Apr. 13—Arguably the state's most heated high school football rivalry will no longer be played — at least for the foreseeable future. New South Pittsburg coach Chris Jones has informed Marion County coach Dale Pruitt that he is breaking the two-year contract between the county rivals, which was agreed upon before he took over the program.
The series, which began in 1924, had its 66-year consecutive meetings streak broken last season when, just hours before kickoff of what would have been the 96th meeting, Marion County announced one of its players had tested positive for COVID-19 which, under county health department regulations, meant the entire team could not compete.
A new two-year agreement had been reached between the programs, however Jones — who is in only his second week as Pirates coach — said he felt it was in the best interest of both communities to take a break from the bitter rivalry.
"A big part of what made the rivalry so unique was that streak of playing every year. That ended last year and honestly there's been so much negativity surrounding the rivalry that it's just time to turn the page," said Jones. "They turned our program in for a TSSAA violation that happened before I took over, so you know our kids would be very emotional for that game. If there wound up being a fight, with us already on probation, we could lose the chance to go to the playoffs. That's what happened with Shelbyville and Franklin County last year. They had a fight in their game and both teams got banned from the playoffs for two years.
"Every decision we make is based on what helps this program win a gold ball. It's not worth the risk to our program and our goals are much bigger than just one game."
In March South Pittsburg's program was placed on two years probation by the TSSAA after it was reported that the school's Quarterback Club had paid the rent for a player's family in December. Although that probationary period does not affect the team's ability to qualify for the playoffs, the Pirates are not allowed to scrimmage or participate in 7-on-7 competitions this year. The team also had its number of spring practices reduced from 12 within a 15-day period to five within a 10-day period and had its fall scrimmages cut from four to two.
The series is the second-oldest in Tennessee, behind only the Harriman vs. Rockwood matchup that has been played since 1921. Previously the only breaks taken between the Pirates and Warriors were during World War II and again in 1954 because of the threat of violence between the two communities following a lopsided win by South Pittsburg the previous season.
The two schools are located just eight miles apart and the combination of proximity and pride has fueled the rivalry for decades. The Pirates and Warriors have combined to win more state championships (9), play for more state titles (21) and claim more playoff wins (147) than all other Chattanooga-area programs.
South Pittsburg leads the all-time series 52-40-4, having won 12 of the past 14 meetings, including five straight, and winning the last three by an average of 54-10.
"When Coach Jones contacted me about it I told him that it is up to the coaches to set their own schedules," Marion County superintendent Dr. Mark Griffith said. "I caught a lot of heat last year for not stepping in and doing more to make that game happen because it's such a huge rivalry and has such a huge financial gate for the teams. But it's not my job to get involved in scheduling games.
"I did tell Coach Jones and the South Pittsburg administration that I was personally disappointed because I love the atmosphere of that rivalry. As someone who was raised in this valley and lived here all my life I'm also disappointed that Marion and Whitwell don't play because I just think all of our county schools should keep those neighborhood rivalries going."
After last season's game was canceled, a potential for rescheduling for a later date arose when South Pittsburg's game against Red Bank was also canceled due to a Covid issue within the Lions program. However Marion administrators informed South Pittsburg they were declining that option, and at the time Pirates coaches and administrators admitted they were frustrated enough that they were considering ending the rivalry altogether.
A contract was later agreed upon when Marion offered to allow South Pittsburg hosting rights this season, a move that would allow the Pirates program to recuperate the loss of last season's gate receipts — estimated between $20,000-$25,000 annually.
Multiple messages to Coach Pruitt and the MCHS administration were not returned.
Jones has already replaced the Marion game on the schedule, signing a contract with perennial North Carolina power Murphy High — which has won nine state championships, including four in the last decade. South Pittsburg also added Alabama 4A foe North Jackson to this season's schedule, a game that has been discussed for years in the Sequatchie Valley and is expected to develop into a heated rivalry since the schools are located just 10 miles apart and both programs are traditionally strong.
"North Jackson will be a border war," Jones said. "There was already a buzz about that game as soon as we announced it. That one and Murphy gives us a chance to go across state lines and play programs that are contending about every year, so we're playing the type games that will help us be ready for the playoffs."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis