Dunbar football honors its past

1994 team won Baltimore City’s first state championship

Published 9/23/2022 12:56 a.m. EDT, Updated 9/23/2022 8:54 a.m. EDT

In 1994, Dunbar High won Baltimore City's first state football championship. The team will be honored Friday evening at halftime of the Poets' homecoming game.

Dante Jones often smiles at the picture of the 1994 Dunbar High football team in his office at Delaware State University.

“It feels good that we started something special,” said Jones, a starting linebacker on the Poets’ 1994 squad who’s currently football coach at Early College School, a charter school on the Delaware State campus. “We changed Dunbar from a basketball school to a football school.”

The Poets made history in the fall of 1994, becoming the first Baltimore City program to win a state championship. The team will be honored Friday evening at halftime of Dunbar’s Homecoming game vs. Dunbar (D.C.) at Sugar Cain Field.

The Poets claimed the Class 2A state championship with a victory over Western Maryland’s Fort Hill, completing a 12-0 season. The East Baltimore school finished ranked No. 1 in the metro area.

More than two years after Dunbar basketball was named mythical national champions for the third time in a decade, Poets football started a run of dominance that has stretched nearly three decades.

“What that team did was defy the odds of Baltimore just being a basketball city and that kids in Baltimore actually played football as well,” said Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith, a 1992 graduate who has steered his alma-mater to seven of an area-best 11 state championships.

“Baltimore City didn’t get much respect outside of the city,” said former Poet star linebacker and tight end Tommy Polley, who was also a star forward in basketball. “We were looked at as a basketball town.”

That changed on a chilly early December night in Hagerstown when Dunbar pulled away from Fort Hill, which turned its side of the bleachers at South Hagerstown High into a sea of red.

The Poets made Fort Hill see red, forcing eight turnovers. Polley caught a 78-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Anthony Wiggins and Ali Culpepper returned a punt 60 yards for another score en route to a 30-15 decision.

“We knew they (Fort Hill) had great support and a great history. The more people, the more people got to see how Baltimore City played football,” said Polley.

The Poets allowed just 37 points in 2004, posting seven shutouts. With a roster of 24 players, many played both offense and defense.

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Polley, who played five seasons in the NFL (St. Louis and Baltimore) after winning back-to-back state Defensive Player of the Year awards at Dunbar and was a starting linebacker on Florida State University’s 1999 national championship team, believes the 1993 squad was better.

“We should’ve won it three years in a row,” said Polley, who led Dunbar to the 3A state title in 1995.

The Poets reached the 2A state semifinals in 1993, the first season city schools participated in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) playoffs. Dunbar, under interim coach Stan Mitchell, lost at Southern-Anne Arundel.

Mitchell, who won two national titles in the 11-13 age category with the Northwood Rams Pop Warner program, was named interim coach before the start of the 1993 season after football coach and athletic director Pete Pompey was placed on administrative leave for alleged misuse of athletic department funds.

Pompey, who also served as basketball coach (won mythical national title in 1991-92) since 1986, was later cleared of wrongdoing by the city’s State Attorney Office. He was reassigned to Edmondson in 1994.

The Poets excelled in 1993 (finished 9-3) despite a torn locker room.

“It was a lot going on…it was almost like we had two teams,” said former Poet two-way linemen Dwayne Green. “Some of the kids were having a tough time.”

.“He (Mitchell) knew there was a lot of turmoil. A lot of people would’ve destroyed the team…kids are emotional, they love and get attached to people,” said Jones, who was among 10 Northwood players who came to Dunbar to play for Pompey. “He never said ‘either you’re with Coach Pete or you’re with me’, he never played that card. He coached how he coached and just kept pushing until everybody brought in.”

With Mitchell in place as permanent coach for the 1994 season, Dunbar was ready to challenge for a state title. The Poets opened with a 22-0 non-league victory at Randallstown.

After a 22-6 victory at Poly, which was the first city school to reach the state final (3A) in 1993, Dunbar posted six straight shutouts.

The Poets’ closest match was an 8-6 victory over Cambridge-South Dorchester in a 2A state semifinal at Morgan State. The Poets blocked a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

“The whole experience was surreal,” said Green. “We didn’t realize how good we were going to be.”

Mitchell led the Poets to state titles in 1994 and 1995 and a runner-up spot in 1997 before the school’s administration decided not bring him back after the 1997 season. He was Morgan State’s head coach for three seasons (1998-2000).

“He (Mitchell) did it his way. He doesn’t get enough credit,” said Jones. “He coached us like we were little soldiers. Right, wrong or indifferent, it worked.”

Jones, who played collegiately at Delaware State, won a state title (2A) at Edmondson as head coach in 2004 (only other Baltimore City school to win a state championship). He said his coaching style mirrored both Mitchell and Pompey, whom he succeeded at the West Baltimore school after his retirement following the 2003-04 school year.

“Coach Stan did a great job…we probably didn’t have the best relationship at that time, but looking back on it, he prepared us for life,” said Polley, who’s the defensive coordinator at St. Mary’s High, a private school in St. Louis.

Though most of the team were “jokesters,” Jones said the Poets were locked in game day.

“In the defensive huddle, if you messed up, you got it. The only thing you wanted to do is get out of that huddle and fix your mistake,” said Jones. “We held each other accountable.”

Polley and Culpepper, who starred at Morgan State after starting his collegiate career at Syracuse, will not attend Friday’s ceremony. Culpepper lives in Seattle.

Former Poets coach Ben Eaton, who was an assistant in 1994, died in 2007.

The remainder of the Poets’ 2004 squad will be in attendance Friday.

“Everything that Dunbar is as it relates to football now, I can say that I had a part in getting that thing started,” said Green.