Newport-Batesville: A thing of the past?

I often find myself on the road on autumn Saturdays, driving to and from Ouachita football games.

I listen to college games on the radio, everything from the LSU Tigers on WWL-AM to the Iowa Hawkeyes on WHO-AM. When the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy listening to Bill Keedy do the color on Arkansas State University football broadcasts. Coach Keedy’s passion for the Red Wolves and for the game of football itself is contagious.

“I just sit up there in the booth and try to explain football to the listeners in a way I think they can understand,” Keedy told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Three Rivers edition (a product of the newspaper’s promotions department) a couple of years ago. “Broadcasting has given me the chance to be around football, a game that I love.”

Keedy, an Arkansas State graduate, is in his 12th year as a part of the school’s broadcast crew. In Newport, though, he’s not known as a broadcaster. He’s instead known as one of the best high school football coaches ever.

Keedy had a successful run as the head coach at Paragould High School in the early 1970s. Following the 1975 season, he received a large raise to go to Sylvan Hills. But after just one season as the head coach there, he returned to his hometown of Newport in 1977.

Keedy compiled a 175-48-3 record at Newport before retiring. His overall record as a head coach was 199-55-4.

He was the district coach of the year 17 times, and his teams reached the playoffs 19 times.

Newport won state championships under his leadership in 1981 and 1991. Greyhound teams also reached the championship games of 1988 and 1989. The Greyhounds made it as far as the semifinals eight times.

Keedy later was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

It made me sad — very sad — when I heard that Coach Keedy had tears in his eyes Wednesday night during a special meeting of the Newport School Board. The school’s administration has decided to end one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the state — Newport vs. Batesville.

They’ve met 92 times through the decades.

For years, the game was played on Thanksgiving Day. My father was the head coach at Newport for the 1948, 1949 and 1950 seasons. Years later, I would pull out the old “Lakeside” yearbooks he kept at our home and marvel at the size of the crowds for those games. The black-and-white photos told the story.

This was a big deal.

Batesville has grown steadily through the years as a college town in the Ozark footballs. Like many Delta towns, Newport has lost population and suffered economically.

Still, it’s amazing that Newport School District administrators would so quickly end a tradition that dates back almost a century.

“A lot of schools have lost their tradition, but we have found a way to maintain ours,” Keedy told the school board members. “Don’t let us lose our tradition. If we continue to lose kids, then people, there will be a time to holler calf-rope. I just don’t think that time is now. I was told we had 56 kids out for spring football, and we dress around 35 right now. Fifty-six kids are how many kids Searcy has, and they beat Batesville.”

Keedy said of current Greyhound coach Jeromy Poole: “We didn’t hire him to drop Batesville, we hired him to beat Batesville, and I meant that as a compliment. I think he is a fine, energetic young man who has the best for this program in mind. I think he is trying to build this program back up, and I think he can do it.”

Keedy, like most folks in Newport, was blindsided by the decision to end a treasured northeast Arkansas tradition.

“I have talked to many people who feel the way I do,” he said. “Without this coming before the school board or without us having any knowledge of this, something is just not right. The time for this was in June when we could have had time to evaluate and prepare and maybe come up with a compromise.”

The board took no action Wednesday.

Coach Keedy’s son, Billy Keedy, announced his resignation from the school board because of the strain it was causing him.

“I have watched as minor issues have become major problems,” he said.

So will the administrators — some of whom are still relatively new to Jackson County and lacking any sense of history and place, change their minds?

“It’s a tradition that’s maybe the oldest in the state,” the elder Keedy said. “The traditional game against Batesville has always been the game. Back in the old days, it didn’t matter if you lost every game. If you beat Batesville, you had a successful season.

“I found out through the rumor mill and then found out from the Batesville paper. Our school board was not aware of this taking place.”

“We are not out to do away with the rivalry,” the school’s superintendent, Larry Bennett, claimed in an interview with KAIT-TV in Jonesboro. “It’s just that we need to regroup so that we can be competitive, and there are going to be people who disagree with that. It’s just a numbers game and safety. They’ve got two to three times the number of student-athletes that we have.”

Yet what about the fabric of the community — its history, its traditions?

Were those things even taken into consideration?

Were the players asked their opinions?

“What I would have loved to see happen is maybe have a compromise,” Coach Keedy said. “Give us two more years to try and build our numbers up. If Batesville continues to grow and Newport continues to decline, then I think you have to seriously consider dropping.”

About 100 people attended Wednesday night’s special board meeting.

John Pennington, who once played for the Greyhounds, put it this way: “It’s part of what makes small town America great. Friday night in America. Batesville vs. Newport. It’s what Friday night in America is all about. It’s a big deal, and it’s one of the bigger gate receipts for both schools. … It’s important.”

At least it used to be important.

With the decline in population in large parts of south and east Arkansas, we’ve seen numerous high school football programs become mere shadows of their former selves — Crossett, Forrest City, Marianna and Hughes to name a few.

Camden High School — once the home of the mighty Panthers — no longer even exists.

But is it wrong for a smaller school such as Newport to play a larger school such as Batesville, to try to overcome the odds one Friday night each year and occasionally pull an upset?

No Newport-Batesville football game?

We might as well just declare that Arkansas can no longer compete in football with Alabama, that the Razorbacks should stop trying to beat Kentucky in basketball and that we’ve called off duck season while we’re at it since those mallards are so hard to bring down with steel shot.

Let’s also call up St. Louis and tell the Cardinals to forfeit to the Phillies since the pundits don’t think they can win that series.

If my dad were still around, he would be as sad as Coach Keedy.

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