Remembering the 1975 Burns-Shelby meeting that set history during and after their early season matchup
By Richard Walker
As Burns visits Shelby with the Southern Piedmont 1A/2A Conference title on the line on Friday night at Blanton Memorial Stadium, we look back at a matchup between the teams at the same stadium in 1975.
It was a contest that proved historic for both teams.
For Burns, the 1975 game marked the Bulldogs’ first-ever victory over Shelby.
It came after seven straight mostly blowout wins for the Golden Lions over their Northern Cleveland County neighbors; Shelby won all but one of the games by more than one score – that a 20-12 win the previous year at Burns.
The victory was led by Bulldogs’ quarterback Steve Gardner, running back Larry Hopper and fullback-linebacker Larry Carpenter; Gardner passed for one touchdown and had a key fumble recovery as a defensive end while Hopper caught Gardner’s touchdown pass and Carpenter had a touchdown run and a field goal. Other standouts for Burns and coach Tom Wright that season were offensive lineman Jerry McKee and defensive linemen Phil Gee and Ronnie King.
Wright, a former Shelby High standout, had taken over the Burns program the previous year and guided the Bulldogs to the school’s first-ever winning season of 5-4-1.
In 1975, the victory was the highlight of a year that finished with a 6-3-1 record – Burns’ last winning season until 1980.
Burns would eventually win or shared seven league titles – the first in 1993 – and the 1994 N.C. 3A state championship with current Bulldogs’ head coach David Devine and eventual Cleveland County Hall of Famers Derrick Chambers, Scottie Montgomery and Tony Scott on the roster under the direction of Burns’ all-time winningest head coach Ron Greene (174 wins from 1984 to 2007).
Gardner went on to play football at Lenoir-Rhyne before a long coaching career that included him recruiting eventual Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders as an Oklahoma State assistant coach in the 1980s, seven years as an assistant at Gastonia’s Huss High School and 17 years as Huss’ winningest head football coach in school history (86 victories) from 1997 to 2013.
Meanwhile, at Shelby, the 1975 loss to Burns dropped the Golden Lions to 1-3 and had most thinking Shelby was in for a long season.
Shelby had lost its opener to Huss, won 50-0 at Bessemer City, then lost to South Point (10-6) and Burns (23-18) to fall to near the bottom of the league standings.
Instead, the Golden Lions wouldn’t lose again in a season that finished with a 9-3-1 overall record (7-2 in the Southwestern Conference) that included a playoff run after late-season slumps by South Point and East Rutherford allowed Shelby to earn the league’s second playoff berth behind unbeaten Chase.
The three losses losses were the most for a Shelby state title team until the 2005 and 2018 teams each went 13-3 overall. It also was the most league losses for a Golden Lions team ever make the playoffs in the old Western N.C. Activities Association when only two league teams made the postseason.
The season would end in a 21-all tie against North Davidson for the 1975 WNCHSAA title that came one week after the Golden Lions routed Chase 29-7 in a game played at Gardner-Webb’s Spangler Stadium.
Future Shelby head coach Chris Norman, then a defensive end for the Golden Lions, was simply happy a season that started so slowly ended with a title.
“After we lost to South Point and Burns, it looked like our playoff hopes were shot,” said Norman, who would eventually become a coach at Shelby for 24 seasons, the last 14 as Golden Lions’ head coach. “We needed some things to happen – and all of them happened good for us – and when we got in the playoffs we played well.”
In the title game, Shelby fell behind 7-0 and 21-7 to North Davidson before rallying with 14 fourth-quarter points to salvage a share of the championship in an era where overtime wasn’t played.
Trailing 21-13, Shelby’s Derrick Haynes recovered a North Davidson fumble for a touchdown with 1:27 to play and quarterback Mark Lackey converted a two-point pass to Danny Allen to forge the tie.
Shelby got possession again at midfield with 22 seconds left after forcing its fifth turnover of the game but couldn’t get in a position for a winning score.
North Davidson outgained Shelby 332 to 277 but Shelby had 270 yards rushing and had clearly taken the game’s momentum with a strong second half.
“I do remember it being a weird feeling in the locker room,” Norman said. “But we were still champions and that always feels good.”
Standout players for Shelby in the 1975 season were all-conference defensive linemen Phil Price, Charles Holtsclaw and Houston Honeycutt and defensive backs Hicks Beam and Sylvester Haynes; Holtsclaw and Beam would go on to play at nearby Lenoir-Rhyne.
The 1975 co-title came in the next-to-last team for legendary coach Gerald Allen, who guided Sehlby to 175 victories from 1956 to 1976. Allen, a former Shelby High player, is part of the extraordinary continuity the program has enjoyed for nearly 100 years; Since Casey Morris became Shelby’s head coach in 1924, the Golden Lions have had eight head coaches.
Shelby also has won or shared 39 conference titles, 18 outright state titles and the 1975 co-championship.
Entering Friday’s matchup, Shelby has a 40-15 series lead over the Bulldogs which includes all five contests that directly determined a league champion in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2019 and in March of this year.