Coach John Outlaw and the Friday night magic

Looking back, he was just a kid.

John Outlaw was 25 years old when the Arkadelphia School Board hired him as head football coach at Arkadelphia High School.

I was even younger — 19 to be exact.

I had gone straight from the playing field (my senior season as Badger center was the fall of 1977) to the broadcast booth for Arkadelphia High games. That’s one of the good things about small towns. Opportunities come early in life.

I had worked through high school as the sports editor of the town’s weekly newspaper, the Southern Standard, having been given my first job by publisher Bob Fisher.

Following high school graduation, I was hired as the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s daily newspaper, the Daily Siftings Herald, and sports director of the Arkadephia radio stations, KVRC-AM and KDEL-FM.

I thus would work full time at two jobs while still carrying a full load at Ouachita Baptist University. My father, never one to beat around the bush, told me I was crazy to try to do so much. I was obsessed with sports journalism — tired most days but satisfied with my choices.

How could you beat doing football play by play on the radio just a year after having played? It was heaven on earth.

And it would get even better. That’s because John Outlaw came into my life.

The Badgers struggled during the 1978 season, but Friday nights were still fun as John Claunch (my freshman roommate) and I would broadcast the games. Saturdays were devoted to broadcasting Ouachita games and often trying to cover both Ouachita and Henderson for the newspaper in the same day. I would go to an afternoon game, jump in my car and race across the state to a night game.

Following that 1978 season, Vernon Hutchins resigned at Arkadelphia High and was replaced by an intense, wiry assistant coach from the University of Central Arkansas with the memorable name of Outlaw.

He had graduated from Ozark High School in 1971 and gone on to play football at UCA, graduating from there in 1975. He worked under Bear Coach Ken Stephens as a graduate assistant, received his master’s degree from UCA and was hired as a full-time assistant by Stephens.

He won me over that first night I interviewed him. High school football was big in Arkadelphia back in those days, and the news editor was looking for local copy, so we led the front page the next day with his hiring.

I wrote a long story (I’ve always said that I can’t write well, but I can write long) intended to introduce the community to this guy named Outlaw.

Those were the first of millions of words I would write and broadcast about John Outlaw and his Badger football program during the next several years.

I had a sense he was something special. Writing four to five columns a week, I filled them with accounts of his Badger offseason drills and previews of the 1979 season.

The Siftings Herald came out five days a week with no weekend editions, so the game story would not appear until the following Monday. We decided to put the account of his first game on the front page rather than the sports page, just like the Arkansas Gazette ran Orville Henry’s Razorback game stories on the front page.

We never stopped.

Arkadelphia lost early in that 1979 season to Ashdown and didn’t lose again. A victory over a highly ranked Camden team convinced this group of Badgers that it could do something special.

At age 26, in his first head coaching job, John Outlaw produced a state championship team.

It’s hard to believe it has been 32 years. I can remember that Friday of the state championship game against Alma as if it were yesterday.

I was on the air all afternoon at KVRC, doing what we called the Badger Countdown. After each record played, I would announce how many hours and minutes to kickoff, helping build the excitement in the city to a fever pitch.

A couple of hours prior to kickoff, I left the KVRC studios on South Third Street and headed for Henderson’s Haygood Stadium, where the game would be played. Thirty minutes prior to kickoff, we went on the air.

John Claunch had transferred to the University of North Alabama for his sophomore year of college and been replaced as my broadcast partner by Randy Brackett and “Big Sam” Watson.

In those days, the Badgers would dress at the Goza Gymnasium (later named the John Outlaw Gymnasium) and bus over to Haygood Stadium for home games.

It wasn’t even close.

Arkadelphia 19, Alma 0.

As soon as the clock wound down, I ran to my car and headed for the gymnasium while Danny and Sam wrapped things up from the stadium. We were pulling out all the stops for this broadcast and had planned to do a live dressing room show with interviews of players and coaches.

The jubilant players were throwing their coaches, managers, assistants, you name it into the showers that cold night. Thanks to Jeff Necessary for keeping the show going while I was thrown into the shower.

It was a magical time.

It was magical because John Outlaw was a magician when it came to handling teenage boys.

I had decided to close the office last Friday for Christmas. I was downstairs at my home, reading the newspaper and sipping on coffee. My cell phone was upstairs in my bedroom charging.

When I went upstairs at about 9:30 a.m., I noticed that the phone was filled with messages.

Reggie Speights from Southwest Sporting Goods Co. at Arkadelphia had been the first.

Then, Chris Babb, the Arkadelphia High School athletic director.

Then, David Sharp, the Ouachita athletic director.

The messages were all the same: John Outlaw had died that morning of a heart attack in Lufkin, Texas, following his early morning run.

I sat down, trying to absorb the news.

John Outlaw dead?

That couldn’t be. In my mind, he would always be that 26-year-old coach being thrown in the shower at the Goza Gymnasium in 1979.

The quarterback on that team was Kerry Garnett. Kerry’s father, Don Garnett, now lives in Lubbock, Texas.

Here’s part of what Don wrote on the online guest book for the funeral home at Lufkin: “As a parent, I watched John challenge a group of talented young men to overcome an early loss in the season and go on to win the state championship in 1979. John had the ability to bring out the best in young men without breaking their spirit. During the years I have lived in Lubbock, I was always pleased when Texas Tech signed a young man from Lufkin because I knew that John had influenced him.”

I was heartened Friday afternoon when Robert Yates of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called me. Robert has been around for many years, and I knew he would give the story the attention it deserved.

On Saturday morning, the statewide newspaper led its sports section with the Outlaw story.

