The 1979 Maryville College football team will be honored during Homecoming festivities on October 19, 2019 as part of the College's Bicentennial celebration. The 1979 senior class is celebrating their 40th reunion.
By Fred Strohl
The 1979 Maryville College Fighting Scots are considered one of the best teams in the institution's football history.
Longtime Coach and athletic director Boydson Baird, whose time at the school dated back to the late 1930s as a player, said after the 1979 season that these Scots were the best team MC ever put on the field.
The 1979 Scots finished the season with a 7-2 record after the 1978 season ended with a school record 8-1 mark, falling just one game short of earning a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs. The Scots finished the '78 campaign ranked ninth nationally.
The 1979 season started Sept. 15 on a strong note when the Scots hosted Carson-Newman in the renewal of a longtime East Tennessee college rivalry that ended after the 1971 season. C-N, an NAIA member institution awarding athletic scholarships, was considered a solid favorite. The visiting Eagles' coaching staff had two MC connections – head coach Ron Case served as an MC assistant coach in 1974 while former Scot Steve Wright was one of Case's assistant coaches.
After a scoreless first half, the visiting Eagles went ahead 7-0 with a touchdown pass. The Scots' drive to tie the score started when MC's Keith Martin recovered an Eagle fumble at the C-N six. Alvin Nance then carried the ball into the end zone for a touchdown with 2:33 remaining in the third quarter. The Scots opted for a two-point conversion attempt and were successful when quarterback David Kibben connected with Craig Gentry as the Scots were up 8-7 -- the first time they were ahead of the Eagles since 1963 when the Scots also scored an upset victory over their rivals from Jefferson City.
MC's defense set up the next score late in the fourth quarter when the Scots' Larry Wright recovered a C-N fumble caused by linebacker Tony Ierulli deep in Eagle territory. Three plays later, Ken Adair scored on a one-yard run. Carey Starnes' extra point increased the lead to 15-7.
C-N was driving for a potential tie with less than a minute to play when Scot Pete Barron intercepted a pass with 23 seconds remaining to seal the game. The scholarships' advantage the Eagles thought would benefit them did not work out as several Scots proudly pointed out during a post-game celebration. Additionally, MC players were angry by actions earlier in the week when several MC facilities were painted with graffiti allegedly committed by C-N fans.
MC Coach Steve Fickert had particular praise for the defensive effort.
"We won on big plays on defense," Fickert said, noting the Scots recovered three C-N fumbles.
The coach added his team put aside its underdog status and utilized attitude and conditioning in preparation.
"There's not a team in the country that can go through our conditioning program," Fickert said.
Sporting a 1-0 record, the Scots traveled to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia the following week to play Bridgewater in afternoon contest Sept. 22. MC had to come from behind to win 26-13. They were hurt by committing 20 penalties for 125 yards, but a Kibben fake punt resulted in a 94-yard TD pass to Steve Moffett (the longest touchdown pass in school history), turning the momentum in the Scots' favor.
Starnes kicked three field goals against Bridgewater, including one from 40 yards at the end of the first half to tie the score at 15-15 going into halftime.
Moffett and Tim Topham made key interceptions along the way and Tony Ierulli recovered a fumble deep in Bridgewater territory. Adair scored an 11-yard touchdown run for the winning points. A Barry Mathis pass to Charles Brooks set up Adair for his TD carry.
Fickert said coaching during the game was exhausting.
"That's the hardest I've worked in nine years and I was a construction worker," Fickert said.
MC improved to 3-0 Sept. 29 with a 30-14 win at Emory and Henry under the lights. Starnes kicked three field goals while Nance topped the Scots in rushing with 27 carries for 144 yards.
The Scots returned to Honaker Field for an afternoon game Oct. 6 to record a 17-9 win over Lane. Strong running by Adair and Nance was crucial.The courage of QB Barry Mathis, who earlier in the game was helped off the field due to injury, returned to run for a touchdown. His leadership was the difference in this stunning victory for the Scots.
The Scots traveled to Central Florida Oct. 13 to play under the lights in Orlando's Tangerine Bowl. Central Florida was starting its first season of football and pinned a 10-7 loss on the Scots. MC's only score was a seven-yard touchdown run by Nance followed by Starnes' extra point.
Hopes for a playoff spot suffered a serious blow during the afternoon of Oct. 20 when the Scots went to Jackson, Miss., and lost to Millsaps 17-10. A Millsaps touchdown and two-point conversion with 2:17 left to play decided the contest as the Scots were handed their second loss in two games.
Starnes kicked a 34-yard field goal. Adair scored on a 72-yard run as he rushed for 146 yards in carries.
The Scots were back at Honaker Field Oct. 27 for their Homecoming game against Southwestern of Memphis. Memories of the two losses quickly evaporated that afternoon as the Scots increased the undefeated streak at home to 17 with a 29-6 win over their cross-state rivals.
Moffett scored via a 60-yard punt return. Strong blocking by the offensive line and teammates in the backfield resulted in rushing scores by Nance, Adair and Ed Brea. Starnes kicked two field goals. Kevin Skipper thought he scored on a long kickoff return, but it was nullified by a clipping call.
The Scots went to Washington and Lee Nov. 3 and easily handled the host Generals a 55-21 defeat that afternoon. The Scots built their lead to 34-0 and Fickert was starting to play his reserves before halftime. W&L only amassed four yards total offense during the day.
Adair rushed for 100 yards. Nance rushed for 77 yards and scored on a 44-yard pass from Mathis. Kibben also threw a scoring pass to Mike Wortman.
Now 6-2, the MC season ended on the night of Nov. 10 with a 14-6 over Centre. The game was played at Heritage High School to avoid a conflict with the Tennessee-Notre Dame game played that afternoon at Neyland Stadium.
Nance and Adair combined to rush for 227 yards – Adair 169 and Nance 58. It was Adair's fourth consecutive game of 100-plus yards.
MC's first score was set up resulting from a mishandled Centre punt to give the Scots possession on the Colonels' 11. Nance scored on an eight-yard run. Starnes kicked the extra point.
Moffett scored a touchdown on a 56-yard punt return during the second quarter, followed by Starnes' kick. An MC interception by Tony Ierulli late in the game stopped Centre from a drive that could have potentially resulted in the score being tied.
The Scots were hoping a win would give them a playoff berth. However, those hopes were dashed earlier in the day when Millersville State of Pennsylvania – ranked ahead of the Scots – defeated Maryland's Salisbury State 63-10 to clinch the berth.
The 1979 MC seniors were part of a four-year program that went 28-7. As freshmen, these seniors entered a program that had gone 0-9 a year before and there were questions whether MC football would continue.
Under coaches Fickert and Jim Jordan before him, the Scots just missed making the playoffs three years in a row. However, the 1979 performance concluded the winningest four-year era in the school's football history as these seniors were on the winning end of 80 percent of their games. These seniors never lost a home game during that four-year stretch as they went 18-0 as the host team.
Four players from that 1979 team are members of the Maryville College Athletic Wall of Fame. They are running back Ken Adair, center Dave Evans, running back Alvin Nance and defensive back Tim Topham.
Tony Ierulli was named the 1979-80 J.D. Davis Athlete of the Year.
Coach Fickert and Barry Mathis will assist with Saturday's coin toss while the entire team will be honored at the end of halftime festivities on historic Honaker Field.