Son of ex-Riverdale coach seeks ‘way to win’ vs. Vols

Friday, November 4, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 45

Tennessee Tech center J.T. Rankin, left, looks for a defender to block against Jacksonville State.

-- Thomas Corhern/Tennessee Tech Sports

J.T. Rankin knows only one way to approach a football game: Like he’s going to win it.

The starting center at Tennessee Tech will take the same approach Saturday (4 p.m.) when the Golden Eagles play Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.

It’s a monumental task for Tennessee Tech, which had an open date last Saturday when the then No.-18-ranked Vols lost at unranked South Carolina, 24-21.

UT (5-3, 2-3 SEC) is reeling after the loss. Hopes of an East Division title dimmed into darkness in Columbia.

Fans are jumping off the Butch Jones bandwagon after the Vols’ third consecutive loss, one of the most painful in years. And then came Monday’s announcement junior running back Jalen Hurd is transferring with four games left in the season.

Not Tech’s problems.

Rankin and the Golden Eagles (3-5, 3-3 Ohio Valley Conference) prepared for the Vols like any other team and any other week.

“Find a way to win,” J.T. said. “Find any weakness we can, game plan them, see what their strengths are, see how best we can defend it, see what their weaknesses are and see how we can attack it.

“We know going in we’re not going to be the better athletes. We’re not going to be the prettiest guys on the field, but we’ve got to find a way in game prep to beat the Xs and Os way and physically we’ve got to match them the best we can.”

Those are lessons Rankin learned from his father, Gary, who’s in his 11th season as Alcoa’s head football coach.

Gary Rankin, who grew up in Carthage and played quarterback for Tennessee, is the state’s winningest coach with 392 victories and has won 11 state championships – four at Murfreesboro Riverdale and seven at Alcoa.

There will be lots of pride within the Rankin family in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

“It’s going to be an exciting time for those kids to play in that stadium,” Gary Rankin explained. “It is what it is. It’s a payday (for Tech). You hope to go in and have a good game and not get beat up too bad. Every now and then, you get an upset, too.”

J.T. was born into football. Gary played at Smith County High School (1971 graduate) before going to Tennessee, where a knee injury cut his career short.

When J.T. was born, Gary and Sandra Rankin agreed to name him after John Tucker, the former Milan High School head coach.

Gary started his coaching career at Smith County in 1980-91, taking over a winless team and going 7-4 the next season. He had enough success to land a job in 1990 at Riverdale in Murfreesboro, where J.T. was born.

As a youth, J.T. saw his dad run a state power at Riverdale. The Warriors won state championships in 1994, ’97, 2001, and ’04, and were state runners-up five other times. Gary’s record at Riverdale was 196-25.

“I had one of the best jobs in the state (at Riverdale),” Coach Rankin said. “We had it rolling pretty good. There was nothing really wrong, except I had the itch that it was time for a change. I think a lot of people have a hard time with (change). Sometimes the Good Lord just says it’s time – you need a change.”

The Rankins moved to Alcoa in 2006, when J.T. was in the sixth grade – a move J.T. never expected.

“I was so brainwashed that I was going to grow up and be a Riverdale Warrior, and that’s all I wanted to do,” J.T. said. “I didn’t look past playing football in high school. It was all about wearing red and gold, so that move turned red and gold into maroon and gray (of Alcoa) real quick.

“And there was a bit of a transition process, but I learned to love it even more than Riverdale, and I’m so glad that move happened just for my own life and the success I had in high school from it, but also for the success that dad has had, being able to win games and win championships at two different schools, to me it puts him on a whole different level of being a high school coach. The move overall was excellent, I think, for the whole family. We love the area, too.”

J.T. had a natural attraction to Tennessee Tech, too.

While playing for Alcoa, J.T. helped the Tornadoes win state championships in 2009 and ’10 on Tennessee Tech’s field in Cookeville.

J.T., who finished his Alcoa career with 43 consecutive starts, signed a full scholarship with Tennessee Tech in 2012.

Now, he’s a fifth-year senior coming off hip surgery in February. This season has been special.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be back for this season, but it’s been a blessing just to come back and play again because there was a time I didn’t know if I was actually going to come back,” J.T. said.

“This whole year has been just a blessing to come back and play and be a part of the program and be the first senior class under Coach (Marcus) Satterfield and what he’s done to try and turn this program around and the community around and put us back on the map a little bit.”

J.T. earned his undergraduate degree in exercise science in three years and is earning his master’s in education.

He plans to be a strength and conditioning coach at the high school or college level.

There are three games left in his football career – starting with the big one Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

It’s a chance for Rankin and his teammates to prove they might have been overlooked in the recruiting process.

“We obviously had some FBS teams (recruit) us, but most of the time it was the same story: You’re not quite tall enough. You’re not quite big enough. You’re not quite fast enough, so there’s definitely a chip on us,” J.T. pointed out.

“We just want to go out and prove that we are athletes, and we are competitive, and we do that every Saturday.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.