The record speaks for itself: John was 84-20-1 in nine seasons at Arkadelphia, winning another state championship in 1987 with a 14-0 team that became the first Arkansas school ever to be ranked in the USA Today Super 25.

A prominent Arkadelphia attorney and close family friend named Otis Turner had coached the golf team at the University of Arkansas when in law school there. One of his golfers was Miller Barber. After a successful professional golf career, Barber served on the school board at Sherman, Texas, and heard about Outlaw from his old college golf coach.

Sherman offered the Badger coach a huge pay increase. How could Outlaw not go and try to also succeed in Texas?

And succeed he did.

He compiled a record of 57-21-1 at Sherman from 1988-94 and a record of 162-46-1 at Lufkin from 1995-2011.

That 303-87-3 record, much of it achieved at the highest levels in the best high school football state in the country, boggles the mind. But, as Don Garnett said, John’s lasting legacy will be the thousands of lives he touched.

The kids who played for him loved him.

Doug Rice, who now lives in Flower Mound, Texas, was one of the best high school linemen in the country when he played for John at Arkadelphia.

Doug, who went on to play college football at SMU, wrote this on the online guest book: “I gave everything I had for him because he gave everything he had for us. I would have run through a brick wall for him. He was selfless. I always felt that his only agenda was helping all of us learn how to compete and prepare to win on and off the field.

“Coach Outlaw had tremendous energy and passion and instilled that same work ethic and commitment (and punctuality!) in all of us through his words and actions.

“He was a great teacher. He was direct (sometimes pointedly) and shared his keen insights into the good and bad in people and situations around us. He had a terrific sense of humor. We shared a lot of laughs together.”

I continued to do the Badger play by play on radio for the 1980 and 1981 seasons as Danny Brackett replaced his older brother on our crew, joining Big Sam and me high atop the Haygood Stadium press box.

By 1982, I was covering sports for the Arkansas Democrat, begging to be assigned to the Badger games whenever possible.

Wanting to spread my wings beyond sports, I returned to Arkadelphia just before Christmas 1982 as the editor of the Siftings Herald. We had success. In statewide competitions, my column and our editorial page were named best in the state.

The general manager for whom I had worked as sports editor from 1978-81, John Ragsdale, has purchased the weekly newspaper at Prescott and left Arkadelphia. During the summer of 1983, I informed his replacement that I would resume doing the play by play on radio of Arkadelphia High School football each Friday and Ouachita football each Saturday.

He quickly said he couldn’t allow that since he considered the radio station to be a competitor for ad dollars.

I went home, thought about it and came to a decision. There was no way I wouldn’t resume calling those games. The newspaper general manager seemed shocked the next day when I handed him my resignation.

Being the voice of the Badgers was more important to me at age 23 than continuing to be the editor of my hometown newspaper. I could always find a full-time job elsewhere.

I was the voice of the Badgers for two more seasons, 1983 and 1984. I was living in Washington, D.C., by John’s last two years as Badger coach, covering Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. Each Friday night in the fall, I would call home and ask my parents how Outlaw’s Badgers had done.

My friend Jeff Root, with whom I still share the Ouachita football broadcast booth, was the voice of the Badgers by then. He continues in that role to this day.

The advent of the Internet made it easy to keep up with John during his years in Texas. I learned that his team’s game against The Woodlands on Thursday, Oct. 6, of this year would be broadcast regionally by Fox Sports Southwest.

I watched at home as John won his 300th career game and cried during the postgame interview.

He said that “300 is a number that really means nothing to me. When they put you in the grave, 300 wins don’t mean anything. What matters to me is each and every one of these kids out here and all the ones I’ve coached in the past.”

Tomorrow afternoon in Arkadelphia, they’ll indeed put John Outlaw in the grave.

Early on the morning after that 300th win, I sent John an email that said in part: “I wish I could have been there. It reminded me of some great Friday nights long ago. You’re a special person. I was fortunate to be there at the start of a remarkable career by a remarkable man who has impacted thousands of lives for the better.”

He answered me within minutes. He signed his message simply “Coach.”

I’m sure there was a large crowd for today’s memorial service in Lufkin. It was, after all, the school where he coached the longest.

I think it’s fitting, though, that John Outlaw be laid to rest in his native Arkansas soil. John always told me that he still considered himself an Arkansan. And Arkadelphia, where this amazing run began, held a cherished place in his heart. I know that to be true because he told me so.

I plan to attend the graveside service Wednesday. The last time I was at Rest Haven Memorial Gardens was on Tuesday, April 26, when we buried Ouachita Coach Buddy Benson, my childhood hero.

I’m sure I’ll pay my respects to Coach Benson while I’m there.

So we near the end of 2011, the year when I lost my dad in March, Coach Benson in April and Coach Outlaw in December.

Thinking about that, I’m sure there will be a point during tomorrow’s service when I suddenly feel very old and very tired.

But then I’ll think back to the fall of 1979 and those wonderful autumn weekends when I got to broadcast Outlaw’s Badgers each Friday and Benson’s Tigers each Saturday (no doubt one of the youngest college play-by-play men in the country).

Yes, it was fun.

Yes, it was magic.

In my mind, John will be 26 again.

I’ll be 20 again.

Friday night pregame meals will be at the Duck Inn in Camden and the Chatterbox in Magnolia.

Postgame radio shows will run far too long.

And as soon as one Friday night ends, we’ll already be looking forward to the next one.

Hopefully, I’ll smile at those memories as I drive away from the cemetery.

Thanks for your friendship, John. You were one of a kind.

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