Merv Baker (Courtesy of Ken Baker)

By Kyle Daubs

It’s been 54 years since the 1966 team has touched a high school football field, but these guys would still run through a wall for coach Merv Baker.

The 1966 Charleston HIgh School football team is just one of two teams in school history to ever go an undefeated 8-0 in a season; the other being in 1932. Even today, the athletes that made that team so special still give all the credit to their former head coach.

“Most of us had never been to a high school football game when we were little and playing junior football,” said former linemen Larry Closson. “Then, here comes someone with black hair at the time and it was Coach Baker. Every kid stood a little taller. They wanted to be a little tougher. We wanted to impress him. That’s how much we admired him.”

At the time, the football season consisted of mainly an eight-game schedule; although some schools would play nine or 10 games. There were no playoffs, but there were conference battles.

The Trojans were coming off a 1965 season in which the team went 7-1, losing only to Newton, yet the Herald & Review didn’t pick Charleston to win the conference, citing a “lack of experience at line.” The writers picked Newton and Oblong instead. The Eastern Illinois Conference (EI League) included Oblong, Paris, Martinsville, Newton, Marshall, Casey, Cumberland, Robinson, and Palestine.

Boy, did Charleston prove the pundits wrong.

“He talked to us all the time about how he never had a perfect season,” said former running back Paul Moffett. “He had said he wasn’t going to coach much longer. We just made up our mind that we were going to do it for him.”

If anybody was going to figure it out, it was going to be Baker who was 72-23-7 at the time through 13 seasons. The team returned a core group of players who had gone undefeated at home the three previous seasons.

The team returned all-conference selections in Moffett at running back, as well as quarterback Randy Cooley. Center Gary Cole was the only returning letterman on an offensive line that included guard John Beat, tackle Larry Closson, and guard/kicker Tom Jenkins.

Jenkins was coming off a season in which he had set the school-record for PATs with 36. In today’s world, hearing that an offensive lineman was the team’s kicker is unheard of.

“Tom’s dad painted a field goal post on the side of their barn and he just would go out and kick field goals all summer long,” said Closson.

That was not all. Running backs Steve Bell and Steve Cloud were two of the best athletes in football history when it was all said in done. The combination of Bell, Cloud, Moffett, and Cooley often ran all over teams.

“Personally, I think our greatest strength was Randy Cooley at quarterback,” said Moffett. “He could beat you in every way and could throw the ball a mile. He was really tough to handle.”

Many like to talk about an offense that scored 330 points that season, an average of 41.3 points a game. However, Moffett remembers a defensive unit that allowed opponents just 52 total points, 6.5 points a game.

1966 CHS football team

Charleston had a phenomenal group of defensive backs that included Eiddie Eich, Jess Thomason, Bill Brown, John Reat, Moffett, Bell, and Cloud.

“I know a lot of people like to talk about Steve and I with our touchdowns, but I talk more about our defense,” said Moffett. “I think the biggest part of it was that we had some smart guys. From that team, 10 of the 11 players graduated college. We were really good at figuring out what the other team was going to do.”

Charleston allowed two scores in a 45-14 win over Casey, but then routed Martinsville, 48-0. Former Courier-News Sports Editor Jim Kimball reported that the Trojans outgained Martinsville 366-93.

A 47-0 victory over Marshall followed in which Bell scored three times.

“Our strongest asset was our backfield, but Coach Baker knew how to take an average kid like me or Gary and get the most out of you,” said Closson. “It’s surprising that Coach didn’t have more undefeated seasons.”

In the next game, Charleston beat Robinson, 42-6, which featured all six touchdowns on the ground. Bell led the way with three scores from 12, 34, and 70 yards. Cloud added two touchdowns with runs of 11 and 85 yards, while Moffett added a 45-yard run.

After starting the season 4-0, the Trojans began to get media coverage leading up to their anticipated showdown with Newton. Many expected this game to be a great contest given that Newton spoiled Charleston’s undefeated bid the previous season.

“It will be a revenge game,” said Baker to Jerry Parson of the Decatur Herald. “Newton may want a little revenge itself. In the last three years, we have scored 122 points against them. Of course, we have lost one of those games.”

It was the Homecoming Game against a hand-picked team. The team was ready, Moffett said, to go out and dominate.

“Our senior year, we were asked who we wanted to play on homecoming,” said Closson. “We picked Newton. I remember leading up to that game, Paul Moffett led us in prayer because back then you could do that. Right when he ended it, we ran out that door as fast as we could. The band was still playing and we nearly ran them over.”

It looked like Newton would pull off the upset after they led 14-0 in the first quarter. However, Charleston regrouped and kept the team scoreless the rest of the game.

