Rural Retreat High School’s moribund football program had never won a Hogoheegee District championship and had nary a postseason appearance to its name when new head coach Dean Rhea arrived on the scene in 1986.
Rhea had spent the previous six seasons leading the program at tiny Rich Valley and while the Steers were at times undermanned, undersized and many times overmatched, they played with an undeniable toughness and tenacity that had been ingrained by the guy calling the shots.
Rhea himself had been quite the athlete at Rich Valley – where his best friend and fellow standout on the gridiron, baseball field and basketball court was future “Survivor” contestant Tom Buchanan – and he later played college football at Bluefield State.
Now, he was trying to change the fortunes, attitudes and culture of a group of kids that had lost 19 of the previous 22 varsity contests in which they competed. Many saw it as a tough row to hoe, but Rhea knew there was plenty of potential for growth.
“Those kids [at Rich Valley] were small in general, but they’d knock your head off,” Rhea told Johnny Wilson of the Bristol Herald Courier before his initial season at the helm of the Indians got underway. “When we’d play Rural Retreat we saw bigger and faster kids who we didn’t feel were as aggressive as they could be. That’s my top priority right now – instilling aggressiveness into these athletes. Whether it takes me hollering and screaming or whether it simply takes me sitting down and explaining it, they will become aggressive. We’ve thrown away the blocking dummies.”
Rhea let it be known quickly that he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
“Coach Rhea was somewhat stubborn, putting it mildly,” said Charlie Cressel, a member of Rhea’s first squad at Rural Retreat. “He did not settle for mediocre play from any of his players. We either played at a high level every play or we did not play. That was established early on by Dean and was well known by each of his players. He instilled a sense of confidence in each of the players he coached. He even influenced the fans that came out in droves to support the program. There was an electricity of hope and pride that ran throughout the town on game day.”
His impact was immediate.
Rural Retreat won the first six games of his tenure, compiled an 8-3 record in ‘86, finished as district co-champs, qualified for the playoffs and began an impressive run of pigskin prosperity. In the 18 seasons Rhea spent as Rural Retreat’s gridiron boss from 1986-2003 he never endured a losing season and won four regional titles.
Community Stadium, tucked behind the school located just off Interstate 81’s Exit 60, was the setting for many of Rhea’s most memorable triumphs and between the lines where blue-collar players wearing black-and-orange jerseys dole out pad-rattling hits will be known from this point forward as Dean Rhea Field.
The designation was approved recently by the Wythe County school board and a dedication ceremony was held on Saturday night prior to Rural Retreat’s game against Northwood, a fitting matchup for such an occasion since the latter was formed from the consolidation of Rich Valley and R.B. Worthy, as Rhea and many of his former players were present.
The fieldhouse had been named in his honor previously and Rhea was known to give some memorable sermons in that setting.
“He articulated pregame and halftime speeches the best,” said Brad Haga, a center/defensive end for the Indians from 1992-95. “His speeches literally spoke to the core of every player in that locker room. Motivation was his gift, football was his passion and kids were his love. That was a great combination as a high school football coach.”
As Rhea and the players he once coached swapped stories on Saturday, you can bet somebody brought up a moment that occurred in his initial season at Rural Retreat.
“A few years ago Coach Rhea told me a story that goes something like this,” said Levi Davidson, who played for Rural Retreat in the mid-1990s. “He was in his first year at Rural Retreat and it was early in the season. It may have been the first game. They were locked in a battle with Fries or Independence. Rural Retreat had a small lead late in the fourth quarter and had to punt out of their own end zone.
“Snap was good, the punter caught it and much to Coach Rhea’s surprise, took off running on a fake punt. The Indians got the first down and proceeded to win the game. The punter who had ran the fake on his own was finally cornered by a furious Coach Rhea. Coach Rhea said in his most threatening manner, ‘Don’t you ever do that again. And if anybody asks, I told you to do that.’ The fans were all shocked by the brazen fake punt by this new coach who had turned around their team and they probably said ‘What a gutsy call he made by faking that punt.’ This may been the beginning of the Coach Rhea legend.”
Rhea’s 1988 squad lost three of its first four games, but got better as the season progressed in winning the Hogoheegee District and Region C, Division 1 championships. After beating defending state champ Parry McCluer in the regional title game, the Indians lost an overtime heartbreaker to the Jonesville Bulldogs in the state semifinals.
“We had lost so much from the previous year,” said Jamie Rosenbaum, an offensive lineman/linebacker in ‘88. “I remember the first play of that year [quarterback] Tony [Copenhaver] comes into the huddle to call the play and he throws up right there on the field he was so nervous. We had to call timeout on the very first play of the year. After that we lost a couple of games before things finally started to click for us.
“We got over the nerves and found out we were pretty good. … We really were just a bunch of kids that never knew how good we were. We just did what Coach Rhea told us and played our position and we trusted each other. Coach Rhea will tell you we weren’t the smartest bunch he ever coached, but we played harder.”
Perhaps Rhea’s most memorable season came in 1996 as his squad went 10-3, the first time a football team at the school had compiled double-digit victories.
“Out of 22 starting positions, we returned three starters from the previous year,” said James Bear, a wide receiver/safety for the Indians. “He didn’t do anything fancy, flashy or new-aged. He brought us together as one team, one family and got the most out of every player on the field. We ran a Power-I offense and outplayed our competition because of his leadership and motivation.
“Most people believed we were a .500 team that year, but Coach Rhea made us believe we were better than that. Each week he sold it to us more and more until we bought into it fully.”
