Legendary Clintwood football coach Ralph Cummins dies at 88

George Thwaites • Jun 24, 2014 at 1:12 AM

Ralph Cummins, a World War II veteran who went on to found one of Southwest Virginia's most enduring high school football dynasties, died Monday.

He was 88.

One of the last surviving coaches from Southwest Virginia's Golden Age of state championship football, Cummins won 271 games at Clintwood, leading the Greenwave to state titles in 1974, 1975 and 1978.

His tenure included an epic 64-0-1 regular-season streak between 1972 and 1979. He was equally proud of the usually less remembered 41-3-6 run he put together in the 1950s.

"Most coaches liked being underdogs. He wanted to be named the favorite," recalled former Times-News sports editor Bill Lane, who covered the VHSL Hall of Fame coach from the 1960s until Cummins stepped down as head coach after the 1987 season.

In addition to the VHSL Hall of Fame, Cummins was enshrined in the National High School Sports Hall of Fame and the Emory & Henry College Sports Hall of Fame.

Among the diverse array of well-known regional personalities who played under Cummins are J.I. Burton state champion football coach Jim Dotson, Southwest Virginia sports broadcaster Shanghai Nickles, Bristol Motor Speedway vice president for public affairs Kevin Triplett and acclaimed Appalachian artist D.R. Mullins.

Cummins was an influential figure in the high school coaching community. He encouraged the modernization and advancement of the sport at the local, state and national levels.

Cummins set high professional standards and shared his knowledge of the game with many colleagues, including those who were rivals.

"He laid the groundwork for a lot of other schools who patterned their football programs after his," Lane said.

Cummins, who attended East Stone Gap High School in Wise County, served as a U.S. Army paratrooper during World War II.

He was among Allied airborne troops to cross the English Channel during the invasion at Normandy. The glider carrying Cummins and his comrades crash-landed in a rural field behind enemy lines.

Cummins later said he considered himself extremely fortunate to have survived the landing. He cut a canvas piece from the fuselage of the wrecked aircraft and carried the memento with him throughout the war.

Cummins' football coaching career included spending the 1952 season in Gate City, where he learned the split-T offense from Harry Fry.

At Clintwood, Cummins served two seasons with Howard Deel, a basketball savant and future VHSL Hall of Famer in his own right.

Deel subsequently handed Cummins the reins of a Greenwave football program that had no winning tradition, little in the way of equipment and no stadium.

Relying on a combination of willpower, hard work and rapidly evolving political savvy, Cummins drummed up the community support and funding to build a viable football program at the Dickenson County school. His projects included the ingeniously wrangled construction of the stadium that would eventually bear his name, as well as a fully appointed field house and state-of-the-art weight training facility.

Deel's idealistic standards of sportsmanship — already well established at the school — were embraced by Cummins from the outset.

Sportsmanship remained a point of program pride under his head coaching successors, Bobby Meade and Rick Mullins.

Cummins' passion for building and development extended to his own coaching abilities. An avid student of the game, he sought out expert advice from the highest levels at coaching clinics from the earliest years of his career.

Cummins' willingness to consider new football philosophies, strategies and technologies directly and indirectly influenced an entire generation of young Southwest Virginia football coaches.

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