Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Coach Scopes

1924 Rhea Central High School Yellow Jackets

In the fall of 1924, newly hired John Scopes (far left) coached the Rhea Central High School Yellow Jackets to a 4–4–2 record. (Photo courtesy of Rhea County Historical Society.)

Although John Scopes helped to put Dayton, Tennessee, on the map by allegedly teaching human evolution at Dayton’s Rhea Central High School, he also was the school’s football coach. Scopes was a popular teacher, but he knew that “coaching was the most important part of my job,” as he wrote in his 1967 memoir. The many retellings of Scopes’s famous trial have detailed the trial’s events, but none include his coaching record. What kind of coach was “Coach Scopes”?

First, some background. In the fall of 1923, the Rhea High Yellow Jackets were coached by newly hired Raleigh Reece, a recent graduate from and gridiron star at Carson and Newman College (now Carson-Newman University). Reece’s team posted a 5–6 record, according to the Chattanooga Times (“Rhea’s green team makes big strides,” December 9, 1923, p. 19). In May 1924, when Reece resigned his job to become a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, he was replaced by the most famous hire in the history of Rhea County: John Scopes.

Hired to teach science and mathematics, Scopes had never played organized football. Yet in the fall of 1924, the chain-smoking Scopes — Dayton’s first coach to let football players smoke during the season — coached the Yellow Jackets (photo above) to a 4–4–2 record, according to the Chattanooga Times (“Rhea High’s raw material developed into a winner,” November 30, 1924, 17.) Despite these mediocre results, a reporter — who acknowledged that “football [in Dayton] is more important than bootlegging”—proclaimed Scopes “the best football coach that Day- ton ever had” (“Football, evolution, and bootlegging in east Tennessee,” Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, June 8, 1925, 4).

When Scopes left Dayton after his infamous trial, he was replaced by Raleigh Reece, his predecessor. The day before he was hired, and presumably to help him secure the job, Reece announced that he was a fundamentalist, prompting one student at Rhea Central to lament, “Shucks, our football team is busted ... What does a fundamentalist know about foot- ball?” (as reported in “Darwin in Scopes’ place for a while,” Chattanooga News, August 18, 1925, 1 — the Darwin of the title was Darius Darwin, who briefly substituted in the classroom for Reece). Reece’s team again posted a losing record (4–7). Although the team’s official name remained the Yellow Jackets, after the trial several newspapers informally renamed the team The Fundamentalists (e.g., “Rhea High Fundamentalists have successful campaign,” Chattanooga Times, November 29, 1925, p. 25).

In early February 1926, Reece abruptly resigned his job, allegedly because of an “entertainment incident” that upset the school board. Scopes never again coached a sports team, not even those that included his two sons.

Randy Moore
Short Bio

Randy Moore is the H. T. Morse–Alumni Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His most recent book, coauthored with Roslyn Cameron, is Galápagos Revealed: Finding the Places that Most People Miss (Galapagos Conservancy, 2019).