Former Hampton High football coach gone but not forgotten

By Jamie Combs

   The late Howard Duncan was to Hampton High football what a good shepherd is to a flock of sheep. In the pursuit of gridiron prominence, he refused to let his Bulldog teams go astray.
   That kind of focus and commitment lifted Duncan to impressive heights in his six years as Hampton's head coach (1962-67) and helped lay the foundation for a tradition-rich program.
   "I feel like he was a good coach and a fair man," said former Bulldog fullback/linebacker Cyril Skeans, who played his entire prep career (1962-65) under Duncan. "He was a real asset. In the previous years, up to him becoming the head coach, Hampton wasn't a dominant power in the Watauga Conference. He really built the program, and I feel like he meant a lot to Bulldog football during his time there."
   While the Bulldogs weren't total strangers to success prior to the Duncan era -- Hampton captured a pair of Watauga Conference titles under the direction of John Pansock -- they had produced a mere 36 victories through 12 years of existence in 11-man competition.
   In fact, Duncan inherited a Bulldog team that was coming off an 0-10 year. It wouldn't take long for things to turn around.
   Although their 1962 record (2-4 in Watauga, 2-8 overall) didn't reflect major improvement, the 'Dogs were making a definite step in the right direction. The next season, Hampton jumped to 5-1 in league play (good enough for second place) and posted a 6-4 overall mark.
   From there, Hampton really cut loose as the Duncan-led 'Dogs rolled to three consecutive conference championships, posting a 16-0 league worksheet, then tied for the Watauga crown in Duncan's final campaign.
   "Duncan got Hampton football to a high point of respectability," said current Bulldog head coach J.C. Campbell, Duncan's assistant for five years and eventual successor. "He had some real good teams and some real good players. He had a good run of players during those years.
   "He was a strong disciplinarian. Hampton had as good a run as anybody when Mr. Duncan was here."
   Posting a 38-23 record, including a 27-6 league worksheet, during his Hampton run, Duncan saw his teams produce an astounding 25-2 conference mark after his first year on the job.
   Elizabethton, Knox Halls and Science Hill combined for seven of those 23 Hampton defeats, and the 'Dogs clearly showed they were no small-school pushover in two meetings with Halls, which registered demanding wins of 20-7 (in 1963) and 14-7 (1964).
   The '65 'Dogs put up a valiant effort against the Cyclones, holding them to a 7-0 score before running out of gas in the fourth quarter of a 27-0 setback. Skeans, an all-conference performer on that Hampton squad, said that Duncan had a knack for putting players in position to maximize their talents.
   "He was really good at recognizing people's abilities and that sort of thing," Skeans said. "He utilized the best of their abilities to the best of his ability for the team."
   Duncan had his best year at Hampton in 1966, guiding the 'Dogs to their first 10-win season (10-1 record) as well as their first postseason appearance, which resulted in a 20-6 victory over Greenback in the Rhododendron Bowl at Brown-Childress Stadium.
   Former Elizabethton STAR sports editor Bill Jenkins was acquainted with the Hampton program back in the 1960s, and really noticed how the 'Dogs flourished during Duncan's time as head coach.
   "He brought Hampton around there and had them pretty high up," Jenkins said. "He was an outstanding coach and a good guy to work with."
   According to Skeans, Duncan brought significant changes to the way Hampton played the game.
   "About the only trademark you could apply to Coach Duncan in his time at Hampton was innovation," said Skeans. "He was the first one to use a finesse-type football at Hampton. He turned it from three yards and a cloud of dust to a thinking man's game. He was the first to introduce the straight-I's and the single wings to local, area football."
   Campbell, who's racked up 219 victories in his long and illustrious career as Hampton head coach, said that working under Duncan was time well spent.
   "I learned a lot from Mr. Duncan," Campbell said. "I learned a lot of organization, a lot of discipline practices -- a lot about football."
   Football, though, wasn't the only area in which Duncan's influence was felt.
   Skeans was happy to call his coach a personal friend, before and after graduating from high school, and indicated that Duncan played a big part in steering him the right direction in life.
   "Duncan and I got along really well," Skeans said. "I liked him personally. I did a lot of work for him and that sort of thing. He had a large impact on the way things turned out for me. He played a large role in that.
   "He was always interested in his players. He was always more than happy to talk with you, and would go out of his way to help you."
   It's been 35 years since Howard Duncan last walked the sideline at Hampton High, and several years since he passed away in Florida. Duncan may be gone, but he's definitely not forgotten.