By Trey Williams
Shortly after moving to Johnson City in 1957, 12-year-old Steve Spurrier watched Emory Hale intercept three passes in Science Hill’s stunning upset of top-ranked Oak Ridge at Memorial Stadium.
Twelve years later, Oak Ridge picked Hale to replace Jack Armstrong, and he returned the Wildcats to the top of the mountain.
The ’57 Hilltoppers, in their first season under Kermit Tipton, were 30-point underdogs against Oak Ridge according to Dr. Litkenhouse, which was newspapers’ go-to for handicapping in that era. The shocker created a memorable scene that Spurrier recalled half a century later, and Hale’s interceptions were what he initially noted.
“That’s probably what I remember most,” Spurrier said. “Three interceptions were some feat.”
So were the three state championships Hale won at Oak Ridge (1975, 1979-80). Indeed, Hale, who also was the head coach at Austin Peay for seven seasons, is arguably the most accomplished football coach from Science Hill other than Spurrier.
His playoff wins at Oak Ridge included a rout of undefeated Science Hill in the ‘79 quarterfinals.
“We had a lot of good players at Oak Ridge,” Hale said. “That’s the key to winning. Doug Martin, our quarterback on the last two teams, was a great player.”
Hale always seemed to be around great quarterbacks. He began helping Tipton by working with the North Junior High program while still a student at East Tennessee State in 1960. By the time he left Science Hill to return to ETSU as an assistant in 1967, Hale had worked with Spurrier, John Rippetoe, Tommy Sholes and Glenn Rannick.
He said everyone’s heard about Spurrier and Rippetoe, but noted what a great player Sholes was and how Rannick “bombed” Tennessee High one game.
Hale also worked with Larry Graham at ETSU, who led the Buccaneers to a Grantland Rice Bowl victory over Terry Bradshaw-led Louisiana Tech the year after Hale left Johnson City for Oak Ridge.
“When I got ready to go to Oak Ridge after the spring game (in ’69),” Hale said, “Larry Graham and Al Guy got me down at the end of the stadium where you come out of the dressing room up there and they said, ‘Coach, please don’t leave. We’re gonna have a really good team next year.’
“But I wanted to go to Oak Ridge. I knew I could (win) if I could get the players. There were only 25 players when I got there.”
Hale, who grew up at 405 East Eighth Avenue and was Tipton’s manager when Tipton was coaching North Junior High basketball, caught Tipton’s eye playing “touch” football during recess in the seventh grade.
“I didn’t play in the seventh grade at North Junior High,” Hale said. “And then Coach Tipton came out and was watching me play. The hospital and the school were back to back, and in between the buildings was limestone rock. And at noon, we would go out and play touch football on that rock.
“Well, Coach Tipton would come out and watch everybody playing and he would pick out the ones that maybe would want to play football. Not that I was so good. It took a lot of time to mature. I was little. But he wanted me to come out.”
Hale was a two-time all-conference selection at Science Hill, where he also lettered in tennis and track. Fellow Science Hill Hall of Famer Bill “Bull” Durham returned two punts for scores in a 14-12 Optimist Bowl win at Knox Central in ‘57. He returned one 67 yards in the third quarter and the other 77 yards for the game-winning score with 1:20 remaining.
On the game-winning score, Hale fielded the punt and lateraled to Durham at the last moment.
“I retreated after catching it, then lateraled to Bill, and he took it for a touchdown,” Hale said. “Boy, that was something. He must’ve went 75 (77) yards. What I remember most about that punt return was the right one ended up with the ball.”
Hale was known for smarts and toughness.
“I don’t know if he was 140 pounds but the thing about Emory Hale was that he’d tackle a freight train head on,” said Sam Humphreys, who played at South Carolina after graduating at Science Hill. “He was just tough. He hurt his knee one time and thought exercise would help it. So he went out and ran five miles on it. Boy, that knee swelled up.”
Hale hurt his knee in the next-to-last game of his senior season in ’58, a 19-0 home win against Erwin.
“That cost us the win over Kingsport (Dobyns-Bennett),” Hale said. “We ended up with that one tied, 6-6. I tried to play and I was too crippled to play.”
The tie was the only game Science Hill didn’t lose against D-B from 1954 until 1961, when Spurrier, a junior, engineered the first of two straight wins against the Indians.
The teams didn’t meet for four seasons after that. Hale said he thought D-B paused the series due to the looming issue of integration. He said players such as Charlie Buford, Eugene “Red” Gillespie, Sammy “Dee Dee” Stuart and Gary “Biggie” Carpenter helped take the ‘Toppers to another level that the Indians weren’t going to reach – at least not as quickly.
Hale, who lives in Augusta, still enjoys football. Watching Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett makes him think of Bennett’s great grandfather, Buddy Bennett, who coached at ETSU when Hale was there and later coached for Bill Battle at Tennessee.
“Buddy Bennett was a good coach,” Hale said. “His great grandson has turned himself into a good player. Buddy played quarterback at South Carolina and they played option football. He wasn’t a real good passer, but he was a real good runner and he was very intense. I liked him. He was a good guy.
“I’d go over from Oak Ridge and watch them practice at UT in the spring. But Buddy, you didn’t mess with him. He was demanding.”
Hale was tough and demanding too, whether he was playing or coaching. Tipton said the strong-armed Rippetoe was a “hand-made” quarterback that Hale created.
Tipton, of course, had liked Hale since watching him play touch football on a grassless field in junior high. Tipton was friendly but never had much to say, and paused when asked to describe Hale.
“Emory wasn’t very big,” Tipton said. “I guess he weighed about 135 pounds. All of it was intestinal fortitude.”