Glory Days: Former Shelby County High players recount 45-game win streak
It will be 40 years this November since Mike Hill last put on a Wildcat jersey.
Yet, even after all that time, the Shelby County High School graduate still gets a little teary-eyed when talking about his playing years.
Hill, who today is a state representative and successful business owner, says he takes great pride in being part of the school’s five-year, 45-game win streak. “We truly lived in some glory days,” he said.
Few could argue with the sentiment. That’s because for half of the 1960s, Shelby County High School was unbeatable.
Starting with the last four games in 1961, the Wildcats went on a winning streak that didn’t end until the second game of the ’66 season.
“There were very few close games,” said Hill, unabashedly. “We really killed everyone we played.”
The numbers are hard to comprehend. Four straight undefeated teams. Nine All-State players. The fourth longest win streak in state history.
Perhaps the one number hardest for players, fans and the community to believe: the 40 years since Shelby County left its indelible mark on Alabama high school football.
Former All-State quarterback Conrad Fowler said things weren’t always so easy for the Wildcats, however.
He said for several years Thompson and Montevallo high schools dominated county football.
“The team here was a doormat,” said Fowler, now a senior partner at the law firm of Wallace, Ellis, Fowler and Head. “The coaches had to build up from scratch.”
Both Fowler and Hill attribute the turnaround to the late Coach Don Bulger, a history and physical education teacher fresh from Jacksonville State University.
Bulger came to SCHS in 1957 and had his work cut out for him. In the 11 years preceding his arrival, the Wildcats managed only two winning seasons. The team posted 6-4 and 5-4 records in 1951 and 1954, respectively.
But Bulger’s makeover was by no means instant. In fact, his first team finished a disappointing 0-8. It was the first time in 15 years that SCHS was shutout from the win column.
The next year, Bulger’s sophomore squad earned two victories. By the time his third season came about in 1959, Bulger had shaped the bunch into a respectable 7-3 team.
“Thankfully, it didn’t take Coach too long to turn things around,” said Fowler. “It just took a lot of hard work.”
Fowler, who would go on to start as a split end at the University of Alabama, graduated from high school in 1964. He played on three of the four undefeated teams.
But having been in junior high those first few difficult years, he credits Bulger’s work ethic for the transformation.
Hill, an All-State center and safety, also played on three unbeaten teams and was a senior on what he calls the “infamous” 1966 team with which the streak ended.
Yet having been the team manager for two years before playing varsity ball, he too remembers Bulger as an unrelenting trainer.
“Everyone liked him, loved him. I still miss that man,” said Hill. “But he was as mean as a snake.”
The coach actually lived with Hill’s family for a short time while Bulger’s wife finished classes at Jacksonville State. Hill’s father was superintendent for county schools at the time.
“If there ever was a coach’s pet, I was one,” confessed Hill, who recalls one summer when he broke his collarbone on farm equipment his coach had warned him about.
“I was hurting so bad, and I just remember him and Daddy both yelling at me.”
Bulger is remembered for the pressure he put on players.
“He taught us what to do every step. We couldn’t mess up,” said Hill. “If you made any mistakes you were pulled out.”
Hill also remembers a time when two Wilsonville teammates were caught drinking beer. He describes how Bulger “ran them for two hours with him following on a tractor.”
“He told them if they stopped running he would run them over,” said Hill, with a smile. “I don’t know if he was serious or not. Everyone was scared of Coach.”
The Streak & A Scare
Bulger’s coaching style would prove effective when the Wildcats garnered their first unbeaten season in 1962.
That year’s squad would finish 10-0, a record that would be duplicated the following season.
Both Fowler and Hill say the 1962 and ’63 teams were the best of the four undefeated teams. “Those were good teams,” said Fowler. “Those were some tough heads.”
It’s a claim that the record book supports. The 1962 team held the county record for most points scored in a season for almost 30 years. That year, the Wildcats scored 417 points in 10 games, an average of 41.7 points an outing.
The team also boasted two All-State players: Gene Boone who went on to play at Auburn and Hank Spires who later quarterbacked at Yale.
The ’63 team averaged 35.4 points per game and featured two All-State players, Kenny Skelton and Ron Tidmore.
With the exception of some hard fought battles against Childersburg and Sylacauga, the two players say that the win streak was never really in danger of being broken.
That all changed the next season, when the Wildcats clawed their way to a hard fought 13-13 draw at Lineville.
The two teams were tied at halftime and the second-half proved to be dominated by defenses that didn’t want to give an inch. “It was a very competitive game,” said Fowler.
Hill remembers the game in another way: “It was a fluke. We were so much better than they were. It must have been the trip over there that affected us.”
Hill says that Assistant Coach Lamar Cost for decades blamed referees for the tie, citing three Wildcat touchdowns that were called back on penalties.
Shelby County overcame the September tie to win the rest of their games in ’64 and would once again go a perfect 10-0 in 1965.
Both men say the years were a very special time to be in Columbiana. “Everyone in town was at games, standing, screaming and hollering,” said Hill, who recalls men borrowing job equipment to help lay blocks for the new stadium or to spread grass for the field.
“Families you never thought would be interested, people with no children playing were there every Friday and helped in some way,” said Hill.
Hill says he couldn’t walk down Main Street without someone talking about football. “We would have just beaten someone 38-7 and someone would yell, ‘Y’all sure did play lousy last night,'” he remembered. “They wanted us to win by 100 points every week.”
The End of an era
Circumstances didn’t look too promising for the Wildcats at the start of the ’66 season.
Shelby County High School burned to its foundation in May, just months prior to the start of football season.
Students were forced to use trailers and the campus recreation building for classrooms. Trophies, old film footage, photographs and countless other memories of the impressive streak were all lost.
Another huge loss was that of the iconic Coach Bulger, who left after the ’65 season to take a job with Emma Samson High School in Gadsden.
Coach Cost, who worked with the defense under Bulger, took over and started things on a good note with a 13-0 win over Clanton.
But Bulger’s departure came at a critical time. The Wildcats were going through a major transition.
Only four starters were returning and according to Hill, the average weight of offensive linemen plummeted 70 pounds.
The shift forced the team to change the way it played the game. During previous seasons, the team relied heavily on the run. However, the smaller men up front forced the Wildcats to pass more often.
All the changes just proved to be too much. The Wildcats lost the second game of the season at stubborn Lineville, the team who gave SCHS its one tie two years earlier.
The final score was 21-13. For the first time in five years, the Wildcats weren’t winners.
Hill says his sister told him he cried following the loss, though he doesn’t remember it that way. He just remembers playing a hard fought game, in which his team came up short.
Fowler agreed, “We all knew it would end sooner or later.”
The ’66 team would go on to finish 8-2 behind All-State players Hill and Don Harris.
Hill says the men are still very proud of their accomplishment. Since 1966, the record has fallen two spots to sixth on Alabama’s most consecutive wins list.