Jim Riggs came of age during the Great Depression, played football in the years prior to World War II, coached his final game as a gridiron boss in 1972 and died nine years ago.
His legend remains timeless, however.
Riggs left a lasting legacy that has endured all these years later as a larger than life figure from a golden era of high school football in Southwest Virginia, the coal miner turned coach who bridged two eras of the game, piled up the victories at Appalachia High School and mentored some of the Lonesome Pine District’s greatest players.
He went 101-25-6 as Appalachia’s head coach from 1960-1972 and this fall marks 50 years since he guided the Bulldogs to a perfect 13-0 record and the VHSL Group A state championship.
“He said the happiest years of his life were coaching at Appalachia. I heard him say that a dozen times,” said Randy Blair, who played for Riggs and later served as an assistant coach to the man. “Everybody liked him. He just did so much for everybody. He was a heck of a guy.”
His teams embodied both the region in which they played and the man who gave the orders.
“That Riggs is something else,” an opposing coach once told the Bristol Herald Courier. “He still believes in plain old hard-nosed football. He beats you one-on-one. Nothing fancy, just hard running, hard blocking, hard tackling – the same way he played himself.”
Riggs attended East Stone Gap High School in Southwest Virginia where he was both a star on the football field and basketball court. After a brief hiatus to make some money he pursued a collegiate career that took him to Milligan to play for coach Steve Lacy, a Sullivan County, Tennessee, native.
“I went over to King College one spring when Pedie Jackson was coaching there,” Riggs told the Bristol Herald Courier’s Gene “Pappy” Thompson in 1971. “He told me he wanted me to come and play for him, said it might cost me a little, but he’d do all he could for me.
“Well, I was figuring on going to King when Pedie died. I was working in Kentucky at the time, in a company store. Steve Lacy came along and wanted me to go to Milligan with him. Offered me full freight. I studied about it and told him I would. ‘Get in the car and go with me now’ he said. I told him to wait until I could get my money. I went back to the store, got paid off, put what clothes I had in a paper bag and went to Milligan.”
The Buffaloes went 9-0 in 1940 with wins over Austin Peay, Cumberland, East Tennessee State, Maryville, Carson-Newman, Emory & Henry, Tusculum, King and Bluefield, outscoring those foes by a combined 179-33.
There were several occasions when Riggs played with a broken nose and keep in mind he was a guard playing in the trenches in the days of no facemasks. He performed so well he earned All-American honors.
Fellow Wise Countian Bob Easterling, a blocking back from Wise, was the co-captain of that 1940 squad with Riggs. The star fullback for the Buffs was Bill Showalter Jr., the father of former Major League Baseball manager Buck Showalter, who followed the blocks of Riggs to reach paydirt more than once.
“It’s a great game,” Riggs told The Post of Big Stone Gap in 1940. “Any boy who doesn’t play it does not really live.”
Riggs was soon teaching the sport to a new generation of youngsters and his first head-coaching gig came with the Wise Indians as he had two different stints leading the program. He took a hiatus in 1953 when he accepted a job with the Clinchfield Coal Corporation.
“He talked about how he’d work 16 hours, sleep in his car for eight hours and then go back and work 16 more,” Blair said. “When he coached at Wise during the war, he weighed coal for the Interstate Rail Road part time. He was always working.”
Riggs got back in coaching in 1959 at Appalachia as the line coach for Sam Dixon and took over at the helm of the Bulldogs the following year. Blair was on Riggs’ first team with the ‘Dogs.
“He was hard,” Blair said. “I remember his first year there we were running wind sprints. I would get down to one end and say, ‘Hell, I’m just going to quit when I get to the other end, I can’t take this.’ I’d get to the other end and I’d say, ‘Well, surely I can do it one more time.’ Then I’d get down to the other end again and say, ‘Why didn’t I quit when I thought about it?’ He was a disciplinarian. A lot of people command respect and he did that.”
Riggs relied on the Split-T offense with belly left and belly right the preferred playcalls.
“We ran the same few plays over and over in games and practice,” said former Appalachia player Patrick Leedy. “I think he believed that running those few plays to perfection was better than a big playbook where folks didn’t know their assignments.”
It all boiled down to beating the man in front of you.
“He expected the best that you had to offer on his line of scrimmage,” said former Appalachia player Allen Clark.
He also expected you to bring it in practice as well as on Friday nights.
“One time several players and I were playing around to see who all could really punt and I punted the ball and it came down and hit Riggs on top of the head and knocked his hat and glasses off,” Clark said. “He was so mad that he ran us to death and said if you can goof off than you can run.”
There were some moments of levity, however.
“He would take his hat and glasses off and get down in a lineman’s stance and show you how you are supposed to block,” Clark said. “One day he got down to show everyone how to hit, but he chose the best lineman he ever coached to come across to hit him and Coach Riggs got rolled. When he got up he said, ‘Now, that’s how you do it.’”
The biggest development for the coach some called Big Daddy came with an influx of talent in the mid-1960s when school segregation ended in the area.
“In 1965 they integrated,” Riggs said in a 1987 interview with the Bristol Herald Courier’s Johnny Wilson. “Before integration Appalachia had been a small school, about 400 or 450 students counting eighth graders, but when they integrated we got a good number of Black students and were able to compete. The thing that helped us is we got some kids like Edd Clark and Willie Bush and later on Roy Talley and [Ron] Flash Davis. Some good Williams kids. We got some good kids every year who kindly made it possible for us to play with Gate City and Wise and the other big schools.”
The Bulldogs did more than compete and from 1965-1971, winning 67 of the 73 games they played during that time.
Appalachia went 10-0 in 1966 and 1969, 9-0-1 in 1968 and 9-1 in 1965 and 1967.
