Great players and coaches have roamed the halls of the school, but one man made the Blue Devils into a powerhouse.
The late, great Harry Fry — who died in 2006 — carved his name into Southwest Virginia history by taking a program in the midst of a terrible skid and steering it to prominence.
Fry — over the course of 34 years as a head coach at three schools — compiled a record of 237-80-9, winning two state championships and reaching another title game while molding numerous young men into players who could compete at the next level and beyond.
But for the 1991 VHSL Hall of Fame inductee, winning was not immediate.
“It was unbelievable playing for him and the fact that he was my dad made it even more special,” said Keener Fry, who was the quarterback on Gate City’s 1974 state title team. “There was an assurance that we were going in prepared and that we were going to win.”
Fry starred on the football, basketball and baseball teams at Pennington Gap and enrolled at LSU after graduation.
“That was during the era of Alvin Dark and Dub Jones, who went on to become MLB and NFL stars,” Keener said. “Dad tried out (for football and baseball), but realized that it was a different level and came back here to play at Milligan.”
Fry went into the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving from 1943-45 before being discharged in 1946.
His better sport was baseball and at Milligan he starred at catcher. He graduated in 1948 then earned his master’s degree from Peabody College in Nashville in 1949.
He was inducted into the Milligan Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997.
In the summer of 1947, Fry was on the baseball roster of the Pennington Gap Lee Bears of the Mountain States League. He was a decent hitter, finishing the season with a .287 average, and was known as a whiz on the bases.
“He always talked about how he had a good enough arm to make it in the minors as a catcher, but a nagging shoulder injury derailed him,” Keener said.
RETURNING TO HIS ROOTS
Fry’s first coaching job came in 1949 at St. Charles in Lee County, where he helmed the football, boys and girls basketball, baseball and track teams.
Football at the school had been discontinued in 1942 because of World War II, and when Fry arrived, he took charge of the first squad in six years.
St. Charles went 0-9 and was outscored 220-44 that year.
“My mom used to talk about his first year of coaching at St. Charles,” Keener said. “She said that he was a pain to live with and that he used to get ulcers all the time because he was so stressed out. They couldn’t win a game and they were horrible.”
The following spring, Fry guided the baseball team to the district championship.
He went to Saltville in 1950, serving as an assistant football coach for two years, then Scott County called.
THE FIRST SEASONS
The headline of the July 19 edition of the Times News read “Harry Frye Accepts Shoemaker Coaching Job,” and the people in Gate City were more than excited to have a coach with great potential after enduring the only winless season — 0-10 with three forfeits — in program history in 1952.
“I am very happy to be selected for the Shoemaker High position,” Fry told then-Times News correspondent Bill Perry. “Gate City is a great town and the people have been more than nice to me. I only hope I can give them a winning club.”
The Blue Devils didn’t get their first win until the fourth game of the season, a 20-6 upset of Pound. Shoemaker had a 7-12-1 record in Fry’s first two seasons.
The tide started to turn in the 1955 season when the Blue Devils finished 8-1-1, winning their last eight games.
“The program changed when Dad established the youth program,” Keener said. “There were four teams — the East End Redskins, West End Colts, Hiltons Rams and Weber City Packers — and he put in his playbook with maybe four or five plays and one basic defense. He believed in coaching and teaching something that would become a habit.”
A NEW CHALLENGE
After Gate City — the name changed from Shoemaker after 1956 when the new school was finished — polished off a sparkling 9-0-1 record in 1958, many schools were trying to coax Fry away.
One of them was R.B. Worthy in Saltville, which was coming off a 6-3-1 season and just had Don Williams leave to take the coaching job at Concord College.
Fry took the job at R.B. Worthy — where he had served as an assistant coach from 1950-52, when it was called Saltville — and Gate City turned to John C. “Rip” Miller, who had served as an assistant under Fry.
In the midst of this, Gate City moved into the tougher Southwest District and had to replace 18 starters from the previous year.
In a scheduling quirk, Gate City’s first home game the following season came against R.B. Worthy. The Shakers were not welcomed with hospitality but left with a 14-6 win. They finished the season 7-2-1.
Miller, who was expected to fill the position only temporarily, resigned from his post the following February.
Gate City again began a coaching search as rumors swirled that Fry might return.
Less than a month later, the first line of the March 2 story on the front of the Times News sports section read: “The prodigal son is coming home.”
Fry was back.
“He was very much welcomed back by the community,” Keener said. “He had opportunities to go to the college level, but I think he felt a calling to being a high school coach and a teacher. He loved teaching math and he wasn’t one of those that was wasting time in the classroom to get to the football field.
