By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
The names Norman Lineburg and Steve Ragsdale may not mean much to football fans in the Mountain State, but drive across the border to the other Virginia, and they’re held with much respect.
Lineburg, the longtime coach of Radford High School, retired in 2006 after 36 years of coaching with 315 wins and several state championships. Conversely, Ragsdale was the longtime coach at Radford’s arch rival, Giles, where he also won a pair of state championships.
Tonight, a pair of Lineburg and Ragsdale disciples will lead their teams into battle on the banks of the New River in Hinton, as the Radford alum Chris Vicars-helmed Independence Patriots take on the former Giles standout Nate Tanner-coached Summers County Bobcats.
They’re hoping to bring a little bit of that bitter rivalry to the two Class AA southern West Virginia schools.
“Oh man, it was huge. We hated each other,” Tanner said. “Ragsdale was a legend at Giles, and Lineburg at Radford is a coaching legend. (Virginia Tech head coach) Frank Beamer was one of (Lineburg’s) assistants. Both communities were working class communities. Both teams were extremely competitive.”
“Both coaches had a couple hundred wins and some state championships,” Vicars added. “It’s a great rivalry.”
In fact, it was that rivalry that led to the first meeting between Vicars and Tanner. Vicars was an assistant at Radford, while Tanner was lighting up the scoreboard for Giles in its patented single-wing offense.
“Nate was a really good player,” Vicars said. “I was an assistant coach at Radford, and let me tell you, Nate got the best of us. He was a really good player. He threw the ball well. I think if you talked to him, he’d probably say the same.”
Tanner’s career at Giles led him to Concord University, where he met and fell in love with Summers County basketball legend Sierra Brown.
Tanner stuck around Summers County after graduation, working as an assistant coach for then Bobcats head coach Josh Houchins.
But it was at a Summers County girls’ basketball game that he saw a familiar face — and a familiar sweatshirt.
“I was new to Hinton and didn’t know very many people,” Tanner said. “I saw this guy walk in wearing a Radford High School shirt, and it brought me back home. I introduced myself, and he said he remembered me as a player. I told him I was coaching at Summers County, and I thought it’d be cool to get him down here with us, too.”
“I was there with my then-fiancee, my wife now, Kari. It was the first Lady Bobcats game I had been to,” Vicars remembered. “I saw him and didn’t recognize him at first, but when he told me who he was I remembered. We talked about the town and the (Summers County) program, and I told him that I was probably coming this way in the future.”
A year later, both Vicars and Tanner were on the Summers County coaching staff that helped lead the Bobcats to their first playoff game in more than a decade.
But more than that, the two former rivals had quickly become friends.
In fact, when Nate and Sierra were married during the summer, Vicar’s wife, Kari, was a bridesmaid.
“Kari and Sierra worked well together last year on the football support system,” Vicars said. “They’ve been to our house on many occasions just to hang out, and we go to their house. It’s been a good relationship between all four of us.”
“The four of us are all pretty good friends,” he said.
Their friendship even withstood a difficult time during the spring, when both coaches applied to replace Houchins as head coach of the Bobcats. After a lengthy battle between the Summers County Board of Education and prospective coach Norman Farley, Tanner was awarded the job — ahead of Farley and Vicars.
“We did both apply for the position, and they chose Nate. I’m OK with that,” Vicars said. “I told him I wished him all the luck in the world. I coached alongside him and coached against him when he was at Giles. There was never an ounce of animosity.”
What Vicars didn’t know at the time is he too would be a head coach.
After Independence had initially hired Chuck Cooper to replace longtime Patriots coach Scotty Cuthbert, Cooper was removed from the position following his termination from Woodrow Wilson High School over allegations of exchanging inappropriate texts with a student.
A few weeks later, Vicars applied for and was hired to be the fourth coach in Independence history.
“The Independence job worked out well,” he said. “The timing of that didn’t give much time to even think about the situation in Summers County. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, (tonight) is going to be a good time. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. It’s homecoming.”
Tanner hopes that the two can build the same fierce rivalry and tradition of Giles and Radford with the blue collar communities of Independence and Summers County.
“I think it’s definitely possible,” he said. “Summers County and Raleigh County border each other, and it’s not a long trip from one place to the other. We know each other, and hopefully we both build successful programs and bring the same atmosphere here as we had in Virginia.”
That doesn’t mean both coaches won’t be looking for the all important win tonight.
Summers County (5-1) is ranked No. 6 in Class AA and is fresh off its first loss of the season last week in Covington (Va.). Independence (2-4) is looking to pick up its first two-game winning streak of the Vicars era.
Tanner insists there aren’t any nerves going into the game against his former rival, co-worker and, now, close friend.
“I don’t know if nervous is the word,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it more than being nervous. I don’t know, it’s interesting. Both of us have similar philosophies in a lot of ways. It’s going to be like playing chess against a good friend. He knows a lot of the stuff I do, and I have a fairly good idea of what he’s going to do.”
Vicars is looking forward to the battle with his friend — and former team.
“They’re a really good group of seniors,” he said. “They’ve played a bunch of games together. Most of them started as freshmen, and when you’ve played 30 or 40 varsity games, you’ve seen a lot.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he continued. “Playing against them and coaching against them. But I’ve got some good kids I’m coaching now. We’re a good team. When we’re on the field, it’s not going to be buddy-buddy. That’s for after the game. I’ll certainly shake their hands and wish them luck, but when the game’s being played it’s our guys against them and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
— E-mail: jrollins
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.