April 26, 2012: Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter

There may never have been a more quotable college football coach in Arkansas than the late Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia.

Carpenter, who was Henderson’s head coach from 1971-89, compiled a 119-76-5 record at the school and was inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. Thirteen of his teams finished in the NAIA Top 20.

George Baker of Arkadelphia, a longtime assistant for Carpenter at Henderson, has captured Carpenter’s personality and recorded his many contributions in a book titled “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse: A Tribute to a Great Coach.”

“This book has been a labor of love that, in retrospect, came easy to me,” Baker says. “I drew from 16 years of daily contact with Coach Carpenter. I also garnered the thoughts of his friends, players and opponents.

“We laughed long and hard almost every day. We passed along inside jokes that only he and I understood, most of which I cannot repeat in the interest of decorum. We traveled the world. We won and lost and suffered the outrageous slings and arrows of disgruntled fans. We tasted the sweet wine of victory, and we left an indelible mark in the annals of small college football that is remarkable.”

The preface to the book was written by longtime Arkansas sportswriter Jim Bailey, a 2003 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Bailey writes: “In a recent conversation, I asked George if he’d always planned to write about his favorite coach. He said no.

“’Coach Carpenter died in 1990,’ he said. ‘Over the next few months, even the next few years, people would ask about the funny things he said and did, like jumping on the Southern Arkansas University mule mascot after Henderson beat SAU. I guess that’s what started me to thinking seriously about a book. And the deeper I got into it, the more fascinating it became.

“’And the more I learned about him, I realized how kind and considerate he was, how many people he helped without ever saying anything about it. For example, I knew he helped a lot of former players find jobs, either in coaching or something else. And especially how intelligent he was. He enjoyed being mistaken for a clown.’”

Bailey writes that he met Carpenter in 1967 “after he had joined the coaching staff of Henderson, his alma mater, as an assistant to Clyde Berry. Sporty walked over to me, stuck out his hand and said: ‘Hey, Scoop, Ralph Carpenter.’ Five or 10 minutes later, he had everyone in the room laughing. He always used his formal name in introductions, although I don’t recall anyone addressing him as Ralph.

“He grew up in Hamburg (‘the Burg,’ he usually called it), served in the Navy and played center and guard for Henderson before starting a succession of high school coaching jobs. Duke Wells, athletic director and former Henderson coach, spotted potential in Carpenter. When a coaching vacancy occurred in 1970, Sporty was appointed head coach, obviously with Wells’ approval.

“’Sporty always liked for people to underestimate him,’ Wells said a few years later when the Reddies were pretty much dismantling the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. ‘But he never fooled me.’”

Wells was a 1970 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Carpenter’s high school coaching career before coming to Henderson included stops at Wynne and Magnolia. Henderson was in a rebuilding mode in Carpenter’s first two seasons as the Reddies posted records of 4-4-1 in 1971 and 4-6 in 1972.

Henderson then went on a remarkable run that saw the Reddies go 10-1 in 1973, 11-2 in 1974 (losing to Texas A&I in the NAIA national championship game), 11-1 in 1975 (defeating East Central Oklahoma in the Bicentennial Bowl at War Memorial Stadium), 8-2 in 1976, 9-2 in 1977 and 7-2-1 in 1978.

Bailey writes that by the 1989 season, Carpenter was “desperately ill, even to a layman’s eye. He coached the team that fall, though.”

The Reddies went 7-4 in Carpenter’s final season as head coach.

Baker calls it “the most courageous thing you could ever imagine. You know, Coach Carpenter always worked hard, daylight to dark, meetings, practices, but when the football staff was out eating dinner or something, Coach Carpenter would not allow anyone to mention football. Outside the office and the field, we weren’t supposed to talk shop. Coach Carpenter thought 23 hours of football a day was enough.”

Carpenter was famous for his postgame quotes.

Once, after a Reddie tailback had fumbled late in a crucial game at home, Carpenter described him as a “triple threat – a threat to the opposition, a threat to us and a threat to himself.”

The title of Baker’s book comes from Carpenter’s quote after a highly ranked Reddie team was upset by the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 1977. It was one of only two losses for the Reddies that year.

“Lightning struck the outhouse, and we were in it,” Carpenter said after the game.

Charlie Boyd, a Lake Village native who’s now a Little Rock attorney, was on that team.

“We had just gotten beat by UAM at their place, and the dressing room for the opposing team was around an indoor pool,” Boyd says. “I recall being next to Coach Carpenter when the reporter asked him what happened and can attest, under oath, that his answer was just what the title of the book says it was.”

Four years later, Henderson was 7-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally in the NAIA when the Reddies went to Monticello. UAM stunned Henderson that night by a score of 27-16.

Carpenter said after the loss, “It was a total waste of time. We would have been better off to have stayed home, parched peanuts and watched Barbara Mandrell on the TV.”

Mike Dugan, now a Hot Springs businessman, spent a decade as Henderson’s sports information director.

He tells this story, which says a lot about the kind of man Carpenter was: “One of the wonderful moments I enjoyed with Sporty was a basketball trip to Monticello. A notice had just been sent out by the university that at no time should a state-owned vehicle be seen at a location other than what was listed as an authorized destination. As soon as I picked him up that afternoon, he told me to drive to Walmart.

“I protested, but he insisted. So I began a nervous wait while he went inside. When he came out, he threw his package into the back of the car and away we went.

“As we neared Monticello, he began to give me alternate directions and sent me down an isolated highway and through the gates of a cemetery. We left the car, and Sporty got down on one knee to clean the weeds from his parents’ graves. The package contained flowers.

“This was a warm side to a man I already knew had a big heart.”

Baker says, “My journey with R.L. ‘Sporty’ Carpenter began in July 1974 and ended with his death in February 1990. What a trip.”

Carpenter’s funeral was held in a packed Arkansas Hall on the Henderson campus. As they rolled his casket down the aisle and the organist played the slow version of “Old Reddie Spirit,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

In April 1990, the Henderson board of trustees voted to rename Haygood Stadium as Carpenter-Haygood Stadium.

Baker’s book can be ordered online at www.georgebakerauthor.com

– Rex Nelson

January 18, 2013: W.C. “Buddy” Coleman

This article on the late W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr. appears in the new issue of Talk Business magazine. Coleman was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. He will be inducted posthumously Feb. 15 in to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Buddy Coleman

Buddy Coleman, Class of 1994

Charlie Coleman remembers what would happen as a boy whenever his family would eat in a Little Rock restaurant.

