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Wedged among the layers that make up the remarkable tale of Fike High School’s three straight state 4-A championships in football in the late 1960s were a couple of strategic decisions that may have been as much a reason for that success as anything else.
After the first season as Fike head coach, Henry Trevathan instituted the groundbreaking (for North Carolina High School Athletic Association teams) 4-4-3 defensive formation in the fall of 1965. The following season, Trevathan and assistant coach Wally Dunham laid the groundwork for an unbalanced-line formation on offense that would bear much fruit for the Cyclones. The formation, once a bedrock part of the foundational single-wing offense, had not been regularly employed by North Carolina teams, at least not at the 4-A level, for more than a decade by 1969.
“What is it they say about necessity?” Trevathan, now 91 but seems like he could still command a sideline, asks before answering himself: “Necessity is the mother of invention. This is where it all begins. ... The human race doesn’t make advancements until there is a need to do so.”
PLAYING NUMBERS GAME
Fike — one of, if not the smallest 4-A school in the state — was outnumbered on the sidelines for most of its games against fellow 4-A foes. Furthermore, Wilson never seemed to produce an abundance of physically large athletes, at least not as much as opposing towns seemed to do. So Trevathan said he knew he and assistants — first Bo Weir and Joe Robinson, and later Dunham — needed to find an equalizer for a program that had lost 28 of its last 30 games before he took the job.
“That’s the bottom line,” he said. “Being different, is an asset. You’re faster bigger, stronger — that’s an asset. If you’re different. That’s an asset.
“It was an asset to Wilson because we had to be different. We couldn’t be like everybody else, because of numbers.”
Fike’s first state championship team in 1967 numbered just 28 players on the roster, although that number included such future collegiate players as Carlester Crumpler, Harold Wilkerson, Lynn Daniell, Billy Clark, Dan Killebrew, Earl Killebrew and Steve Windham, among others. By the third title run in 1969, that number had climbed to 40, but that was still far below the rosters in Durham, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Wilmington. Even Fike’s two closest rivals, Goldsboro and Rocky Mount, had slightly bigger enrollments.
“We weren’t aware that we were the smallest 4-A school in the state of North Carolina. This was noticed years later,” said Trevathan, who allowed that everyone knew that Fike was outnumbered locally.
“Now one reason we knew we were a small school was that we were smaller than Rocky Mount. We were smaller than Goldsboro.”
Trevathan reasoned that the bigger schools were producing more than twice as many players as his could.
Trevathan also discovered, by poring over back issues of the Wilson Daily Times, that Wilson traditionally fielded rosters with players that may have been smaller than to what he was accustomed as an assistant coach at Rocky Mount High where he was part of state championship teams in 1962 and 1963.
“Wilson produced ‘watch-charm guards’ — 5-10, 180 pounds,” he said, echoing a term legendary Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne used for his tiny All-American guard Bert Metzger. “Wilson produced those watch-charm guards like Rocky Mount produced those 6-foot-5, 275-pound tackles.”
There was plenty of talent to go around on Trevathan’s three championship teams but he was going to need time to develop it and he wasn’t sure he had that much time.
NECESSITY OF ACTION
When Trevathan arrived in Wilson in 1964, he found a program that had seen a precipitous decline over the previous three seasons. Fike, which had won a pair of state championships in the 1940s, had shared the 1958 3-A (highest classification of the time) title with Winston-Salem Reynolds after the Cyclones tied the Black Demons in the championship. That was the first season under head coach Paul Marklin, whose first three teams at Fike went 24-6-2. However, Marklin’s last three Cyclones editions went 2-28.
“That’s pretty good eye-opener, isn’t it?” Trevathan asked.
His first step, he said, was convincing Fike principal Willard Woodard and Wilson schools superintendent George Willard, as well as the board of education, to let him start a second team at Fike’s only feeder school, Charles L. Coon, now a junior high after serving as Wilson’s high school for three decades.
“There were some high officials in Wilson that were saying we don’t need two junior high feeder programs because there are only so many players in Wilson,” Trevathan said, still shaking his head at the thought more than five decades later. “So we had to argue that and why in the world you’d have to argue that, I don’t know.
