Conway vs. Myrtle Beach. It’s a sibling rivalry born in the very atoms of Horry County’s DNA. County Seat vs. Center of Tourism. Inland vs. Coast. Old Town vs. New Town. The two municipalities are linked by history and geography, by F.G. Burroughs’ grand vision and the traffic-choked lanes of U.S. 501. But the brotherly competition is never quite as fierce as when the towns’ respective high school football teams - the Conway Tigers and the Myrtle Beach Seahawks - line up in the annual Victory Bell Game, as they will Friday night at Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium in Myrtle Beach.
Leading the Tigers onto the field will be Chuck Jordan, now in his 32nd year as Conway coach. In his storied career he’s notched more than 250 wins, including in 20 of his first 22 match-ups against Myrtle Beach. His domination over the Seahawks is yesterday’s news, however, as he’s lost four of the last five times he’s faced the younger coach who’ll be calling the shots on the opposite sideline, Mickey Wilson.
Jordan, 57, and Wilson, 41, have much in common. Both are fierce competitors and tireless workers. Both hope to instill their players with the character and values that will help them succeed in life off the field. Both understand the importance of winning the big rivalry game, of bringing the Bell trophy home to their school’s award case. But those similarities could be said for pretty much any two coaches. The link between Jordan and Wilson is more remarkable and longer-lasting. Like Conway and Myrtle Beach, the towns they represent, these men share a history, and it’s a history that will forever connect them in ways that run deeper than football.
As many fans who’ll be in the stands Friday night know, 25 years ago, when he was a high schooler, Wilson played for Jordan and the Conway Tigers. In 1989, during the spring drills that would lead into Wilson’s junior season, Jordan named him as the starting quarterback over Carlos Hunt, a senior who led the Tigers to an 8-4 record the previous year. This seemingly mundane decision - a coach naming one player as the starter over another - set off a storm of controversy and protest that divided Conway along racial lines and still reverberates in Horry County today.
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Walk on the Waccamaw
Early in 1989, most Tiger fans assumed that Hunt, who is black, would get the starting nod at QB that fall. And with a game-tested senior leading the offense and blue-chip defensive end Lawrence Mitchell - the No. 3 college recruit nationally that year, at any position - anchoring the defense, hopes were high that Conway would, for the first time since the school began playing football in 1923, bring home a state championship.
And why wouldn’t folks be optimistic? Jordan had the Tigers on a roll. A Conway native, he’d returned to his high school alma mater six years earlier, in 1983, to serve as head coach and athletic director, and after one rebuilding season in which the Tigers finished 5-5, Conway won 30 games during the next three years, the most wins in a three-year span to that point in school history. By the late ‘80s, heading over to Conway’s home field, “The Graveyard” - which sat on the Coastal Carolina campus, across S.C. 544 from Hillcrest Cemetery, hence the nickname - was the thing to do on fall Friday nights. The stands were packed. Green and gold Tiger flags flew downtown. Coach Jordan was arguably the most popular man in Conway. As The Sun News wrote back then, “He could walk on the Waccamaw.”
But during that spring of 1989, he and his staff decided that the athletic Hunt, despite his experience on offense, could best help the team at defensive back, the position that several recruiters had told Jordan that Hunt would likely play in college. When the coach called Hunt into his office to announce that he would be moving to defense, Jordan mentioned that the position switch would be in the best interest of the team and it would help the young man personally.
But Hunt didn’t see it that way. From his perspective, he wasn’t just a football player; he was a quarterback. To emphasize the point, he’d had the letters “QB” and his jersey number, 7, engraved on his Conway High class ring - a ring he’d bought in part thanks to $80 Jordan had loaned him from the athletic department’s booster fund. Despite signing a contract in which he pledged to pay back the loan in installments, Hunt missed a few payments that winter, and as a punishment, Jordan suspended him briefly from the basketball team.
Now, as Jordan was telling him that he’d no longer be starting at quarterback - that he’d been replaced by Wilson, a white junior with barely any varsity experience behind center, who just happened to be the son of Mickey Wilson, Sr., the basketball coach and one of Jordan’s assistants on the football staff - well, Hunt saw the position switch as an extension of the punishment for the missed ring payments, despite the fact that by then he had repaid his debt. Then Jordan repeated a maxim that the coach’s father had once told him. If you feed a dog, and the dog bites your hand, he said to Hunt, you stop feeding the dog.
