By Trey Williams
Former Unicoi County football/track and field star Clark Duncan was recently selected to be inducted as part of the 10-member 2020 class of the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
Also formally being inducted during a virtual ceremony (due to the coronavirus pandemic) on July 21 are Todd Helton, Rob Black, Mark Connor, Stan Cotten, Gloria Deathridge, Steve Hamer, Randy Lambert, Andy Landers and Mike Murray.
Duncan, a four-year starter in the secondary at Tennessee after signing in Johnny Majors’ initial class, has been the head coach 11 seasons at South-Doyle. He also just completed his 17th season as athletic director there after spending 17 seasons as head coach at Powell.
The Cherokees advanced to the quarterfinals this past season, the eighth time a Duncan-coached team has achieved the feat. Duncan has coached three teams to the semifinals, including a Powell team that finished state runner-up in 1991. Not bad for a guy that took over 0-10 programs at each school.
Duncan said his primary inspiration for coaching was Unicoi County football coach Mike White.
“I watched the relationships Coach White had with his players, not just myself, but all the players,” Duncan said, “the way he treated us and the things he did. I knew then that’s what I wanted to be. Early on, probably about my sophomore year in high school, I said, ‘I want to play football as long as I can play and then I’m going to coach as long as I can coach, then I’m gonna be principal.’ … All those things came to fruition and I wouldn’t change it.
“Coach White was a huge, huge impact on the way that I – even today the way I handle myself with the things that he instilled in me, the character and the leadership and the relationship piece. The relationship piece is the huge thing. I think in today’s world you’ve gotta be able to, when you’re dealing with kids, you’ve gotta be able to have a relationship. That was major in my development.”
Duncan was an All-State running back as a junior and senior in 1975-76. He was an All-American in ’76 after leading the Blue Devils to historic road wins against Science Hill and Tennessee High.
“There are so many great memories from Erwin,” Duncan said, “but beating Science Hill and beating Bristol my senior year were huge.”
His most vivid memory is running wild against Cloudland in his final game in Erwin. The Blue Devils “played up” in terms of enrollment in the Big Nine Conference during Duncan’s time, and he recalled the Highlanders being added to the schedule due to a scheduling snag or cancellation.
And Duncan piled up the yardage and touchdowns in a swan song stampede. He chuckled discussing how former Blue Devils nose tackle Danny White recently seemed to recall Duncan running for 3,000 yards and 10 touchdowns against Cloudland.
“I did rush for a lot of yards and score a lot of touchdowns that game,” Duncan said. “But that wasn’t it. It was just a special time. I can remember being so emotional during that game knowing that was the last time we would ever play again in Erwin. … It was a great place to grow up.”
Duncan was just as prolific in track and field. He set school records in the 100, 220, 440, the 120 high hurdles and the long jump. Duncan probably wouldn’t have ever competed in the sport if not for persistent track coach Charlie Bryant.
“The track is named after him,” Duncan said. “I was playing baseball and actually starting in center field as a freshman, actually alternating games with a guy name Myron Robinson, which turned out to be a really good friend of mine. Coach Bryant just kept after me to come run track, and one day we didn’t have practice or a game and I went and ran the hundred in a track meet and ran like a 10.7 hundred and thought I was the fastest guy in the world. And that was the last time I played baseball.
“Coach Bryant was relentless in promoting the program. He had some great teams over the years. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, we had some great track people. I know that I hold several records. Robin Ingle was probably the best female athlete to ever come out of Erwin, in my opinion. She holds several of the track records. …
“He was always putting on big events. The big, big thing was the Blue Devils Relays. Gosh, I couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of schools showed up. It was a major, major event. Schools from all over Tennessee and outside of Tennessee came. It was probably the biggest event ever in that area at the time.”
It was a big deal when Duncan ran against Science Hill’s Van Williams, who went on to play for the Buffalo Bills, and Dobyns-Bennett’s Ronnie Horton.
“The three of us were the fastest guys around,” Duncan said. “That was a battle at every meet. We just alternated winning each week, I think. A lot of those events – in the 100, 200 and 400, I usually won all three of those events. It was rare that I didn’t, except in the 100 when Van might or Ronnie might.
“I think the biggest thing was the decathlon. I should’ve won the state decathlon my senior year. … We were down in Nashville and after three events I was leading and was projected to win the state. And that’s when we had a state trooper show up and tell us that my brother (Bill) had been in a gun accident and we had to get in the car and go back to Erwin, and my brother died.”
Duncan said it “destroyed” his father Bruce, who had been a lineman at Erwin, Clemson and East Tennessee State. Duncan dealt with it as best he could thanks to the help of people such as his high school sweetheart/Blue Devils cheerleader Karen Monk, with whom he’ll celebrate his 40th anniversary this month, and her father Paul.
