Moments That Changed Wolverine History: Part One of a 12-Part Series Looking Back at Events Which Changed the Landscape of Woodruff Athletics
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Willie Leo Varner was only planning to stay at Woodruff High School one year.
Almost 70 years later, Varner is still synonymous with Woodruff High School football, along with leaving a massive footprint whose steps are still traced among the coaching ranks in South Carolina to this day.
In 1953, however, Woodruff was a baseball town. With a booming textile industry, and with mill-hill baseball teams turning out elite talent as fast as Mill’s Mill produced high quality fabric, football was but an afterthought in a community whose athletic interests lay between 90-foot paths of dirt on the local diamond.
In the summer of ’53 Varner, who had concluded a stint in the United States Army where he worked as a scout for the football squad at Fort Jackson along with coaching the base’s basketball team, was looking for a job.
Varner’s wife, Frances, happened to have a friend who she worked with at the Arkwright Textile Mill office in Spartanburg and was married to a Woodruff gentleman named Furman Rogers. Rogers knew Varner was looking for a teaching and coaching position.
As fate would have it, Rogers found himself at a Woodruff filling station some days later with Sam Brissie, at the time superintendent of Woodruff schools. Brissie needed to hire an assistant coach, as the assistant in Woodruff at the time was departing for military service. Brissie asked Rogers to have Varner give him a call, which led to an interview, and Varner was given the job. It was a hire that came with one caveat.
Varner would not be given the job if he and Frances did not relocate to Woodruff.
Varner agreed, expecting at the time that Woodruff would be but a one year stop on the way to a career closer to Spartanburg and the Arkwright community where his family still resided.
That short tenure never came to pass, however, and looking back on that year decades later, Varner knew deep down that Woodruff was home.
“I came here with the intention of staying one year,” recalled Varner. “That’s all I intended to stay in Woodruff. I guess it kind of grew on me. It was like being at home, in a sense, because in those days it was strictly a mill town. It was textile-oriented, completely, and farm-oriented. My grandfather on one side was a farmer, and I loved to go out to the farm. And my dad had been in textiles for a long time, so I loved the textiles. I loved the people here. They were just real, genuine people, and if they didn’t like you, they told you so.”
Nobody living in Woodruff in 1953 could have imagined then what would take place over the next 43 years.
Following the conclusion of that year’s football season, the head coach at the time, Bill Jolly, stepped down to take over at the now long-closed Hickory Tavern High School in Laurens County. Varner, one year removed from his arrival in Woodruff, was named head football coach.
Woodruff, at that time, had never experienced appreciable success on the football field. Varner, ever a doggedly determined leader, decided to change that.
He had football experience. Despite never playing a down of high school football for Spartanburg High School due to an adolescent injury, Varner, who was a true giant for his time at 6’5” and 300 pounds, was given an opportunity to play at Wofford College where he became a star.
Years later he would take what he had learned under then-Wofford coach Phil Dickens and bring those lessons to Woodruff. It was a model for winning that had worked for the Terriers’ program of the late 1940’s and Varner knew, perhaps, it would work for his Wolverines, too.
“I was a pretty good all-around attempt at an athlete, anyway, so they gave me a scholarship to Wofford to play football,” said Varner. “I graduated, and I wanted to coach. That’s what I’d wanted to do, and I went to Wofford with coaching in mind. I stayed there five years. I played and scouted for an extra year.”
He continued, “I only played one game the first year against Fort Jackson, and I didn’t want it to count, but it counted anyway. I stayed for an extra year to play football. I scouted for the varsity and helped coach the B-team. That made me even more interested and I coached little league teams and pony league teams and Boy Scout teams and all that sort of stuff during that period of time.”
At Woodruff, though, it took a change of mindset and an all-out effort to get the townsfolk on board with his football vision. After all, with textile league baseball booming as steadily as the looms in the mills, football was but an afterthought anyway.
That is, until 1956.
The Wolverines broke through. In Varner’s third year as head football coach, led by the sensational Bob Ivey, the Wolverines defeated St. Andrews to win the school’s first state football championship. A year later, in 1957, Woodruff defended their crown against Langley-Bath-Clearwater. It was then a shift in perception began among those who had been indifferent towards a sport that for so long had been but a stop-gap to pass the time between baseball seasons.
“We had some success pretty quickly, some improvement over what they’d had in the past,” Varner said. “We showed them something they didn’t know about. The students, teachers, people in town had not gotten involved. They knew about baseball. They had those three mills and those textile teams, and they were very good. They didn’t like football. They were a baseball town. They wanted their boys to play baseball. Some of our success changed that. They eventually wanted those boys to play football.”
Still, in that era, most high school athletic programs operated with far fewer coaches on staff than is seen today, and many schools counted on one coach to lead multiple teams. Woodruff was no exception, with Varner also coaching the baseball team, also with great success.
In 1957, the same season that the Wolverines won their second consecutive football championship, Varner led the Woodruff baseball team to the first of two straight titles. He would coach the baseball program for six seasons, compiling a record of 72-19, and in doing so helped bridge the divide between the two programs.
Football, however, was where Varner’s heart was. According to Varner’s longtime friend, assistant coach, and football statistician Randy Grant, it was by the early 1960’s that Varner’s fame and legend among the South Carolina football ranks began to firmly take root.
“By the time I was in junior high school, which I guess was 1960 or 1961, I think it was by then,” said Grant. “I had the feeling, and I think it was shared by many around here, we just seemed to know that by the time we got to the early 60’s that (Varner) wasn’t leaving. This man’s going to stay here and is dedicated to this.”