Beginnings of a boycott
Later that fall, after it had become clear that Jordan was dead set on moving the senior QB to defense, Hunt, his mother, and a group of black players paid a visit to Reverend H.H. Singleton, who was president of the Conway branch of the NAACP, pastor at Cherry Hill Missionary Baptist Church, and an earth science teacher at Conway Middle School. The reverend had a long history of advocating on behalf of Conway’s black community, including two years earlier during an incident that involved the racial make-up of the Conway High cheerleading squad. By 1989 Singleton was well known for his fearlessness in confronting what he saw as injustice.
Hunt told Singleton about the position switch and about the “stop feeding the dog” maxim, and the reverend volunteered to call Jordan to see if a compromise might be reached. Several black players also met with the coach to make their case for Hunt as the starter. Jordan listened to Singleton and the players, but he refused to budge on the decision. If there’s one mantra Jordan lived by then and now, it’s this: The coaching staff decides who plays and where they play. And these personnel decisions are not subject to outside interference - not from parents, boosters, or community activists. As Jordan says now, “Hey, sometimes you get it wrong, but that’s the job.”
The following Tuesday, three days before the first game of the ’89 season, Rev. Singleton and 31 black Tigers held a press conference on the front steps of Cherry Hill Baptist. With local news reporters scribbling and cameras rolling, the reverend announced that the players, which included 15 of Conway’s 22 starters, would boycott the team until Jordan gave Hunt a chance to compete for the quarterback job. In his statement, Singleton accused the coach of being motivated by “an incredible compulsion for personal vengeance” (because of the loan for the class ring) and a “callous and racial intolerance that seems to have bordered on racial bigotry.”
Jordan categorically denied that race was a motivating factor in his decisions, and there’s no evidence that the coach made either move - switching Hunt to defense or elevating Wilson to the starting QB spot - based on the players’ skin color. In the days after the boycott was announced, a slew of former players, black and white, came to Jordan’s defense, asserting that he was absolutely not a racist and emphasizing that out of Jordan’s six seasons as Conway coach, he had started a black quarterback in three of them.
Still, to Rev. Singleton and the striking players, benching an experienced, 6’3”, 175-pound senior in favor of an inexperienced, 5’9”, 155-pound junior didn’t make football sense. Jordan admitted then (and still says now) that Hunt was a better athlete than Wilson. But he also insisted that Wilson exhibited the leadership skills that would give the team the best chance to win. Besides, in the conservative, run-first offense that Jordan employed at the time - often referred to as “Ground Chuck” - the quarterback probably didn’t need to be an exceptional athlete. Jordan’s quarterbacks didn’t throw the ball very often, but they didn’t run the ball very often either. Instead, they mainly handed off to the running backs who carried most of the load. So maybe Conway didn’t need a stud athlete behind center. Maybe Hunt’s athleticism really would be put to better use at defensive back.
The black quarterback
But therein lies the complication. Even though Jordan isn’t a racist, maintaining that a black player is a great athlete but not suited for the quarterback position was essentially, word-for-word, the type of coded language that had for years been used as a justification for prejudicial personnel decisions by coaches who may have been - unlike Jordan - motivated by race. So from the black community’s perspective, something far more sinister was happening than a simple position switch. They saw the move as just one in a long line of examples at the local and national levels of talented black quarterbacks getting looked over in favor of less talented white players simply because of skin color.
With so many blacks thriving at the position these days, the “black quarterback issue” might finally be a non-issue. (Or maybe not: In 2013, the NFL set a record by having nine African-American starting quarterbacks. In 2014, that number is down to six. And in college, of the fourteen SEC teams, only four are currently starting black quarterbacks.) But 25 years ago, quarterbacking was still seen as a role almost exclusively for white players. The conventional wisdom went like this: The QB position requires more than just athletic skill. It takes good judgment, quick thinking, and a thorough knowledge of the game. Simply flinging the ball deep and on target isn’t enough. You have to be smart. You have to be a leader. These were the required so-called “intangibles.” And sadly, far too often head coaches (who were nearly always white) assumed that white players had the smarts and leadership skills and black players didn’t.