“First, we weren’t going to stop if that restaurant didn’t serve products from Coleman Dairy,” says Coleman, a lawyer with the Little Rock firm Wright Lindsey & Jennings. “They would just have to do without that table of six. Second, as soon as we ordered, my dad would be up working the room like a politician. He wasn’t running for anything. That’s just who he was. He seemed to know everybody, and he loved people.”

“Dad” was W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr., the former chairman and chief executive officer of Coleman Dairy, who died in October 2011 at age 83. Coleman will be inducted posthumously Feb. 15 into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the third major Hall of Fame in the state in which he has been enshrined.

Coleman was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1994 in recognition of his distinguished career as a football official.

He was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1996.

When asked what attribute set “Buddy” Coleman apart, Charlie Coleman says: “It was his personality. He never met anyone he didn’t already know or want to know.”

Whenever he was enjoying the thoroughbred races at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs – which was often — it was much the same as in a restaurant.

“He worked the aisles around his box,” Charlie says. “He enjoyed seeing people at the track and talking to them. But he didn’t share many racing tips, not even with his own sons.”

The other three sons of “Buddy” Coleman are Walt, Bob and Cherb.

Walt Coleman, who is well-known nationally as an NFL referee, shares Charlie’s assessment of their father.

“His greatest asset was the way he cared about people,” Walt says. “Everybody was a friend. We would go places, and he literally would visit with everyone in the room. If you’re selling products for a living, that’s obviously a good personality trait to have. He had a genuine interest in what other people were thinking.”

The Coleman story in Arkansas began during the Civil War in 1862 when Eleithet B. Coleman founded Coleman Dairy. The family owned a 200-acre dairy farm along Coleman Creek in Little Rock, near the intersection of what’s now University and Asher avenues.

“At the time he started the business, dairymen hauled their raw milk in crocks and poured it into whatever containers were brought out to the delivery wagon by their customers,” Ginger Penn writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Fred B. Coleman, Eleithet’s son, assumed charge of the business when Eleithet was killed at Seventh and Scott streets in Little Rock from a kick in the head by one of his delivery horses. Fred Coleman later passed on the business to his son, Walter Carpenter Coleman.”

Fred Coleman had joined the business in 1877 with W.C. Coleman Sr. taking over 40 years later. W.C. Coleman Sr. convinced his oldest son, Herbert Smith “Boots” Coleman, to join the family business in 1938 rather than becoming a football coach. They installed pasteurizing equipment in 1939 so they also could operate a processing facility. A new dairy plant was constructed on the family farm at 5801 Asher Ave. in 1946. By 1948, most of the family’s milk cows had been sold, with Coleman Dairy buying milk for processing from farmers across Arkansas. A major expansion occurred with the 1948 purchase of the C.S. Douglas Dairy.

The family did continue to keep a few cows on the property, largely for show.

“I tell people I was raised on a farm,” Bob Coleman recently told a television interviewer. “And they all laugh at me and say, ‘No you weren’t. You were raised on Asher and University.’ But we had chickens, pigs, horses and cows. So what do you call that? It’s a farm.”

“Boots” was 13 years older than his brother “Buddy.” After graduating from what was then Little Rock High School, “Buddy” Coleman decided to attend college at LSU and play baseball.

“My dad was not a big fellow, and he didn’t want to play football in college,” Walt says. “The University of Arkansas was going to require him to play both football and baseball in order to get a scholarship there. LSU said he only had to play baseball, which was all he wanted to do.”

Following his graduation from LSU with a business degree and two years of service in the U.S. Air Force, “Buddy” Coleman returned to Little Rock in 1953 to join his brother in the dairy business. “Buddy” was named the company’s president in 1964 with “Boots” serving as chairman. “Boots” died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1971, leaving “Buddy” as chairman and CEO.

“Because of his personality, my dad had focused on the sales end of things before his brother died,” Walt says. “He did things like getting more schools to buy Coleman milk and ice cream for their lunch programs. Beginning in 1971, he had to focus on every aspect of the operation. It all fell on his shoulders when ‘Boots’ died.”

At a time when there were dozens of independent dairies scattered across Arkansas, Coleman Dairy was known as an innovator. Television was new in the 1950s, but “Boots” and “Buddy” Coleman became major sponsors of the “Annie Oakley Show,” which starred Arkansas native Gail Davis. Due to the two brothers’ interest in sports, the dairy also sponsored numerous baseball teams and other youth sports activities.

“Dad loved coaching baseball and had American Legion teams that won state championships in 1957 and 1959,” Walt says. “He also was involved in AAU sports such as boxing and was a timer at track meets.”

“Buddy” Coleman enjoyed his involvement in sports, but it also was a stroke of marketing genius. Coleman Dairy became associated with wholesome activities such as youth baseball. Arkansans also became accustomed to seeing members of the Coleman family in television ads each Christmas season. Louise Lueken became the television face and voice of the dairy in 1957. That relationship lasted 37 years. Coleman Dairy even became a sponsor of the Miss Arkansas Pageant.

“Dad loved going to the Miss Arkansas Pageant in Hot Springs each summer,” Charlie says. “He always sat on the front row. He wasn’t just donating money. He was there for all the breakfasts, luncheons and other events held in association with the pageant.”

Charlie says his father’s constant presence at events across the state was part of his business plan.

“Think of it this way,” he says. “People would go to the dairy case in the grocery store and look at the products. They would see products from companies they weren’t really familiar with. Then they would see things from Coleman Dairy and feel like they knew the family. They would say, ‘If something is wrong, I’ll probably see Mr. Coleman at something next week and be able to tell him in person.’”

Coleman Dairy continued to grow during the late 1960s and 1970s with the purchase of Dixon Dairy of Little Rock, Midwest Dairy of Little Rock, OK Dairy & Ice Cream of Pine Bluff and Ouachita Valley Dairy of Camden. In 1960, Coleman Dairy became a member of the Quality Chekd Dairy Products Association, which represented independent dairies across the United States and in Canada. Considered among the nation’s top dairy innovators, “Buddy” Coleman served on the Quality Chekd board for many years and was the association’s president for four years from 1984-87. He was one of only eight men to serve as association president during the organization’s first 50 years.

