A break from a long tradition

For the first time since 1983, Clinton won’t play Anderson County in football

A break from tradition will come next year as Clinton High School decided not to schedule Anderson County for the annual “Battle of the Bridge” football game.

This will be the first time the two schools have not played football since Anderson County High School’s founding in 1983.

Brad Collette, athletic director for Clinton High School, said that school officials are just trying to do what they think is best for the school and the football program.

“Myself, Mr. Jenkins, and Coach Keith all decided it was good for us to take a break and do something different,” Collette said. “We’re just looking to play some teams and change up our non-region schedule to build up our program. It’s just tough for a coach to build a program when he’s playing teams that are going undefeated every year. Halls, Meigs County, Powell, Oak Ridge, etc. For us to build our program, we need to find competitive games, so that’s what we’ve tried to do.

“[Clinton and Anderson County] are in two different divisions. If they wanted to come up to 5A and play Powell and Oak Ridge and things, that’s fine, but it just doesn’t benefit us to play them right now.”

The rivalry has been heated in years past, especially under Clinton’s former head coach, Randy McKamey. In 2015, a scuffle broke out on the field after the game that resulted in suspensions for faculty at both schools.

“It’s been kind of tossed around the last few years and, honestly, I don’t know,” Collette said. “It’s really kind of a toxic rivalry if we’re being honest. We wish them well with their season and we hope that they wish us well. We’re in the same school system, so maybe taking some time away will help things die down a little bit and maybe we can pick it back up in a couple of years.

“I guess, really, just for our fan base and our school, we have to do what’s best for our program. We have to do what we hope will help build our football program. That’s really just what we’re trying to do. We can’t really worry about if someone’s upset with us. Our job, and my job as athletic director, is to get our football program going in the right direction, and we think this is a good decision to help us do that.”

When asked if there were any particular schools they had in mind to replace Anderson County on their schedule, Collette said no.

“We’ve got five non-region games, so I don’t think we replaced them with anyone specific. Next year, we’ve got William-Blount, Austin-East, Cherokee, Gibbs, and Chattanooga Central. We really replaced all of our non-region games.”

Across the Clinch River, Anderson County athletic director Gary Terry said that the school has been made aware of the change.

“We received an email from the Clinton High School principal that stated they were no longer going to be playing us,” Terry said. “We’ve upped our own schedule by adding Science Hill, Bearden, and Rhea County. We also plan to travel to Corbin, Ky., and play a fun road game for our kids. We’ve built an outstanding football program, and we are super excited about our team as we move into the region with new teams.

“We always do what’s best for kids at Anderson County High School, and we feel like we did that with our schedule.”

Dragons Coach Darell Keith had plenty to say on the rivalry.

“There is a real toxicity between Anderson County and Clinton that I just don’t want any part of,” he said. “You have people hating each other over high school football. I was brought down here to win football games, and I made a decision. I’m trying to build a program, and they already have a program, so what benefit would it bring to me to play a non-conference game against a program that has more resources and talent than [we do] at the current time? I’m a soldier by trade, and I fear no man or program, but I have to do what’s best for Clinton, not Anderson County.

“These kids at Clinton have been beaten down, so what benefit does it do to me to play them other than bragging rights? The true rivalry for Clinton is Oak Ridge. We had a heated game with Oak Ridge, and almost had a fight, and after the game there were no hard feelings. Everybody moved on. I’m here to change the culture, and one of the things that will change that culture is to get away from that toxicity.”

Keith gave one example key to the decision.

“What swayed me, really, was this,” he said. “What adult takes pride in making a t-shirt that says: ‘20 years of Dragon tears’ to tear down a child? To tear down a child from the same county? If I thought it was good for the community, I would keep playing it, but people can get so mad that they do things they wouldn’t normally do, and then suddenly someone ends up dead. From the outside looking in, it looks awful. It looks toxic, and it does our kids no benefit at all. As a matter of fact, the kids get along better than the parents.

“If someone can tell me how this game is good for the community, I’m willing to listen. I just don’t see it.”

With all that being said, though, Keith said he respects Anderson County and wants the best for the school, the same way he hopes that school wishes the best for him and Clinton’s program.

“I have no animosity whatsoever toward anyone at AC,” Keith said. “I think it’s a great program, and I’m taking some of their techniques into my program. David Gillum and Gary Terry have been good to me, very respectful and supportive, and I have no beef with them at all.

“And I want to send a shoutout to Richie Noe for supporting my son when he got injured. I appreciate that and it meant a lot to him. They’ve got hardnosed kids, which is what I want for this program, but I have to do what’s best for Clinton, and right now this game is not what’s best for Clinton.

“Both programs need to take this time to heal and rebuild old friendships and being a community. Something as menial as a high school game shouldn’t separate us.”

Keith also gave a vision for what he hopes can come about from putting this rivalry to rest, at least for a while.

“What should have happened, and what usually happens: There should have been a whole bunch of black and orange in those stands right beside that blue and white when AC played Greeneville, everyone pulling for our hometown against the green,” he said. “We aren’t there yet, though, and we aren’t getting there without healing. Instead, we have people cheering that they lost — and I’m against that. I want Anderson County to win a 4A championship, just like I want Clinton to win a 5A championship. I felt horrible when they lost to Greeneville.”