RSS coach recalls Sterling’s first win

Members of the Robert E. Lee Celebrities cheer with people in the crowd after the Ganders defeated Westbury, 16-14, on Thursday night, snapping a 27-game losing streak. On Friday, Lee faces crosstown rival Sterling in the 50th edition of “The Game.” Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Lee leads series 28-19-2.

Al Dennis had always been a Gander. A 1960 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, he had played football and basketball and was even crowned Mr. Robert E. Lee, but it was Roland Kudla at Ross S. Sterling High School who offered him a job in 1967, and he was ready to come back home to Baytown.

Dennis had played football for Rice University, graduated from the University of Houston and taught and coached for two years at Jesse H. Jones High School in Houston. He knew that accepting a position at a school that had just opened the year before would present some challenges, but he was prepared to face them.

“Starting off at Ross Sterling was a new situation. It was a real struggle for us to get started. Lots of things were difficult. We didn’t have a practice field and we had to get on the bus and go to Cedar Bayou Junior to practice,” Dennis said. “The first year, Lee was just better and we (RSS) lost.” 

Reflecting on his 15 years – 11 as head coach – at RSS, the year 1971 stands out in his mind, since it was the first time the Rangers beat the Ganders.

“We had a good class and some good athletes. We had a new head coach named Jim Hess – an excellent coach. I ran the offense for him. That year Lee was beating us, but we broke the old tradition and we wound up winning. After that, we were pretty strong,” said Dennis.

Talking to the players and stressing teamwork was always part of the traditional pep talk, but there was no need for that during Sterling-Lee Week.

“That was the only time we didn’t have to talk to them. The fans and parents were going to give them all the pep talk they needed,” Dennis said.

The activities during the week leading up to the game created excitement throughout the school. Each day of the week had a theme so that students could show their spirit by dressing up. There was always a big pep rally.

“Mrs. Winnie Brown was our principal, and she was such a supporter of our program. One time we gave her a blanket with a letterman ‘S’ on it. Ronnie Kluch always talked at the pep rally – he started, ‘Beat the ‘el’ out of REL,” said Dennis.

The year 1972 was also a memorable year for Dennis and the Rangers. Sterling beat Lee 7-0, and the Rangers headed to the Astrodome to play San Antonio Lee. RSS also had the opportunity to play in the Dome in 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1982, Dennis’ last season as head coach at RSS. After three years in Food Services and four years as principal at Horace Mann Junior School, Dennis served as principal at Barbers Hill High School for two years and as Barbers Hill superintendent for seven years, retiring in 1998. 

Dennis and his wife Paula, a former teacher at Bowie Elementary and Cedar Bayou Junior School, Bonnette Junior High in Deer Park as well as a daycare center owner/director in Mont Belvieu, have one son Chad, who played for Sterling and walked on at the University of Texas.

Chad Dennis now works for the Houston Texans as a part of their Sports Science program. Their grandson Coleman is a red shirt freshman for the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

While football is still in his blood, Dennis now enjoys living in Sun City, a retirement community in Georgetown, playing golf and traveling. He occasionally returns to Baytown to visit friends, and he always takes time to look online for the score of the Sterling-Lee game each year. The 50th anniversary of the Lee-Sterling game will be September 2 at Stallworth Stadium. 

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