Texas wind brings victories to WC|[10/19/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 19, 2005

This is the second in a four-part series chronicling Warren Central’s football program as it celebrates its 40th birthday this season. Thursday: Robert Morgan continues the Vikings’ winning tradition and wins not one, but two state championships.

Elbert Wright thought long and hard about the job offer he had just received.

If it were up to him, he would have taken it in an instant. The Warren County native had played football at old Jett High School, knew the area well, and wouldn’t mind returning home to become the new head coach at Warren Central.

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But it wasn’t Wright’s decision to make. He had to run it by his family first.

Wright had uprooted them just two years before, moving his wife and four sons from southern Texas to the northeastern part of the state. His oldest son, Lummy, was about to enter his senior year of high school in Gilmer, Texas, and Elbert – also known as Lum – had promised his son they wouldn’t move again before Lummy graduated.

But the opportunity was great. Lum Wright Sr. knew there was talent in Warren County, and a football-mad fanbase that would support the team. So he did the only thing he could do.

He brought the family along for the job interview.

&#8220The whole family, we all went in and met the school board. And Lummy said, ‘Let’s move,’” Lum Wright Sr. said. &#8220It was mixed emotions, it really was. But once the kids were sold on it, that was it.”

And so began one of the greatest dynasties in the history of Mississippi high school football. Over the next 14 years, Warren Central would go from a laughingstock that had never had a winning season to a powerhouse that rarely lost at all.

Lum Wright Sr. gave direction to a program that was sorely in need of it. He brought a sense of unity to a team that, while not divided in spirit, hadn’t yet come together and realized its potential. He laid the foundation of a dynasty, one whose cornerstones are still seen in every workout and running play.

&#8220Coach Wright brought in an organizational system that worked,” said Butch Newman, a quarterback on the 1970 and ’71 teams. &#8220He had the coaches that were there, and that were ready to implement his plan. It just all came together. It was just good timing.”

When Wright arrived in the spring of 1971, Warren Central was an average program at best.

The Vikings had been around since 1965, but had never had a winning season. The closest they came was in 1968, when they lost the season-finale against Franklin County and finished 4-6.

&#8220People would come watch the band play, and when halftime was over they were gone,” Lum Wright Sr. said.

Wright knew the challenge that lay ahead in jumpstarting the program, but he also knew he had a few aces up his sleeve.

Lummy Wright, the coach’s son, was one of his best players in Gilmer. The coach plugged him in at quarterback when they arrived at WC, and Lummy immediately became one of the best players in Warren County.

Keith Wright, another of Lum Sr.’s sons, was also a solid player. He later starred at Memphis State and in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns. Two more sons, Tim and Bo, played football for their father a few years later.

&#8220They were both very instrumental” in turning the program around, Newman said of Lummy and Keith Wright. &#8220They were both two-way starters and very good athletes.”

They were also good recruiters.

At Lum Sr.’s first team meeting in the spring of 1971, only five students showed up – including Lum and Keith Wright. The two Wright brothers went around the school, dredging up support for the team and warm bodies to play on it.

A short time later, Lum Sr. called an assembly of all the boys in the school. When it was over, he had more than enough players to field a team.

And what a team it was.

The 1971 Vikings started the season 7-0, nearly doubling the school’s previous best win total. The streak ended with back-to-back losses to Clinton and Magee, but Warren Central still finished with a 9-2 record and earned a berth in the season-ending Red Carpet Bowl against longtime rival St. Aloysius.

&#8220It was a great group of guys that just got out there and got after it,” said Lum Wright Jr., who played quarterback and defensive back that season and ran for 17 touchdowns, threw for six more, and intercepted seven passes. &#8220If you look at our 9-2 record, we were a good team without a lot of great athletes, myself included.”

Warren Central’s only win in five tries against St. Al had come the previous year. The 1971 Red Carpet Bowl, though, was no contest. Lummy Wright ran 29 times for 159 yards and three touchdowns while earning MVP honors.

