My timing was good.
I was just returning to my office Tuesday afternoon following a meeting on the other side of the Arkansas River when I ran into longtime family friend George Baker in the parking lot.
Coach Baker had been to my office to deliver me an autographed copy of his new book, “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse.”
The book is a tribute to the late Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter, one of the most colorful, quotable men to ever coach in this state.
You can order the book online by going to www.georgebakerauthor.com.
I’ve often written how fortunate I was to grow up when I did, where I did. My father was in the sporting goods business in Arkadelphia, and our closest family friends, hunting companions and fishing companions tended to be the coaches at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University.
At Ouachita, there were giants such as Bill Vining, Buddy Benson, Bob Gravett and Jake Shambarger.
At Henderson, there were giants such as Duke Wells, Jim Mack Sawyer, Sporty Carpenter, Don Dyer, Clyde Berry, Billy Bock and Bobby Reese.
There were strong, talented women who were, in retrospect, true pioneers in the field of women’s sports — Carolyn Moffatt and Tona Wright at Ouachita and Delores Brumfield White, Betty Wallace and Jane Sevier at Henderson.
What a time, what a group of coaches.
Coach Carpenter had nicknames for almost everyone. I was Rexall.
To this day, I love it when an old friend knows to call me Rexall.
And, to this day, I find myself telling “Sporty stories” on an almost daily basis.
I’m so glad Coach Baker finished this book. It brings back a lot of memories.
“This book has been a labor of love that, in retrospect, came easy to me,” Coach 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 is written by Jim Bailey, the sportswriter I grew up wanting to be.
Living in Arkadelphia, I lived and breathed Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference sports, and Jim chronicled the AIC for the Arkansas Gazette, the newspaper that was in our driveway each morning.
Jim 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 mule mascot after Henderson beat SAU. I guest 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.’”
Jim adds: “I met Sporty 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 peole to underestimate him,’ Wells said a few years later when the Reddies were pretty much dismantling the AIC. ‘But he never fooled me.’
“Carpenter was head coach for 19 seasons, 1971-89. His first two years were rebuilding chores. His teams went 119-76-5 with five conference titles.”
Jim writes that by the 1989 season, Coach Carpenter was “desperately ill, even to a layman’s eye. He coached the team that fall, though.”
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.”
I was worried when I became the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald as a college freshman. Anyone connected with the rivalry between Ouachita and Henderson knows how heated it is. It’s the small college version of Alabama-Auburn. People in Arkadelphia live it 365 days a year.
As sports editor, I covered both schools, and I was determined to do it well. In a small town where everyone knows each other, folks knew I had bled purple and gold since birth. I had grown up one block from Ouachita’s football field, running the sidelines at Tiger games since I was old enough to walk.
I was a student at Ouachita. I was part of the Ouachita broadcast team on radio. But I was also covering the Reddies.
How was Coach Carpenter going to treat me?
He was, of course, going to treat me like a professional, but not without plenty of good-natured ribbing in the process.
I had written a profile of Ouachita’s head coach, Buddy Benson, in which I pointed out that Benson had played at the University of Arkansas for Bowden Wyatt and that Wyatt had played at the University of Tennessee for the legendary Gen. Robert Neyland. That, I contended, made Benson a direct football descendant of Gen. Neyland.
Coach Carpenter began referring to Coach Benson as The General.
Each time I would show up at a Henderson practice, Coach Carpenter would say something along the lines of: “What is The General up to today?” Or “did The General send you over here to spy on us?”
My most memorable moments with Coach Carpenter came when gathering quotes after a game.
Once, after a Reddie tailback had fumbled late in a crucial game at home, Coach Carpenter described him to me as a “triple threat — a threat to the opposition, a threat to us and a threat to himself.”
I wasn’t there for the famous game in Monticello in 1977 when Coach Carpenter stated that “lightning struck the outhouse and we were in it.”
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.”
I was there four years later when the Boll Weevils again upset a nationally ranked Henderson team.
In fact, Henderson was 7-0 coming into the game and ranked No. 1 nationally in the NAIA.
UAM won, 27-16.
The Reddies would end up losing three games that fall.
Coach Carpenter told me after the loss to the Boll Weevils: “Rexall, it was a total waste of time. We would have been better off to stay home, parch peanuts and watch Barbara Mandrell on the TV.”
My close friend Mike Dugan of Hot Springs spent a decade as Henderson’s sports information director. He tells this story: “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 wonderful, warm side to a man I already knew had a big heart.”
Coach Baker says, “My journey with R.L. ‘Sporty’ Carpenter began in July 1974 and ended with his death in February 1990. What a trip.”
I attended his funeral in 1990 at Arkansas Hall on the Henderson campus. Yes, I’m a Ouachita man to the core. Yet as they rolled his casket down the aisle and the organ played the slow version of “Old Reddie Spirit,” I cried like a baby.
He was quite a man. I miss him still.
Thanks, Coach Baker, for bringing him back to life with “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse.”