COOKEVILLE — Zeke Rankin, the junior kicker from Alcoa High School, was about 13 years old, by his own estimation, when he realized his dad was kind of a big deal.
“I didn’t really think much about it,” he said Saturday night, “until I started playing.”
His dad, of course, is Alcoa head coach Gary Rankin, who just coached the 500th game of his career in the Class 3A BlueCross Bowl Championship at Tennessee Tech University.
Alcoa won that game over Covington, 21-14, to give Gary his 425th win of his career and his 14th state title as a head coach.
He’s been the state’s all-time winningest coach since Alcoa beat Notre Dame in the 2014 Class 3A state semifinals, then giving him 369 wins.
His legend and legacy have only continued to soar.
But in vintage fashion Saturday night, Rankin downplayed it all.
No overflow of emotion with family members.
Just status quo.
Same goes for Zeke.
That’s because Gary hasn’t lost his edge, and it seems like he’s nowhere near close to being done.
“I still enjoy what I’m doing,” Gary Rankin said. “I’m going to coach again the next few years. I enjoy being around the kids. I enjoy the competition and the camaraderie with the kids and the coaches and the game-planning and getting ready. But when you play five postseason games all the time — I think I’ve been to 20 state championship games … that’s 100 games right there in the playoffs — it mounts up a little faster. People probably think I’m 90.
“I just picked it (the competitive edge) up. I studied a lot of coaches. That’s when I’ll quit, when I’m not effective and I’m not working. I see some of these guys and they’re still hanging on. You see them on the sidelines. If I’m not coaching, I’m not going to be out there. As long as I stay effective and I stay healthy, I’m going to stay out there as long as I can.”
Rankin’s first season as a coach was in 1982 at Smith County, and he went 0-10 as he tried to resurrect an already comatose program. He wound up 58-32 there between 1982-89 before leaving for Riverdale.
In Murfreesboro, Rankin made his first big ripples, winning state titles in 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004. He went 194-25 from 1990-2005 with Riverdale.
But at Alcoa, he’s won better than 90 percent of his games, running his record Saturday to 173-18 with 10 state titles at the helm of the Tornadoes.
Alcoa offensive assistant coach David Sweetland has enjoyed an up-close-and-person look into Rankin’s edge and drive since joining the Alcoa staff in 2012. And Sweetland, a former Farragut offensive coordinator, found a new definition of competitiveness working for Rankin.
And it was mentally taxing. Rankin coaches each day like his job is on the line, Sweetland said.
“When people start having success, you feel like they might slow down or take it for granted. The first year I was at Alcoa, practice was just so mentally exhausting.
“I’d coached at some other programs, some successful places. But the intensity of practice (at Alcoa) was shocking to me. I was beating my kids to bed at home, because I was so tired. The mental stress of every practice and every rep, he holds you to perfection. It wears on the kids, but it makes them so mentally strong when they get in a battle like this. They’re able to respond.”
Alcoa’s mental prowess came to the forefront Saturday.
The Tornadoes were on the verge of losing a streak of consecutive state championships Saturday night when Covington tied the game at 14-all with 11 minutes, 21 seconds left in the fourth quarter and held all the momentum.
Alcoa was in search of a fourth-consecutive state title and struggling to put away the opponent they had beaten in the 2017 finale.
But with 5 minutes to play, Alcoa went on a 17-play, 80-yard scoring drive that left only 16 seconds on the clock.
Covington couldn’t respond.
And for Alcoa athletics director Josh Stephens, seeing Rankin win another title came as no surprise. He has seen the program evolve to another level in Rankin’s 13 seasons.
“I hate to say he’s in his prime. But he hasn’t peaked by any means,” said Stephens. “He’s surrounded himself with great people. He’s taken a step back a little bit, as far as his role. But he’s got that winning edge about him still. As long as he’s healthy and we continue to do what we’re doing, I see him staying for a while.”
“Winning is a lot of it. But it’s also the impact he has on these kids’ lives. It’s a special place at Alcoa, and he’s done some special things. Winning helps everything. But he enjoys changing these young men’s lives — making them into better people, good husbands, good fathers, good employers and good employees.”
Zeke Rankin is a three-time state champion now and has one more season to play for his dad. His brother, J.T. Rankin, played for Alcoa during the 2008-2011 seasons and won state titles from 2008-10.
Winning state titles as a Rankin and as a Tornado is, well, just normal now.
Thanks to their dad.
“I’m just kind of used to it by now. Coming to state every year, it’s like a tradition — like Christmas. It comes every year,” said Zeke Rankin.
“He’ll keep going until he can’t do it anymore,” he added of his father. “Simple as that. He just takes it year by year. It never gets old to him.”