I was a senior at Derby when the Panthers started to get really good at playing football.
No, I’m not taking any credit. I wish I could, but I didn’t play football in high school and the admission of such makes me feel like a mama’s boy.
I would have probably been a lineman and I didn’t want to be a lineman. I wanted to be a quarterback. But my friend, Doug Baber, was the quarterback and he was better than I was so I didn’t try out for football.
At the time, football wasn’t a huge deal at Derby. There had been some good players over the years, namely quarterbacks Mike Sexton and Loyd Brown and great defensive players Ken LeBlanc and Steve Moore, both of whom played at Wichita State. Moore, sadly was one of 31 people and 14 players killed when a plane carrying the Shockers to Logan, Utah, for a game crashed on Oct. 2, 1970, into a Colorado mountain range.
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Derby’s football heritage received a spike earlier that year, when Jim Davie, a young coach from Pennsylvania who played at Southwestern, was hired away from Mulvane. Football took off and to this day it’s the sport that helps define the city.
Derby won its third Class 6A championship Saturday, beating Blue Valley 27-14. Former Kansas State tight end and Valley Center native Brandon Clark has been the coach for 10 seasons. He’s one of the best in the state.
But he owes something to Davie and a bunch of my friends who made football something bigger than it had previously been at Derby 43 years ago.
Those 1972 Panthers were 10-1, their only loss to Bishop Miege in the Class 4A semifinals. That game was played in terrible weather at Miege and Derby was shut out, 6-0. I didn’t make the trip to the game because I had to take tickets and make popcorn at the Derby Cinema, where I worked. My mama was proud.
Derby’s first Top 11 football player, Davey Butler, played for the 1972 Panthers as the team’s middle linebacker. He was not a big guy, but he was tough. And he always tried to get me to go out for football, from our days in junior high. I think it was because he wanted to beat up on me.
John Parsons, Doug Perrill, Randy Johnson, Randy Long, Bart Case, Cy Wiggins, Mark Wiltse, Eric Everson, Randy Ward. Ron Keller — all part of a team that made Derby’s first big football statement.
The ringleader was Davie, who could motivate a dead, fallen branch to get back on a tree and bloom again. He and his top assistant, Dennis Cavalier, took Derby by storm. They would leave after the 1972 season for Southeast, where they helped build a football dynasty during the last half of the 1970s.
Davie had a huge influence on me and I didn’t even play football. He convinced me to apply myself to journalism and convinced the Daily Reporter in Derby to hire me before the end of my junior year as a part-timer.
Davie was a special man and the 1972 Panthers were a special team, led by Butler and Baber. They won the Ark Valley League championship that season and were probably a better team that Miege, which went on to win the 4A championship.
It’s telling that Derby has had only four losing seasons in the 43 years since and have made the playoffs 27 times. Clark has taken the Panthers to at least the semifinals in 6A six times in 10 years.
Any discussion of the best high school football programs in Kansas has to include Derby. Surely, the Panthers have been one of the most consistent.
After Davie left, Tom McVay settled in for a 10-year run of success from 1973-82, during which the Panthers were 73-27.
Tom Young coached at Derby for the next 21 seasons, compiling a 172-40 record and the Panthers’ first state title.
Young left for Leavenworth after the 2003 season and was replaced by a young coach, Lucas Aslin, who lasted one season before Mark Bliss brought his single-wing offense from Conway Springs, where he had been incredibly successful. But the single-wing didn’t work at Derby — the Panthers were 0-9 and Bliss left.
Clark took over and has gotten Derby back on track after a 1-8 record in 2006, his first season.
Since Davie and a bunch of my buddies kick-started the Derby football program in 1972, the Panthers have won 343 games and lost only 116, a remarkable .747 winning percentage.
It’s been more than four decades of football excellence with struggles so few that they’re difficult to remember.
Kudos to Derby for another state championship. And kudos, too, to my high school pals who started this ball rolling. It’s still gaining speed.