Before the Conway football boycott, only one black quarterback had ever played in the Super Bowl, Washington’s Doug Williams, who’d been named the MVP in 1988. No black QB had ever won a Heisman Trophy (though the University of Houston’s Andre Ware would win the award in ‘89). Clemson had won a national championship in 1982 with a black QB named Homer Jordan, but a few days before that win, Sports Illustrated ran a piece that seemed to discount him and other black quarterbacks. “Little Homer hardly resembles a quarterback at all,” the article stated, “at least in the way the image of a quarterback is fixed in the public mind.”
So when members of Conway’s black community heard the news about Hunt being moved in favor of Wilson, they heard it within the context of a larger system that was clearly biased against black quarterbacks. They heard it within the context of CBS football analyst Jimmy “the Greek’s” 1988 comments that “during the slave trade, the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that they would have a big black kid.” They heard it within the context of L.A. Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis’s 1987 comments that blacks “may not have some of the necessities” to be in positions of leadership in sports. And they heard it within the context of issues that were happening off the field, right here in South Carolina - specifically a swimming pool in Saluda that in the summer of ’89 was barring blacks from attending and a tavern in North Augusta that was refusing to serve blacks. Given this climate of overt prejudice, when Jordan decided to start an inexperienced white kid - a son of one of his assistant coaches - at the quarterback position, it looked to Conway’s black community like more of the same old white bigotry, white privilege and white favoritism.
The Conway Movement
Conway’s first game that fall of ‘89 was against Dalzell-Hillcrest, a team riding an 18-game losing streak, a team that the Tigers, under ordinary circumstances, would have been expected to dominate. But with 31 players on strike (six black players did suit up for Conway; these kids were sometimes referred to disparagingly as “the zebras”), the circumstances were far from ordinary. During the first quarter, Hunt, Lawrence, and the other boycotting players, against the advice of H.H. Singleton, showed up at the Graveyard - and started cheering not for their Tiger teammates but for Dalzell- Hillcrest. Whenever Wilson was sacked, they cheered. When Dalzell-Hillcrest scored, they cheered. These acts of so-called “disloyalty” infuriated the Tiger fans in attendance, most of whom were white, and Conway, a team that had entered the season ranked No. 3 in the state, lost 34-6.
The following Monday was the first day of school, and at Conway Middle, Principal Gil Stefanides immediately began fielding complaints from white parents who didn’t want their children to be taught by Rev. Singleton, who, many of these parents suggested, was the “real” racist. The next day, Horry County Schools Superintendent John Dawsey suspended Singleton from his teaching position, with pay, claiming that the earth science teacher’s role in the football boycott had created a “disruption to the learning environment.” The superintendent issued a recommendation to the school board that Singleton ultimately be fired. That was the moment when, according to Rev. Singleton’s son Hank Singleton, “It was on.”
The state and national branches of the NAACP immediately took up the cause of winning back Singleton’s job, and just like that, the Conway football boycott had transcended football. The NAACP was now calling it the Conway Movement. And the events in Conway had become national news. Reporters from Sports Illustrated, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and others descended on the Horry County seat.
As the boycott continued though the first three weeks of the season, with the Tigers losing all three games by a combined score of 95-20 and Wilson getting pummeled by defenses, supporters of Jordan and supporters of Singleton became increasingly intractable. Human Affairs Commissioner (now Congressman) James Clyburn came to town in an attempt to negotiate an end to the boycott, but those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Jordan wasn’t going to settle for any compromise that undermined his authority to make personnel decisions, and the players - backed by Conway’s black community and the NAACP - weren’t going to end the strike unless Hunt got a shot to win back his job.
A week before the ‘89 Victory Bell Game, the NAACP staged a protest march through Conway, walking smack down U.S. 501, which was blocked off to traffic at the height of tourist congestion, at noon on a Saturday. With approximately 700 protestors parading behind him and nearly 1,000 more waiting at the school district offices, Rev. Singleton led the protestors in chants of what had become a signature slogan for the Conway Movement: “Fired Up! Ready to Go!”
Though the demonstration was peaceful and orderly by all accounts, the atmosphere in Conway had grown ever-more tense. Jordan received death threats. So did Rev. Singleton and his family. There were rumors that the KKK was planning to vandalize (or worse) Cherry Hill Baptist Church. There were rumors that a cabal of blacks was issuing threats against any striking players who might be tempted to return to the football squad. A team and a town had been severed. And what had begun as a relatively minor issue, a debate over one kid’s preferred position on a high school sports team, had grown like a wildfire into a blaze of remonstration and accusation that even Hurricane Hugo (which hit on the morning of what would have been the fifth game of the season) couldn’t extinguish.