Quality Chekd had begun in 1944 as World War II still raged. Rationing of milk, cream and butterfat was the norm. A Chicago advertising agency was commissioned that year to create a common trademark to be used by respected independent dairies along with a package design and merchandising program. These smaller dairies wanted to be ready to compete when the war ended with what at the time were the nation’s three biggest dairies – Borden, Sealtest and Meadowgold.

“The fact that my dad was president of that organization for four years tells you how respected he was in the industry,” Charlie says. “He understood how to bring people together and come up with solutions to problems.”

“Buddy” Coleman also was president of the Southern Association of Dairy Food Manufacturers and the Arkansas Dairy Products Association. He was a board member of the National Dairy Council. In addition to his work on behalf of Coleman Dairy, “Buddy” Coleman would work high school football games as an official on Friday nights in the fall and often drive through the night to Texas in order to work a Southwest Conference game the next day. He was active in the Boy Scouts of America, the Little Rock Boys Club, the Salvation Army, the Little Rock Executives Association and the Little Rock Downtown Kiwanis Club. In fact, he had a 42-year perfect attendance record at the Kiwanis Club.

“I don’t know how he did all of that,” Charlie says. “I think I’m busy, but I’m nowhere near as busy as he was.”

Walt explains it this way: “He didn’t do too well when it came to sitting still. He wanted to be at some kind of event every night of the week.”

“Buddy” Coleman also was the chairman of Kiwanis Activities Inc., which runs the Joseph Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp for children. He served as president of the St. Vincent Infirmary Development Foundation and was named the Honorary Big Brother of the Year in 1975 for Pulaski County.

Back at the dairy, it was “Buddy” Coleman who coined the advertising phrase “it’s not just a job to us, it’s our heritage.” The massive consolidation in the dairy industry, however, would affect Coleman Dairy. The business was sold by the Coleman family to Associated Milk Producers Inc., a dairy farm cooperative, on Jan. 1, 1995. Three years later, Coleman Dairy became a division of Turner Holdings of Tennessee. And in June 2003, the plant moved from its longtime location on Asher Avenue to a spot facing Interstate 30 in southwest Little Rock.

Turner Holdings became part of Prairie Farms Dairy of Illinois, and Prairie Farms made Coleman a division of Hiland Dairy in 2007. It recently was announced that the iconic Coleman name will be replaced with the Hiland name for 2013, marking the end of a long Arkansas tradition. The company said the name change will save on product labeling costs and create a unified regional brand.

The four sons of “Buddy” Coleman have kept the family tradition of philanthropy and involvement in sports alive. Walt, Bob, Charlie, Cherb and their families donated $120,000 a decade ago for construction of a baseball field at Little Rock Central High School. Two years ago, the four sons gave the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 10 acres of what had been the family dairy farm for a recreation and sports complex.

Though the product name is changing to Hiland, the four sons will ensure their father’s legacy lives on in Arkansas.

“When we were raised, when we had breakfast in the morning, you had cottage cheese on the table,” Bob Coleman told KTHV-TV in early 2012 when the station did a story on the dairy’s 150th anniversary. “I don’t eat breakfast without cottage cheese. Cottage cheese and eggs and bacon is just unbelievable.”

Walt Coleman has buttermilk with chocolate chip cookies.

“How many times have you had buttermilk?” Bob asked the television interviewer. “Never. Young people will not drink buttermilk. … There are a lot of dairy products that have gone by the wayside because young people weren’t raised on them.”

For a certain generation of Arkansans, though, dairy products always will be associated with the Coleman name. A key reason for that was the salesmanship ability and personality of W.C. “Buddy” Coleman Jr.

– Rex Nelson

May 21, 2012: Gus Malzahn

The 14th annual Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic will be held Monday, July 30, at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock. This year’s celebrity event will be hosted by new Arkansas State University head football coach Gus Malzahn and members of his coaching staff. Lunch will be served at noon, tee time will be 1 p.m., awards will be presented at 5:30 p.m. and a reception and dinner will conclude the day’s activities at 6 p.m. For more information on playing in the tournament or attending the “Talking Football with Guz Malzahn” dinner, call Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

A version of the following feature story on Malzahn ran in the April issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State University Head Football Coach

Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State University Head Football Coach. Photo courtesy Arkansas State University.

Football fans across the country were stunned when the news leaked out in December: Gus Malzahn, one of the most highly paid and innovative offensive coordinators at the college level, had accepted an offer to be the next head coach at Arkansas State University.

Arkansas State?

In Jonesboro?

Was this the same coach who reportedly had turned down an offer just a year earlier to be the head coach at Vanderbilt University and was strongly considered for the head job at the University of Maryland?

Was this the same man who was being considered at the end of the 2011 season for head coaching jobs at the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina?

Arkansas State? Really?

ASU is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, several rungs down the ladder from the Bowl Championship Series conferences in the college football pecking order. In 2011, ASU’s coach was among the lowest paid head coaches in the top tier of college football, NCAA Division I’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

When Malzahn, the Auburn University offensive coordinator, made his decision, you could almost hear tens of thousands of college football fans across the country cry out in unison: “Has he lost his mind?”

To understand Malzahn’s surprise choice, you must drive 70 miles south of Jonesboro through the soybean, rice and cotton fields of Craighead, Poinsett, Cross and St. Francis counties. You’ll end your trip in Hughes, a poor farming community. The population in the 2010 census was 1,441, down from a high of 1,919 in the 1980 census.

The Hughes entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture admits that the second largest town in St. Francis County is “typical of the towns in this part of the state, although it is not known for any major historical events or as the home of any significantly famous people.” That translates to “not much happens here.”

Yet if you really want to comprehend what makes Gus Malzahn tick, don’t go to Jonesboro or Fayetteville in Arkansas, Tulsa in Oklahoma or Auburn in Alabama. Go to Hughes. It was at Hughes, you see, where Malzahn’s coaching career began. It was at Hughes where he first became a “hot coaching commodity,” albeit at the high school level. It was at Hughes where Malzahn started to refine his coaching philosophies, further growing to love the sport and its challenges.

George Schroeder, a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter, was in Arizona in January 2011 as Auburn prepared to play the University of Oregon for the national championship (a game Auburn would win). In a piece for the Sports Illustrated website, Schroeder remembered the time in 1994 when Malzahn brought his Hughes football team to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock for the Class 4A title game.

