Raleigh’s recent state championship struggles came after early football title domination

By Richard Walker

For the third straight season, Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons will pursue a N.C. High School Athletic Association state football title after losing its first two tries.

Guy B. Phillips

It’s continued a series of struggles by Raleigh high school teams in the state finals that dates back more than 50 years.

But it hasn’t always been that way, as old Raleigh High School dominated the early days of state championship games in state history.

That includes seven trips to the first nine state title games that are recorded in state history.

Before the NCHSAA was founded as part of the University of North Carolina’s physical education department in 1913, there were four “unofficial” state title games according to newspaper reports of the day – and Raleigh played in each of them.

Raleigh also won the first three NCHSAA titles from 1913 to 1915, with the 1914 championship game setting an unbreakable record for margin of victory in a 117-0 win over Asheville.

There are reports of high school football in the state dating as far back as 1894 according to newspapers across the state.

By 1907, the first reports began to surface of a “state title” game as Greensboro hosted and beat Raleigh 10-0 on Dec. 2.

In the next two years, there was no mention a championship game with Charlotte’s old Dilworth High and High Point laying claim to the 1908 title and Greensboro and Wilmington laying claim to the 1909 championship.

For the next three years, Raleigh and Wilmington staged title games at Wilmington’s League Park with Raleigh winning 6-0 and 9-0, respectively, in 1910 and 1911, then Wilmington routed Raleigh 53-0 in 1912.

In 1913, the NCHSAA was formed and state championships were held for football and track.

The Dec. 14, 1913 clipping from The News and Observer in Raleigh on Raleigh’s championship victory in the first NCHSAA football title game.

And Raleigh won another title, the first of three straight NCHSAA championships, with a 29-0 win over Washington to complete what was called the “elimination series” that also included Wilmington.

In 1914, Raleigh won more convincingly with a 117-0 rout of Asheville that remains a state record for state championship game. Since there’s now a running clock when the margin reaches 45 points, that 117-point margin is unbreakable.

In 1915, Raleigh edged Charlotte 6-0 for the championship.

Each of Raleigh’s first three title games – as well as the next 11 state championship games – were played at UNC’s old Emerson Stadium.

That field, which gave way to the Kenan Stadium UNC and the NCHSAA use today in 1927, became home to North Carolina’s baseball field until 1965. Located along Raleigh Street, the site is currently home to the Graham Student Union and Davis Library.

The 1913 Raleigh Caps team that set NCHSAA history as the inugural champion featured three future major college football players in right tackle Toxey Whitaker (1920 to 1922 at N.C. State), quarterback Earl Johnson (1916 at North Carolina) and halfback Ralph Champion (1916 at Wake Forest).

It was coached by future longtime educator Guy B. Phillips. Phillips, who guided the Caps’ football team from 1913 to 1915 to a 21-2-2 record, was a 1913 UNC graduate who later served as Oxford Schools superintendent, Greensboro High School principal, Salisbury Schools superintendent, Greensboro Schools superintendent and UNC professor. Phillips, who died at 77 in 1968, also was the father of former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent A. Craig Phillips.

That early success hasn’t stayed with Raleigh schools as six other Raleigh schools have state titles since then – the last in 1970.

When Cardinal Gibbons faces Charlotte Julius Chambers at 7 p.m. on Saturday, it’ll seek to become the second Raleigh high school to win a state title. Only Raleigh Broughton, with official titles in 1913, 1914, 1915, 1935, 1941, 1945, 1961, 1966 and 1970, has won a state championship from the Capital City.

Gibbons lost state title game in Class 4A to East Forsyth in 2019 and to Greensboro Grimsley in the spring 2021 season.