He fouled out in both of the Science Hill basketball team’s losses his senior season, including when he picked up four fouls in the first quarter against Dobyns-Bennett. Of course, Little said when Ferrell fouled out against D-B, it was because “one of Buck’s (Van Huss) damn homers” was officiating.
“We could’ve won the state that year,” Little said many times.
Ferrell agreed, noting teammates that included Leroy Bridwell, Preston Campbell and Jerry Bundy in the frontcourt, and Whitehead alongside him in the backcourt.
The 6-foot-7 Bundy signed with Oral Roberts.
“I believe Bundy could have beaten ‘em by himself that night, but they (officials) got him out of there, too,” Ferrell said. “We’d just beaten them at the end of the season by about 33 over at Dobyns-Bennett. We weren’t playing really well at the time, though. And, of course, I was a little crazy (aggressive). So I sat on the bench most of that game.”
Science Hill’s football program completed a three-game sweep of Dobyns-Bennett for Ferrell with a 14-6 win in Kingsport during his senior season.
“There wasn’t any (feeling) like beating the Indians,” said Ferrell, who suddenly recalled visiting Spurrier when he was winning big at Florida in the 1990s. “We went down there to visit Spurrier when he was at Florida. And of course, you know, us being from Science Hill and all, he would take us in his office and talk to us.
“I’ll never forget we were in there, it was Jeff Watts, Benny Tolley and myself, and Spurrier says, ‘Now look, here’s you a good play for the Indians. And he drew one up for the Indians. And it worked. It was a tight end drag, a little underneath deal.”
Ferrell’s 34-yard run gave the ‘Toppers a first-and-goal at the 5 on their first touchdown drive during his senior season. His 17-yard TD pass to Whitehead gave Science Hill a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
“Randy could stand flat-footed and throw a football 50 or 60 yards and hit you in the chest with it,” Whitehead said.
Ferrell credits Science Hill offensive coordinator Keith Lyle with much of his development.
“Coach Lyle put in this really good passing scheme that made it real easy for me,” Ferrell said. “We were primarily in the ‘I’ and a split-back deal. And we had a passing game that actually I think Coach Lyle had gotten from Florida State, which was primarily five-man routes and you’re reading. But he made it real simple. …
“I was close with Coach Lyle. He basically took care of me in football. And I always liked Coach Little and Coach Greenwell. I liked all of the coaches, really.”
Ferrell won’t forget two shots he took in football. One was against Morristown fullback Ken Rucker.
“I was playing safety and it just opens up,” Ferrell said. “And Rucker ended up playing football at UT … but I came up to try to tackle him and I put my head on his knee or something, and the next thing I knew I was walking back into their huddle.
“Coach Lyle said Snake (head coach Bob Evans) told him later, ‘I thought you said Ferrell could play safety.’”
Ferrell was playing quarterback on the other wallop, which came compliments of Tennessee High linebacker Herman Sanders. Ferrell forgot to audible after getting the signal for blitz protection from assistant Cot Presnell– and paid dearly.
“Nobody touched Herman and he knocked my brains out,” Ferrell said. “I completed the pass but he knocked my brains out. I had two black eyes the next morning after that one.”
Ferrell pitched, played shortstop and left field in baseball. He was an assistant baseball coach on Bernie Young’s 1998 state championship baseball team and Charlie Bailey’s state runner-up team in ’81.
Ferrell was an assistant basketball coach for 25 years beginning when George Pitts took over in 1984. Ferrell was on the bench for three of Pitts’ state titles and state runner-up finish as well as Mike Poe’s state-runner up finish in 2002. There were also Arby’s Classic titles under Pitts and Poe.
Of course, what was arguably the most memorable victory came in December of ’94 when Science Hill defeated Ron Mercer-led Oak Hill in sold-out Freedom Hall.
“That crowd was unbelievable,” Ferrell said. “We came out of the back of the gym at Science Hill High School to come over to Freedom Hall, and we looked up and cars were lined all the way around to the top of that baseball field. It was a heck of an atmosphere.
“Our kids were always so cranked up anyway. Oh, yeah, we thought we could win.”
Ferrell’s father nearly bought a house in Pinecrest when he was in the eighth grade. Ferrell would have attended Happy Valley, his father’s alma mater.
In fact, his father used to take him to watch Charlie Bayless-coached Happy Valley basketball teams when star Danny Webster would hold his own – and perhaps then some – with Spurrier and the ‘Toppers.
“My dad asked me, ‘Do you want to go over here to Happy Valley,’” Ferrell said. “I said, ‘Daddy, no, I don’t wanna leave. I want to stay here with my friends.’
“So I was thankful that he asked me, you know, and didn’t move, because I grew up watching the Hilltoppers.”
Oddly enough, Ferrell spends his retirement these days as a football assistant at Happy Valley. He was in attendance when Shane Williams was named the new Happy Valley basketball coach on Friday. Williams was a key cog in Science Hill’s state championship run in 1990.
“I think Shane will do really well,” Ferrell said. “Of course, you’ve gotta have some pretty good basketball players. And they’ve struggled athletically the last little bit in all their sports.
“But he’ll work ‘em. They’ll be well prepared and play good defense and they’ll play hard.”
Williams and Ferrell each smiled Friday while recalling their glory days at Science Hill.
“It didn’t get any better than playing for Science Hill,” Ferrell said. “We had coaches who cared about us. That was the most important thing.”