Recognizing a Lost State Championship

Hopkinsville High School

The earliest I have seen KHSAA State Championship recognition bestowed is 1959. There were only three classifications in 1959 and the 1A State Champion was Lynch East Main, the 2A State Champion was Henderson, and the 3A State Champion was duPont Manual.

Mills, at Hoptown

That doesn’t mean teams weren’t considered State Champions prior to 1959, however. Louisville duPont Manual, for instance, claims four of it’s six titles were won prior to the formation of the KHSAA, laying claim to titles in 1925, 36, 38, and 48.

I believe Hopkinsville High School has won a State Championship for which it has failed to lay claim and I believe the Tigers of Hopkinsville have won three, and not two, State Football Championships. Allow me to make my case.

It is a commonly applied method of interpretation to derive meaning from a document by considering the time in which a document was authored and applying what ever meanings and context would have been applied by people during that time. You often hear this argued by constitutional scholars and is referred to as the historical test.

The 1940 Tiger team won all 11 of its contests for Coach Ralph Mills

Various historical documents and periodicals published at the time

Here’s what we know about the 1940 Tiger team. The team won all 11 of its contests for Coach Ralph Mills who is listed as the third winningest head coach in Hopkinsville High School history behind present coach Craig Clayton and former great, Fleming Thornton.

Mills, later in his career

The book, One Hundred Years of Tiger Football, compiled by William Turner & Roy Keller, which is an excellent book I bought yesterday and highly recommend, reflects Coach Mills, in 9 seasons, won 63 times against 30 losses with 4 ties. That is a very fine record, in deed, as it reflects Mills won almost 65% of the games in which he coached, in addition to leading the 1939, 40, & 41 teams to 23 straight victories, with his 1940 team being crowned the co-champion football team of the All-Kentucky conference.

Coach Mills’ record may have been even better than what Messrs. Turner and Keller’s book reflects. The book, One Hundred Years of Tiger Football has Mills first stint being from 1937-1941 before Coach Mills was called off to war, along with many other able-bodied men in his generation. The book then reflects Oakley Brown was the head coach in 1942 and 43 with Chris Cox being the HC in 1944, a year in which the Tigers went 9-1 and were WKC champions.

However, the Louisville Courier-Journal lists Ralph Mills, Hopkinsville, as its 1944 coach of the year in high school football in an article published in 2016 awarding the same award to Phillip Haywood from Belfry. Look under the list at the bottom of the article reciting the award’s previous recipients, and see for yourself.

Louisville Courier-Journal lists Ralph Mills, Hopkinsville, as its 1944 coach of the year in high school football

Courier-Journal article, 2016

I believe I know from where Turner and Keller may have gotten their information because I, too, consulted the yearbook for that season and it does list Chris Cox as the head coach as opposed to Ralph Mills. I believe this becomes a matter of which source the reader considers to be more likely correct between the hometown author of the high school annual’s team page versus the sports reporting staff of the Commonwealth’s largest newspaper.

If this sounds flippant, I don’t mean it to be, as I really can argue either way as to which source would be more likely correct. All of this aside, it appears the Courier-Journal was sufficiently convinced the 9-1 record, compiled in 1944, and the Western Kentucky Conference Championship which went along with it, was the work of Ralph Mills, and not Chris Cox, a point to which they would to this day still contend, which would make Mills’ record over ten seasons, 72-31-4, if one is inclined to believe the paper over the annual.

’40 Tiger football team

Even with the 9 additional victories, Mills is still third on the all-time coaching wins list. Even were his career record corrected, he remains well short of Thornton’s 109 victories and ahead of James Bravard’s 37 wins.

Back to the key point of the present article. I believe the Hopkinsville High School Tigers were State Football Champions, though tied with Manual from Louisville, in 1940. The below is why.

In 1940, the Tigers won all eleven of its games and never by a margin less than two-touchdowns, in spite of playing the likes of Bowling Green, Mayfield, Owensboro, Clarksville (TN), Glasgow, Henderson, Madisonville, and Princeton during the year. Many of these teams have historically been among the winningest teams in the history of Kentucky High School football and didn’t get there by long lapses of futility, meaning they were likely stout competition, even then.

