AUBURN — Even in a state championship loss, the Piedmont legacy remains.
One defeat doesn't diminish that.
For proof of that, consider what St. James coach Jimmy Perry said after his Trojans took down Piedmont 45-28 in Thursday's Class 3A state title game.
This is the first state football championship in St. James’ history, and while that would be special no matter what, it was easy to tell it meant more because it came against Piedmont, a true powerhouse program.
If you're a mid-size to small school in Alabama and you want to compete in high school football, you measure yourself against Piedmont and maybe a handful of others. Perry realizes that.
"Steve Smith and Piedmont, what a juggernaut program they have," Perry said, unprompted. "It's an honor to play them and a great challenge for us. He does a great job and, of course, all the state championships they've won. That's a testament to what kind of program he has and what kind of coaching staff he has.
"So, hats off to them. They played a great ballgame. I'll tell you what, that quarterback, Jack Hayes, is something else. He is a load. We just had to put everybody in the box just to slow him down."
At state championship news conferences, winning coaches always throw out a few nice words about the runner-up, but how often do they call it an "honor” to play you?
In a sense, Thursday was about as much about Piedmont not winning as it was about St. James’ championship.
Consider this: St. James’ winners news conference underneath the North stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium lasted about 10 minutes, 15 seconds, according to the clock on my voice recorder. Piedmont entered the room next, because the runner-up always goes second, and that news conference extended to 13 minutes.
And it's not like St. James arrived with only one reporter in tow. They're from Montgomery and the contingent to cover them in Auburn was about as large as the group that came to write and talk about Piedmont.
Perry had it right: this really is a testament to what Steve Smith and the Piedmont community have built.
For Piedmont, football is just the tip of the spear. It seems like the Bulldogs are good in every sport. It's not unusual to see them shine in basketball, track, baseball, softball, volleyball and more.
Piedmont is among the best of the best academically as well. In the 2022 Alabama State Department of Education report card, Piedmont tied Saraland for fourth place. Mountain Brook was first, Vestavia Hills second and Trussville was third.
(Personal note to Piedmont superintendent Mike Hayes: my alma mater, Homewood, will be gunning for you in 2023, because we don't like being tied for sixth as we were.)
But football is the sport that advances a school's name as much as anything, and Piedmont has served as a model of success. In Smith's 17 seasons at Piedmont, the Bulldogs have won at least 10 games 15 times. They've won 198 games in that stretch.
They've won 10 region championships in the last 13 years. They've made the state semifinals in each of the last eight years. In that stretch, they've won four state titles and finished runner-up twice.
Looking up those figures and trying to comprehend all that success made me a little dizzy.
It doesn't work out every time, like it didn't Thursday, but it does so enough that everyone assumes you're going to be great all the time. Come next year, every Class 3A team across the state will wonder if they can make the playoffs and whether they'll have to play Piedmont in the bracket.
Smith had a generational player at quarterback the past four years: state all-time total yardage leader Jack Hayes. He produced another amazing day against St. James: rushing for 214 yards, passing for 80 and scoring four touchdowns.
He quarterbacked two state championship Piedmont teams, just as his older brother Taylor did in 2015 and '16.
I asked Smith what the Piedmont program would look like if the Hayes family had never lived in Piedmont. He smiled and said, "It would look different, certainly." Then he followed with plenty of compliments for Jack, Taylor and the Hayes family.
I have a feeling how it would look: pretty much the same as now. The Piedmont football program is so much bigger than one great player — or even two. The Bulldogs have graduated great players before and still won, and they'll do the same next season.
Be honest: it wouldn't surprise you at all if a year from now, we're watching Piedmont in another state championship game, would it?
Beating Piedmont for a day and topping Piedmont's legacy are two totally different things.