“He knew that he wasn’t going to be going anywhere else because he had so much support from the community and he loved it in Gate City.”
Fry again faced an uphill battle, though, because Gate City had lost 12 seniors off a 2-8 team. His first year back, the Blue Devils went 1-9.
“BIG BLUE CANNONBALL” ERA
One of Fry’s best squads was his 1965 team. The Blue Devils — led by Tennessee commits Fred Pippin and All-American Neil McMeans — went 10-0 and outscored their opponents 312-6 that season.
Then the 1970s arrived.
Fry put Gate City football on the map by fielding teams known for stellar defensive play and powerful offensive lines.
Times News stories back then noted that lines of cars heading to games regularly stretched back into Weber City and that Legion Field — established in 1966 — was overflowing every Friday there was a home game. The crowds regularly doubled the entire population of the town of Gate City, which was about 2,500 at the time.
In 1970 — the first year of VHSL-organized playoffs — Gate City was a machine. The Blue Devils ripped off 10 straight wins, including a 44-16 thrashing of Dobyns-Bennett at Legion Field.
When Big Blue reached the playoffs, it rolled over Dublin 16-8, Altavista 48-0 and finally James Monroe 40-8 in the Group AA championship game to finish undefeated at 13-0.
“That team was awesome,” Keener said. “They had guys like Pat Loggans, Don Frazier, and Stan and Phillip Rogers. They were unstoppable and when Phil took the opening kickoff back about 90 yards (in the state championship game), we had them and they couldn’t do anything about it.”
The 1974 squad — which also went 13-0 and outscored its opponents 687-130 — could be considered one of the best ever in the area.
“From the fifth game of my sophomore year against Virginia High to the last game of my senior year, we didn’t lose,” Keener said. “We lost to Virginia High (19-12) and Dad watched that film probably no less than 1,000 times, I kid you not. My junior year we beat them really bad (62-12) at the opening of their new stadium and that felt pretty good.
“We had a bunch of good guys on that team like Dennis Wolfe, Mickey Rogers, Gary Calhoun, Greg Cornett, Ricky Shoemaker and Tim Blankenbecler. We weren’t trying to run up the score and lots of times the first-stringers didn’t even play after the first half.
“In practice on Mondays, we’d run the first-team defense against the first-team offense and I was getting killed in a live scrimmage. A lot of the times, I couldn’t wait to get to Friday so I wouldn’t have to go against the defense.”
In 1975, Gate City ran through the season unbeaten again but was blasted 52-19 by Martinsville in the state semifinals. The loss ended a 30-game winning streak.
“I remember when we got smoked by Martinsville and he came in the dressing room after the game and said, ‘Guys, hurry up, get your stuff together and get on the bus before they score again,’ ” Keener said.
LEGACY IN BIG BLUE COUNTRY
Gate City made another run to the state title game under Fry in 1978 but ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Southampton, losing 56-6.
The Devils made the playoffs twice more under Fry, in 1979 and 1982, but lost to Narrows and Giles, and Fry retired prior to the 1983 season.
Under Fry, the Blue Devils had five unbeaten squads (1958, 1965, 1967, 1970, 1974), won nine district, four region and three sectional championships, finished as district co-champions five times and were district runners- up eight times.
Fry was voted the Southwest Virginia coach of the year nine times before retiring as the winningest coach in the state. He still ranks in the top 25.
In the 18 years Fry’s teams played at Legion Field, Gate City lost a total of six home games. During that time, football had become a religion of sorts to Gate City folks, and the main service came on Friday nights.
Fry was Gate City football, and coaches like Nick Colobro and Bill Houseright built on his well-established legacy.
“I remember when he gave it up and he told Nick Colobro to make sure that he kept the little league program the same,” Keener said. “Of course, the program is now like 60 years old or something and it’s pretty much been the same. The whole idea was whether you played for West End, East End or whoever that you were eventually going to be a Gate City Blue Devil.
“He was unrelenting about doing things right, but he was tough. I can distinctly remember that I had two centers growing up from little league to senior year and we only had one fumble that whole time. He wanted to establish a legacy in which future coaches could have sustained excellence.”
The legacy Fry left wasn’t only about winning, however.
“Dad was proud of all of his players through the years from Ford Quillen, who was the first guy to play at Tennessee back in the ’50s, to the guys he coached in his last years,” Keener said. “Every place was special to Dad and he kept in touch with a lot of those players from St. Charles and Saltville. When he passed, we got a lot of letters, emails and messages from a lot of those players and coaches.”