This is the second in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:
John Outlaw became an icon at an early age.
He was only 25 years old in the spring of 1979 when the Arkadelphia School Board hired him as the head football coach at Arkadelphia High School. Twice before during the decade of the 1970s, Arkadelphia had made it to state championship games. Favored Arkadelphia teams were upset by Stuttgart in 1970 and Mena in 1976.
It would take a wiry, intense Ozark native to get the school its first state championship. Outlaw did it in his first year as a head coach.
Outlaw went on to compile a record of 84-20-1 in his nine seasons at Arkadelphia, winning state titles in 1979 and 1987. He then moved to Texas, where he compiled records of 57-21-1 at Sherman and 162-46-1 at Lufkin, giving him a 303-87-3 record as a high school coach. Outlaw achieved his 300th victory on Oct. 6, 2011, against The Woodlands in a game telecast regionally by Fox Sports Southwest.
Outlaw died unexpectedly on the morning of Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, at his home in Lufkin following his morning run. On Friday, March 8, Outlaw will be inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
“If I’ve done anything right in my life, I’ve used the gift God gave me, and that is to serve others,” Outlaw once said.
His players considered him a mentor. His first team at Arkadelphia lost early in the season to Ashdown and didn’t lose again. A victory over a highly ranked Camden High School team (the school no longer exists) convinced Outlaw’s players that they could do something special.
Arkadelphia shut out Alma in the state championship game, 19-0.
The quarterback on that 1979 team was Kerry Garnett. His father, Don Garnett, said after Outlaw’s death: “As a parent, I watched John challenge a group of talented young men to overcome an early loss and go on to win the state championship. 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.”
Kerry Garnett, who now lives in California, said: “I was 17 when I met Coach Outlaw. He was 25. He introduced himself to me at the Goza Junior High gym, where we worked out during the offseason. From the very first conversation I had with Coach Outlaw, I could tell he was a special person. He had this wry smile, a look from the side as if he knew great things were going to happen, even if you didn’t.
“It’s not easy to describe what makes a great leader. We had never won a state championship in football. Coach Outlaw led our football team to a championship by showing us how. I’ll always remember the incredible bounce in his step. He would step us through each running or passing play. Then we would run the plays over and over again at practice. Each snap would be completed. Each handoff would be crisp. Each route would be run with perfect timing. By the time we got to the game, we could execute our plays in our sleep. Coach Outlaw understood and taught us the difference between being good and being champions.”
Kerry Garnett clearly remembers the loss to Ashdown in the second game of the 1979 season and the day after that game: “I had one of my poorest games as a quarterback. I missed two extra points as our placekicker, and we lost by one point. Anyone who has known me will tell you that I’m intensely competitive. I was bitterly disappointed in myself after that game. I felt responsible for the loss, and I knew that I let my teammates down. I also knew I let Coach Outlaw down.
“Coach Outlaw made certain that our team learned from the loss. We had a practice the next morning that was a direct challenge to our team. Coach Outlaw and the rest of our amazing coaches explained that we were going to run 100-yard sprints. We lined up and ran. We continued to run, and the coaches asked who was going to quit. Nobody quit. We didn’t quit on ourselves, we didn’t quit on our teammates, we didn’t quit on our school and we didn’t quit on our coach.
“After that Saturday, our team bonded more closely than ever before. It wasn’t just from running up and down our practice field for hours on a Saturday morning. It was from the belief in us that Coach Outlaw and the rest of our coaches communicated. We grew up as young men. We went out and won the rest of our games. Words cannot adequately express my love and appreciation for Coach Outlaw. There are a few people you meet in a lifetime who make a profound difference in your life and the type of person you become. Coach Outlaw was one of those people. He loved his players. We loved him. We will never forget what he taught us.”
As a player, Outlaw had been a safety at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where he played from 1973-75 for Coach Ken Stephens. Outlaw was a graduate assistant for one season at UCA, and then Stephens hired him as a full-time assistant.
“He was a heck of a coach,” Stephens said. “All he did was win.”
Outlaw’s defensive coordinator on that 1979 state championship team was John Thompson, now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.
“He touched so many lives,” Thompson said. “The old boy was unique in so many ways, but he had a magic. He had a dadgum magic about him. Players loved him. He just had a way with those guys, and they turned into good people. That’s just the way he was. He could get to those guys and get them to believe.”
Outlaw never had a losing season at Arkadelphia. His 1987 team went 14-0 and was the first team from a lower classification to be ranked first overall in all of the state’s high school football polls. Arkadelphia also was the first Arkansas team to be ranked in the USA Today Super 25. The Badgers finished the season ranked No. 22 nationally.
The desire to see if he could win at the highest levels in Texas led Outlaw to Sherman for the 1988 season. After seven seasons there, Outlaw moved to Lufkin in 1995 and became the winningest coach in school history. In 2001, the Panthers won a state championship in 5A, the largest classification in Texas. Lufkin, led by quarterback Reggie McNeal, finished 15-1 that season. Outlaw’s final Lufkin team in 2011 won a district championship and finished 9-2. Dez Bryant, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, was among those who played for Outlaw at Lufkin.
Doug Rice was one of the best high school linemen in the country when he played for Outlaw at Arkadelphia. Rice, who went on to play college football at SMU and now lives in Texas, said of his former coach: “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 comitment 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.”
Bob Gentry, who played quarterback for Outlaw at Arkadelphia, says some of the lessons he learned from Outlaw were:
— “This is not just about winning football, it’s about preparing you for life as good people.”
— “Preparation is the most important thing. For football, that means being in better shape than the other team, and it means playing mistake free through careful and thorough preparation.”
— “Good luck is not a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover. It is being prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you and not providing those opportunities to the other team.”
— “Fairness to and respect for your coaches, teammates and on-field opponents is not negotiable.”
— “When the hay is in the barn, it’s time to stop worrying and play with confidence and joy in your heart. The scoreboard will take care of itself.”
“John Outlaw had the gift of molding young men with potential into a championship team,” said former Arkadelphia banker Ed Snider. “He was fair but demanding. He gave all-out effort, and he expected the same from his players and students. It was our pleasure to have two sons who learned some valuable life lessons under the shrill whistle that hung from his neck. Few of his followers were ever anything but achievers. They were winners. His example made the entire town swell with pride, and we all benefited.”