The season ended with a loss to the Appalachia Bulldogs in the state semifinals, the same scenario that had played out in 1993.Yet, that ‘96 team was special.
“How good were we?” Davidson said. “I don’t really know. We had a good line and one of the best running backs to ever come through Rural Retreat in Gene Fields. We played good defense. Basically we were like a lot of Coach Rhea’s teams. We achieved more than we were expected to achieve. And that may be the best compliment I can give Coach Rhea. His teams overachieved way more times than they didn’t. That is the sign of a great coach.”
Rural Retreat also won a regional title in 1999 before losing a heartbreaker at home to Pound in the state semifinals, but Rhea’s legacy goes way beyond the wins, losses, playoff games and those trophies collecting dust in a case.
“What Dean Rhea did best was take care of people,” said Temple Musser, an offensive and defensive lineman at Rural Retreat from1991-94. “There were numerous players that Coach fed and clothed regularly. Coach allowed personalities to shine rather than cover them up.”
That didn’t just happen for the four seasons they played for the Indians.
“When I was coaching Little League he came to practice and I had a kid that towered over everyone, but just wouldn’t stay low and would get pushed off the line every time,” said Skipper Patton, another one of Rhea’s former players. “Coach came over and asked how it was going and I said ‘I just can’t get this big kid to stay down.’ He took him to the side and within five minutes he came back and the kid was like another player in that position. He had a way of inspiring kids. The way he coached was not by intimidating, but motivating.”
Quinton Hensley served as an assistant to Rhea for 17 seasons and took over as Rural Retreat’s head coach when his old boss decided to hang up the whistle. Hensley won three regional championships of his own with the Indians.
“I used to answer the phone in the coaches office with Dean Rhea’s Magical Football Kingdom,” Hensley said. “So much fun to be around, coaching never felt like work. He treated every kid like his own, understood that the game is supposed to be fun, expected players to be tough and knew the game of football inside and out. Most of the important things I know about the game I learned from him.”
Christopher Moore played for Rhea and later served as an assistant coach on his staff. He also had a stint as the head coach at his alma mater.
“He asked me to come back when I was a senior at Emory & Henry College,” Moore said. “That may have been my proudest moment with him, because he wanted me to be a part of his program. He has been – and always will be – my second dad. … He always brought the kids of the assistant coaches letter jackets when they were small. My girls still have those and that means the world to me.”
When soliciting comments about Rhea for this story the outpouring was impressive as Kenny Peeples, Michael Robert, Gene Fields, Tony Copenhaver, Rusty Crigger and Jason Funk also shared their memories of playing for Rhea and the lessons learned along with the other guys who started for the Indians who are quoted in this article. A few testimonial of what he meant to those players and the community would fill a few leather-bound volumes.
Rhea is still lending a hand to the Rural Retreat program and passing down the game’s valuable lessons to a new generation.
“He is now coaching a middle school team to success that my son, Houston, plays on – and with a Power I offense,” James Bear said. “Houston and his teammates are fascinated by Coach Rhea. I love to hear him talk about what Coach Rhea said at halftime or at the end of the game.”
The place the Rural Retreat Indians play was christened as Dean Rhea Field on Saturday, but a legion of players always thought of that name when they stepped foot inside Community Stadium long before now.
“We believed in him and he believed in us,” said Blake DeBord, a center/linebacker on that 1986 squad. “We all felt it. I would have run through a brick wall for him and I still would today. He is as transparent and honest as anyone could be. He is unapologetically himself regardless of the situation. That kind of honesty speaks straight to the heart of young men. Years ago, I got the chance to introduce my wife to him and I was so proud during that moment. It’s been 30 years since I played for Coach Rhea and I still call him ‘My Coach.’ “
Now, for a look at high school football moments that occurred this week in history:
Oct. 24, 1958
Ed Norris scored two touchdowns as Glade Spring grabbed a 13-7 win over Chilhowie. … Bill Potter rushed for a touchdown and also threw a TD pass in Big Stone Gap’s 27-6 pounding of Pennington Gap. … Buddy Mason’s touchdown toss to Joe Garrett with 27 seconds left was the only score Tennessee High could muster in a 20-7 setback to Morristown.
Oct. 27, 1967
A second-quarter touchdown run by Chappy Thomas was all Marion needed in a 6-0 victory over John Battle. … David Reid scored two touchdowns in Lebanon’s 53-12 hammering of Holston. Hubert Nash, John Parris, Giles Fields, Jon McCracken, Tom Gilmer and Frank Hess also reached the end zone for the Pioneers. … Danny Yates, Mike Ratliff and Larry Mullins accounted for touchdowns in Clintwood’s 20-0 whipping of Wise.
Oct. 19, 1973
Greg Jones and Kevin Bourne scored two touchdowns apiece in Tennessee High’s 48-0 thumping of Erwin. … Sullivan Central’s Mike Lawson threw a touchdown pass and also rushed for a score, but it wasn’t enough as the Cougars suffered a 28-14 loss to Morristown East. … Eddie Riner scored two touchdowns in Castlewood’s 14-12 win over Garden.
Oct. 24, 1986
Anthony Campbell caught seven passes from quarterback Scott Jones for 204 yards as Virginia High vanquished Abingdon, 44-20. … Cecil Miles (15 carries, 123 yards, three touchdowns) was the star in Jonesville’s 24-0 win over Ervinton. … Mark Cooper threw three touchdown passes to highlight Hurley’s 31-0 hammering of Haysi.
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