Athletics has long been a source of pride for Father Ryan. Ryan is a member of the Tennessee Secondary State Athletic Association (TSSAA), Division II Class AA, and has accumulated 54 state championships. From the beginning, the school has amassed a reputation as an athletic powerhouse whose performance is characterized by teamwork and sportsmanship both on and off the field.
Coaches like Leo Long, Louis Catignani ‘44, Bill Derrick ‘48, Murray Lynch ‘55 and Joe Drennan ‘57 emphasized the value of discipline while inspiring students to excel in all areas including the classroom. Ryan’s long-standing practice of faculty with coaching positions is one that has been beneficial to the student-athlete’s balance of classroom and extra-curricular activities.
In 1927, only two short years after its founding, Father Ryan earned its first state championship. The boys basketball team defeated Alpine School of Overton County 19 - 15, ending their season with a 21 - 3 game record. The team was then known as Nashville Catholic High, and its win set in motion a tradition of strong athletic programs and skilled athletes. The life of the 1920s Ryan athlete differed vastly from the life of the modern Ryan athlete. Father Ryan began with only four varsity sports: baseball, golf, basketball and football. Today, Father Ryan has 26 interscholastic sport teams.
Not long after their first state championship, Father Ryan won their second in 1930, this time in football under the direction of Coach Leo Long (pictured top left). He was the coach and the only coach at Ryan for a number of years.
Father Ryan vs. Pearl High
The athletic program would make history in 1965 under another influential athletic director, Louis Catignani. On January 4, Father Ryan’s basketball team went head to head with Pearl High School. Pearl’s powerful Tigers, long an athletic power among state and southern black schools, launched a new era for athletics when they met the Irish at Municipal Auditorium. It was the first integrated athletic contest in the city’s history.
The 1965 game was played to a capacity crowd of 8,300 screaming fans at the Municipal Auditorium. So loud was the crowd that the Father Ryan team had a technical foul called against it in the first period for failing to answer the buzzer after a timeout. According to newspaper accounts, Ryan’s Coach Bill Derrick said he never heard the horn. The game was played at Municipal Auditorium because neither school’s facilities could hold the anticipated large crowd.
The Pearl Tigers, led by the late legendary Coach Cornelius Ridley, were favored to win. A season earlier, the team won what was then called the State Championship for Negro High Schools. But in the final seconds, the Irish defeated the Tigers by one point at 52-51. The winning points came when Ryan’s Lyn Dempsey ‘65, a 5’10” guard, rebounded a missed shot and dropped in a 15-footer as the horn sounded.
The star of the game was Ryan guard Willie Brown (pictured at right) who scored 21 points. Brown was the first black player in the history of the Nashville Interscholastic League (NIL). He received All-NIL honors for his performances on the court. Only two years earlier in 1963, Ryan became the first school in Nashville to include black athletes on its teams. It is believed no other school in Nashville and perhaps Tennessee had an integrated team at that time.
Ryan Makes NIL History
Following the Pearl game in the late 1960s, the school began transitioning from the Panthers to the Irish, and in the fall of 1967, the Irish name first appeared on athletic uniforms. Not long after, Ryan became co-ed and introduced the girls’ varsity and freshman basketball teams to the athletic roster.
When girls athletics became a part of the Irish experience in 1970, the Lady Irish were quick to start their own winning traditions, particularly in basketball and volleyball, which became an NIL sport in 1976. Both basketball and volleyball rose to the top level of competition and have stayed among the strongest programs in the state ever since, with volleyball claiming several state titles. Now, girls soccer, softball and lacrosse have expanded the girls offerings, with both softball and soccer taking state titles.
The Irish competed regularly for the NIL titles, reaching the Clinic Bowl three times between 1959 and 1963, winning twice (1959 pictured at left). They also appeared in several other Clinic Bowls in the 1970s. The year 1974 marked a significant moment in Ryan athletics. The Irish achieved two firsts in its history: an undefeated season and multiple state championships within a year. Under the guidance of Coach Boots Donnelly, the 1974 football team’s undefeated season resulted in a state championship, the first time a Nashville Interscholastic League team won a football state title. The team defeated Knoxville Fulton 29-28 with over 4,000 people in attendance. Also in 1974, the wrestling team won its third state championship under coach Bobby Garmon ‘65.
The 70s and 80s were marked by close calls in the state. In 1973-74, Ryan’s basketball team jelled in a magical run to the State Final Four. A pair of 6’9” players—John Sneed and Carl Crain—led the Irish on a memorable month, coming up short in the semi-finals. The soccer team won the state in 1972 and 1973 and just missed out on a state title in 1975 and 1977. And the basketball and football teams from the 80s and 90s stood out season after season, continuing to produce exceptional performances and further burnish its reputation for excellent play and sportsmanship. Father Ryan athletics had another big year in 1998. The Irish won four state championships that year: in wrestling, dual wrestling, girls soccer and boys soccer—more championships than any other year; in 2008, they won four state titles again.
Wrestling Powerhouse Shifts to Ryan
More than 50 years ago on Elliston Place, a group of young men responded to the news of the school’s newest sport and formed the first wrestling team in the sport’s history at Father Ryan. At the time, wrestling’s capital was Chattanooga and the Midstate seemed as desolate as the open prairie. But within two years, Joe Drennan ‘57 became head coach and two years later, in 1967, our first state champion was crowned—Yogi Walsh ‘67. Two years after that, the dynasty began as the Irish became
the first state wrestling champion from outside of Chattanooga. Ten of 12 wrestlers from Father Ryan placed in the championship, including two state champions: Scott Brunette ‘69 and Bubba Donnelly ‘69.
Champion followed champion and championship followed championship—to the point that the center of wrestling shifted to Nashville, with Father Ryan at the top. Nineteen state crowns and 80 individual state champions will do that. Today, the wrestling program boasts a new practice facility, the Patrick Simpson ’74 Wrestling Facility in the new Jim Carell Fitness Center. Named for the long-time coach – who wrestled on the ’74 championship team – the facility – adds 3,000 square feet of space to the wrestling arena. And it honors a man whose three plus decades have produced 61 state champion wrestlers.
First Home Field
Historically, Ryan has never had a permanent stadium for football games, having alternated between facilities like Sulphur Dell, Centennial Park, West End High School and Greer Stadium. For many years, Vanderbilt University’s Dudley Field was considered Irish home turf, but the university’s transition from artificial to natural turf limited the number of games; the damage to natural turf during Friday night games prevents use of the field if Vanderbilt plays a home game the next day.
When the school moved to the Norwood campus, there were no future plans for a football stadium. The building permit for the 40-acre campus included an “Agreed to Order” signed by Father Ryan High School and the City of Oak Hill that stipulated certain restrictions on the athletic fields, including no Friday night football games on campus. Other teams such as soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse and freshman football frequently played on campus; however, permanent seating and the use of lights and amplified sound were limited.
In 2003, the Irish got their chance to host their first varsity football game. The game had to be played on Saturday afternoon. Without the need for lights and with permission from Oak Hill to use temporary seating and sound amplification, the Irish faced Christian Brothers on October 18.
Six years later in 2009, the school finally gained its first on-campus athletic complex. The Irish made headlines when the Jim Carell Alumni Athletic Complex opened its gates in August. The first home game on August 28 (pictured above) welcomed over 4,000 Irish fans to campus, becoming Ryan's largest crowd in decades.
Read the full history of Father Ryan