Getting off the schneid
The football boycott and the larger protests extended through September, October, and into November, during which there were more losses on the field and more marches through the streets. Human Affairs Commissioner Clyburn had issued a report clearing Jordan of any racial bias in the Hunt position switch, but that was pretty much the only “win” Jordan had tallied that fall. His mostly-white squad was 0-10, and they’d been shutout in six straight contests.
In the week leading up to the Tigers’ last regular season game, two questions were percolating in town: 1. Would the school board vote to fire Singleton? And 2. Could the Conway kids finally get a win? That Monday, the Horry County School Board began five days of courtroom-style hearings to decide if Rev. Singleton should ultimately be fired. Jordan testified. Parents of the striking players testified. And a week later, the board members voted to terminate Singleton’s contract. However, back in September, the earth science teacher had filed a suit against the school district in federal court, and nearly two years later, he would win this case on First Amendment grounds, receiving more than $60,000 in back pay and legal fees. In 1991 he would return to his Conway Middle School classroom. He and his supporters would wear T-shirts that read: Total and Complete Victory!
But before any of that happened, the Conway Tigers would play their final home game of the ’89 season, against 1-9 Georgetown in a meeting that had been rescheduled because of Hugo. And on that night, Jordan and Wilson finally got their win, beating the Bulldogs 7-6 on a blocked punt that the Tigers returned for a touchdown. After the game, fans stormed the field to join the players and coaches who were celebrating in the end zone. A group of players lifted Jordan to their shoulders. Meanwhile, a man from Columbia who’d been following the story of the ’89 Tigers in the news passed out bumper stickers that read: Chuck Jordan—Coach of the Year.
Jordan “drove-on” from the boycott year, to use a favorite phrase of his, and he eventually returned the Tigers to statewide prominence, appearing in the Class 4A, Division II, state championship game in ’01, ’02, ’03, and ’06. But they lost all four of those meetings, meaning that Conway High is still searching for the school’s first-ever state championship in football.
The Myrtle Beach Seahawks, on the other hand, have brought home seven state titles in their history, including two (in 2010 and 2013) with Wilson as head coach. This means, of course, that Wilson has already won two more state championships than the man who once made the controversial decision to start him at quarterback. Wilson’s a young coach, but he displays a toughness beyond his years, a toughness that Jordan maintains comes directly from what Wilson went through during the ‘89 season.
Rev. Singleton passed away on the final day of 2012, at the age of 80. In the years since the boycott, some have accused him of exploiting a group of teenagers to advance his cause, but even most of his critics will admit that the reverend honestly believed in the rightness of his cause. Jordan will tell you that he has always had a great deal of respect for Singleton and that in supporting the boycott, the community activist was doing what he thought was right. And in 1989, Rev. Singleton thought it was right to stand up for a young man from his community who had been denied the chance to play quarterback.
Jordan and his Tigers are mired in the worst slump the program has suffered since the boycott year. Last season they finished 2-9. This season, heading into Friday night’s Victory Bell Game, they’re 1-4. The losses have piled so deep that some Tiger fans—including the former president-elect of the Conway Solid Gold Booster Club - have openly argued that the time has come for Jordan to retire. Wilson has to be happy where he is right now, in charge of one of the powerhouse programs in the state, but that doesn’t keep some Conway fans from hoping he’ll come home one day to lead the Tigers to the same kind of success he’s had with the Seahawks.
Wilson’s team is 4-0 on the year, so the defending 3A state champion Seahawks will be the clear favorites on Friday. But Coach Jordan will tell you he’s never lined up in a game he didn’t expect to win. And regardless of the records, the stakes are always high when Conway and Myrtle Beach meet up. One team will take home the Victory Bell trophy and the bragging rights that come with it. The other will clench down on their mouthguards and try to drive on.
Perhaps it’s a reflection of the intensity of the rivalry, but these days Jordan and Wilson’s relationship - though cordial, professional, and teeming with mutual respect - doesn’t appear to be overly friendly. They certainly don’t pal around or meet up for dinner. Maybe they’d both prefer to forget about what happened 25 years ago. And maybe they can on most days, but until Conway and Myrtle Beach quit playing the Victory Bell Game, they’ll get at least one annual reminder that, win or lose on the field, their histories are already tied.