Nothing stirs discussion like excellence in sports. Achievement begs comparison as naturally as night follows day.
When success is measured in time as well as results, comparisons are easier. Though all four men won Olympic gold medals, sprinter Usain Bolt is better than Carl Lewis. Swimmer Michael Phelps is better than Mark Spitz. The stopwatch says so.
In team sports, the discussion is trickier. Players and teams compete in different eras. Annual champions cannot face each other.
Comparisons, therefore, become unwinnable debates, fueled by varying levels of knowledge, bias and passion.
Which brings us to our little corner of the world and the 2008 Phoebus High football team.
The Phantoms entered an exclusive, if lengthy, club with their recent Division 5 state championship. It was the Phantoms' fourth title in eight years and, equally notable, the 20th state championship by a Peninsula District team since 1974.
Phoebus' march through the season elevated this particular team beyond even the routine excellence to which area fans have become accustomed.
Simply put, the Phantoms smothered the competition. They went 15-0 and never trailed for so much as a second. They outscored opponents 720-53 and pitched nine shutouts.
If not for two meaningless touchdowns they allowed at the end of playoff games, the defensive number would have been less than 3.0 points per game.
The Phantoms' roster is littered with Division I prospects, among them quarterback Tajh Boyd and running back Shawne Alston, two-way lineman Dominik Davenport and defenders LoVante' Battle, Daquan Romero and Chaz Robinson.
So, just how good is this Phoebus team? Where do they rate among the best teams the Peninsula has produced?
The short answer is pretty high. Maybe not top shelf, but a fairly short climb to it.
Now, we understand that the tradition of football excellence on the Peninsula dates back nearly a century. Hampton High won state titles as far back as the 1930s. Huntington's teams in the 1920s, '30s and 40s accomplished feats that still are recognized in the Virginia High School League record book.
However, school integration, the evolution of the modern athlete, and advanced training methods logically push the debate about the Peninsula's best teams to the past 30 or so years.
The discussion usually begins with the 1996 Hampton High squad led by Ronald Curry — known locally by football hounds as Ronald's Junior Year.
Actually, the discussion should begin with Hampton High's King Crabber: Mike Smith. Smith's teams have won a dozen of those 20 state titles. He is one of only seven coaches in high school history with 400 wins and is the state's platinum standard for success.
"We've had some awfully good teams that won," Smith said, "and we've had some awfully good teams that lost."
Smith added: "Give Phoebus credit. It was their year. They did everything they had to do, and they were a very good team."
Several editions of Smith's Crabbers merit mention among the area's best, but as we said, start with '96. It was the second of Curry's three state titles and the second of the Crabbers' four in a row, from 1995-98.
Just to refresh a few memories, that year the Crabbers set a state record for points that still stands, outscoring opponents 819-93 — an average of 58.5 points per game. They won their final two games by a combined 127-14, the state title game 51-0 in a driving rainstorm and ankle-deep mud.
The closest thing to a challenge they had that year was an early 20-17 win against one of Kecoughtan's better teams under Curt Newsome, now the offensive line coach at Virginia Tech.
Curry, who later played football and basketball at North Carolina and presently toils for the Oakland Raiders, accounted for 3,195 yards himself. He passed for 36 touchdowns and ran for another 29. He scored a total of 40 touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. Even a decade later, many observers will tell you that Curry remains the best high school player they've ever seen.
Gifted as Curry was athletically, what separated him from other elite athletes were his smarts and his poise. He was as likely to make a play with his mind as his feet, and he was humble and deferential to a fault.
Curry's supporting cast included future Division I college players such as two-way end Bobby Blizzard, wide receiver Ahmad Hawkins, running back Darryl Smith, linebacker Darnell Hollier and Curry's cousin, the irrepressible Muffin Curry.
"That was probably the best team that I've seen," said Warwick High coach Stan Sexton, who spent 14 years on Bill Dee's staff at Phoebus before taking over the Raiders' job in 2005.
"This Phoebus team is probably one of the best defensive teams in the state since 1990," Sexton said. "Offensively, they were very good, too. But I don't think they compare (offensively) to (the team from) Curry's junior year. That Hampton team might not have been quite as dominant on defense (as Phoebus), but they didn't give up a lot of points, either.
