Historic Shotwell Stadium in Abilene is a fitting backdrop for what promises to be a legendary state semifinal between six-man powerhouses No. 5 Strawn (8-4) and No. 2 Richland Springs (11-0) two schools that have won 12 state titles over the past 17 years.
The trend of winning state titles in Class 1A has been hot of late for the two teams, with the winner of Friday’s game advancing to the state championship. Strawn is a two-time defending state champion, and Richland Springs won it all in 2015-16. The state title game will be the fifth straight year one of the two schools will be playing for a championship.
The Greatest of all Time?
Richland Springs’ Coyotes have eight state championships to their credit and are enjoying two of the greatest decades in six-man football history with Coach Jerry Burkhart winning his first state title a year after his arrival in 2003.
Burkhart was successful right off the bat with a 13-1 record in his first season; however, his job was far from secure because the Coyotes were 13-2 in 2001 and 12-1 in 2003 – getting to or finishing a stop short of the state title game wasn’t a passing grade (it’s still not, but more on that later) for a coach in Richland Springs.
Fast-forward to 2019, and it’s hard to imagine a coach more cemented into a job than Burkhart. In his 16 years at Richland Springs, Burkhart has won a stunning 203 games against just 10 losses. The Coyotes’ eight titles all capped undefeated seasons, including a stretch of 45 straight wins from 2010-12.
The Legend’s Back Story
While Burkhart may be on what is arguably the greatest run in Texas six-man coaching history, there has always been a thorn in his side in the form of Strawn’s Coach Dewaine Lee.
Both coaches arrived at their respective schools in the same year, and since that first season, their stories have been bricked together when it comes to taking a path to the state title game.
While Burkhart can boast (he doesn’t) of eight state titles, it was Lee who won a state championship in his first year at Strawn and denied Burkhart entry into the state championship by a 56-54 score. The first game between the two coaches was an instant classic – Burkhart’s job wasn’t reported to be safe until the next year when the Coyotes won their first state title and avenged their loss to Strawn along the way.
The legends have only continued to grow, with the two schools winning 70 percent of the state titles since the two coaches first faced off against each other in 2003.
It would be 2008 before the two teams met in the playoffs again, and football fans that were lucky enough to attend the bi-district game that year also got to see the state championship in the first round of the playoffs.
The Greyhounds won that game by an 83-72 margin, and it was the closest game Strawn had in their state title run, although there was a 102-70 affair against Abbott in the state semifinals.
The two teams would meet again in 2009, and Lee would achieve several notable marks that year to include being the first coach to beat Burkhart in back-to-back seasons. The Greyhounds’ 70-22 win in 2009 is the only time Burkhart has ever seen his Coyotes lose by the 45-point mercy rule.
The last time the two teams met was in the 2012 state semifinals on the heels of the Coyotes’ three straight title seasons, and the Greyhounds had the displeasure of being hit No. 45 on Richland Springs’ 45-0 run.
The two teams haven’t played each other during the regular season over the past 17 years, with the two coaches seeming to prefer exchanging punches in the postseason with the most likely reason being don’t pick a fight against someone you aren’t sure you can whip.
If you are Burkhart, you might look at the facts Lee has a 3-2 overall record against you and handed you your most significant loss ever against a D2 school 70-22 in 2009. When you’ve been poked in the eye 10 times, and one guy has landed 30 percent of those punches, it pays to bob-and-weave out of harm’s way.
If you are Lee when it comes to not picking fights, you only have to look at the fact Richland Springs has lost a dozen games in 17 years. It doesn’t matter that you’ve bloodied the nose of the neighborhood bully three times because he’s whipped you twice, and he’s fully capable of doing it a third time.
When the Coyotes are howling on offense, they are terrifying, and 2019 has been no different as Richland Springs has moved to an 11-0 record, and they also opened the season with a huge 68-47 signature win against D1 May.
After that loss, the Tigers went on to win 10 straight games, including a 71-30 thumping of Strawn. The Greyhounds were without the services of JW Montgomery, who was sidelined with a wrist injury. Montgomery’s absence from that game makes it hard to see how the two teams will line up against each other with only one common opponent.
The Richland Springs football program dates back to 1916, and the Coyotes are 552-389-30 over that time. Strawn started four years later in 1920, and the Greyhounds have a 556-367-21 record, which ranks a few percentage points higher at 58.9 to 56.8 percent.
Burkhart’s record of 203-10 at Richland Springs is so stellar it’s almost vulgar and calculates out to a 95-percent win average. There’s already a spot reserved for Burkhart in the Texas High School Hall of Fame
Lee may have half the number of Burkhart’s state titles, but he’s done it in a town where there were no bigger schools nearby where the occasional 11-man player is known to drift into town via one means or another.
That’s not trying to take anything away from the Coyotes’ accomplishments as only six players can get on the field at a time, and Burkhart’s crews run like clockwork.
No matter who wins Friday, the victor will be the favorite in the state championship as No. 8 Motley County and No. 4 Blackwell battle on the other state semifinal. Motley’s Matadors won a state title in 2007 and is 10-3 on the year. Blackwell is undefeated at 13-0, and the Hornets have never won a state title.
Earlier it was mentioned Burkhart’s job wasn’t safe at Richland Springs until he won a state title game, and such an atmosphere still exists today. Burkhart was rehired to head the Coyotes in July of this year after leaving to take over the 11-man program at Stanton in 2018.
The move to Stanton went south for Burkhart due to some reported off-the-field issues that involved him withdrawing his son from school due to alleged bullying. Meanwhile, back In Richland Springs, a newly promoted Thomas Tipton (six years under Burkhart) led the Coyotes to a state quarterfinal berth only to have the school not renew his contract and then name Jamie Rigdon as its new head coach in April.
When Richland Springs rehired Burkhart, he was the third head coach in four months, but the school hasn’t skipped a beat when it comes to playing football. That’s because Rigdon stepped right back into his role as offensive coordinator, where he has called the shots in seven of the Coyotes’ eight title games.
Burkhart also left Richland Springs for Gordon in 2013, but the hiring by the Longhorns lasted only a week as the coach pulled up stakes and was rehired by Richland Springs.
Since leading Strawn to their first state title, Lee’s job has never been in doubt, and although he’s probably scratched his head a few times as various offers have filtered in over the years he has stuck with his kennel of beloved Greyhounds. With a 165-51 record, four state titles, and two national championships, he’s also got a spot reserved in the hall of fame.
How You Finish
There’s always going to be an offensive showcase in the six-man football playoffs, but defense wins championships, so throw the Coyotes’ 10-0 record out the window because they’ve given up 87 points over their last six games and Strawn at 8-4 has held their opponents to 86.
Those are some tight numbers until you take in the fact Strawn allowed 335 points over its first six games while Richland Springs allowed 165 over the same time.
Mathematically that looks awesome until figuring in the Greyhounds have given up just 20 percent of all their points over the last six games of their season. It also means Strawn’s defense has gotten better and better each week.
Friday’s kickoff in Abilene at 7 p.m. at Shotwell Stadium is for a state semifinal championship and a new chapter in a classic tale of two six-man titans.