&#8220I think at that point in time, Warren Central was not a large program and at that time St. Al was a little bit better than Warren Central,” said Wright Jr., now the athletic director for the Vicksburg Warren School District. &#8220After that game it showed that Warren Central was a growing program that could compete with a lot of teams.”

As great as the 1971 season was, the following year brought little joy in the win column.

Stuck with a &#8220bunch of rowdies,” as he once described them, Lum Wright Sr. ran off more than a dozen players at the start of the season and coached the leftovers to a 3-5-2 record.

The seeds of greatness were planted in that dismal campaign, however. Warren Central beat Forest Hill 32-7 in the season finale and was the preseason favorite to win the Little Dixie Conference’s South Division in 1973.

The Vikings made good on that prediction in a big way. They lost to Columbia, 8-7, in the third week of the season and then didn’t lose again for almost two years. WC won its last eight games in 1973, including a 15-8 decision over Forest in the overall Little Dixie Conference championship game that gave the school its first conference title.

The 1974 Vikings were a perfect 11-0, and the ’75 squad won its first eight games before having a 27-game winning streak snapped with a 7-6 loss to Pearl.

&#8220That 1974 team had eight or nine guys play in the SEC,” said Russell Richards, an all-state tight end at WC from 1974-76 who later played at Memphis State. &#8220No wonder we won football games.”

The Warren Central teams of the 1970s had no true down years. The Vikings posted a staggering 83-22-3 record during the decade, won five Little Dixie Conference titles and put together another 26-game winning streak from 1977-80.

Wright’s teams went undefeated three times (1974, ‘78 and ‘79) and suffered one loss twice.

&#8220I started in the program in the eighth grade, and played four years in high school. I think I lost five games in those six years,” said Richards, now a supervisor at Entergy’s Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. &#8220Winning was just a way of life.”

The Vikings also made red pants fashionable.

Before Wright arrived, Warren Central wore red jerseys with white or gray pants. Many teams in Texas, where Wright spent his first 20 years in the coaching profession, wore solid pants. Before the 1972 season, Wright felt the Vikings needed to change their look and switched the uniforms to solid red, with white socks with thick blue stripes.

For every game since, with only a few exceptions, the red pants and white socks have been synonymous with Warren Central and with success.

&#8220I had worn solid colors in Texas for a long time, and I just felt like red trimmed in blue and white was the thing. It was different, no doubt about it,” Wright Sr. said. &#8220Those young kids coming up, their only goal in life was to wear the red britches on Friday night. That was what they dreamed about. That was what they talked about.”

Bringing in the red pants was just one of the traditions Wright started at WC.

As part of his disciplined approach to coaching, he refused to allow his players to remove their helmets during games. The first Warren Central team did not have benches on its sideline, but sometime between 1966 and ‘71 they returned. Wright had them removed again.

A bell was also attached to one of the light towers at Viking Stadium, and rang each time the home team scored. It finally fell into disuse sometime in the 1980s.

&#8220It was just jillions of little things,” Wright Sr. said. &#8220The kids take pride in the fact that they don’t sit down, or don’t take their helmets off.”

And behind all of the tradition, what made it all possible, was winning.

As the 1980s dawned, a new era was coming to high school football in Mississippi. A state playoff system was introduced in 1981, followed by the Class 1A through 5A system in 1984, which is still in use today.

Wright guided the Vikings to a pair of 10-win seasons, in 1981 and ‘82, and three straight district championships from 1981-83. But even he was not immune to the changes sweeping through the state. Wright left the program after the 1984 season, not long after the playoff system he had long pushed for became a reality.

&#8220I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the solidification of the school, the athletics and the academics. To see it go from nothing to, as they call it, the Red Machine,” Wright said of his accomplishments at WC. &#8220I don’t know if I’d change a whole lot. As Tim (Wright) used to say, ‘Just give me more playing time.’”

While it may have been almost fitting for Wright to leave during a time of change in the sport, Warren Central carried on as it always had.

Longtime assistant coach Robert Morgan was promoted to head coach before the 1985 season and not only continued the program’s winning ways, but its traditions and style as well.

And the formula for success that had served Warren Central’s football program for so long allowed it the rare opportunity to follow one hall of fame coach with another.