Varner, said Grant, had multiple opportunities to leave for bigger and, perhaps at the time, more prestigious job opportunities. It was a sense of loyalty to Woodruff, its people, and his players, however, that kept Varner rooted as the pillar of the town for well over 50 years, even once his coaching career ended following the 1996 season.
“I don’t think he ever completely ruled (leaving) out.” Grant said. “But I always felt like it would have to be something really great for him to leave. I do know many other places were certainly interested and called, but I’m not sure they got very far. He knew he had his program here running like he wanted it and I think Coach felt like if he went somewhere else, he would have to start from scratch. He was happy to continue with the success he was building on here.”
By Varner’s own words, he had multiple chances to move on. It was something, however, that he never strongly considered. Woodruff was his home, and Varner was creating a dynasty, and one that still reverberates today.
“I had a couple of opportunities to leave, but I didn’t take them,” Varner recalled. “I don’t have any regrets. There were a couple of out-of-state jobs, and I was offered the Wofford job a couple of times, but I didn’t want to go. Let’s face it, at that time, high school coaching was a little bit better situation financially than college coaching. Later, I was offered Dorman and Spartanburg a couple of times, but I just couldn’t pull myself away. Woodruff had become home to me.”
And so, the Wolverines, under Varner, became one of the preeminent dynasties in high school football, not only in South Carolina, but at the time, anywhere in the United States.
Woodruff would win their third state title in 1965 and then, starting in 1975, truly became a household name by winning every 2A championship from 1975 to 1978 and again in 1980. Varner’s final two championships, in 1983 and 1984, spearheaded by legendary quarterback Tony Rice who led Woodruff to 28 consecutive victories, would prove to be the epilogue in the golden age of Wolverine football. Just 12 years later, Varner would be replaced as the Wolverines’ coach in a move decried by the community who continued to love and support him even after four decades.
The coaching lineage left by Varner, however, was still very much alive and well in the young assistant coaches who he taught and then sent into the coaching ranks to win multiple championships of their own.
Keith Richardson, who coached under Varner from 1964-1968, would go on to coach the Wolverines’ arch-rivals the Clinton Red Devils to six 3A state titles from 1969-1993. Shell Dula, who coached with Varner from 1970-76, went on to lead Ninety-Six, Union, and Greenwood high schools to a collective seven championships between 1977-2008.
Richardson and Dula, among others, would in turn develop many assistants who would become head coaches, with many in the coaching community able to trace their knowledge back to the tree started by Varner so many years ago.
Even after they moved on, Varner never did forsake his relationships with his old assistant coaches.
“What most people don’t realize is that, in the five years I was with Coach Varner, we established an early morning meeting,” said Richardson. “Well, after I got to Clinton I often visited early in the morning on the telephone. It wasn’t always about who you were playing and that sort of thing, but was more about how are you and what are you doing, do you need anything, do you need help? We always looked at playing each other as a no-loss situation. We knew even if we lost those games our teams could go on to have very successful seasons.”
Dula remembers Varner as a coach who worked tirelessly to set his assistants up for future success, knowing they would one day leave to take over programs of their own.
“(Coach Varner) taught you the game,” said Dula. “He also stood back and let you coach. Working with him truly was a pleasure. When we left Woodruff after the 1976 season, I told my wife that I was almost afraid to tell him we were leaving for Ninety-Six. She said, well, you have to tell him. He was extremely gracious and happy for me and always said if I needed anything to just pick up the phone.”
Varner was always a bit tongue-in-cheek about facing his old assistants on Friday nights.
“I hated to play my old assistants,” he said. “If you lose, you’re miserable. If you beat him, you almost feel sorry for him. We had a real good rivalry with Clinton, and we matched up pretty well. When our scouts called in our scores, the very first thing I’d ask them to find out was how Clinton did. We had a pretty good feeling that if Clinton had beaten a team, then we could, too.”
In retrospect, Varner said in his final years that the greatest impact that he hoped to have left was the closeness and friendships he had formed with so many of his former players, coaches, and within the Woodruff community. If that was his lasting legacy, then Varner knew he would leave the world a blessed man. It was what he was most proud of.
“The most gratifying thing is the effect you have on people,” he said. “The kids that I see now, the parents that I see now who come up and speak to you. I don’t go anywhere without somebody recognizing me from the coaching days and wanting to talk. It’s that kind of thing that sticks in your mind. I wouldn’t swap professions with anybody, and I’ve said that repeatedly. I never had any desire to be a principal, and I never had any real burning desire to go anywhere else. I got a chance to do what I wanted to do, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Looking back, especially by those who are still here and can remember those early years, one could find it amazing that the hiring of one young assistant coach who only planned to stay one year in a small mill town in Southern Spartanburg County would completely change the fortunes of their school forever.
It was a moment that changed Woodruff’s history forever.
Coach Varner’s daughter, Toni Sloan, summed it up best.
“Legends never die,” she said. “I think that’s the case with Daddy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could do a family tree and put him as the roots and see all the branches and where they went? Can you visually imagine that family tree of football that originated from Daddy at Woodruff? I think as long as there is still somebody out there that played for him, coached with him, coached against him, then there will always be that spark of Daddy that is still alive.”
Coach Varner quotes compiled by Jed Blackwell for Hometown News between 2003 and 2007 and used with permission.