CORBIN – On a clear, crisp October morning recently, Larry “Cotton” Adams sat in the concrete stands at Denes Stadium and recalled the first time he ever saw the Corbin Redhounds play football.
It was 1955. He was 9 years old. And the magic unfolded on this very field in front of him.
“I remember the opening kickoff. Calvin Bird took it to the house. I remember he hurdled a tackler at midfield,” Adams said, motioning toward the 50-yard line.
“It was something.”
It was something that would change his life.
The community of Corbin has had a special relationship with its high school football team for the better part of a century. The Redhounds have claimed mythical or official state titles in 1939, 1955, 1976, 1980 and 1982. They were runners-up in 1962, 1977, 1990, 2002, 2017 and 2018.
The fans here demand success as if it were a birthright.
“There’s a lot of tradition here,” Adams said. “Some programs in the state have a lot more state championships, but as far as persistence, year in and year out, Corbin would be right there with any of ‘em. It’s never dropped off very much.”
And nobody – not even the revered Bird brothers (Calvin, Roger, Jerry and Billy) – better exemplify what Corbin football is all about than Cotton Adams.
“He’s the true definition, the true epitome, of a Corbin Redhound,” said Ken Cox, a longtime Lexington high school administrator who was Adams’ classmate and teammate.
“He was as hard-nosed a football player that has ever gone through Corbin High School, and nobody has ever given more to the program than Cotton.”
Cotton would argue that nobody has ever benefited more from the program than him.
Playing for Corbin earned him a chance to go to college, and ultimately an opportunity to coach the Redhounds. As an assistant and head coach he was part of three state championships and two state runners-up.
“There’s no question that getting involved in football totally changed my life,” he said.
Cotton and his four siblings didn’t have much of a family life growing up. They were poor, and getting an education wasn’t a priority.
“My two brothers were both pool-room boys, and I was going to be one, too,” Adams said. “Then I started playing football in the eighth grade.”
He loved the down-and-dirty, physically challenging nature of the sport.
Even as a 4-foot-11, 95-pound high school freshman, Adams didn’t back down to anybody.
“I was meaner than hell,” he said. “For whatever reason, maybe it was the way I was reared and how I had to get by on a daily basis, I was pretty ornery.”
By the time he was a junior he had grown to 5-7, 145 pounds, and was a starting offensive lineman for a Corbin team that made it to the Class 2A state finals.
Adams credits his Redhound coaches – Walt Green, Carl Oakley, and Ledger Howard – for giving him a chance to prove himself.
But the defining moment for Adams came off the field his freshman year when Green, the head coach, informed the players they had to maintain a 2.0 GPA to stay eligible.
“I had a ‘D’ at mid-term when he called us in,” Adams said. “Right then I knew I had to change my life. I started hitting the books and never had an issue with grades again.”
Cotton Adams has countless memories of his days as a Redhound, but he loves to share two of them in particular.
As a freshman in 1960, he was just happy to watch from the sideline as Rodger Bird (who went on to star at UK and in the NFL) led Corbin to an undefeated record.
In the last game of the season, Corbin hosted Louisville powerhouse Manual. As Adams tells the story, Green was giving the Redhounds a pre-game pep talk when somebody rushed in and handed the head coach what appeared to be a telegram.
“Coach read a line or two, dropped it on the floor and left the dressing room,” Adams recalled. “Carl Oakley walked over, picked up the message and said, ‘Oh, no, guys. I’ve got bad news. Coach’s mother just passed away.’”
That lit an emotional fuse with the players, who stormed out of the locker room, took the field and beat Manual 46-34 to preserve Corbin’s undefeated season.
The truth was, Green’s mother had not passed away. The fake telegram was a ruse to fire up the team.
“The whole time Coach (Green) was up in the press box,” Adams said. “On Saturday we found out it was the biggest hoax ever.”
Despite its perfect record and having been rated No. 1 in the state for a time, Corbin didn’t qualify for the playoffs under a flawed ratings (Dickinson) system.
The absolute best atmosphere Adams ever experienced for a game at Corbin came in the 1962 state semifinals. The Redhounds hosted two-time defending state champ Highlands, which hadn’t lost in its previous 34 games.
“It was electrifying here that night,” Adams said. “I can still remember the plays, the calls, the reaction of the fans. We beat them 10-0. Everybody was stunned except us.
“But it was such a big moment, (the coaches) never got us back down to earth.”
In the state finals, Corbin lost 13-6 to Danville, which it had beaten during the regular season.
After graduating from Corbin in 1964, Adams went to Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, S.D., and started at linebacker for four years. (Dakota Wesleyan president Dr. Jack J. Early was from Corbin and offered Adams the chance to go to college.)
“They put me on a Trailways bus and 58 hours later I was in Mitchell, South Dakota,” Adams said.
Four years later, Adams was back in Corbin and joined the coaching staff of the struggling Redhounds.
Corbin’s football fortunes brightened the next year when Archie Powers took over the program. The Redhounds were perennial state contenders under Powers, highlighted by state titles in 1976 and 1980.
When Powers stepped down after the 1980 championship, Adams took the reins.
In 1982, he guided Corbin to another state title, capping what Adams called “the strangest year” of his coaching career.
The Redhounds had trouble filling their schedule, so Adams had no choice but to play what he called a “murderer’s row.” Corbin started the season losing to 4A powers Madison Central and Bryan Station. It also lost to Danville and Somerset.
The Redhounds trailed district rival Middlesboro 21-8 at halftime and, as Adams recalled, Corbin fans were passing around a petition to have him fired. “Even my wife nearly signed it,” he laughed.
But Corbin rallied to beat Middlesboro and went on to win the state title, beating Glasgow in the finals.
Steve Jewell, who played on the 1980 and ’82 championship teams and later became coach of the Redhounds, said Adams “was always very demanding, very intense, very excited.
“He was not only your coach as far demanding perfection out of you, he was also your cheerleader. He literally was. I still remember a game against Middlesboro . . . he was standing up on the back of the bleachers waving his hat trying to get the crowd into it.”
Corbin maintained its status as a powerhouse throughout the next decade, including a state runner-up finish to Fort Knox in 1990.
A few years later, though, Adams’ tenure as Corbin coach came to an end, a dispiriting time he’d rather not talk about.
He went on to coach other places, including three stints at Whitley County, but none could replicate what he had, and felt, at his alma mater.
“This is where my heart has always been,” Adams said, sitting in the stands where 64 years ago he first fell in love with football and the Redhounds.
Written by: Mike Fields