The Tigers finished the year on a 12 game winning streak dating back to November of 1939, and would win 11 straight games, the following year, in spite of losing much of its lines of scrimmage to graduation. The key here, at least to this author, was the following, which I am taking from the annual published in 1941 but which detailed the accomplishments of the year previous. The annual said…As a result of their fine record the Tigers won the Western Kentucky conference championship for the first time since 1927 and shared the All-Kentucky league crown with Mighty Manual of LouisvilleEmphasis not in original.

In ’40, the Tigers won the Western Kentucky Conference Championship for the first time since 1927 and shared the All-Kentucky League crown with “Mighty” Manual of Louisville

Tiger Annual, 1941

Here are some things which occur to me in the push to have, what I would contend to be, a historical omission corrected. The Tigers scored 369 points in 1940 to the opponent’s 48. The Tigers won all 11 of its games. The Tigers were clearly champions of  the Western Kentucky Conference, winning all 8 of its conference games.

“Terrible” Tommy Gray

The Tigers had a player in Terrible Tommy Gray who was chosen to the All-Southern High School team, by Florida news outlets, though only being 5’9″ and weighing 150 pounds, indicating the 1940 Team’s exploits were widely known in a time where news didn’t travel nearly as fast as today. The Tigers, though losing many fine players in 1940, played and beat Manual in October of 1941, a game scheduled in Hopkinsville owing to the Louisville High School’s high regard for the Orange and Black, according to the account in the annual.

The Tigers only trailed twice the entire 1940 season. The Tigers ended the year on a 12 game win streak which would expand to 23 before it was all done, and All-Kentucky conference co-champion sounds like a State Championship to me.

I mean why wouldn’t All-Kentucky not include all of Kentucky? I could, just as easily, be pushing for State Championship recognition for 1941, too, as we did beat, for the second consecutive year, every Kentucky team we played, including Manual, but I am willing to let that year go as I couldn’t find where the team was, either partly or wholly, awarded the All-Kentucky Conference crown.

The case could be equally made for Coach Oakley Brown’s 1943 Tigers who finished undefeated (10-0) the year prior to 1944. In 1944, Brown’s Tigers were 9-1, losing only to Paducah.

Tigers…were 78-28-2 over the expanse of the 1940s

KHSAA statistical website, Tiger Annuals for the decade

The Tigers, who were 78-28-2 over the expanse of the 1940s, were 11-0 in 1940, 11-1 in 1941, don’t know how they did in 1942, 10-0 in 1943, and 9-1 in 1944. The loss in 1941 was to Boys High School from Atlanta, Georgia.

HHS had to take a train to play the nation’s number one ranked team in 1941 which boasted a backfield featuring Clint Castleberry (above depicted). Castleberry would finish 3rd in the Heisman voting in 1942 for Bobby Dodd’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as a freshman. Freshman were deemed eligible for Varsity football in 1942 owing to the World War.

Clint Castleberry, Boys High, Atlanta

So, no team in Kentucky high school football beat the Hoptown Tigers for three out of four consecutive years and the Tigers were a loss to Paducah away from that being four out of five consecutive years. HHS could well have been State Champions in 1941 and 1943, in addition to the one it won in 1940, but pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.

I will be happy with 1940. We deserve it, we won it, and we were Kentucky’s dominate football team for the entire decade.

In summation, should we go back and recognized Coach Mills’ 1940 All-Kentucky conference co-champion (with Manual) as a co-State Champion? If we did, we wouldn’t be the only High School in the Commonwealth to count among its football championships, pre-KHSAA crowns.

I believe there to be more than enough evidence to convince any unbiased person the 1940 Tiger football team was, at the very least, co-State Champion with Manual High School.

This is Fletcher Long, reporting on behalf of both Kentucky Prep Gridiron and G1NBC Christian County, reminding all concerned that Hopkinsville High School has won 3, not 2, State Football Championships, and did so by ever remembering to PLAY THROUGH THE WHISTLE!

About Fletcher Long 1536 Articles
Two-time winner of Kentucky Press Association awards for excellence in writing and reporting news stories while Managing Editor of the Jackson (KY) Times-Voice

1 Comment

  1. The main point is HHS has a storied history in the annals of KY High School football…tradition is not made up, it is lived in significance and passed on with honbor and expectation. That is HHS personified…

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Has HHS won a State Football Championship in 1940? I think so… – G1NBC Christian County KY
  2. HHS finds a 3rd State Football Championship the last place one would look…68 years in the past – Kentucky Prep: Gridiron

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