“The bottom line is we would have never gotten two teams playing at the lower level, the junior high school, if we hadn’t been losing. See, there was a little pressure on Mr. Woodard and Mr. Willard and the board of education in losing 28 games in three years.”
The motivation to find ways to get an edge was present immediately as Fike, after an opening win over Washington in 1964, finished 3-7.
Trevathan looked to Notre Dame, which had begun using a 4-4 defense under head coach Ara Parseghian in 1964 when he took over a Fighting Irish team that had gone 2-7 the year before in 1963. Parseghian’s first Notre Dame team went 9-1 and, two years later, won the first of its two national titles under him. The defensive scheme that helped Parseghian win a championship made perfect sense for Wilson and Fike. Because he preferred his defenses to attack rather than react, Trevathan had used the 6-1 defense that was made famous regionally by head coach Clarence Stasavich at East Carolina. But by year 2, it was time to use Fike’s strengths to downplay its weaknesses.
Trevathan explained that “four linebackers in Wilson was better than six down linemen.” Trevathan maintained that Fike was the only high school team in the South running a 4-4 defense at the time. He said that the scheme really developed at Fike when Ted Perry was hired as the third varsity assistant as the secondary coach and was able to develop rotations that would allow for the Cyclones to make adjustments at the snap.
‘MADE FOR WILSON!’
The Cyclones went 4-5-1 in 1965, narrowly missing the playoffs. Trevathan lamented a failed drive that led to a close loss to Goldsboro as the most painful.
“We died on the goal line,” he said.
It was time to upgrade the offense.
Trevathan credited Dunham, who scored the game-tying TD in the 1958 title game for Winston-Salem Reynolds. Dunham went on to North Carolina but was injured — ironically when he was tackled in a scrimmage game by teammate and future Fike colleague Robinson. He ended up in Wilson, finishing up his degree at Atlantic Christian College.
Dunham was the featured back in head coach Shirley “Red” Wilson’s single-wing offense at Reynolds, a concept reliant upon an unbalanced line. He and Trevathan developed the formation over the winter of 1965-66.
“The unbalanced line was made for Wilson. Made for Wilson!” Trevathan said. “Remember in Wilson we don’t have many big players and we don’t have many players. Remember, we don’t have two tackles. Everybody else has. We take our two tackles and put them side by side. You don’t need two guards. You take one guard and the only thing he does is fire straight out. Your short-side guard pulls on every play. He pulls and runs in front of wherever the play’s going.”
The pulling guard — first Sarvis Bass and later Dan Killebrew — was a hallmark of the scheme, weaponizing Wilson’s smaller size and quickness against bigger defenders. But just as much was the misdirection engendered as the guard would then reverse direction while the fullback, which was the featured ball carrier in this offense, and the tailback would go in different directions.
In his comprehensive account of Fike football in the 1960s, “Cyclone Country,” Russell Rawlings deftly explains two staples of the Cyclones playbook — 46 Crossbuck and 46 Crossbuck Pass. While the Cyclones didn’t pass as much as run, they could do it just as adroitly because of their formation.
“So you can go back to all warfare and find out that it’s wrapped up in power, speed and quickness and deception,” Trevathan said. “We had all three encompassed in what we had now lined up in an unbalanced line.”
The 1966 season proved to be a steep learning curve as the Cyclones took a step backward and finished 3-7 again. But Trevathan could clearly see into the near future.
“Now we’re as good as anybody,” he said. “We’re as good as any better probably because we’re different and because what Wilson produces in abundance — pulling guards — is in front of every play. We’re pretty good.”
In 1967, Fike proved it by winning the first of its three state championships. While teams would slowly catch up to the 4-4 and the unbalanced line, one opponent really learned from Fike’s success. The Cyclones’ opponent in their final championship game in 1969, Winston-Salem Atkins, ran both schemes. Trevathan said that Atkins coaches came to Wilson the previous winter to learn about the 4-4 and the unbalanced line but he didn’t realize the Camels had adopted both.
“We did not know we were facing ourselves until we looked at the film the week of the final game,” he said. “We did not know. But that was OK. We knew what to do.”
During that championship run, Fike had outstanding players and coaches, as well as deep community support, but the Cyclones also had superior planning and development that helped them become truly elite.