Curtis King: Arkansas’ legendary coach

Sometimes you strike a chord with people.

I did that with my weekly newspaper column when I wrote about Coach Curtis King, who was the coach at Augusta High School from 1944-73, compiling a 182-105-12 record in football despite annually playing larger schools such as Batesville, Newport and Searcy. King also coached boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and track while doing whatever else needed doing around the east Arkansas school.

He touched the lives of hundreds of former students, and I’ve heard from many of them this week.

I chose to write about Coach King this week because of the huge amount of national media coverage about the fact that Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn spent much of his career as a high school coach in Arkansas.

As I pointed out in the column, high school coaches are an important part of the fabric of this state. Start talking to Arkansans and you’ll find a lot of them who will tell you that outside of their parents, the people who had the most influence on them were high school coaches.

King died in October 1980 but is still remembered fondly.

I closed the column this way: “Gus Malzahn often tells interviewers that he comes from the high school coaching tree in Arkansas. For years, Augusta’s Curtis King was the base of that tree.”

I want to share a couple of things that I didn’t have room for in the newspaper column.

First, some quotes from a story Heber Taylor did on King for the Three Rivers Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in April 1997.

Next, some memories from longtime Little Rock businessman and lobbyist Bill Brady, who played for King at Augusta.

This from the newspaper story of 17 years ago: “He was a natural as a teacher. Although small (5-7 and about 160 pounds), he had a booming voice and a presence that demanded respect. Former students say he would throw an eraser or a piece of chalk at a recalcitrant student.

“He might have the class sing the math principles he was teaching.

“He used the Bible to back up his quest for student achievement. A favorite statement was ‘woe be unto him that does not get his homework, for there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

“To emphasize the mathematical formula for determining a circle’s circumference, he had his wife bake a special pie. He brought it to class covered and asked a student what shape the pie was. When the answer was ’round,’ he took a towel off his square-shaped pie as a reminder: ‘Pie are squared.’

“He was known to kneel beside the desk of an unprepared student and pray, ‘Lord, send your great angels and put some brains in this poor nincompoop’s head.’

“Billy Ray Smith remembers, ‘He would tear you up in class if you didn’t have your lesson.’ But he and other former Augusta athletes all say King was a great teacher.

“Bobby Pearrow, who played as a 135-pound guard in the early 1950s, said: ‘He went to great lengths to help. He gave me a good math background and that benefited me more than any other subject.’ King had such an influence on Pearrow, in fact, that he and his wife named their son Curtis after the coach.

“Smith and his cousin, Boots Simmons, who also played tackle for Augusta, told about King making them come to the front of the class for a spanking with a book. ‘He wouldn’t hurt you much, but he could sure scare you,’ Smith says.

“In 1978, Suzy Potter Lawler, who played basketball at Augusta in the late 1940s, wrote: ‘He not only taught us to work math problems and be good in sports, he taught us how to cope; how to get along in life; how to respect and be respected; how to live and, when necessary, to fight to live with dignity.'”

I’ll never forget how King described his offense during his induction speech at the 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame banquet: “I ran a single wing with an unbalanced coach.”

One of the most famous games of the King years occurred at Pocahontas in 1949 when King learned that the home team was planning to use a white ball with no stripes to blend in with its uniforms. King had a colored ball and told the officials that if Pocahontas used a white ball during the first half, Augusta would use the colored ball that matched its uniforms during the second half. The Pocahontas coach would not agree to the arrangement, and the officials awarded a forfeit to Pocahontas. On appeal, the governing board of high school athletics in the state reversed the decision.

Brady played for what he describes as the worst team King ever coached. He writes: “By any measure, Coach King was one of the finest coaches ever to field a high school team in Arkansas. However, as good as he was, he was not a miracle worker. And thus the Red Devil football team of 1958 stands alone as perhaps the worst team Coach King ever had. I was a member of that team. The 1957 team was a talented one. Ten guys from that team got college scholarship offers. For the 1958 season, we had only three lettermen returning — Larry Wayne Matthews at fullback and linebacker, Robert ‘Roebuck’ Arthurs, who moved from end to quarterback, and me.

“I’ll never forget being in Little Rock with Matthews late in the summer of 1958. He had been in an accident and was either still on crutches or limping pretty badly from having had his leg messed up. We wandered into Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock, just looking around and killing time. There was Coach King, talking with some of his fellow coaches and buddies. When he saw us, he called us over and began to tell all of the other guys just how bad it was going to be for the Red Devils. He pointed out that we were exactly two-thirds of his total returning lettermen. Then, he pointed out that Matthews was a ‘cripple,’ having been in an accident a month or so earlier.

“He pulled me to the front of the group and said: ‘Right here is my right halfback. He may be small, but he sure is slow.’ I had never heard that before, and we all had a good laugh. It was true. I was small at 144 pounds, and I was anything but fast. Well, coach was prophetic. We were awful in 1958, winning only one game, the homecoming game against Cotton Plant. He coached his heart out, but he couldn’t work miracles with an undersized bunch of guys who had made up the B team the previous year. We couldn’t get it together, no matter how hard we tried or how many trick plays we ran. During halftime of one game, he didn’t even want to come into the dressing room with us to give a halftime talk. It must have been the absolute low point in his otherwise stellar career.

“I think that we all learned a lot that night. I know I did. Somehow we pulled it together for him. We went back out onto the field and played solid, error-free football against a superior Trumann team. We didn’t win the game, but we did OK that night. I think Coach King was proud of the effort.

“Coach King told me one day when we were fishing on the bayou south of Gregory that he felt he hadn’t done a good job of coaching that year. I reminded him that he didn’t have much to work with and that perhaps we should be proud of that lone victory over Cotton Plant. We discussed the fact that sometimes you can learn more and develop more in the way of character in defeat than you can in victory. I’ve never forgotten how bitter those defeats were that year, how sweet that one victory was and how much respect I had for Coach King during both the great season of 1957 and the sorry season of 1958. Next to my parents, he was the most influential man in my life. I will forever be grateful for having known him. And he taught me some pretty good math, too.”

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