“I had already signed with UT and was finishing up my senior year, finishing up track,” Duncan said. “I was 18 at the time, and for an 18-year-old to deal with those kinds of things and getting ready to leave home, I was very fortunate – I guess I was more mature than a lot of kids at that age.
“I was a Christian and I understood that there was life after death. So I managed to deal with my brother in that way. … Karen was a big part of me being able to get through it and being the support that I needed.”
A few months later Duncan was hearing Tennessee play-by-play man John Ward call his name, and Ward’s sidekick, Bill Anderson, was interviewing him after a game. It was absolutely electric to play in Neyland Stadium as a true freshman, especially during Majors’ homecoming season.
“As a kid I listened to John Ward and Bill Anderson talk about Stanley Morgan, Condredge Holloway, etcetera,” Duncan said. “Then to mention my name is special to me.”
Duncan played with the likes of Reggie White, Roland James, Willie Gault, Anthony Hancock and Jimmy Streater.
“At the time you don’t realize it, but those were some world-class athletes,” Duncan said. “Roland James was my hero. Reggie White saved my life one game at Ole Miss. Every year we’d play in the Liberty Bowl. We’d go to Memphis as a home game and play either Ole Miss or Mississippi State.
“I’m a senior and Reggie was a sophomore and we’re playing Ole Miss and they’ve got a running back – he was a big ole dude. He was like 240 or 250. He got in the open field and it was just me and him and I just knew he was gonna kill me. And it was like a cartoon, just out of nowhere this bolt of lightning crossed my face – it was Reggie – and just killed the guy. He saved my life that day. I could see he was gonna run over me and it was gonna be a hard time getting up. Reggie was a special individual, a great friend and just a personable guy.”
Duncan committed to Tennessee the night before Majors’ Tony Dorsett-led Pittsburgh Panthers won the national championship with a 27-3 win against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
“Coach (Bill) Battle was recruiting me,” Duncan said, “and then, of course, Coach Majors got the job, and Coach Majors called me the night before the national championship game – Pittsburgh’s Sugar Bowl game – and just said, ‘I want to make sure you understand I want you to come to the University of Tennessee.’ And I accepted it on that night.”
Duncan said he thought South-Doyle might win a state championship this past season with dynamic running back Elijah Young (Missouri). But his quarterback was injured in the third game and his ailing ankle had taken away his dual-threat ability when he returned for the second round of the playoffs.
Duncan would like to think the Cherokees are primed for another deep run this season, provided, of course, the pandemic doesn’t prevent it.
Duncan tries to coach the way Mike White coached him in Erwin.
“I always tell my players’ parents, ‘When they need their neck hugged, we’re gonna hug their neck. If we need to get after ‘em, we’ll get after ‘em,’” Duncan said. “We’re ‘old school’ but we love our kids. I tell my players all the time that I love ‘em. And sometimes I tell a kid I love him just to force him to have to say that, just because some of our kids don’t have people in their lives that tell ‘em they love ‘em, you know, especially an adult.
“You have to have a relationship with those kids. They have to know that you care about ‘em. They have to know that you love ‘em, that you’ll fight for ‘em.”
Of course, Duncan has always treated people with respect. Before Danny White was a 140-pound Unicoi County defensive tackle, he spent his freshman and sophomore years in the band. Those were Duncan’s junior and senior years, and White spent most of his freshman year getting bullied by many of his former teammates due to giving up football after the seventh grade to focus on the band. Part of the reason was his mother and grandmother’s excitement, not to mention a $1,200 Yamaha alto saxophone.
So when Duncan sat down beside White on the first day of school during White’s sophomore year, White was certain the football players’ hazing was set to resume. And this time it’d be coming from a “larger-than-life, tremendously talented, handsome senior football player.”
But, as White stated in a letter he wrote this year: “I was sitting with the greatest football player in Unicoi County High School history, who could have crushed every little ounce of confidence and motivation I had left in me. But instead, Clark Duncan treated me with respect and friendship. Everything changed for me in that moment!”
Indeed, White went on to make his own mark.
“Danny was two years behind me and he was in the band and he had been bullied and mistreated a lot,” Duncan said. “He and I have become really good friends. He went on and started playing football and became the ’79 male athlete of the year.”
Blue Devils players are still being inspired by Duncan and his legacy.
“Coach Duncan is a legend in every sense of the word,” Unicoi County coach Drew Rice said. “He’s undoubtedly one of the best, and a lot of people would say the best, players to ever play at Unicoi County High School. It’s such a well-deserved honor for him to be inducted in the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. I can’t think of a better representative for Erwin and Unicoi County. Our football program is so happy for him and his family.
“Coach Duncan is still a huge supporter of Unicoi County football. I can’t even begin to list all the things he has done and continues to do for our football program. We have become very close since I have become head coach and it’s been such a blessing for me personally. He’s a great resource and mentor to me. His body of work around the game of football is something I admire tremendously.”
Certainly, the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame would agree.