While John Mullinax was an assistant at McMinn County, the Cherokees enjoyed their only undefeated and untied regular season in 1975 led by quarterback John Grubb (now deceased) and Hubert Simpson.
Grubb signed with Kentucky before transferring to North Alabama to play for his uncle Wayne Grubb. Simpson signed with Tennessee, scoring four touchdowns versus Notre Dame in one game while there. Monroe resigned after the ’76 season and John Forgety was hired and coached in 1977 before leaving. The former Cherokee and Tennessee football player, Johnny Grubb, was hired to replace Forgety in 1978.
Al the conclusion of the 1978 season, John and Joy Mullinax hosted a “Tiger Paw” party at their home as his beloved Clemson Tigers were playing Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. This was the game where OSU Coach Woody Hayes threw his infamous “punch heard round the world,” slugging a Clemson player on the sideline during the course of the game, ending his legendary career.
Get-togethers were quite common during the ’70s among Cherokee faithful. During the ’75 season, someone would host a group of people after each home game. I remember being in the homes of Harry Wilkerson, Clyde Grubb, John Mullinax, Benny Monroe and others. It was a fun season.
Mullinax had applied for the head coaching job after Forgety resigned, as he felt he was ready to become a head coach. He stayed at McMinn through Grubb’s first year then began looking elsewhere. There were two people interested in the vacant position at Copper Basin and after an interview, John was selected. Joy found employment as a waitress at the Corner Café then got connected with Ferris Maloof, a noted mover and shaker in Polk County. She became his bookkeeper and secretary dealing with sporting goods.
The Mullinax foray into head coaching proved to be successful, as he took a downtrodden program that had not won in years to the playoffs twice. In his five years he had only one losing season and was 35-20 overall. He reached the state semifinals once, losing to Gordonsville in double overtime.
In the spring of 1984, Bill Lloyd resigned his post as head coach at McMinn County after two years at the helm. Mullinax recalls, “You (Coffman) were the first person to call. McMinn County School Board Chairman, Fudd Burris, also called along with Boardmember Jerry Smith.”
John told others and me, “I’m interested in the job but I will not apply.” Still a little resentment lingering from what he perceived as a snub in 1978. Mullinax got the job this time, and his first hire was the former McMinn Central standout Mark Stone, who had been his assistant at Copper Basin. Stone stayed one year before getting the head job at Central. Central had just fired Dean Ratledge, a former McMinn County star, and when Stone went back to his alma mater, Ratledge did the same, returning to the Cherokees. Some of the early hires by Mullinax as assistants were Roger Parks, Mike Frazier, Keith Elliott and Steve Akins, the freshman coach.
Joy found work in Athens with Jim Nelson at Edward D. Jones, then moved to Athens Federal Savings and Loan as a secretary to Frankie Brown (now Elliott) before beginning a long and prosperous career in the lending business, particularly in real estate. At some point in the mid ’80s, the Mullinax family put down more roots in Athens as they purchased a house on Woodward Avenue that Eb Willson told them was in a foreclosure.
It was shortly after this move that John and Joy began a ritual that somewhat continues to this day. I always interviewed the head coach on
Thursday night before a Friday game. At that time, the Cherokees practiced under the lights on Thursday nights. It was a pretty big deal as many parents and supporters showed up. It was after practice on Thursdays when I would corner the coach and tape the Friday pregame show, “Coaches Bench.”
Somehow we began meeting at John and Joy’s house after practice. Josh and Little John helped at practice and were still at home as was Otis the family dog. Pizza was delivered and I would bring liquid refreshments. The Mullinax family was the first I had ever seen put ranch dressing on their pizza. Although I love ranch, I never yielded to that urge.
I still vividly recall taking Jared Fields, one of my son Justin’s best friends, with me one Thursday night introducing him to the coach as his future quarterback. He fulfilled that prediction.
Upon entering the house on Thursday night the first room to the left was Joy’s workroom. Every game Joy made a multitude of signs for the team as well as individual players. She would be on the floor with a paintbrush in her hand and have another person, many times a cheerleader, helping make the “run through.” This was the large paper that was attached to a hoop that the cheerleaders would hold for the players to run through before the start of every game. The paper was discarded newsprint that was given to me by Bowater.
Joy got wise at some point and began removing the generic signs from the fences after games so she could reuse them. Bowater also during that time would issue me a pass to pick up old worn-out felts that had been used on the paper machines. These were placed on the sidelines for the players and coaches to stand on, which kept the mud from collecting on their shoes.
John had a deck built onto his house, and when it came time to record the show, he and I would retreat to the deck. Their neighbor had dogs outside, and almost every Friday night on the pregame you could hear those dogs barking. There was a rule that if a visitor was there with us and McMinn won, the visitor had to return the next Thursday. Likewise, if McMinn lost, the visitor was barred the next week. The Woodward house was also the scene for after the games on football Fridays, as a large group of us would congregate, win or lose, and watch the Chattanooga and Knoxville prep football scores on TV.
Even though John and Joy still had Josh and Little John at home, they never hesitated to open their door and their home to others. When prompted, John said there were “several” of his football players who spent time under the Mullinax roof. Kids whose home situations were less than ideal.
“Most of them stayed a month or less,” he recalls. “They were welcome and generally stayed until their situation improved at home. We had one boy that was dropped off daily by his dad. He had nothing, no lunch money, just the clothes on his back. And there was another who actually stayed with us for six months after his dad died. We just wanted to give them a home. Many of my former players have stayed in touch through the years, but especially those who lived with us.”
Very few people knew about these situations, and I never knew who would open the door when I visited.
It didn’t take long for Mullinax to change the culture and the success of McMinn County football. After the 11-1 record in 1975, McMinn went 19-61 from 1976 to 1983, including 14-56 from 1977 to 1983 (they were 5-5 in 1976, which was the only non-losing year) with no postseason appearances. In 1984, Mullinax’s first year, the Tribe managed a 4-6 record before improving to 8-3 in 1985.
From there, the Cherokees were a total of 28-7 from 1985-87, winning bowl games in ’85 and ‘86 and advancing to the second round of the playoffs in ’87 before losing to eventual state champion Jefferson County 30-6 on a bitterly cold and windy night in Dandridge. Jeff County was led by future NFL-er Todd Collins. The Cherokees had All-State player and future Vol Shazzon Bradley going both ways.
Due in large part to his success, Mullinax was contacted in the early ’90s by Lincoln County, who at the time was a state power. Mullinax agreed in principle to accept the position of head coach. Several of his players showed up at his home to discuss the situation with him. In other words, to beg him to stay. It worked. He backed out after verbally agreeing and stayed in Athens.
Not only did the coach stay but eventually stayed a total of 19 years with a record of 133-78, becoming the longest serving head football coach in the history of the high school and also recording the most wins. His winning percentage of 63% trails only Frank Ditmore’s 63.2%. Ditmore was 36-21-4 from 1937 to 1942.
Johnny Coffman is the Voice of the Cherokees. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org