Lacewell: A bug all his life

Larry Lacewell is proud to say that he has always been a bug.

He was a Chigger and a Redbug while growing up at Fordyce.

And then he played college football at Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), where he was a Boll Weevil.

You’ve probably heard him on those radio ads for Delta Pest Control.

The news last month was sudden and shocking: At age 79, Lacewell had suffered a severe stroke at his home in Jonesboro and was battling for his life in the intensive care unit of St. Bernards Medical Center at Jonesboro.

Lacewell, however, has always been a fighter. He survived and is now undergoing rehabilitation in Chicago.

Lacewell was born Feb. 12, 1937, in Fordyce. It was during the Great Depression, and times were tough in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Lacewell’s father had grown up with Paul “Bear” Bryant, and the two men remained friends. It was the Bryant connection that allowed Lacewell to get a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Alabama for the 1959 season.

Lacwell returned home to Arkansas in 1960 for his first full-time job, coaching the freshmen football players at what’s now Arkansas State University. He went back to Monticello to coach the defense at his alma mater in 1962 and then began climbing up the coaching ladder as a defensive assistant — Kilgore Junior College in Texas (which won a national junior college championship in 1964 when he was there), Oklahoma, Wichita State, Iowa State.

In a 1995 story for D Magazine in Dallas, Skip Bayless chronicled how the paths of Lacewell, Barry Switzer (a Crossett native), Jerry Jones (a North Little Rock native) and Jimmy Johnson (a University of Arkansas graduate) crossed through the decades: “Switzer and Lacewell competed against each other in sports. Switzer, says Lacewell, went on to play football in ‘the big city,’ in Fayetteville at the University of Arkansas. But Switzer couldn’t stay away from his roots, sometimes hitchhiking to Monticello to hang around with Lacewell. … The paths crossed, the ties bound.

“At Arkansas, Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson were coached by Switzer. Later, while Jones went off to make his first million, Johnson began his coaching career as a high school assistant in Picayune, Miss. Meanwhile, Lacwell had become defensive coordinator at Wichita State and needed an assistant. Switzer recommended Johnson, who worked under Lacewell at Wichita State, then followed him to Iowa State (where Johnson was best man in Lacewell’s wedding) and on to Oklahoma, where Lacewell was defensive coordinator to Switzer’s offensive coordinator. When head coach Chuck Fairbanks left for New England and the NFL, he recommended Switzer over Johnson as his successor.

“Johnson’s first head coaching job was at Oklahoma State, where he didn’t have the talent to beat Switzer’s OU in five tries. But after Johnson took the University of Miami job in 1984, he was 3-0 against Switzer. Meanwhile, Switzer and Lacwell had a falling out, and Lacewell eventually became head coach at Arkansas State, then defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Jones, running up the score and the millions in oil and gas, kept in touch with Johnson and Switzer, who after he was fired in 1989 became something of an entrepreneur himself, investing in some 80 companies.”

As the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Lacewell reportedly was the highest-paid assistant coach in the country. He even had his own television show. After the falling out with Switzer, Lacwell served as a volunteer adviser to the Arkansas State program in 1978 before being named the school’s head coach in 1979. His first five teams at ASU went 4-7, 2-9, 6-5, 5-6 and 5-5-1. Then the Indians went on a run that saw them go 8-4-1 in 1984 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs), 9-4 in 1985 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs again), 12-2-1 in 1986 (advancing to the 1-AA title game) and 8-4-1 in 1987 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs).

One of my favorite Lacewell stories concerns his scheduling a game against what turned out to be Bryant’s final team at Alabama in 1982. Lacwell was trying to build the ASU program and needed the guaranteed payout Alabama could offer.

Bryant, Lacewell and the late Logan Young of Memphis (a businessman and bon vivant who was close to both programs) were in Las Vegas for some rest and relaxation, and Bryant happened to mention over drinks late one night that he had an open date he needed to fill.

“Why don’t you play Larry’s team?” Young asked.

