By Billy Watkins
Las Vegas oddsmakers favor the Kansas City Chiefs by 3.5 points Sunday to win back to back Super Bowls — and do so by whipping Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their home field.
Only seven of the 32 NFL franchises have been able to take two straight: the Patriots (and Brady), Steelers, 49ers, Dolphins, Packers, Cowboys and Broncos.
It’s tough to repeat at most any level, no matter the sport.
So who better in Mississippi to talk about the Chiefs’ accomplishments and chances than West Point football coach Chris Chambless? His Green Wave won the Class 5A state championship in 2016 and 2017 … and 2018 … and 2019. Yep, four straight seasons of making it through the rugged playoffs, then winning the big one.
“They had to get us a new trophy case,” Chambless said.
West Point reached the championship game again in 2020, but came up short against West Jones, 33-27.
I asked Chambless last week if he had watched the game tape much.
“Heck yeah, I watched it again yesterday,” he said. “I may be the world’s worst loser in the world. Right after the game, I try to be strong for the kids and coaches. But when I finally get home and get time to reflect, I take it pretty hard.
“I watch it and see so many little things that could have changed the outcome — if we hadn’t missed that tackle or if we hadn’t gotten that penalty. They’re coaching points, and I like to make notes about them while the game is still fresh on my mind so I can apply it when we’re able to get back out on the practice field again.”
When a program wins a state championship, it becomes one of the most important games on every opponent’s schedule the next season. Win four straight, and it becomes the other teams’ personal Super Bowl.
“The Chiefs faced that after winning last year,” said Chambless, 47, who came to West Point in 1999 and was named head coach prior to the 2006 season. “We talk about it. We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot and we have to prepare like that. Everybody wants to see where they stack up against the team that won it.
“It was the same way when we used to play South Panola when they were on their big run. Our kids geared up for that one. We played some good battles against them.”
Winning can breed complacency.
I remember the late Pat Dye telling me after suffering through a rare tough season during his legendary career at Auburn: “We let little things slip along the way. Little things like putting stuff in your locker the way it should be. And those little things add up. You lose focus to detail. After a poor season, you look at the things you’re doing at lot closer.”
When I shared that story with Chambless, he related.
“It’s hard to keep the kids humble. That may be the toughest part,” he said. “But the expectation of getting there helps, no doubt about that.”
Consider this: The juniors and seniors on the 2020 team were seventh and eighth graders when the Green Wave won the first of the four straight.
“As they came up, in their minds we were supposed to go to the state championship game and win it,” he says.
One year, Chambless lost 18 starters and his entire starting defense to graduation. They reloaded and won state again.
“I credit the players,” Chambless said. “We’ve got a bunch of blue collar kids who love to work hard, love the grind that it takes to win. They don’t mind doing the running and lifting in the offseason.
“And I have a meeting with the seniors before every season and tell them straight up, ‘We’re gonna go as far as you take us. The coaches will coach just as hard as we ever have, but you’ve got to be the leaders. Be vocal and be what you preach.
“We’ve won a lot of games that we shouldn’t have because of all of that. The 2020 team (that finished 10-4) wasn’t our best, but those guys played really hard and expected to win. West Jones was better than us, but we nearly pulled it out.”
Chambless mentioned three other reasons West Point is enjoying this incredible run.
The program has been good for a long time, winning seven state titles between 1982 and 2010. West Point went back to back in 2009 and 2010. Their fans are emotionally invested in the team. High school football is a year-round topic around town .
Chambless rarely has to hire a new coach.
“I’ve got three guys who have been with me my entire time here and a couple more more who have been with me eight or nine years. Having that staff makes a huge difference.”
The program receives great support from the administration.
“You can’t win if you don’t have that,” he said.
When the NFL season began in September, a lot of people didn’t give it much chance of finishing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was one of them.
A lot of those same people didn’t believe Mississippi high schools would have championship games in 2020. Again, I was one of them.
So was Chambless.
“But a lot of people did a great job of getting us through this,” Chambless said. He was especially happy for the seniors, who didn’t lose their final season to the virus.
Sunday’s Super Bowl is more special than ever.
I asked Chambless to predict a winner.
“The Chiefs are really good and have a great chance of going back to back,” he said. “Experience in a game like that helps. I know it helps us in the championship game. We know what to expect, our kids are able to handle being nervous and are able to settle in a little quicker than a team that hasn’t been there.
“But having said all that, I would never count out a team with Tom Brady at quarterback. After watching them win at Green Bay, Tampa Bay just seems to have something special going on. I’m picking Tampa Bay.”