Kenneth Gene Stephens, 92, of Conway, a member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and one of Arkansas's most successful high school and college football coaches, died Monday, Aug. 28, 2023. He was born in Conway on April 2, 1931, to Earl and Edna Stephens. As a track star at Conway High School, he competed in several events, including the 440-yard, 880-yard, and mile relays; the 120-yard high hurdles and 220-yard low hurdles; the long jump; and the 100-yard dash. Stephens regularly earned the high point award in track meets, including the 1948 state meet. He participated in football as a junior and senior, playing halfback on offense and safety on defense. He graduated from Conway High School in 1948. At Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), he set records in football and track. Stephens's school record of five interceptions in one football game has not been broken. On the track, he was a two-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) All-American and was the first Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference athlete to be named All-American two years in a row in any sport. He was the national runner-up in the 120-yard high hurdles in 1951 and 1952; the only high hurdle races he lost during his college career were at the two national meets. Stephens graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College in 1952, with a BS in education. From there, he went to Crossett High School as assistant football coach, and he became head football coach and athletic director at Bethany High School in Bethany, Okla., in 1953. During his one year there, his team won a conference championship and two games in the state playoffs. Stephens took a year off to complete his MS degree in education from George Peabody College (later merged into Vanderbilt University), after which he became head coach and athletic director at Walnut Ridge High School in 1956. The team won a conference championship in 1957. In 1958, he returned to Conway High School as head coach and recorded back-to-back 7–3 seasons before leaving in 1960 for what is now Arkansas State University, where he served as an assistant coach for one season. In 1962, he became head coach at Morrilton High School. His greatest success in coaching high school football came at North Little Rock, where he was head coach and athletic director from 1963 to 1970. Stephens led the Wildcats to three state championships (1965, ‘66 and ‘70), leaving after the 1970 season to become an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas before returning to his college alma mater as head coach in 1972, where he laid the foundation for the success the Bears have experienced ever since. During his 10 years at UCA, Stephens had eight winning seasons and guided the Bears—a team that had not had a winning season since 1968—to AIC titles in 1976, ‘78, ‘80 and ‘81. During those same years, the Bears also participated in the NAIA playoffs. In 1976, the Bears finished national runner-up, falling to what is now Texas A&M-Kingsville in the NAIA championship game. Stephens left UCA in 1982 to become head coach at Lamar University. He returned to Arkansas in January 1986 as head coach at Arkansas Tech, coaching there through the 1992 season. After a few years of retirement, Stephens returned to football in 2001 as the head coach at Ranger College in Ranger, Texas, taking over a program that had won only one game during the previous two seasons. From 2001 to 2004, Stephens' teams won 15 games. He was nominated for National Junior College Athletic Association Coach of the Year in 2002, after a 5–5 season. In recognition of his high school coaching success, Stephens won the Lowell Manning Award and was named on two occasions as an Arkansas High School Coaches Association All-Star coach. As a college coach, he was named AIC Coach of the Year in 1978, ‘80 and 1981. He was inducted into the UCA Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2007, Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2014, and Conway High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2021. In 1988, Stephens met a young Arkansas Gazette sportswriter, Donna Lampkin, on the Arkansas Tech football field. They were married on July 12, 1996, and enjoyed 27 years of marriage, much of which was spent traveling the state to attend sporting events. He was a member of First United Methodist Church in Conway. Stephens was preceded in death by his parents; his brother, Allen Stephens; his brother and sister-in-law, Bill and Geneva Stephens; his sister and brother-in-law, Edna Earle and J.K. Williams; and his mother-in-law, Noris Lampkin. He is survived by his wife, Donna Lampkin Stephens; his sons, Greg Stephens (Pat Parker) of Monticello, Kimbro Stephens (Karen) of Little Rock, and Philip Stephens (Krissy) of Sherwood; grandchildren, Kathryn Eastman (Chuck) of Palo Alto, Calif.; Alex Ward (Carri Jo) of Conway; Rachel Herrera (Jose Carlos) of Nashville, Tenn.; Jennifer Stephens of Martinez, Calif.; Joshua Stephens of Clarksville; Grace Stephens of Little Rock; Joy Schulman (Jared) of Pflugerville, Texas; Christina Crawford (Matt) of Lakeville, Minn.; and Savana Stephens of Sherwood; his in-laws, Don Lampkin, Jerry and Jackie Lampkin, Sherry Young, and Becky and Marc Harris of Chidester; nephews, Steve Williams (Julie) of Magnet Cove; David Williams (Kristy) of Alexander; Allen Williams (Shelley) of Rogers; Mark Stephens (Lisa) of Conway; Jared Lampkin (Morgan), Joshua Lampkin (Brooke), Bradley Harris (Kaina) and Brandon Harris of Chidester; Tyler Young (Karen) of Cedar Park, Texas; and Wesley Young (Torie) of Valdez, Alaska; nieces, Jaye Kay Brown (James) of Springdale; Sonya and Stephanie Stephens of Conway; and Peyton Skidmore (Tanner) of Camden; his former daughter-in-law, Jan Bartlett, and her husband, Randy, of Little Rock; as well as hundreds of former players across the country who will carry his influence with them forever. His legacy will live on. Visitation will be Thursday, Sept. 7, from 6-8 p.m. at Roller-McNutt in Conway. Memorial service will be Friday, Sept. 8, at 10 a.m. at First United Methodist Church in Conway, 1610 Prince St. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to FUMC or a favorite charity.
Published September 3, 2023