A newcomer to the football experience at Richland Springs High, located in San Saba County about 35 miles south of Brownwood, should immediately master two facts. First, the school’s nickname is pronounced with two syllables. Don’t pronounce the e in Coyotes. As in the singsong chant: “Co-yotes fight! . . . Ne-ver die!” Second, Richland Springs High has won nine state football championships, one shy of the record for any school at any level during 102 years of state championship play.

All nine have been won playing in the University Interscholastic League’s (the state body responsible for overseeing public high school athletics) six-man classification, for schools so small they’d struggle to field eleven-man squads. With so few players, the field is smaller, some of the rules are different, and scoring is plentiful—some teams routinely hit triple digits. The unincorporated town of Richland Springs boasts a population of about 250 and its high school lists an enrollment of 48 total students. The Coyotes compete in Class 1A’s Division II, the smallest of the small.

All nine of those state titles have been won under current head coach Jerry Burkhart, who first arrived at Richland Springs in 2003. Burkhart is tied with the legendary Gordon Wood for the most state championships won by a Texas high school football coach; Wood won his at two schools. 

Linda Bailey—whose grandson, Jayden Sutherland, is a junior on this year’s team—stated the obvious before one game this season: “It’s an awesome, awesome program.”

The chances of Richland Springs adding to its record haul this year appeared strong, with Dave Campbell’s Texas Football ranking the Coyotes fourth in the state’s six-man Division II in the preseason.

Then, in a matter of weeks, so much changed.

In late August, the executive committee of Richland Springs’s UIL district found Burkhart guilty of recruiting, a serious violation in the eyes of state athletic administrators. They said he had participated in the transfer of a student from nearby Mullin High. The committee referred the case to the UIL’s state executive committee to review its decision and determine a punishment for the coach. 

A few weeks later, the state committee met in a Pflugerville hotel conference room to hear the case. By then, football season had started and Burkhart’s Coyotes were already 3–0 in non-district play, and the team had risen to number two in the state rankings. The committee unanimously upheld the district committee’s finding and suspended Burkhart for three years from coaching at any UIL school. Only one other coach in UIL history had ever received a suspension of that length. 

Burkhart, whose contract runs through the 2023–24 academic year, is still at Richland Springs, where he works as the school’s athletic director. Assistant coaches Shawn Rogers and Harley Ethridge assumed control of the football team. 

On the second Friday in October, the Coyotes played their first home game without Burkhart. They ran onto the field carrying their 7TH FLAG OVER TEXAS banner in front of the packed home stands to face district rival Cherokee High School. The visitors were also undefeated and ranked third in the state. Richland Springs lost, 78–47. It was the Coyotes’ second home defeat since Burkhart took over in 2003.

The week before that game, Burkhart had filed a motion in state district court asking for a ruling that would allow him to continue coaching Richland Springs. The case was moved to federal court by the state attorney general’s office, where it awaits resolution. The suit states that as a result of the UIL suspension, the coach won’t be able to fulfill all of the duties in his contract and that “it is in fact very likely that it will result in Burkhart losing his job.” Burkhart and his attorney declined interview requests for this story. 

The transfer student from Mullin, another six-man school, had been a starter last season as a sophomore. Dave Lewis, superintendent of Rochelle ISD and chairman of the UIL district executive committee, described the student to the state committee as a “potential superstar athlete.” 

During the September hearing, the committee focused on a fourteen-minute phone call the student made to Burkhart in early August, one day before Richland Springs’ school year began. While no one disputed that the student placed the call, the state committee and UIL staff in attendance apparently didn’t accept explanations from both Burkhart and the student that they never discussed the possibility of playing football for the Coyotes.

Burkhart called the recruiting accusation “ridiculous” and told the committee he regretted not ending the call soon after it began. He said he remained on the phone that long because he thought he was being set up. Four days before the call, Burkhart said, Mullin High School coach Brent Williamson had texted Burkhart and accused Richland Springs of recruiting.

The student was found guilty of changing schools for athletic purposes. The smoking gun: when he left Mullin, he told Williamson he wanted to play somewhere he could win. His penance is one year of ineligibility from competition in varsity sports.

Richland Springs football recruiting scandal
The Richland Springs Coyotes before a home game in 2007.Eric Gay/AP

This isn’t the first time Richland Springs has played football without its coach since 2003. Burkhart left the school twice. The first time, he resigned to take over the six-man program at Gordon High School after steering the Coyotes to his sixth championship with the team in 2012. But the move didn’t last long; Burkhart was back at Richland Springs in time to begin the 2013 season. He told the Brownwood Bulletin that his family was struggling with the adjustment to his new position. 

Burkhart was on the move again following the 2017 season, one year after winning title number eight. That move was a foray into coaching eleven-man football at Stanton High School, about twenty miles northeast of Midland. His time there was disappointing on and off the field. With his Buffaloes at 1–6, Burkhart resigned in late October of 2018. A Midland television station soon after reported that he’d filed a complaint that a student at the school threatened to stab Burkhart’s son, who was a quarterback for the football team. 

Back at Richland Springs for the 2019 season, Burkhart immediately delivered a ninth state championship. The Coyotes dominated Motley County in the title game, which ended in the third quarter with a score of 62–16 thanks to Texas’s six-man mercy rule, which states that a game will be declared over once a team’s lead reaches 45 points in the second half.

Barbara Young could be considered a typical Richland Springs football fan; the seventy-year-old has missed only one game in recent years, and that was because of a broken femur. Yet she’s anything but typical, roaming the Coyotes sideline in a cheerleader outfit, wearing a Mohawk wig in the team’s blue-and-white colors, and belting out encouragement through a huge megaphone that her daughter snagged at a garage sale. At the home loss to Cherokee last month, Young said she stands with Burkhart.

“I don’t feel like they had any proof,” Young said of the UIL’s ruling and subsequent suspension. “I think a lot of these coaches are jealous of him.”

Mike and Christy Usery were seated ninety minutes before the kickoff against Cherokee. Their son Joshua is a junior on the team, and another son, Jeremiah, played on the 2019 championship squad. Mike Usery said of Burkhart: “When he’s not on the field, we can feel it. It makes a big difference.”

The observation was prescient, as Cherokee pulled away in the fourth quarter. As the home fans watched the closing minutes in disbelief, the school’s six indefatigable student cheerleaders continued their “Coyote power!” chant as if their town’s pride and joy were not suffering its first home defeat in almost a decade.

The win over Richland Springs allowed Cherokee to claim the district title, snapping a Coyotes streak that stretched almost all the way back to the previous century. Even without Burkhart on the sideline, though, Richland Springs qualified for the playoffs as the district runner-up, with a 7–1 overall record. The team will face Zephyr (9–1) in a first-round game Friday night. If the Coyotes win this weekend and then survive their next postseason test, they could earn a rematch with undefeated Cherokee.

A UIL representative told Texas Monthly that if Richland Springs manages to go all the way and claim another state championship this season, the title will be credited to whoever coaches the team on the field that day.

Unless the legal system grants him temporary relief from the suspension or the case is resolved in his favor, that coach won’t be Burkhart, whose next crack at a record-tying tenth football state title might not come until 2025. 

“I am only 50 years old and my plan is to keep coaching for years to come and finish my career as a head football coach,” Burkhart stated in his October affidavit. “The decision suspending me gave no rationale or basis and does not even take up all of one page. I have no right to appeal this decision within the UIL.

“The impact that this suspension has had on me, my family, Richland Springs High School and all the coaches, staff, family and players and the whole community has been enormous,” Burkhart continued. “The Richland Spring[s] football program is now in disarray because they have no head coach.”