“We should have gone undefeated the year before, but we lost to Newton on a couple of fluke plays,” said Moffett. “It really stuck into our minds that we were going to beat these guys. We knew they were a good team. They had defensive ends who were 6-foot-5, 6-foot-7. When they scored the first two touchdowns, we calmed down and made up our minds they were not going to score again.”

The combination of Cooley and Bell were too much on offense. At the time, Bell was already the No. 2 ranked scorer in central Illinois. He added three total touchdowns in the second quarter to his resume as Charleston pulled off the 27-14 win.

“We just had a lot of really good athletes,” said Cooley. “Steve Cloud was the smartest guy on the field. Steve Bell wasn’t just fast, he was strong and a really good runner. He was a great pass receiver too. I wouldn’t be surprised if he caught more passes than anybody else on the team. Then of course, you already know about Paul Moffett. Everybody was outstanding.”

Cloud’s passing reception touchdown sealed the win on what Cooley remembers as the team’s “secret trick play.”

“It was really windy that game,” said Cooley. “I remember we ran a T-formation, which is pretty much non-existent anymore. I remember making a pass called a throwback. It was Steve Cloud as the left halfback. I remember that everybody, Paul, Steve Bell, and myself ran to the right with the linemen. Steve just hung up on the left side. I remember I threw that pass and there were so many people in front of me that I had no idea if he caught it or not. However, I knew he caught it based on the crowd’s reaction. That was the only time in two years we ran that play. It was like our secret trick play.”

The following week, Charleston easily defeated Oblong, the leader of the EI Small-School Division, after Moffett scored three times, including a 55-yard run, and Bell added two for the 42-0 victory. He also intercepted three passes, still the school record. It was the fifth time in six games that Charleston had scored at least 40 points.

“I think Coach Baker was a little bit ahead of his time,” said Moffett. “Something he was excellent at was always working on a play until it was perfect. There was an option play that either Steve or I would get. We probably ran it 100 times in a row until our blocking was perfect. He was almost Vince Lombardi-like. He insisted we do something until we got it right. I could still probably run the play now with my eyes closed.”

After Paris defeated Newton to remain undefeated in the EI League, it set up the inevitable conference championship.

“The game that sticks out the most is the game against Paris because it was the first time Coach Baker put Randy Cooley at defensive end,” said Moffett. “Normally, Coach didn’t put Randy on defense because he was our quarterback. He didn’t want him to get hurt. It was a huge difference. In one of the most important games of the season, we needed our best defense.”

With Cooley’s insertion on defense, the Trojans finished with their fourth shutout of the season by pummeling Paris 19-0 to clinch the EI Title.

“That was so much fun,” Cooley said. “I will say playing both ways wore me down a little bit, but it was so much fun to play defense. I never got to do that. I remember I got an interception and led the team in tackles that game. I don’t like bragging, but I was just so proud. It was really a lot of fun getting to do that.”

Paris entered the game with one of the best running backs in the state as Moffett recalls. However, Moffett remembers exactly how they were able to stop him.

“I remember they had an All-State running back named Billy Goins,” said Moffett. “He was a nice kid. I remember that I figured out when he was going to get the ball. He always looked to the side. I told Tom Jenkins what he was doing and we developed a signal, so that he would know.”

“So I tell Tom he is coming up the middle,” continued Moffett. “Jenkins just tees him off and Billy got knocked out of the game in the middle of the second quarter. He didn’t play anymore. I’m sure that had to do with a little bit of it why we shut them out.”

Bell scored all three touchdowns and broke the school record for most points in a season. His 114 points had just clipped former record holder Bob Thomas, who had set the previous mark in 1956. After the game, the Decatur Herald ran a picture of Thomas congratulating Bell for breaking the record.

As dominant as Bell was as a player, Cooley also credits the coaching job of Baker and Paul Foreman who worked with the running backs and offensive line respectively.

“Merv was a very good coach who concentrated on fundamentals most of the time,” said Cooley. “He would go out of his way to make sure you knew exactly what you were supposed to do. Calisthenics were a religion. He made sure we were all in shape. I don’t think there was ever a game we were completely worn out after playing.”

The final game of the season featured a 60-19 romp over Cumberland, which did not count in the EI standings. Bell capped off his final game of his high school career with five touchdowns, while Moffett added three. Charleston had finally given Coach Baker his first undefeated season at a very special time in CHS history.

“First perfect season after the 100th anniversary of the school,” said Closson. “How about that?”

The unfortunate truth is that we will never know how far Charleston could have gone in the playoffs. IHSA did not start conducting the playoff series until 1974. For one of the better teams in team history, Cooley believes that they could have made some sort of run.