“They’d arrived a few minutes late, and as they were about to take their seats high in the stands, the coach turned around, pointed to the state championship game unfolding below and addressed the stunning reality. The next day, his bunch would play for a title, too. ‘This,’ Gus Malzahn told the Hughes Blue Devils, ‘is the big time, guys.’ For those wide-eyed kids from a tiny farming community in the Mississippi River Delta, there was nothing bigger. For their 29-year-old, third-year head coach, too.”

Hughes lost to Lonoke the next day, 17-13.

“I thought I’d never be back,” Malzahn told Schroeder. “I thought I’d never get a chance again.”

The reason folks outside Arkansas can’t figure Malzahn out is because they don’t know about his roots. He’s a man who often describes himself as “a high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”

When asked to name the coaches he looked up to when getting started in the business, he doesn’t list college head coaches. He lists Don Campbell of Wynne High School, Frank McClellan of Barton High School and Barry Lunney Sr. of Fort Smith Southside High School. Campbell and McClellan are retired. Lunney is now at Bentonville High School.

Malzahn was born in Irving, Texas, in October 1965. His parents divorced when he was 6. After a year in Little Rock and a year in Tulsa, his mother wound up in Fort Smith, where Malzahn lived from the fourth grade until his graduation from Fort Smith Christian High School in 1984. He loved sports and had decided by junior high that he wanted to coach for a living. He was a wide receiver and safety in football while also playing basketball and baseball.

“That’s just what I did,” Malzahn says. “I played everything.”

Malzahn also enjoyed coaching younger kids at the Evans Boys Club in Fort Smith. He coached soccer, baseball and football – basically anything that gave him the chance to be in a gym or on a playing field. He was offered a football scholarship to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia after high school but decided instead to walk on as a football player for Coach Ken Hatfield at the University of Arkansas.

“It took me about two practices to figure out I wasn’t good enough to play at that level,” he says. “But I stuck with it for a year and a half.”

Malzahn transferred first to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where his best friend from Fort Smith Christian, David Little, was on the baseball team. After a semester, he moved to the other side of U.S. Highway 67 in Arkadelphia to play football at Henderson. Malzahn played during the 1988 and 1989 seasons for Coach Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter. Those were the final two seasons of a long coaching career for Carpenter, who died in 1990.

“Coach Carpenter was kind of a legend when I got to Henderson,” Malzahn says. “Everyone knew him or knew about him. It was one of those special deals to be a part of that group.”

Malzahn had married his girlfriend from Fort Smith, Kristi Otwell. Carpenter, known for taking care of his players both during and after college, eased the transition.

“I had just gotten married to Kristi, and he was really concerned about helping her, helping us, and seeing that we had what we needed to succeed at Henderson,” Malzahn says.

In 1991, Malzahn applied for a position as an assistant coach at West Memphis High School. That job went instead to a coach named Bobby Crockett, who now works at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville. Crockett left his job as an assistant at Hughes, and Malzahn was hired to take his place.

“I didn’t even know there was a Hughes,” Malzahn says. “It turned out to be a great place for a young coach. I could make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes.”

Having grown up in Fort Smith and attended college in Fayetteville and Arkadelphia, Hughes represented a culture shock for Gus Malzahn and his young wife. They lived in a mobile home with Gus teaching everything from geography to health. After one season as an assistant coach, Malzahn was promoted to head coach of the Blue Devils.

Perhaps the most popular book in the country among high school coaches is one Malzahn wrote. It’s titled “The Hurry-Up No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy” and came out in 2003. Eleven years earlier, as the new head coach at Hughes, Malzahn bought a book titled “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football.” In those early years, his offenses depended primarily on the run.

Schroeder describes that 1994 state championship loss to Lonoke: “In the final moments, the Blue Devils drove inside the 10. But a halfback pass misfired. A sure touchdown pass was dropped. Their last chance was intercepted. And the head coach still second-guesses himself. He knows he should have run the ball because there was still time and that was the Blue Devils’ strength. He remembers the awful empty feeling, that this was his one shot at the big time.”

“I thought I would never get a chance again,” Malzahn told Schroeder.

After one more season at Hughes, Malzahn was hired at Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale begun in 1976 as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church. In 1986, Texas native Ronnie Floyd came to the church as its senior pastor. In addition to growth at the church, the dynamic, driven new minister oversaw growth at the school. A winning football program was important to Floyd, especially since his son Josh was the quarterback.

The athletic director at Shiloh was Jimmy Dykes, now an ESPN commentator. When Malzahn saw a note asking him to call Dykes, he knew what it was about.

Gus and Kristi Malzahn would be heading from the Delta to the Ozarks.

It was at Shiloh that Malzahn moved from a run-oriented offense to the wide-open passing attack for which he’s known. He was the Saints’ head coach from 1996-2000. His 1998 team set what at the time was a national record with 66 passing touchdowns, and Josh Floyd almost set a national record with 5,878 yards of offense (5,221 passing yards and 657 rushing yards).

Malzahn, the man who had feared he would never get back to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game, led the Saints to four consecutive title appearances. They lost 54-30 to Frank McClellan’s Barton Bears in 1997, defeated Hector 49-14 in 1998, defeated Carlisle 47-35 in 1999 and lost 30-29 in overtime to Rison in 2000.

Following the 2000 season, Malzahn was the Springdale School Board’s choice to replace veteran head coach Jarrell Williams.

“What people don’t remember is there were still a lot of questions about whether I could coach in the state’s largest classification,” Malzahn says. “I guess I was the only one crazy enough to try to fill Coach Williams’ shoes. He was Springdale football.”

Malzahn said the memory of Williams cast a long shadow during the 2001 season.

“The job I did wasn’t good enough for the people of Springdale, and I knew it,” he says.

Across town, Shiloh was winning another state championship without him, defeating Augusta 34-20 in the 2001 title game. By 2002, though, Malzahn had the Bulldogs in the state championship game, where they lost to Barry Lunney Sr.’s Fort Smith Southside Rebels, 17-10. Gus Malzahn was well on his way to being an Arkansas high school coaching legend at age 37.

February is coming to an end, the start of spring practice is nearing and things are hopping around the football complex at Arkansas State. A sense of urgency fills the building, given the high expectations created by Malzahn’s arrival on campus.

