Box Elder and Bear River high school football teams face off in the 100th Golden Spike Game on Friday, Sept. 4. This story is the first in a series looking back at historical people and events connected with the two teams.
BRIGHAM CITY — Earl Ferguson’s name is all over Utah high school sports history books.
His Box Elder High football teams had a 213-80-16 record in his 39 seasons as head coach.
Ferguson is sixth all-time in coaching wins, ninth in games coached, and teams he coached won six state championships and 18 region championships.
In particular, his Box Elder teams beat county rival Bear River 30 out of 37 times, often by blowouts.
The thing Box Elder might have that other programs don’t is coaching longevity.
Since the Bees first suited up for football in 1917, just eight men have been head coach.
That’s 103 years gone by with eight men, in nine stints: Alvin Twitchell (1917-20), Earl Ferguson (1921-59), Les Dunn (1960-73), Gordon Peterson (1974-78), Larry Findley (1979-80), Michael Madeo (1981-87), Larry Findley (1988-90), Wes Roesler (1991-2008) and Robbie Gunter (2009-present).
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Gunter.
For comparison, Bear River, the Bees’ opponent in this week’s 100th Golden Spike Game, has had at least 24 coaches — 1922-26 are unknown — since starting football in 1922, according to prep football historian George Felt.
Box Elder’s first head coach was Alvin Twitchell, who held the position before becoming the first head football coach at BYU.
But once BEHS hired a certain University of Utah graduate in 1921, BEHS wouldn’t have to think about Ferguson’s replacement for decades.
Ferguson, who was born in 1895, graduated from Jordan High School in Sandy.
After serving in the military, he lettered in football, basketball and track and field in 1921 at the University of Utah.
Before Ferguson arrived at BEHS, the Bees had an eventful first few years including a shortened, two-game season — both wins against Malad (ID) — due to the due to the 1918 flu pandemic.
After a 5-1 campaign in 1923, Ferguson’s third season, the school yearbook proclaimed that “Much credit is due Coach Ferg for his splendid work in training the boys. Box Elder’s prospects in athletics are bright.”
From 1924-31, Box Elder went 47-8-2, which included shared state championships in 1926 and 1928.
The Bees lost back-to-back championship games in 1933-34 before breaking through with a 14-0 win against Carbon in the 1935 title game at what was then Ute Stadium.
Box Elder won back-to-back titles in 1945-46, lost three straight from 1949-51 and won the 1957 title in dramatic, late fashion against Tooele in what would be Ferguson’s final playoff foray.
“There were a couple teachers who knew him real well,” Gunter said. “A coach that coached with us had older brothers that played for him. One of the biggest things that they all talk about is Box Elder didn’t have the very best athletes, but he did a great job building the team.”
In the 1950s, the mandatory retirement age was 65 and Ferguson stepped away after the 1959-60 school year.
Ferguson spent his later years in Arizona, where he died in 1971 and was survived at the time by his wife, Grace, his daughter, Grace, and his sons, Warren and Gary.
Ferguson ran a single-wing offense to a tee (no pun intended) that featured four running backs — a wing back, blocking back, fullback and tailback — and a host of blockers.
“He was as old-fashioned as could be. The other teams would wear short-cut shoes to play football and we wore the old things that you laced up halfway up to your knees,” said BEHS alumnus Lewis Jones, who played on the 1959 team.
Apparently even LaVell Edwards knew of Ferguson. Edwards approached Gunter one year at a fundraiser golf tournament.
“He came up and saw my shirt. ‘You’re at Box Elder now, man that Earl Ferguson, I used to go up and he’d clinic me on the single-wing. He was the guru,’” Gunter recently recalled. “He couldn’t say enough about how good he was.”
According to former players, Ferguson was a man of few words, had a strict, serious demeanor, and worked his players hard.
Jones wrote a book about Ferguson that chronicled the Bees’ teams of the 1940s and ’50s, and also has memories from a handful of former players.
“He seemed to know your abilities and pointed you in a direction towards taking advantage of those strengths. Nor do I think that all his players liked him as a friend, but all of his players believed he would be honest with them and all respected him,” wrote Max Huggins, BEHS class of 1958, in the book.
Ferguson wouldn’t get too high after a win or too low after a loss.
Jones recalled a speech following a 27-0 win against Jordan in the 1959 season-opener.
“On Monday (after the game), guess what, he says: ‘Well, three or four of their players were dinged up and they had a kid sprain his ankle.’ What he was saying was you didn’t see them at their best,” Jones said.
“I heard that speech more than once. He did that very thing to keep us from thinking we were too hot,” Jones said.
After winning state titles, though, Ferguson was known to show up at school the next week, “dressed to the nines with a really good looking suit and a tie,” Jones said.
Following Ferguson, coach Les Dunn led BEHS to the 1960 state title and made it to two more semifinals in his coaching days.
The Bees really made noise again in the Wes Roesler era from 1991-2008.
They won 10 games and went to the state semis in 1992, won the 1995 state title with a prolific offense, went to the 2001 final and made three additional semifinals.
The Bees own 36 region championships, the third-most in state history, according to Felt.
To this day, Box Elder’s home field is named Ferguson Field, found on a white-and-purple arch near the north end zone, one of the few visible relics of a coach who took a football program to prominence.
When Gunter got the Box Elder job, he said he’d never heard the name Earl Ferguson before. That was the first thing he sought to find out and it didn’t take long to figure out why the field was named after Ferguson.