“I don’t know how far we would have gone,” said Cooley. “It would have been tough. I remember playing Decatur when we were sophomores and they beat us. We played Mattoon and beat them, but you have the St. Louis, Chicago, and Champaign schools. Charleston was 20,000 people at the time, and Champaign and Decatur were twice as big as that. I would like to think we would have won a game or two, but I’d have to say I don’t think we would have won the whole thing.”

Moffett, the true indicator would have been if Charleston would have played Effingham, a team that CHS stopped playing in 1959 and didn’t resume playing until 1981 when Effingham joined the Apollo Conference.

“That’s a really good question,” said Moffett. “When we get together, it’s something we talk about a lot. It’s hard to say. I will say that Effingham was undefeated that year too. If we could have played them and beat them, I think we would have taken it all, I’d like to think.”

At the end of the season, the team broke 29 school records, starting with their running back, Bell finished the season winning the Herald Area scoring title with 144 points and 24 touchdowns.

His 24 touchdowns in a season is still tied with Josh Cazley (2012) for most touchdowns in a season, while his 144 points is still the school record for most points by a senior, as well as his 18 points per game, which is the record for highest scoring average. Other records Bell set but have broken over the years include: receiving yards in a season (569), and touchdown caught in a season (10).

Bell held the scoring record for points in a season until 2012 when Cazley narrowly broke it with 146 points that season. Bell is one of eight members at CHS who have scored at least 100 points in a season.

Cooley’s passing completion percentage of 63.89 percent is still a record, his record for passing touchdowns in a game wasn’t broken until 2011 by Sean Hussey. 

Jenkins’ PAT records of PATs in a game and season were held until 2011; however, his 113 career extra points are still a CHS record. Moffett was the career rushing attempts leader with 286 until Jon Buckellew broke that in 1978.

As of today, four members from the 1966 offense still sit on the all-time list for points scored. Bell ranks No. 3 (186 points), followed by Cloud who is No. 8 (160 points), Moffett at No. 11 (132 points) and Jenkins at No. 20 (113 points).

“We had some tough-nosed kids on that team,” said Closson. “Paul and Steve were great athletes, but they never thought they were better than you. They held to the same standard as the rest of the team. When we used to have C-Club, there was a giant Trojan head on the ground. You never walked on it, but around it. We were told to have a higher value than yourself.”

Bell, who eventually went on to play at Eastern Illinois University, was named the EI Player of the Year, but was not named the Herald Player of the Year. Jerry Hemphil of Flora won the award even though Flora played two extra games in a 10-0 season.

There was also controversy regarding the all-conference awards. Jenkins, Cole, Cooley, and Bell were named All-EI League. However, while joining Bell and Cooley on the Chicago Daily News All-State Special Mention List, Moffett was passed over in his own conference.

“Coaches get together and pick the players,” Closson said. “We embarrassed a lot of schools. Paris expected to beat us. Newton expected to beat us. Moffett got passed over because no way were the other coaches going to give Merv Baker’s entire backfield all-conference.”

“It was petty jealousy,” said Closson. “If we had the structure back then like there is today, Steve, Randy, Paul, Gary, and Tom Kenkins would all be on that list, and even more. Tough guys like Eddie Eich. I’m sorry, our backfield could compete with any talent and it’s tough to snub tough, young players like that.”

When asked, Moffett recalls that Coach Baker came to him and told him that he might not be selected all-conference. His answer is what Cooley describes as “not surprising because that’s how great of a guy Paul is.”

“Coach came to me and talked to me about it,” said Moffett. “I said vote for Randy and Steve. I’ve gotten this before and they haven’t. They’re the important ones. I’m glad they got it to be honest.”

With that mentality, it somehow always ties back to the principles that Coach Baker installed in these young men. These same principles that members of that team still live by today.

“He wasn’t just concerned about football, but your growth as a human being,” Cooley said. “He set very high moral standards for all of us. The worst thing you could do back then was drink beer. I don’t remember any of us guys that went about doing anything that wasn’t proper. Coach Baker was a great guy that led you down the right path.”

Baker served as Charleston’s football, basketball and track coach from 1953-70. He later became the school’s Athletic Director in 1995. He was inducted into the IHSA Hall of Fame as a coach for football and basketball before retiring in 1995.

Baker passed away in 2009 at the age of 92, but his life continues to resonate with his players.

“The times in my life, which included serving in Vietnam, my attitude that was developed was all because of Coach Baker,” Closson said. “We didn’t cuss. We didn’t quit. I dedicate all of that to him. I believe God puts people in your path for a certain period of time and God put Coach Baker in our past at a great time.”

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