Vikings keep sailing under Morgan|[10/20/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 20, 2005

This is the third in a four-part series chronicling Warren Central’s football program as it celebrates its 40th birthday this season. Friday: Brotherhood and family keep the Warren Central tradition alive.

Two state championships, record playoff streak highlight 1980s and ’90s

There was an air of uncertainty surrounding the Warren Central football program after Lum Wright resigned in the winter of 1984.

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Could the program that had dominated the 1970s continue its winning ways in the new statewide playoff system? Would new coach Robert Morgan, be able to follow the success of his predecessor?

Thanks to the efforts of Morgan and his staff, most of whom had already been together for more than a decade, the questions swirled for about 10 minutes.

Morgan made sure the established traditions stayed intact. He inherited a talented group of players and brought along new ones to replace them when they left. And the winning continued as it always had – 40 victories and a state championship in Morgan’s first four seasons.

&#8220It’s a big responsibility. But I was ready for the challenge, and most of the coaches were still here. We were determined we were going to make the program better, and we did,” Morgan said.

It was a tall task to make the program better than it was under Wright. Under his leadership, Warren Central went 124-28-3, won nine conference titles and had three perfect seasons.

Morgan was the architect of the Vikings’ defense during that era, serving as defensive coordinator for more than a decade before taking over as head coach in 1985. He started coaching at Warren Central in 1968.

Curtis Brewer, another longtime WC assistant who succeeded Morgan as head coach 20 years later, said there was no doubt Morgan was the best candidate to replace Wright.

&#8220There was never a doubt in my mind of Robert Morgan’s qualifications. The way he deals with the kids, there was never a doubt,” Brewer said. &#8220We always felt we were a coaching staff, and never just one coach.”

Morgan not only kept the program together through what could have been a turbulent time, he took it to another level.

The Vikings won nine games in 1985, then posted back-to-back 10-win seasons in 1986 and ‘87. The 1988 campaign didn’t start off nearly as well.

Warren Central stumbled to a 2-2 start, managing just 13 points in losses to Provine and Callaway. The Vikings beat South Natchez in the fifth game of the season, then trailed Brookhaven 7-3 at halftime the next week. In the second half, WC finally found its form.

The offense took the second-half kickoff and drove 74 yards in 12 plays, capped by a 2-yard Larry Carter touchdown run. The defense held Brookhaven scoreless the rest of the way, and Carter sealed it with a 1-yard TD run with 3:52 left in the game.

The victory over Brookhaven was the start of something special for the Vikings. They won four of their last five regular-season games, losing only to eventual Class 4A champion West Point.

Warren Central then beat Picayune in the first round of the playoffs and followed it with victories over Meridian and Gulfport to reach the Class 5A championship game for the first time.

The Vikings capped the magical season by beating Greenwood in the state title game. WC rallied from an early 14-0 deficit behind the running of Kenny Johnson and Larry Carter to win 23-19. Johnson ran for two touchdowns and Carter had 102 yards, including a 53-yard TD in the third quarter.

&#8220They were very enjoyable. They would practice as long as you wanted them to, and were just a super group of kids,” Morgan said. &#8220They were a special bunch.”

WC managed its first championship in the state playoff system despite not having a 1,000-yard rusher or passer and scoring more than 23 points only once – a 33-14 playoff win over Picayune. Six of the Vikings’ 11 wins were by a touchdown or less.

Johnson was the team’s leading rusher, with 857 yards and five touchdowns. Most of that came in the playoffs, when he ran for 309 yards and all five of his scores. Carter ran for 825 yards and 10 TDs, while quarterback Shawn Kurtz threw for 857 yards and only three touchdowns.

&#8220That was one of the best playing jobs and coaching jobs we’ve ever done around here. It still brings chills when you think about what those guys did,” Morgan said. &#8220They were very good players, but nobody was a great player. They were a fine football team.”

Because of their lack of superstars, the 1988 squad has always held a special place in the hearts of Vikings fans. While it may have been a great team in the truest sense of the word, six years later Warren Central fielded a team that was undoubtedly the best collection of talent in the school’s history.

Not long after the first state championship, the city and county school systems consolidated. Overnight, a number of WC’s players were sent over to Vicksburg High – Warren Central’s archrival. It led to one of the worst periods the program had seen since the early days before Wright.

The Vikings went 10-2 in 1989, then dropped off to 4-7 in 1990 and 6-6 in ‘91. The stretch included the program’s first losing season since 1972, and one of only two losses to Vicksburg in 24 games against the Gators. The other loss to VHS didn’t come until 2002.

Warren Central still made the playoffs in 1990 and ‘91, but appeared a long way from competing for another state title.

&#8220Robert probably carried Warren Central through one of the most critical periods of our football program when he carried us through consolidation,” Brewer said. &#82201988, 1989 was one of the hardest times, when you see the seventh- and eighth-graders get on the bus and leave here to have spring training.”

Enough of those seventh- and eighth-graders stuck around, though, to provide the foundation for a legendary run.

In 1992, a sophomore tailback named Brian Darden burst onto the scene. He rushed for 919 yards and 20 touchdowns and, combined with a defense that posted three shutouts, sparked the Vikings to a 10-3 record.

The following season Morgan’s son, Rob, took over at quarterback. After throwing one pass in his sophomore season in 1992, Morgan threw for 1,732 yards and 18 TDs in his junior year. Darden added almost 1,800 rushing yards and 29 TDs on the ground as the Vikings’ &#8220Red Gun” offense scored 506 points in 15 games.

The 1993 season ended with a 42-28 loss to South Panola in the Class 5A championship game, considered by many as the best game in Class 5A championship history, but the Vikings were simply too good to be denied again in ‘94.

WC returned 20 seniors and 44 lettermen to the 1994 squad. Darden piled up another 2,238 yards and 28 TDs on the ground, to finish his career with a then-state record 78 touchdowns for his career. Morgan threw for 1,641 yards and 17 TDs, and the defense allowed just 101 points in 15 games.

Warren Central beat Provine 14-7 in the Class 5A title game, capping a three-year run in which the Vikings went 38-5, appeared in two state championship games and won one.

More than a dozen players from the ‘94 championship team went on to play college football. Three of them – Darden, Morgan and Kevin Prentiss – played in the Southeastern Conference.

Darden played one season at Tennessee before eventually transferring to Jackson State. Morgan and Prentiss played at Mississippi State and helped the Bulldogs to their only SEC West Division title, in 1998.

&#8220The only way somebody could beat us was to sneak up on us, like Clinton did. We could play football,” said Kevin Ford, the starting middle linebacker for the 1994 Vikings. Ford, a sophomore on that team, went on to play center at Alabama-Birmingham. &#8220There was talent just sitting on the sidelines. James Williams played wide receiver in the NFL, and he didn’t even start until his senior year.”

The 1994 season was a high-water mark for Warren Central’s program, and in many ways the end of an era. The Vikings continued to make the playoffs – they extended their streak to 20 consecutive seasons in 2004 – and put up winning seasons, but have not been a true state title contender since.

Since winning it all in 1994, Warren Central has not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs and is 3-10 in the postseason. Each of the last two years, the Vikings won the Region 2-5A championship – their first outright titles since ‘94 – only to lose in the first round.

&#8220To win one (title), you’ve got to get breaks. To win two, that ‘94 team had to have some breaks along the way. You’re playing to win every one of them. All it takes is one or two injuries at the wrong time,” Brewer said.

Indeed, a number of factors, including bad breaks, have gone into WC’s recent playoff drought: