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Adversity inspired Bellevue’s ’77 state champs; Tigers had unconventional offense, leaders

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By Don Owen
Special to NKyTribune

They were the small-school football dynamo that reached spectacular heights in the late 1970s, running out of an unconventional offense called the single-wing formation. Traditional quarterbacks were not part of this attack, just three running backs behind a determined offensive line.

Passing yards were practically non-existent to the 1977 Bellevue High School Tigers, who rushed their way to the Class A state championship by employing the run-oriented offense under head coach Bill Baldridge. Their punishing ground attack churned out lots of yards, utilizing a corps of outstanding running backs.

Gimmicks were few in Bellevue’s single-wing formation, but wins were plentiful. The 1977 Tigers were the antithesis of the present-day West Coast offenses, which place a greater emphasis on passing and spreading the field.

Those Bellevue Tigers also spoiled a homecoming or two for schools in larger classifications, programs that mistakenly assumed scheduling a Class A team would translate into a victorious evening on the gridiron.

40th anniversary

This season marks the 40th anniversary of Bellevue’s first state championship in football. The run-happy Tigers coasted through the playoffs in 1977, capping their 13-1 campaign with a bruising 21-0 victory against Frankfort in the title game at Richmond, Ky.

Bellevue’s success in 1977 extended well beyond beating Class A schools. The Tigers also posted wins over Class AAA programs Covington Catholic (27-14) and Newport (14-0), not to mention a 20-0 victory against Class AAAA Campbell County.

In my case, Bellevue’s triumph against Newport that season was especially distressing since the Wildcats were my favorite team (and it was homecoming, too). But the Tigers sported a tenacious defense, filled with hard-nosed players and a great coaching scheme, and they hurt the feelings of many opponents that season.

Ironically, thanks to an injured player named Hurtt, Bellevue inflicted a lot of pain on Frankfort in the 1977 state championship game as well.

That injured player, a remarkable senior linebacker/running back named Jack Hurtt, overcame a broken thumb suffered several weeks earlier and played a crucial role in the state title game against Frankfort. In fact, Hurtt — playing with a cast to protect his broken thumb — completely shifted the momentum in the second quarter by returning a blocked field-goal attempt 96 yards for a touchdown to give Bellevue a 7-0 lead.

“I thought I couldn’t pick the ball up, but I saw the referee backing off so I picked it up,” Hurtt told reporters following the game in 1977. “I was waiting for the whistle (to blow the play dead), but then I saw their players coming after me and I took off.”

Frankfort’s Jamey Bennett had launched the 28-yard field-goal attempt with 4:48 remaining before halftime, but the ball was deflected at the line of scrimmage by Bellevue defenders and rolled toward the end zone line. It stopped just inside the 5-yard line, where Hurtt retrieved the ball.

Hurtt hesitated for a moment as the Frankfort players headed to the sideline, but the Bellevue standout heard no whistle and grabbed the ball. The Frankfort coaching staff pleaded with their players to get back on the field, but it was too late. Hurtt dashed down the sidelines for a 96-yard touchdown, giving Bellevue a 7-0 lead just before halftime.

(em>1977: Jack Hurtt and Bill Baldridge

“Hurtt’s touchdown was my fault,” Frankfort head coach Raymond Webb said after the game. “I guess we weren’t schooled in the fundamentals. We acted like the ball was dead, and of course it wasn’t.”

Baldridge said Hurtt’s presence on the field that day was the key, and he gave credit to a non-football playing participant for a big assist in getting the senior linebacker prepared to play.

A special cast

“Jack went to our team doctor (Dr. Jerry Sutkamp) to get him ready for the state title game that week,” Baldridge told reporters after the game. “Dr. Sutkamp made a special cast for Jack, and his parents gave the OK for him to play.”

As the final seconds ticked away, Baldridge hoisted Hurtt on his shoulders and carried the senior linebacker to midfield as the Bellevue postgame celebration began. Hurtt had suffered the thumb injury on Oct. 28 against Ludlow, and no one expected him to play the remainder of the season.

“During the win over Pineville, Jack was standing on the sideline with tears in his eyes — he wanted to play so badly,” Baldridge said. “He came up to me on Tuesday and said he wanted to play against Frankfort. As a coach, I did not feel good about it. But if he got permission from his parents and his hand was protected, then I was OK with it. It worked out beautifully. Dr. Sutkamp made a special fiberglass guard and cast for Jack’s right forearm. Having him in there was crucial for us.”

Halfback Mike McGurn added two touchdown runs in the second half, and the Tigers defense held Frankfort scoreless en route to capturing the state championship. McGurn led Bellevue with 112 yards on 17 carries, helping his team erase the sting from 1976.

A year earlier, Bellevue dropped a 22-0 decision to Fort Campbell in the Class A state championship game. That memory provided the Tigers with plenty of motivation in 1977, especially during a state semifinal game against visiting Pineville.

“Last year we went down for the trip, this year we’re going to win it all,” McGurn said after Bellevue’s 34-12 win over Pineville at Gilligan Stadium in the semifinals. McGurn did his part in the victory against Pineville, scoring three touchdowns as Bellevue advanced despite playing without the injured Hurtt,

‘That’s a captain’

Bellevue also received unexpected — and tragic, in the truest sense — inspiration from senior center and co-captain Ken Swope before playing Pineville. That week, Swope’s father, Stan, had passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack.

Despite the circumstances, Swope garnered the strength and courage to play against Pineville. His dedication inspired Bellevue’s players and coaches, who all agreed Swope’s situation added to their determination to bring home the school’s first-ever football state title.

“That’s a captain,” McGurn said of Swope’s decision to play while dealing with his father’s death. “If ever there was a captain, it’s Ken Swope.”

Added running back Jon Sutkamp: “I knew if we dedicated the Pineville game to his father, we couldn’t lose. We had to win for him.”

In three playoff games, Bellevue outscored the opposition by a 77-18 margin in 1977. Having led Bellevue to the state title, Baldridge then accepted an assistant coaching position at Murray State.

Two years later, Bellevue added another Class A state championship, this time under the direction of head coach Fred Bernier. The Tigers knocked off Madison, 7-0, in the 1979 finale at Louisville, Ky.

In 1980 and ’81, Bernier guided the Tigers to state runner-up finishes, marking four times in five seasons Bellevue had played for the Class A state championship. Bellevue later returned to the Class A state championship game in 1990, where they dropped a 21-7 decision to Russellville.

Don Owen is a former sports writer for The Kentucky Post. He spent 21 years working as sports information director at Northern Kentucky University and is the author of two novels.

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