Just a year earlier, the school was breaking in another head coach as Hugh Freeze moved up after one season as ASU’s offensive coordinator to replace Steve Roberts, now the athletic director at Cabot High School. Prior to the 2011 football season, Freeze was best known as the man who had coached Michael Oher at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Oher was the subject of Michael Lewis’ 2006 book “The Blind Side” and the 2009 movie of the same name in which Freeze was portrayed by Little Rock actor Ray McKinnon.

There was excitement surrounding Freeze’s hiring, but even the most optimistic Red Wolf fan could not have predicted the success that would follow. ASU went 10-2 during the regular season, won the Sun Belt championship and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala. Freeze parlayed his instant success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss, were he replaced Houston Nutt.

Despair on the part of ASU followers turned to elation when Malzahn made the decision to return home.

In late 2010, ASU athletic director Dean Lee had called Malzahn at Auburn to ask him about Freeze.

At the end of the conversation, Lee joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”

When Freeze left for Ole Miss, Lee again talked to Malzahn to pick his brain about possible successors. Once more he joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”

This time, there was a long pause.

“I would consider that,” Malzahn finally said.

On Dec. 8, Malzahn called Lee in his office. That Thursday night, they had another long conversation once Lee had gotten home. Malzahn had decided he was ready to be a head coach at the college level. He hadn’t been offered the job at either North Carolina or Kansas, and the thought of returning home to Arkansas was appealing. The pay would be much less than he was making at Auburn, but Malzahn has never been driven by money.

On Friday, Dec. 9, Lee and Malzahn talked three more times by phone. By 10:30 a.m. that Saturday, Lee was on the way to Auburn in his personal vehicle. Paranoid that Malzahn’s home was being watched by the media, Lee had taken the ASU license plate off the front of the vehicle and also removed the Red Wolf bumper stickers. For three hours that evening, Lee visited with Malzahn and his wife in their home.

He pulled out late that evening. Too nervous to sleep, Lee drove straight back to Jonesboro, arriving at 6:45 a.m. Sunday. By then, ASU President Charles Welch and Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU graduate, were in the loop. By Wednesday, Malzahn was being introduced as the next ASU head coach before a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Convocation Center on the ASU campus. Things had moved quickly.

Malzahn’s legend had grown at Springdale when his 2005 squad went 14-0, outscored its opponents 664-118 and routed West Memphis 54-20 in the state championship game at War Memorial Stadium in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a high school event in Arkansas. He had come a long way from Hughes. Sportswriter Kurt Voigt even wrote a book about that 2005 Springdale team.

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written in Arkansas about what happened next. Malzahn joined Nutt’s staff at the University of Arkansas in December 2005. Many believed that Frank Broyles, the school’s athletic director at the time, had forced Nutt’s hand. Nutt mispronounced Malzahn’s name at the news conference that was held to introduce the coach, and Malzahn was never fully accepted by his fellow Razorback coaches (some of whom derisively referred to him as “high school”) even though Arkansas won the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship in 2006.

With the tension evident, it surprised few people inside the state when Malzahn accepted an offer from the new head coach at the University of Tulsa, Todd Graham. The two men had become friends when Graham, now the head coach at Arizona State University, was coaching a high school powerhouse in Allen, Texas. Graham had bought a video Malzahn hosted on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense and discovered they had the same ideas about how to run an offense.

With Malzahn as offensive coordinator, Tulsa ranked first nationally in total yards per game and third in passing in 2007. The Golden Hurricane became the first college team to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. In 2008, Tulsa led the nation again in total yards, averaging 570 yards per game while ranking second in scoring.

It didn’t take Auburn’s new head coach, a defensive specialist named Gene Chizik, long to move Malzahn back to the SEC in December 2008. The Tigers finished the 2009 season ranked 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring after having been tied for 110th in the country in scoring the previous season. In 2010, Auburn won the national championship, quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and Malzahn won the Broyles Award as the top assistant football coach in the country.

No assistant coach in America had a higher profile. Some reports had Vanderbilt offering him as much as $3 million a year to be its next head coach. Malzahn says he has no regrets. He believes that a decision to accept the Vanderbilt job in December 2010 would have taken his focus off preparing for Auburn’s appearance in the national championship game. Auburn increased his annual salary from $500,000 to $1.3 million, making him perhaps the nation’s highest paid assistant football coach.

Malzahn took a huge pay cut to return to Arkansas, where he tells people he wants to build the “Boise State of the South,” a team from a non-BCS conference that consistently ranks in the Top 25. In this spring of 2012, he’s just 70 miles from Hughes, where it all started more than two decades ago.

“I’m an Arkansas guy,” Malzahn says. “I’m still a high school coach at heart, and I’m a firm believer in being able to win at the major college level with high school talent from Arkansas. Kristi and I loved Auburn, but we were 10 hours from our family and friends. This is my chance to come back and build something big, to put it on the national map.”

“What on earth was Gus Malzahn thinking?” college football fans asked last December.

He was thinking it was time to come home.

– Rex Nelson

February 14, 2012: Willie Roaf

On the day it was announced that he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Pine Bluff native Willie Roaf was thinking of his mother.

Willie Roaf, Class of 2007

Willie Roaf, Class of 2007

“My dad and I talked about it recently – that she is smiling down from heaven, knowing that I’m being recognized for being one of the best. … She would have preferred that I was a better student, but she wanted the best for me in whatever I chose to do.”

Roaf was born April 18, 1970, in Pine Bluff to dentist Clifton Roaf and attorney Andree Layton Roaf. His mother, who died in July 2009, had made a name for herself by the time her son began playing in the NFL.

Nashville, Tenn., native Andree Layton met Clifton Roaf when both were students at Michigan State University. They married in July 1963, and from 1963-65, Andree Roaf worked as a bacteriologist for the Michigan Department of Health in Lansing. She worked in Washington, D.C., from 1965-69 for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration before moving to Pine Bluff to become a staff assistant for Pine Bluff’s urban renewal agency from 1971-75.

Andree Roaf took a job as a biologist for the National Center for Toxicological Research in 1975 while also attending law school at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She graduated second in a class of 83 in 1978, taught at the law school for a year after graduation and then went into private practice with the firm of Walker Roaf Campbell Ivory & Dunklin.

In January 1995, she became the first black woman and only the second woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to replace Justice Steele Hays, who was retiring.

