This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

Between 1937 and 1971, nobody played high school football like the Wichita Falls Coyotes. They won six state championships, sent players to powerhouse colleges, and ran up the score with their single-wing offense. In 2007 Texas Monthly named Wichita Falls the greatest high school football program in state history. 

Yet those glory days are long gone. The Coyotes last won a state title in 1969, and next winter they will play their final game; the district is consolidating its high schools, and Wichita Falls High will close forever.

Over the past fifty years, the program’s trajectory from a dynasty to a memory has reflected the shift in the sport’s balance of power. Across the state, the resources and population that once ballooned in cities like Odessa, Tyler, and Wichita Falls now gather in suburban enclaves like Westlake, Allen, and Katy. Back in 1970, Wichita Falls built Memorial Stadium, the first high school football venue to use Astroturf (by contrast, Texas Christian University didn’t install it until 1973). Today, Allen, a Dallas suburb, is famous for spending $60 million on its high school stadium. (And then promptly winning three consecutive state championships.)

The secret to the Coyotes’ success wasn’t much different from that of teams like Allen’s today. Having only one high school that could play in the University Interscholastic League bred consistency; a quarterback might have thrown to the same receiver from elementary school until they finally made it to Friday nights, their chemistry intact. Even the playbooks were consistent across grades, which meant there was little, if any, learning curve when players made it to high school. The difference between then and now, of course, was that the Coyotes’ heyday came during segregation. Before the sixties, Wichita Falls High was the only white high school in the city, which meant that it got virtually all the community’s public resources.

Oil boomed in the fifties, and Wichita Falls did too. The city was growing so fast that its leaders decided to expand the school system, adding Hirschi and Rider High Schools. Finally, in 1969, the city closed the all-Black Booker T. Washington High School (which had won three state championships in the segregated Prairie View Interscholastic League) and integrated the schools, fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education.

At first, the changes only seemed to make the Coyotes stronger. With the influx of players like Ronnie Littleton—a free-spirited running back who wore his hair in a voluminous Afro—the team won state in 1969. But soon, the school system’s expansion took its toll. Where once there had been two schools, now there were three, spreading the local talent too thin. All three squads have had solid records, often making the playoffs. But since 1971, none of them has made it to a championship game, let alone won one.

“We’re not hurting for athletes,” says Scot Hafley, the district’s athletic director. “But if you’re asking, ‘Why did the state championships stop?’ I think the number one reason is that we divided our talent three ways.”

In 2020, voters in Wichita Falls approved a bond measure to consolidate the school district, closing all three campuses (two of which will become middle schools) and constructing two new high schools in their place. “We built the other two high schools in the early sixties, thinking that the community was going to grow, and it just hasn’t,” Ashley Thomas, the school district’s communications officer, says. “When you look at the enrollment, it isn’t feasible to continue operating three high schools.” 

Last March, students voted on mascots and colors for the new high schools, selecting the Mavericks and the Leopards from a list of options that didn’t include the Coyotes. “There was no way to maintain the current mascots and colors without leaving somebody out,” Thomas says. But some still hope to stick with tradition. Yard signs urging leaders to “Save the Name” dot the town’s streets, and a petition to keep the Coyote mascot has garnered nearly 10,000 signatures—a substantial number in a city of just over 100,000. “It’s a tough balancing act for everyone,” says Thomas.

Coyotes head coach Grant Freeman has chosen to view that balancing act as a challenge. “This program deserves to go out the right way,” he says. Under Freeman, the team has donned throwback uniforms and adopted the single-wing—which had been dropped years ago—as part of its playbook. It’s as if the Texas Longhorns started running the wishbone again. “People get really excited just seeing that.”

But the town’s focus isn’t only on the past. Consolidation, many believe, is the best chance to return Wichita Falls football to its former glory. “Look at the success that our schools have had across all sports,” Hafley says. “If you bring that many athletes into two schools, as opposed to three, you’re going to get better. . . . Hopefully the end result of all this hard work is that instead of just reaching the state semifinals, we’ll win the state championships.” If Hafley is right, Wichita Falls might become the heart of Texas high school football once again—even if its championship team doesn’t call itself the Coyotes.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Friday Night Lights Out.” Subscribe today.