"Bill might hate me for saying this, but I think that Hampton team was better, just because they were so explosive on offense. There was no way to slow them down. There was no 'lesser of two evils' with them. If you tried to stop the run, Ronald would throw four or five touchdown passes. If you played 'cover,' they'd run for 200 yards."
The Crabbers' state-title teams in Curry's sophomore and senior seasons were excellent as well, but probably a rung below the 1996 team simply because of overall depth.
Here's where the shelf starts to get crowded. Add Smith's first two state-championship teams, in 1975 and '77.
Smith will tell you that his '99 team that lost in the state semis belongs there, too, which opens up a new category of superb teams that didn't close the deal: several Hampton teams; a couple of Kecoughtan teams from the late '90s; last year's Phoebus team that lost in the state semifinals; Lafayette's 1973 team, the one with Lawrence Taylor and Ron Springs, that lost in the slop in the state championship game.
The '75 Crabbers outscored opponents 353-75 and featured Woodrow Wilson, Simon Gupton and a kid named Dwight Stephenson, who only went on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and might be the best center in the history of the NFL.
The Crabbers' '77 team also went undefeated (14-0) and among their notables were Lemont Holt, Nigel Bowe, Brian Holloman, Padro Phillips and Stan Jones. They posted nine shutouts and surrendered only 42 points all season.
What about Heritage's undefeated state champ from 2000? Tailback and all-state sprinter Michael Johnson rushed for 2,028 yards and 33 touchdowns, but the Hurricanes' forte was defense.
Future Virginia star and present Cincinnati Bengal Darryl Blackstock led a group that allowed just 87 points. Blackstock and fellow end Rudolph Foye combined for 52 sacks, and a linebacker corps led by Cory Rouser, Larry Davis and Landon Smith was wicked fast.
"The key factor in all of the great teams that have come from here is defense," said former Bethel coach Dennis Kozlowski. "All of those teams possessed the ability to adjust during the season and the course of a game to whatever an offense tried to do."
Koz was the head coach at Bethel from 1974-2000 and has seen everyone in these parts from the late 1960s through today. He doesn't get into ranking teams, preferring to let each championship team stand on its own merits.
Koz coached three state championship teams himself, in 1974, '76 and 1992. The '92 team merits a shout-out, though it lost twice en route to the title, mostly because of the spindly kid at quarterback and safety.
Allen Iverson accounted for 2,204 yards of offense and 35 touchdowns for the Bruins, who finished 12-2. Several years ago, Penn State's Joe Paterno said that Iverson was one of the most remarkable football talents he ever saw and thought that he would have been an exceptional college player.
That said, that particular Bruins team probably was a step or two below the second rung of the Peninsula's best.
Four titles in eight years mark Phoebus as the Peninsula's best at the moment. This year's bunch separated itself from the school's previous champs.
"I think it's the best Phoebus team I've seen," said Woodside's Danny Dodson, who has coached the Wolverines since 1999 and has been in these parts, off and on, since the early '90s. "They were very, very fast and strong on defense, like Bill's other teams.
"But maybe what sets this team apart is their ability to throw the football. Their other (championship) teams were very good running the ball and could kind of beat you up that way, but Tajh and their receivers make them a little more balanced."
It's worth noting, too, that the state football playoff system as we know it wasn't implemented until the early 1970s.
And to further fuel the debate, when the VHSL split all three groups into divisions for football starting in 1986, Group AAA automatically has two state champs. So, the Division 5 state champ technically isn't the state's best Group AAA team, since the two champs do not play.
Good as they were, were the Crabbers in 1996 better than Division 6 state champ Chantilly?
Is this year's Phoebus team better than Division 6 state champ Oscar Smith? Gentlemen, start your debates.
THE NUMBERS 819 Points scored by 1996 Hampton team720-53 Season scoring margin for 2008 Phantoms2,204 Allen Iverson's yardage for 1992 Bethel team52 Sacks for Heritage's starting ends in 200042 Points allowed by 1977 Hampton squadDave Fairbank can be reached at 247-4637 or by e-mail at email@example.com Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times