Did a loss after Shelby won its first football state championship make the school’s future more successful?

By Richard Walker

Shelby High football has won so many state titles, it’s easy to see how some Golden Lions supporters can take them for granted.

After all, Shelby has won six state titles in the last seven years, eight in the last 15 seasons and has 18 state titles overall. The first six Golden Lions’ titles came in the old Western N.C. Activities Association following by 12 in the N.C. High School Athletic Association.

Shelby also had nine state runner-up finishes, four in the old WNCHSAA and five in the NCHSAA.

Longtime Shelby High coach Casey Morris just before his death in February 1973

All those solid seasonal finishes have helped the Golden Lions rack up a state-record 809 recorded victories in the school’s long championship-winning history that includes 131 postseason wins.

But a case can be made that Shelby’s first state title in 1947 which came with some postseason adversity help set up the school’s upcoming glory by giving the school a chance to see a futuristic offensive strategy.

When drills for the 1947 season began, veteran Shelby coach Casey Morris was coming off a 6-4 season in which the Golden Lions had finished fourth in the Western Conference behind champion Morganton (8-0), runner-up Marion (8-2) and third-place Cherryville (7-2).

Morris, a Gastonia native who captained football and baseball teams at the University of North Carolina, had started his coaching career in Shelby in 1924. He left to coach at old Belmont High in the mid-1930s before returning to Shelby.

In his first stint in Shelby, Morris led the Golden Lions football team to a 41-30-3 record in nine seasons from 1924 to 1932 that was highlighted by a 1924 Open Classification state runner-up finish. Morris also coached five Shelby basketball teams to Cleveland County postseason tournament titles but he had gained more attention for his baseball coaching success.

This advertisement for the 1947 Harvest Bowl in Shelby ran in The Charlotte News

From 1925 to 1934, Golden Lions’ baseball teams won 109 games and claimed Open classification N.C. state titles in 1925 and 1929 and won the 1930 N.C. Class B state title; Morris later guided Shelby to five more conference titles and the 1958 and 1959 WNCHSAA state titles.

Whether it was not having Morris’ coaching or simply a lack of talent, his three-year departure from the Shelby football coaching sidelines from 1933 to 1935 coincided with arguably the worst three-year stretch in school history – a 5-18-1 record under two different head coaches that included a winless 0-9 finish in 1935.

When Morris returned to the Shelby football sidelines in 1936, the Golden Lions still struggled initially; They went 1-5-2 in 1936 and 2-6-1 in 1938.

But the program was being rebuilt as evidenced by a 1944 Western Conference title and WNCHSAA runner-up finish. (Morris would remain Shelby’s head football coach until 1955 before hand-picking one of his former Shelby players – Gerald Allen – to replace him. Allen went 175-49-14 from 1956 to 1976 and is credited with creating the foundation by which the program still thrives.)

In 1947, Shelby routed one opponent after another in the regular season. The Golden Lions outscored their 10 opponents by a 245 to 40 margin and only midseason back-to-back home wins over non-conference opponent Gastonia (13-12) and league rival Cherryville (12-6) were even competitive.

The impressive season gave Shelby a state title as an unbeaten 9-0 Western Conference champion. That year, the WNCHSAA didn’t have an official title game like it had every year from 1957 until that association folded after the 1976-77 school year and its schools joined the NCHSAA; Unbeaten South Piedmont Conference champion Children’s Home of Winston-Salem (6-0) would’ve been the opponent in 1947.

But beginning in 1944, many North Carolina cities had begun hosting postseason bowl games that were usually held during Thanksgiving week or the first week in December. It was a practice the state athletic associations would later ban after the 1951 season.

In Shelby in 1947, the “bowl bug” clearly caught on.

Efforts to celebrate Shelby’s historic year – it was the Golden Lions’ first unbeaten regular season – were spearheaded by the Shelby Junior Chamber of Commerce. That organization paid for an advertisement promoting Shelby’s status as the only undefeated and untied Western N.C. team in The Charlotte News on the day of the Nov. 27, 1947 game that was called the “Harvest Bowl.”

Concord, the fifth-place team from the South Piedmont Conference, came into the game with a 7-3-1 record and a first-year coach running an offense few in the region had used or seen. Concord coach Frank Austin’s “T-formation” offense was called unusual and unpredictable in news reports of the day because it used the passing game more prominently.

In those days, most teams ran a single wing offense with the only passes being short flips to players less than five yards away.

But the “T-formation” worked effectively in Concord’s 13-6 bowl victory over Shelby at the old Shelby stadium off Sumter Street on that Thanksgiving night.

Then-Shelby Star sports editor Kays Gary covered the game as a correspondent for The Charlotte Observer.

Gary, who would later become a popular news columnist for the Observer from 1956 to 1986, wrote this:

“Stringbean Concord quarterback Ernie Kluttz gave Shelby’s previously-unbeaten Lions a fast shuffle from the Tricky ‘T’ formation here tonight and the Spiders grabbed a 13-6 victory in the inaugural Harvest Bowl game before an overflow crowd of 4,500.”

Shelby, with two future Shrine Bowlers in end Ken Bridges and tackle Jerry Kiser, fell behind early and lost its chance at the school’s first-ever unbeaten and untied season; Shelby wouldn’t accomplish that feat until going 13-0 in 1972.

Other standouts on the 1947 Golden Lions included backs Bill Reynolds, Billy Megginson, Ken Hicks, Al Bumgarner and Jack Bridges, ends Jack Eubanks, Mack Poston and Walter Ferree, tackle Benny Allen and guard Eugene Abercrombie.

The Golden Lions were playing in the 16th postseason game of their 175-game postseason history on that Thanksgiving night in 1947.

But they wouldn’t be in the playoffs again until 1957.

However, they did change their offense – like most other local high school teams – to some variation of the “T formation.”

By 1953, they were even featuring a passing game during an 8-1 season. And from 1954 to 1978, Shelby won or shared 14 conference titles and laying the foundation for even more success.