It’s hard to imagine Fairview High School without football. But 16 years ago, with declining enrollment, that was exactly the decision that had to be made.
For two years — the 1996 and 1997 seasons — there was no joy in Westwood.
Bill Musick, a proud Fairview grad and the superintendent of Fairview schools today, remembers how pained he was over the decision.
“One of the toughest days I ever went through in the last 30 years was when they dropped it,” he said. “I came down to the meeting and begged them not to do it. (But) The numbers weren’t there. It was a tough decision and it wasn’t an easy decision.”
Paul Reliford, the father of Fairview football, was the one who had to pull the plug on the program. He coached the first Eagles’ football team in 1970. But as a superintendent, he was facing some daunting numbers that force his hand. The school board decided football had to go.
“I remember the meeting, it was in the band room,” Musick said. “I wanted them to at least keep a JV team because it was going to be difficult to bring it (the program) back.”
Fairview learned in those two years how important the football program was to the school on levels. It’s not just about the football athletes. So many more students are affected — band members, cheerleaders, pep clubs — and school spirit in general.
There’s nothing like Friday night during the fall. It’s true whether you live in Westwood, Ashland, Flatwoods, Grayson or any other small town in the United States.
But for two long falls, there were no Friday night lights in Westwood. It was a gloomy time.
When Fairview made the heartbreaking decision to fold the football program, at least on a temporary basis, several students went elsewhere to school, including Arliss Beach. He went on to become one of the best running backs in Ashland history and earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky. Jeremy Griffith, an outstanding lineman, transferred to Raceland. Others who would have stayed to play also left Westwood, Musick said.
“That (8th grade) class ended up being the smallest (high school) graduating class in 2002,” Musick said.
Losing students to any surrounding school is not a measure for success since schools are paid about $4,000 a head. “If you start losing 10, 11, 15 of them, it takes a toll (financially),” Musick said. “It’s a numbers game when it comes to stuff like that.”
Carl Thompson, a longtime counselor at Fairview High School and the superintendent who followed Reliford, had a vision of getting the football team restarted.
“He saw how important it was to the school,” Musick said. “Carl Thompson wanted to get it back. He saw those numbers drop. If it wasn’t for Carl Thompson, we wouldn’t have got it back. He’s one proud pappa.”
It wasn’t that Reliford wanted to drop football in 1996 — probably no man had more of his life invested in the program — but the numbers simply didn’t add up. He made the decision with a pang in his stomach.
Fairview’s program was restarted in 1998 when Jeff Smith took the reins for three years. As expected, starting over was difficult. The Eagles won only eight games in three years.
“I respect Jeff Smith that he came,” Musick said. “There wasn’t people lining up for the job.”
Musick, who had a highly successful coaching stint at Evarts and Johnson Central, came home when he was hired as the principal/head football coach at Fairview in 2001. He coached the Eagles for two seasons, going 2-8 and then 7-4, before taking over as superintendent. Fairview has had only one losing season since and has won 11, 12 and 13 games the past three seasons (with the chance for two more to go this season).
Fairview’s 2003 and 2004 teams, led by future NFL players Chris Jennnings and the late Stephen Crisp, were some of the best in school history but had a playoff wall called northern Kentucky in front of them. The current Class A alignment gives this side of the state a more legitimate chance to become state champion. Northern Kentucky now competes in the western side of the state with powerhouse Mayfield.
“We were excited about the alignment,” Musick said. “I’ve been chasing this thing for 32 years. I’d like to step on that carpet one time.”
Fairview’s rise from dropping the program in 1996 to reaching the state semifinals in Class A this season is quite a leap. The success that has occured on the football field has translated to success in other areas, Musick said.
“Look at our band and our cheerleaders,” Musick said. “There’s no finer band around than what we have now with Mr. (Jeff) Ware as our band director. We’re 45, 50 strong. When we dropped the program we only had like six cheerleaders and now we have 26.”
It’s not just football either. Success breeds success, Musick said, and Fairview has been successful in other athletic ventures — the cross country girls team has been one of the best in Class A for the past four years — and in the classroom.
“If you’re successful in one, you’re eventually successful in all of them,” Musick said.
Fairview won its first regional football championship last week against Pikeville and plays in its first semifinal on Friday night against defending state champion Hazard.
Fairview’s last three superintendents — Paul Reliford, Carl Thompson and Bill Musick — have reason to bust their buttons over what has transpired. Reliford will be an honorary captain on Friday night.
Westwood is alive and kicking again on Friday nights.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.