BY TIM HAYES Bristol Herald Courier BIG STONE GAP, Va. — Twenty-six years later it’s hard to believe, almost laughable. But in the fall of 1983, the pressure was real for Phil Robbins.
Taking over a Powell Valley High School football program that had won the Virginia High School League Group A state title the year before, he quickly discovered that football fever had engulfed this Wise County community.
“I came into a program that was on top,” Robbins said. “My motivation and my greatest fear was to not let this program slide [because] when I came in, everything was in place. They had a great feeder program in this town and a great support system in this town.
“Powell Valley High School, in 50 years, has never had a booster club. Our booster club is the town. The support system was in place.”
However, Robbins took the program to greater heights. A strong program became a great one. A winning program became the most decorated in Southwest Virginia, the eight state championship trophies providing proof.
The beginning James Bolling guided Powell Valley to its first state title in 1982, when the Vikings went 12-0-1 and posted a thrilling 14-13 victory over Madison County in the state final.
Versatile running back Forty Jackson was the offensive star, while quarterback Jim Jessee and players such as Mike Tiller, Wayne McKinney and Troy Chandler also emerged as postseason heroes.
Meanwhile, Robbins had just completed a successful run in the New River Valley, guiding once-lowly Christiansburg to four consecutive non-losing seasons.
When Bolling vacated the Powell Valley position, Robbins immediately became a candidate.
After accepting the job, it didn’t take him long to discover the passion that is prevalent every Friday night in the Lonesome Pine District.
“One of the first things when I came down here, someone said, ‘What’s the difference?’ ” Robbins said. “I said, ‘Well, I can name you the five people standing at the fence when we made the playoffs in Christiansburg. Down here, you’re looking more at naming the five people who weren’t there.’ “That was just a significant difference.”
Robbins’ team compiled an unbeaten regular season and won the Region D title in his first season as head coach, but suffered a heartbreaking loss to Parry McCluer in the state semifinals.
“That hurt,” Robbins said. “I cried. I thought here we have a great opportunity to win this thing and the next week, they went on to beat Madison [in the state championship game]. I thought, we’ve blown our chance to win a state championship, and I don’t know if we’ll ever get it again.”
The 1980s That playoff loss in ’83 set in motion a drive and determination among Powell Valley’s players to win another state title. It happened two years later as the Vikings went 12-1 and posted a thrilling 28-27 win over Lunenburg Central in the championship game.
“To be the first to win a championship for Coach Robbins at Powell Valley, I hope that holds a special place in his heart,” said Bobby Bloomer, a wide receiver on that team. “All of his players that year and many years after will have those memories of winning for life.”
Eupton Jackson was the main playmaker in ’85. He knocked down an attempted game-winning two-point conversion pass to seal the win in the title game.
“He could kick, punt, catch, run, tackle,” Robbins said. “He could do it all.”
The next year, the VHSL instituted its divisional format, increasing the number of state champs from three to six. Powell Valley won the Group A, Division 2 title in 1989 with a team that consisted of 19 seniors and 20 juniors.
Tailback Keith Hall finished that season with 2,116 rushing yards.
“Keith was just an outstanding runner,” Robbins said. “He had speed; he had significant speed. He had great football speed. He ran as fast with his football uniform on as he did without his football uniform.”
Hall set school rushing records that might be untouchable at most area schools, but the 1990s brought new stars, numerous records and more titles to Powell Valley.
The 1990s Powell Valley repeated as state champion in 1990, again beating Lunenburg Central. Quarterback Robbie Duncan shook off a knee injury that season to help the Vikings repeat.
The team was full of veterans who had started on the varsity for two and three years.
“After the first game of the year, I don’t think we were on the practice field for more than an hour and a half,” Robbins said. “They practiced at game pace every single day, and they were a smart and intelligent group.”
Powell Valley repeated as champions in 1994 and 1995 behind the exploits of running back Thomas Jones. Jones set numerous school and state records, including a legendary 462-yard outburst in 1994 against rival J.I. Burton.
Jones was so dominant that moments after leading Powell Valley to a win over Northampton in the 1995 state title game, the opposing players were asking for his autograph.
“We just had a bunch of blue-collar players on that team, with a CEO in the backfield,” Robbins said.
Powell Valley added state titles in 1997 and 1998, with a younger Jones brother, Julius, leading the Vikings to two unbeaten seasons.
The ’97 team had regular-season wins over two schools that also brought state titles back to Southwest Virginia – Appalachia and Gate City. The ’98 team had no weaknesses, Robbins said.
“I never like to compare,” the coach said. “But the ’98 team was so good everywhere. Again, Julius put it over the hump, but the ’98 team could have very well won the state championship if Julius wasn’t playing.”
The legacy The trophy case outside of Powell Valley’s gym offers a walk through history. Hundreds of pictures of the Vikings’ greatest players hang on the wall, including shrines paying tribute to the two most famous alums, the Jones brothers – Thomas with the New York Jets and Julius with the Seattle Seahawks.
There are also those eight gold trophies behind the glass that are the goal for every high school team.
“To sit back in the years, to come and watch Powell Valley run off six more championships was a treat to watch,” Bloomer said. “You know having been there yourself the amount of planning, work, discipline, structure and heart that was going into all of it.”
Much of the credit goes to Robbins. He’s won with different schemes and formations, annually played one of the toughest schedules, surrounded himself with strong coaching staffs and given a top-notch effort for his players.
“Coach Robbins has high expectations for anyone he coaches, and he stays in tune with what his players are doing off the field,” said Michael Prewitt, a star on the ’97 and ’98 teams. “He never hid his feelings. If he was proud, you knew it. If he was disappointed, you knew that too.”
Josh Callahan, a defensive back and special teams ace on the 1997 and 1998 squads, echoed those sentiments.
“It’s funny, because I respect him so much, I was always wanting to get his approval and his vote of confidence,” Callahan said. “I mean, he’s arguably the best high school football coach ever in Southwest Virginia – maybe in Virginia, period. “It was important for me to make an impact and be on his radar, you know. I wanted to be a good player for him. Great coaches make you feel that way. I’d do anything for him.”
Perhaps Paul Clendenon, a lineman on the 1989 and 1990 title teams and now a teacher and coach at the school, summed it up best.
“I enjoyed my years playing for Coach Robbins, and I enjoyed coaching with him,” Clendenon said. “I learned a lot about football and coaching from hanging around PVHS. The most important thing I’ve learned from him is to enjoy coaching kids no matter what the sport. Coaching is his life.”
A life that has been good for the last 26 years in Big Stone Gap.
“It’s just been a mesh or whatever you want to say,” Robbins said. “It’s just been phenomenal.”
Tuesday, September 2 2014 5:15 PM EDT2014-09-02 21:15:15 GMT
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