She was not eligible to run for her Supreme Court position when the term ended but was appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee to serve on the Arkansas Court of Appeals. She later was elected as an appeals court judge and was a 1996 inductee into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Willie Roaf is quick to note that his mother would have preferred her son to have been an attorney or doctor. He drew so little interest from college recruiters at Pine Bluff High School that he considered switching from football to basketball. Finally, he decided to play football at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, where his career took off.

For the first time, two past inductees of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the same class.

Roaf was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

Cortez Kennedy, who played high school football at Rivercrest High School at Wilson and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, also will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August at Canton, Ohio.

Roaf was 6-4, 220 pounds when he went to Louisiana Tech, small for a college offensive lineman.

Former Tech coach Joe Raymond Peace said assistant coach Jerry Baldwin brought film of Roaf playing high school football for Pine Bluff.

“Jerry said he was probably a better basketball player than football player,” Peace told Jimmy Watson of The Times at Shreveport. “I looked at about eight plays, and I could tell he had great feet and hips. At the time of my visit, I believe I was the only head coach to go into the home, although Larry Lacewell would go in later.”

By his sophomore season, Roaf was 6-5, 300 pounds. Louisiana Tech played Alabama, Baylor, South Carolina, Ole Miss, West Virginia and Southern Mississippi during his senior season, allowing professional scouts plenty of opportunities to watch him work.

“I told him that schedule would allow him to become an All-American, and it would make him a lot of money,” Peace said. “The good lord blessed Willie with the talent to be the best in the game, but he really never had a clue about the talent he had. He was always humble. There’s no doubt he’s the best lineman I ever coached, and he deserves all the honors he has received. He’s just a good person.”

Roaf was picked in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was the eighth selection overall and the first offensive lineman to be drafted.

Roaf will be only the second player who spent the bulk of his career in New Orleans to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Former Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson was part of the Class of 2010. Roaf spent the first nine years of a 13-year NFL career with the Saints.

To acquire Roaf, the Saints had to send former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Pat Swilling to the Detroit Lions for the eighth overall pick. The decision proved to be a wise one. Roaf started 131 games for the Saints and helped the franchise to its first playoff win, a 2000 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. A torn ligament in his right knee forced Roaf to miss the second half of the 2001 season. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons.

Roaf was voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in his 13 seasons, tied with Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz for the most Pro Bowl appearances by an offensive tackle. He earned a spot on the NFL All-Decade Teams for both the 1990s and the 2000s.

“The Kansas City years were more important (for the Hall of Fame) than the New Orleans years, even though I went to seven Pro Bowls in New Orleans,” Roaf told The Kansas City Star. “I went to Kansas City and played with that great offensive line. … I needed Kansas City more than Kansas City needed me.”

Roaf said his father, a college teammate of former Chiefs star Ed Budde at Michigan State, will introduce him at the induction ceremony in Canton.

“There weren’t many takers for Roaf (coming off the injury at New Orleans), but Chiefs personnel director Bill Kuharich, who was with the Saints when they drafted him, convinced general manager Carl Peterson and coach Dick Vermeil to bring him to Kansas City,” Randy Covitz wrote in The Kansas City Star.

“Knowing what kind of individual he was, knowing what kind of pride and character he had and his passion for the game, certainly a change of scenery wouldn’t hurt,” Kuharich told Covitz. “I didn’t have any doubts he would return to form.”

Roaf had spent his rookie year for the Saints at right tackle before moving to the left side of the line.

Roaf, who was an All-Pro selection four times as a Saint and four times as a Chief, said he will go into the Hall of Fame as a representative of the Saints even though players’ busts in Canton don’t specify teams.

“I played four years with the Chiefs, and those were great, but I’m from Arkansas,” he said. “I went to Louisiana Tech. My history goes more with the Saints than the Chiefs. But believe me, my Chiefs days were very, very special to me, and I will cherish those.”

Roaf helped the Chiefs lead the NFL in scoring with 484 points in 2003 and 467 points in 2004. Quarterback Trent Green joined with running backs Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson to put up franchise-record numbers behind Roaf and the other Kansas City offensive linemen.

Owners of both the Saints and the Chiefs praised Roaf.

“It’s such a deserving honor,” Clark Hunt of the Chiefs said. “To me, Willie is the epitome of what a Hall of Famer is – not only somebody who is individually dominant, but somebody who made everybody who played around him better.”

Saints owner Tom Benson said Roaf “meant a great deal to our team during his career with us. He was the best player on our team during his entire tenure with us, one of the top players in the history of our franchise and one of the NFL’s greatest at his position.”

Roaf was in two playoff games with the Saints, winning one and losing one. The Chiefs lost their only postseason game with Roaf in 2003 to Indianapolis, 38-31, in a game in which neither team had a punt.

“Nothing against our defense, but our offense was putting up numbers against the top defenses in the league when I was in Kansas City,” Roaf told Covitz. “We just needed to slow people down some more.”

Roaf also was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2009, he took a job coaching the offensive line at Santa Monica Junior College in Santa Monica, Calif.

Roaf was widely respected by both teammates and opposing players. He once owned a home in Colorado, for instance, with Jerome Bettis.

“They met so many years ago in a hotel suite in Indianapolis and never did two men seem less likely to become best friends,” Les Carpenter wrote for Yahoo! Sports. “Jerome Bettis came from Detroit, talking fast and loud, while Willie Roaf from Arkansas barely said much at all. But there they were, guests of the Washington Redskins at the 1993 NFL scouting combine, two soon-to-be top 10 draft picks, and they were taking a test that made little sense: a personality exam asking how they would react in certain kinds of situations.

“Other than having the same agent, they appeared to have little in common besides that ridiculous Redskins’ test. But somehow that was enough to build a friendship for a lifetime.”

Bettis and Roaf were represented by Lamont Smith, one of the few black agents at the time. Smith lived in Denver and believed his clients should train in Colorado’s thin mountain air. Bettis and Roaf spent $140,000 for a three-bedroom home in the Denver suburb of Aurora. The home only covered 1,600 square feet, but Roaf said it “had a nice yard. It was just nice to have a good place.”

Bettis was named the NFL Rookie of the Year after his first season with the Rams.

“As the years went on, Roaf developed a reputation as one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen,” Carpenter wrote. “Soon Bettis’ Rookie of the Year award was eclipsed by Roaf’s routine trips to the Pro Bowl.”

