JASPER, Tenn. — It's as recognizable as any distinct voice coming over a public-address system or any spirited song by the band at a high school football game in the area.
And the significance of Marion County's infamous tractor whistle isn't lost on its fans and opponents. Blaring after every big play by the Warriors, the whistle remained mostly silent last season but has blown loud and long through the first two Friday nights of the 2012 season.
A win over county rival Whitwell tonight could give Marion its first 3-0 start since 1995, which incidentally was the program's last state championship season.
High school athletics run in cycles, but no other area program fell further than Marion in recent years. The Warriors have one of the proudest traditions in the state, claiming four state championships in a six-year span from 1990 to '95, including one stretch when they went 56-1 with the loss coming in the state quarterfinals by one point after a late two-point attempt failed.
But after its last state title, Marion went a decade without another playoff win before the bottom truly fell out with consecutive losing records the last two seasons. The community's pain was punctuated by last year's program-worst 1-9 finish in which the Warriors allowed an average of 45 points per game and missed the playoffs for only the second time in 29 years.
That led to a coaching change, and when principal and athletic director Larry Ziegler looked through the more than 70 applicants, one name stood out because of his experience in turning programs around.
In 1987 Mac McCurry took a Moore County program that was coming off consecutive 2-8 seasons and coached the Raiders to their first-ever playoff win in his first year as a head coach. He directed the Raiders to the state final the next season and went on to nine region titles and postseason trips in each of his 12 years there.
He moved on to Marshall County, which had endured a three-year losing skid, and took the Tigers to the playoffs in his first year and a 12-1 finish the next fall, reaching the playoffs all six seasons he was at that school. He later led Ripley (Miss.) to three straight 10-win seasons, cementing his reputation for turning struggling programs into consistent winners.
"We were as low when I came here as anywhere I've ever seen," said McCurry, who has a 222-65 career record and worked as Signal Mountain's defensive coordinator last season. "This program ranked 315th out of 336 football-playing schools in the state, according to the [TSSAA] power poll.
"The biggest thing you fight in a rebuilding situation is the mental part for the kids. Once they've been used to losing, they tend to drop their head when things go wrong and just think, 'Here we go again.' You have to get them to learn to fight back. Coaches don't change losing programs; attitudes do. We coached attitude our first 18 days here, and we coached them hard."
The Warriors took to the 54-year-old McCurry's hard coaching approach, and the Franklin County native's ability to relate to a group of rural, blue-collar kids paid off immediately on the field with two hard-fought one-point wins.
Marion rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit, then stopped a late drive by Grundy County to claim victory in the season opener, snapping the seven-game losing streak of last year. The Warriors followed that last week by traveling to Bledsoe County and again showing a flare for the dramatic. Rallying from another halftime deficit, Marion scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter -- including two in a span of 13 seconds -- to claim a late lead. And with just 48 seconds remaining, after Bledsoe had scored to pull within one point, Jeb McCullough and Deon Riley teamed to stop the hosts' two-point try.
"Last year was tough on us mentally," said McCullough, a senior defensive lineman. "It was our fault as players, not the coaches. We brought it all on ourselves, because once we started having things go against us, we didn't do anything to stop it. Most of the games we lost were in the second half because we got down on ourselves.
"Football is real important around here to a lot of people. This program has a great history, but it's been down for a while, so helping turn things around would be one of the things I would be most proud of doing in my life."
Last week's win was all the more impressive with 13 of the original 22 starters out because of injury and the Warriors playing their fifth quarterback, junior Hamilton Shoemaker, who had never played the position in the wing-T offense. They had lost senior offensive lineman Daylen Brown last Wednesday when he was hit by a car walking home from church, injuring his back and shoulder.
Even McCurry is hobbled after tearing a knee ligament in a faculty basketball game.
"Coach Mac came in and has preached attitude and effort, and that's what helped us win those first two games," McCullough said. "We've had to overcome injuries and some things that would have cost us games last year, but now we're holding each other accountable for stepping up on every snap.
"Hearing that whistle blow so loud, it's like hearing your mama's voice. When you hear it, it just lets you know you're doing something big on game night."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...