A macho man with a soft heart in Natchitoches: PART 2

By Nico Van Thyn

Football people in the state knew Jim Bruning in 1969 when he was the Class AA “Coach of the Year” after guiding a talented, dedicated team.
Led by a talented backfield — All-State quarterback Gene Knecht Jr., tailback Rand Dennis and junior fullback Jim Knecht — that was as big as the Red Devils’ linemen, the team just kept winning.

It survived a close call in the season opener (7-6 vs. Mansfield), routed its next seven opponents (scoring between 28 to 42 points each week), then survived five close games in a row (the first three playoff games) to reach the state championship game vs. Tallulah at Northwestern’s old Demon Stadium.

Tallulah also came in 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in the state poll — behind Natchitoches. The Trojans had a strong football tradition and powerful running game, led by fullback Larry Cox.

But the game wasn’t close. Bruning’s guys dominated it — and won 27-7.
Natchitoches scored in every quarter, controlling the ball with drives of 7l, 78 and 84 yards — three TDs in its first five possessions.

Gene Knecht, soon to be named All-State, was 12-of-15 passing in the three scoring drives. He sneaked two yards for the first TD, then threw TD passes of 11 and 10 yards to Joe Beck Payne.

Dennis had 55 rushing yards in 15 carries, with an 8-yard run for the final TD.
Linebacker Ricky Whittington set that up with an interception, one of five Tallulah turnovers (two fumbles, three interceptions).

Cox ran for 94 yards on 25 carries, but Tallulah managed only one long drive (75 yards, 18 plays). Its longest drive other than that was 29 yards, and it had only 49 rushing yards after halftime.

Joining Knecht (18 TD passes for the season) on the All-State team were center Steve McCain (also the next season), Whittington and Payne (as a defensive back).
Dennis and Jim Knecht went on to play at LSU, starting together as defensive backs; Gene Knecht also signed with LSU, but after a year there, transferred to NSU, which Gene Knecht Sr. was the longtime defensive backs coach.

Bruning “was an exceptional coach,” said Jim Knecht. “A good motivator. He motivated you to go beyond what you thought you could do.

“He expected you to do your best. If you didn’t, he’d let you know. He got the best out of his players.”

Dennis said Bruning was “a figurehead type head coach” who let his assistants handle the details, such as Levi Thompson devising different offensive schemes each week.

“We had kids who had brains,” said Jim Knecht, “… who were smart, fast and strong. We lined up in slots and trips (formations); no other teams had seen those then.”

In the state-title game, the Red Devils threw in an unbalanced line and a couple of tackle-eligible passes, both caught by Jerry Sherrill (who’d never caught a pass in a game before.)

“We had good players across the board,” said Dennis.

“Smartest group of kids I ever coached,” said Dan Poole, for a decade the school’s defensive backs and track/field coach until — in his words — he was “demoted” to school principal. “It was the whole team, and they were also very competitive, adjusted to changes very quickly.”

And he credits Bruning for this: “I don’t know how he could read the kids so well. We had kids who didn’t look very good in practice, but Jim would play them. He knew which ones would come through in critical situations; he would pick the right ones. He was just great at picking personnel.

“He grew up here, so he knew the families and the kids.”

The connection started early. Stuart Wright, Natchitoches-Central’s starting quarterback for three seasons (1970-72) and as a freshman the backup to Gene Knecht in 1969, remembers that “what made a difference in our program (in high school) was that he was at every one of our junior high games. He knew us better than we knew him.”

To be continued…Read PART 3 Sept. 16

Nico Van Thyn was a sports writer/editor for more than 45 years, including stints in his hometown with The Shreveport Times and Shreveport Journal. He finished his career with a decade at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is retired, living in Fort Worth with his wife Bea. They have two children and four grandchildren.