“We were 22, 23-year-old guys, and we thought we were going to go out and be studs in the NFL,” Bettis told Carpenter. “We talked about it all the time. We were both highly competitive guys, and I was messing with him all the time, telling him how good I was going to be.”

They sold the house after several years, but the friendship lasted. Bettis was at the hospital for the birth of Roaf’s first daughter

Roaf also kept Smith as his agent throughout his career.

Carpenter wrote that Smith urged Roaf “to appear tougher when he was a senior at Louisiana Tech. As the son of a dentist and judge, NFL teams felt Roaf might not be hungry enough or mean enough to play professionally. Before a big game against Alabama, Smith stressed to Roaf’s mother that the lineman needed to act mean. Roaf obliged by flattening an Alabama pass rusher at one point, ripping off the player’s helmet and tossing it away.”

“After that, there were no more questions about his toughness or his meanness,” Smith said.

Off the field, though, Road remained humble and quiet.

When he’s inducted at Canton, he will no doubt be thinking of his mother, also a Hall of Famer due to her induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

“Mom would be very happy to know I achieved the level of being one of the best to do what I did,” Willie Roaf said. “I know she’s looking down proud right now.”

– Rex Nelson

Nov. 18, 2011: Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton

Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton reached sports stardom at an early age. In 1892, at the age of just 15, he became the youngest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.

Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton

Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, Class of 2012

It’s safe to say, however, that most Arkansans have never heard of Clayton.

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will remedy that situation Feb. 3 when Clayton is inducted as part of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012. Tickets for the annual banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

Clayton was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1876 and moved with his parents to North Little Rock when he was 10. There were nine children in the family, and finances were tight even though his father had steady work as a carpenter. Clayton worked as a hotel errand boy and as a shoeshine boy to earn extra income for his family. In an 1896 story in the Thoroughbred Record, it was written that Clayton also had attended school as a boy and was considered “exceptionally bright.”

Clayton was only 12 years old when he left home to join his brother Albertus, a jockey who was riding at the time for the legendary E.J. “Lucky” Baldwin. Alonzo Clayton soon found work as an exercise rider for Baldwin’s stables. His first race as a jockey came in 1890 at Clifton, N.J. He had his first victory later that year.

Thoroughbred racing had become one of the top sports in America by that time, and it didn’t take long for those on the East Coast to recognize Clayton as a rising star. He won the Jerome Stakes aboard Picknicker and the Champagne Stakes aboard Azra at Morris Park in Westchester County, N.Y., in 1891. On May 11, 1892, Clayton was aboard Azra in the Kentucky Derby. Azra came from behind in the stretch to win the derby by a nose, and Clayton became one of only two 15-year-old jockeys to win America’s most famous race.

He would be in the money in the Kentucky Derby three more times in his career, finishing second in 1893, third in 1895 and second in 1897. Clayton’s best year was 1895 when he had 144 wins and finished in the money in almost 60 percent of his races. He won the Arkansas Derby that year at the Little Rock Jockey Club’s Clinton Park. In 1896, he became one of the few black jockeys ever to compete in the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore, and he finished third.

Other significant races won by Clayton were the Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs in 1892, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 1892, the Brooklyn Handicap and Futurity at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn in 1894, the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in 1894 and 1895, the Cotton Stakes in Memphis in 1895, the Saratoga Stakes at Saratoga in 1895, the Latonia Derby in Cincinnati in 1897, the St. Louis Derby in 1897, the California Derby in San Francisco in 1898 and the Suburban Handicap in Brooklyn in 1898.

In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune, Clayton would call the Suburban Handicap “the greatest race I ever rode.”

Racing historian Ed Hotaling said Clayton “became one of the great riders of the New York circuit all through the 1890s, but he rode all over the country.”

“While spending most of his time on the road, Clayton, who never married, came back to North Little Rock regularly to visit family,” Cary Bradburn wrote in the online “Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.” “He bought his parents a farm in 1894 in what is now Sherwood and had the Queen Anne-style house built in 1895. His celebrity status spawned a legend that erroneously linked him to another Queen Anne house, known today as the Baker House, a bed and breakfast at 109 West Fifth St. in North Little Rock. According to legend, Clayton, misidentified as Artemis E. Colburn, raced horses in England and came back to his hometown of Argenta (now North Little Rock) to build a grand house; however, he soon left the area.

“The reason for Clayton’s departure is not clear, but in a larger context racism did contribute. In the early 1900s, bigotry drove black jockeys out of the sport they had dominated in America since the mid-1600s. Most stable owners stopped hiring them when sanctions, and even physical threats against black jockeys, increased. Some went overseas, as Clayton may have done.”

Indeed, black jockeys once ruled the sport.

“These were the first great American athletes, white or black, and they were written out of the history books,” Hotaling told the Baltimore Sun. “The saddest part is that they weren’t and haven’t been brought back into the sport.”

Black jockeys won at least 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

“Once economics – big money – came into racing, the black jockey was pushed out,” said Inez Chapel of the group African-Americans in Horse Racing. “And racism is still alive. There are black jockeys out there, but they do what they have to do. They claim to be Jamaican or something else. If you speak in an unknown tongue, then the color of your skin doesn’t bother people.”

As racing began to gain prominence following the Civil War, many horse owners used their former slaves as jockeys. Former slaves tended to gravitate toward the sport because they were comfortable working with horses. Jim Crow laws changed that. The majority of black jockeys were gone by 1910, though some continued to race in more dangerous steeplechase events.

The last black jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby was Henry King aboard Planet in 1921.

“That was a rarity,” Hotaling said. “If people see that and think black jockeys competed into the 1920s alongside white riders, that’s just not true. By 1910, they were all but gone.”

The last black jockey to ride in the Preakness Stakes was Willie Simms in 1898. The last black jockey to ride in the Belmont Stakes was Jimmy Lee in 1908.

Clayton and his family lived in what later would be known as the Engelberger House in North Little Rock from 1895-99. His earnings had enabled him to build a home that the Arkansas Gazette described in 1895 as the “finest house on the North Side.” The home at 2105 Maple St. was purchased by Swiss immigrant Joseph Engelberger in 1912. It was listed in 1990 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bradburn wrote: “Written in pencil in the attic are the names of Clayton and eight brothers and sisters, as well as ‘Mama and Papa Clayton’ and ‘1899’ and ‘Goodbye.’ On a baseboard to the right is a drawing of what appears to be a jockey, under which is written ‘Ragtime Jimmie,’ the meaning of which is unknown.”