A 6-6 tie with Gate City in 1968 is one of the most memorable games in the annals of VHSL football as a crowd estimated between 12,000 and 15,000 spectators flocked to Wise County.
“That was probably the biggest crowd to ever see a high school football game in Southwest Virginia,” Riggs said in 1987. “And it was certainly one of the most physical games this area has ever seen too.”
Clark is considered the best running back the coalfields have produced as the superstar known as the “Stonega Stallion” rushed for 5,908 yards and scored 566 points in four years for the Bulldogs.
“He could have scored 2,000 points if I’d left him in the games all the time,” Riggs told Bob Foley of the Kingsport Times-News in 1974. “There wasn’t a thing he couldn’t do.”
While the names and faces changed, the style of play never did for Appalachia under Riggs’ watch.
Dave Sparks of the Bristol Herald Courier saw Appalachia play plenty of times and summed it up in a 1969 story:
Appalachia’s secret is blood and guts. The ‘Dogs are a rare breed, a group that still believes in using the color system – knocking down everyone on the field not wearing their color.
The Bulldogs come at you like Coxey’s Army on defense. They put the war bonnets in there on every play and make a point of hitting first, harder and more often than the enemy.
An injured player at Appy is rare. A boy so badly injured he would have been shot had he been a horse has been known to play 48 minutes for Jim Riggs, who has some unusual beliefs about tape and first aid kids.
Oh, Appy keeps a few rolls of tape around and there is a dust-covered first-aid kit, which is seldom used.
It was usually the other teams that needed the bandages and medical attention after tangling with the Bulldogs.
“You always know you have been in a ballgame when you play Appalachia,” once said Gate City coach Harry Fry, whose teams were known for doling out plenty of punishment themselves.
Riggs’ crowning achievement came in 1971 when the Bulldogs capped a perfect season with the state title, winning every game by double digits and rolling past Castlewood (46-0), Chilhowie (32-8) and Madison County (24-0) in the playoffs.
Roy “Power Pony” Talley, Tom Turner, Ron Davis, David Jones and Luke Marsingill were just some of the guys making headlines for Appalachia that fall. Davis had a 100-yard interception return in the state finals on a field that wasn’t exactly in pristine shape.
“There wasn’t a sign of grass and it looked like a lake,” Blair said. “C.F. Wright, a town leader, and a bunch of folks were there helping get it straightened up. We burned a hundred gallons of gas to get it dry. One of the players from Madison County many years later said the thing he remembered about Appalachia was driving up and seeing the field on fire.”
Riggs was presented with a 1972 Chevrolet Malibu by the fans after the game as a token of their gratitude. Can you imagine that scene happening today?
Riggs would coach one more year at Appalachia as his final team went 4-5-1, just his second losing season with the Bulldogs. His final game was a 6-0 loss to Powell Valley as quarterback Donnie Moore’s 3-yard plunge with 7:24 remaining was the only score in the rivalry game.
He remained the assistant principal at Appalachia until 1978 and could be spotted at games at the stadium that beared his name. His former star player, Tom Turner, became the head coach at Appalachia in 1980 and won five state titles in becoming Region D’s preeminent small-school powerhouse.
Appalachia closed in 2011 as it consolidated with Powell Valley to form Union High School.
The only head coach Union has ever had is Travis Turner, Tom Turner’s son.
He carries on the tradition of tough football teams.
“I remember Coach Riggs would come to the school and football practice when I was a young kid,” Travis Turner said. “Coach was a legend and he would always stop to speak to me and shake my hand. As a young kid that was something that I never forgot and carried that with me when I was a player at Appalachia High School. Coach Riggs was well known in Southwest Virginia and the entire state of Virginia in high school football. Coach Riggs is a coaching legend and led the greatest team in Appalachia history to its first state championship.”
Perhaps “Pappy” Thompson summed it up best as he once wrote about the coach: To whom Jim Riggs football is a way of life, along with coal dust, corn bread and beans, steak and gravy.
Now, for a look at high school football moments which occurred this week in history:
Oct. 19, 1962
Ronnie Bales had two touchdown runs and also threw a TD pass as Richlands recorded a 26-6 victory over Virginia High. … Jerry Blevins and Ed Mason scored touchdowns in Chilhowie’s 13-0 win over Castlewood. … Lebanon stomped St. Paul, 37-0, as L.F. Valley threw three touchdown passes and also had a TD run.
Oct. 15, 1971
Eddie Hirsch snagged three interceptions in Tennessee High’s 10-0 blanking of Erwin. Ed Roberts and Larry Silcox scored touchdowns for the Vikings. … Touchdown runs from Bob King and George Pope helped Abingdon earn a 12-0 win over Saltville. … Joe Perry and Butch Shelton accounted for Virginia High’s touchdowns in a 14-6 victory over Grundy.
Oct. 15, 1982
Kent McCormick returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown with 9:52 remaining to help Tennessee High take a 14-13 victory over Sullivan East. … Behind four touchdowns from Kenny Horton, Honaker rolled to a 32-14 win over Rural Retreat. … Carlo Stamper rushed for three touchdowns and also threw a 63-yard TD pass to Tom McGhee as Chilhowie cruised to a 47-6 triumph over Roanoke Catholic.
Oct. 18, 1996
A 10-yard touchdown run and successful two-point conversion try by Travis Morris with 1:02 remaining gave Sullivan East a 14-13 victory over Daniel Boone. … Greg Tester (23 carries, 326 yards, four touchdowns) starred as Hurley hammered Jenkins (Kentucky), 38-14. … Ervinton earned a 14-0 win over Castlewood as Nathaniel Collins keyed the win with 191 rushing yards.
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