Sandlick Field is hallowed ground to those who put on the red football uniforms of the Haysi Tigers. And for 33 years they fought with pride for their school and their program under the watchful eye and creative mind of James Colley.
Colley directed Haysi’s football program from 1982 until 2014, the school’s final year before it consolidated with Clintwood to form Ridgeview High School in Dickenson County.
During his career, Colley’s teams won 254 games, the 17th highest number of wins in VHSL history.
The victories included undefeated regular seasons in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2013 and 2014.
The Tigers won 17 Black Diamond District championships, won three Region D championships and two 1A West Sectional co-championships, referred to by some as the Group 1A state quarterfinals.
Like other communities in Southwest Virginia, Haysi and its high school football program was an atmosphere of family.
“Everyone contributed,” Colley said of the successful program that averaged over seven wins a season in its final three decades. “The coaching staff, the players, the community. Everyone worked hard for our success.”
Everyone also bought into the high-energy, enthusiastic, never-say-die attitude that Colley brought to his alma mater in the early 1980s, when he took over the football program as head coach.
“His energy was contagious,” said Mike Owens, who played for Colley’s first Region D championship team in 1991. “Coach Colley was great at putting kids in the right spot to get the best production from them. He was a master at that.”
Owens was an assistant coach for Colley for 15 years, including 2013 and 2014, when the Tigers went 13-1 and advanced to the VHSL Group 1A state semifinals each year.
Owens was one of seven assistant coaches for Colley during the final two seasons that not only were Haysi alumni, but also played for Colley.
Veteran coach Dewayne Stanley was the veteran of the group that also included Owens, Brad Counts, Ethan Owens, Kennith Branham, Jason Edwards and Nick Lyall.
The family atmosphere was contagious and passed down to the players.
“He was a fantastic coach,” said Jalen Sykes, the Tigers’ quarterback in 2013 and 2014. “Playing quarterback for him was fantastic. Growing up in Haysi you dreamed about getting to play for him, and when you got up there you knew you had a chance to throw the football.
AN OFFENSIVE MASTERMIND
Sykes was far from the only quarterback that looked forward to playing for Colley.
Southwest Virginia was known for hard-nosed, “three yards and a cloud of dust” kind of football when Colley was hired as the head coach at Haysi.
Colley, however, had other ideas about how an offense should operate.
Prior to Colley’s arrival, Haysi football suffered.
With only a few winning seasons, and one trip to the postseason — in 1979 — the young Colley was looking to invigorate the program.
“When I started, literally everybody around here was in the wishbone,” Colley recalled. “But I always liked the passing game. And the passing game was really starting to evolve in college.”
Early in his coaching career, Colley started to institute more and more passes.
“It made it fun in practice,” Colley said. “It also made it easier for the linemen to block.
“You have to remember when I started, offensive linemen could not use their hands at all. It was just easier for them to pass block and protect than to try to push the defense out of the way sometimes.”
The passing game became commonplace for Colley’s teams.
Over his career, Tigers quarterbacks threw for more than 40,000 yards combined.
Brian Stanley was the first quarterback for Colley before Mike Mullins moved into the position.
Then came Terry Gulley, the first quarterback to run the shotgun formation for Haysi and most likely for any team in Southwest Virginia.
“With the arm and the speed he had, if Terry was a quarterback today he would be a perfect run-pass option quarterback that a lot of teams are running,” Colley said.
Jamie Hackney stepped into the QB position and led the Tigers to school history with a Region D championship in 1991.
“The thing I remember about coach Colley was what an intense competitor he was,” Hackney recalled. “It doesn’t matter if it’s golf or ping pong or no matter what it is, he’s an ultimate competitor.”
Colley’s competitive spirit led to his players developing that attitude, Hackney said.
The coach also did not play favorites, Hackney remarked.
“There were no favorites. It was about performance and what you can do to help the team win,” Hackney said.
While Colley was about passing, Hackney said his willingness to adjust to the strengths of his players was also a plus for the program.
“My younger brother Blaine was a running back, and he set records, and then Jeffrey Bowen came along later and broke records as a running back,” Hackney remarked. “(Colley) didn’t mind to run the ball if he had the players to do it. He was an offensive innovator.”
Owens agreed about Colley’s ability to adjust his teams’ schemes to their talents.
“Coach Colley was never afraid to change the game plan if he felt like it worked,” Owens said. “He had the ability to read defenses in an instant and adjust his players to where they would perform the best.”
After Hackney, record-setting quarterbacks like Jason Compton, Robbie Colley, Jake Colley, Chris Fleming, Lance Compton and Sykes continued to come along under Colley’s guidance.
“They were all great. I don’t want to leave anyone out because they all contributed to our success,” the coach said.
The success was also built at Haysi, Hackney said, because of Colley’s desire to win and to do it the right way.
“It was never about him, it was about Haysi,” Hackney said of his former coach. “He just wanted to do whatever could be done and put his all in it for the school and for the community. He wanted it for Haysi.”
While Haysi battled with several teams over the years, including some intense contests with former county rivals Clintwood and Ervinton, no rivalry was stronger than the battle with fellow Black Diamond District member Honaker.
Even before Honaker joined the Black Diamond District the two squads had intense games. The intensity grew even more when Honaker became a BDD member.
Garden won the district title in 1986.
Just about every other year of Colley’s career saw Haysi and Honaker fight for the district crown.
“It was always intense,” Colley said of the games with Honaker. “For a long time, it was the last game of the regular season, so we were fighting for the district title at the end of the year.
“The crowds packed the stands, and they would be three and four deep on the fences. It was pretty intense.”
Another rivalry was intense on a regional basis, even though the two teams only played seven times.
Haysi and Powell Valley met twice in the regular season with Powell Valley winning in 1990 and Haysi returning the favor in 1991.
Five other times — 1985, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 2005 — the two teams met in the Region D championship game. Powell Valley won three of the meetings, with two titles going to Haysi.
“Those were all really good games and really good memories,” Colley said.
Ultimately, Colley said the memories and the relationships built are the key.
Relationships like the one with Pulaski County coach Mark Dixon, the former coach at Galax, which Haysi beat in 2013 and 2014 on the way to the state semifinals.
Robbie Colley, a former quarterback for James Colley, as well as his son, is now an assistant for Dixon.
“Coach Dixon took the Pulaski job, and Robbie is on staff there as associate head coach and defensive coordinator,” the coach said. “It is a small world, indeed.”