In April 1901, Alonzo Clayton was arrested at Aqueduct in New York for allegedly fixing a race. The charge later was dismissed, but his career was over for all practical purposes. He made short comeback attempts in Montana in 1902 and Memphis in 1904.

Clayton died in March 1917 in California of tuberculosis. He was only 41. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.

– Rex Nelson.

April 23, 2011: Buddy Benson

His players often referred to him simply as The Man.

Buddy Benson, 77, of Arkadelphia died Friday at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock.

Benson was an Arkansas sports legend – a 1993 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, an inductee into the NAIA Hall of Fame, the head football coach at Ouachita Baptist University for 31 seasons and the man who in 1954 threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to lead the University of Arkansas Razorbacks to a 6-0 victory over the nationally ranked Ole Miss Rebels.

The late Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, later would describe what was known as the “Powder River Play” as the school’s most famous play to that point because it put the Arkansas program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.

During his lengthy coaching career, Benson was known for turning boys into men. His hundreds of former players had a strong loyalty to the man who had been such a tough taskmaster when they were in college. Benson was an intense coach, a man who accepted nothing less than a player’s best. He consistently led Ouachita teams to winning records in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, an amazing accomplishment considering the ever-present lack of quality facilities and funds at Ouachita.

Benson produced 16 all-America and 208 all-conference players during his 31 years as Ouachita’s head coach.

Benson compiled a 162-140-8 record at Ouachita and won four AIC championships, but he often said his greatest accomplishment was the fact that almost all of his players graduated. Former Tigers moved on to success in business, medicine, law, education and other professions. His recruiting strategy was based on quality rather than quantity, not only physical quality but also mental and moral excellence. Once those recruits reached the Ouachita campus, Benson saw to it that football and social life did not outweigh academic concerns.

Though he had chances to move to larger schools, Benson decided to spend his career at Ouachita.

He once explained: “There’s just something special about this school. You can see it in the students and feel it when you walk around the campus. We have a high class of individuals who go to school here, and I think that if a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he’ll end up being a pretty high-class person himself.”

Benson’s most famous player was Cliff Harris, a 1985 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee who played in five Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

Harris said his college coach “taught us to achieve at levels we didn’t believe were possible. At critical moments in my life, I’ve thought of Coach Benson and the things he taught me. It was his influence that allowed me to step it up a notch at those important times.”

Benson was born Nov. 9, 1933, and was one of the nation’s most highly recruited players coming out of high school at De Queen. He signed with legendary University of Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson, whose Sooners had won the national championship in 1950.

Benson delighted in telling this story about Wilkinson taking him to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Oklahoma City: “The waiter came over and asked us if we wanted to start with something. Coach Wilkinson said: ‘Buddy, I think I’ll have a shrimp cocktail. Do you want one?’ I had rarely been out of Sevier County. I thought he was testing me. So I looked him right in the eyes and said, ‘No sir. I don’t drink.”’

Between 1953 and 1957, Wilkinson’s Oklahoma squads won 47 consecutive games. But Benson, missing his home state, transferred to the University of Arkansas.

In 1954, the man known in college as “Buddy Bob” helped lead Coach Bowden Wyatt’s team to an 8-3 record, a share of the 1954 Southwest Conference championship and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech. Following college graduation in 1956, Benson was offered a professional contract to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. He turned down the offer to try his hand at coaching high school football.

It didn’t take him long to achieve success as a coach. His first team at Lewisville went 10-1, and his second team had a 7-1-2 record. In the spring of 1958, however, he decided he could make more money selling automobiles.

He told Texarkana Gazette sports editor Wick Temple: “I’m getting a better deal going into the automobile business. It’s just one of those things. I had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t pass it up. As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”

Temple wrote in a column: “His was the model small school coaching situation. He produced fine athletes and a fine athletic program. He had a good record and no difficulties with anyone, much less the school board. But he quit. He left what had taken him 10 years of playing and coaching to achieve.”

Three years later, Benson realized he belonged in the world of sports molding young men’s lives rather than making money in the world of business.

He showed up at the annual Arkansas coaching clinic in Little Rock in August 1961 looking for a job. He was told that Ouachita head coach Rab Rodgers was searching for an assistant. Rodgers decided to give the automobile salesman a chance.

When Rodgers chose to devote all of his time to serving as Ouachita’s athletic director in 1965, Benson was promoted to head coach. It was, at best, a risky proposition for him. Few people believed Ouachita could win consistently in football. Some of Benson’s friends believed he was dooming his career by taking on an impossible task.

After all, he was taking over a program that had experienced just two winning seasons the previous 16 years. That’s what, in retrospect, makes the following statistic so remarkable: Ouachita would not have a losing season in Benson’s first 12 years.

The turnaround he engineered was a far cry from the late 1950s when Ouachita President Ralph Phelps had declared in a speech to the student body: “We should not expect overnight miracles of our teams or coaching staffs. Ouachita, after having been at the pinnacle of athletic glory, has sunk about as low as a school can go without dropping competition altogether.”

Benson worked his magic quickly. By his second year as head coach, the Tigers had captured a share of the AIC championship. His players were a reflection of their head coach – they wore suits on road trips; they maintained a clean-cut appearance; they played the game cleanly.

After Ouachita won a share of the AIC championship in 1975, Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow wrote of Benson: “His athletes are going to go to class. They’re not going to abuse (or even get caught using) tobacco or alcohol, and they’re going to keep their hair nice and neat, and they’re going to say yes sir and no sir. Oh, they’re also going to receive diplomas.”

Benson often would say: “I’m not running a popularity contest.” Yet few figures in Arkansas sports history were more popular.

After retiring from coaching following the 1995 season, Benson served as Ouachita’s athletic director until 1998. In retirement, he was a constant presence on the golf course at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, where he was known for rounds of speed golf that regularly tired those golfing with him. Benson also enjoyed spending time with his family and many friends in the Arkadelphia area.

“I always wanted my kids to grow up in one town, go to one school,” Benson once said of his decision to spend decades at the same institution. “I felt like after the kids were grown, there would always be time to move on. I didn’t really count on coming to love this place so much, though. We were very happy at Ouachita. Arkadelphia is a good town to live in.”

– Rex Nelson

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