“Yeah, coach, that would be great for us,” Lacewell chimed in.

After much urging, a tired Bryant agreed to the game. Young made the two men shake on it.

The next morning, as they went to the airport, Bryant delivered the bad news.

“Larry, I was not thinking straight last night and agreed to something I shouldn’t have agreed to,” Bryant said. “I’ve known you since the day you were born, and I’ve always been a man of my word. But I just can’t do it.”

“Come on coach, we need this game,” Lacewell responded.

Bryant said: “Larry, I can’t play Monticello. My folks would string me up.”

Lacewell exclaimed: “Coach, I’m not at Monticello! That’s where I played! I’m at Arkansas State!”

The game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham in October 1982.

While his team warmed up, Bryant would lean against a goalpost as dozens of photographers took his photo.

Lacewell went out to stand by Bryant that day but didn’t say anything.

Finally, the towering Bryant looked down at the much shorter Lacewell.

“You’re scared, aren’t you? “Bryant asked.

“Yes sir, coach, I am,” Lacewell answered.

Bryant smiled and said, “Hell, you ought to be.”

Alabama won, 34-7. Bryant could have made it much worse, but you don’t pick on old family friends.

In 1986, I had left my job as the assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat to become the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

ASU defeated Sam Houston State, 48-7, in the first game of the 1-AA playoffs on a Saturday.

My phone on Capitol Hill in Washington rang the following Monday. It was Wally Hall, the newspaper’s sports editor.

“Do you want to write sports one more time?” he asked. “Arkansas State is going to Delaware for the second round, and it would be cheaper for you to drive over there from Washington than to have me fly someone up for the game.”

I jumped at the opportunity.

As I checked into my hotel in Delaware the following Friday evening, I ran into Larry Lacewell and Logan Young, who invited me to dinner with them. Arkansas State won the next afternoon, 55-14, and later lost by a score of 48-21 to Georgia Southern in the national championship game at Tacoma, Wash.

Lacewell’s final two teams at Arkansas State went 5-6 in 1988-89, and Lacewell took a job as the defensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee for the 1990 and 1991 seasons. In 1992, his old friends Johnson and Jones hired him as the scouting director for the Dallas Cowboys. He remained in Dallas until 2004.

At a 1984 coaches’ convention in Dallas, Lacewell had urged Johnson to leave Oklahoma State for Miami.

“Jimmy asked me what I thought he should do,” Lacewell said in an interview years later. “I said, ‘Jimmy, have you ever beaten Oklahoma or Nebraska?’ I knew the answer. Then I said, ‘Sooner or later, your alumni are going to figure out that you ain’t beat them. Have you won a national championship? You can win one at Miami.'”

Lacewell became a bit of a fixture in Dallas. In an address to the Little Rock Touchdown Club after retiring from the Cowboys, he said: “I left the Cowboys due to illness and fatigue. Bill Parcells was sick and tired of me.”

Lacewell, though, remained a trusted adviser to Jones. Many say it was Lacewell who helped talk Jones into hiring Switzer in 1994 when Jones and Johnson fell out despite two consecutive Super Bowl wins for the Cowboys.

Lacewell told Bayless: “I honestly believe if I’d said it just wouldn’t work, he wouldn’t be here. But Jerry basically asked me, ‘Will he screw it up?’ and I said, ‘No, he will not screw it up.'”

Bayless wrote: “Originally, says Lacewell, Johnson wanted him to serve as a buffer between Johnson and Jones. Yet Johnson wanted Lacewell to be a loyal buffer. And Johnson, it appeared, thought Lacewell was siding more and more with Jones, who spent more and more time conferring and socializing with Lacewell.

“Says Jones: ‘Larry influenced my decision (to part with) Jimmy without saying a word. All I had to do was observe the way Jimmy began to treat Larry after Jimmy had been the best man in his wedding.’ The flip condescension and the arrogant insensitivity grated on Jones. The Johnson-Lacewell relationship grew so strained that Lacewell refused to spend much time around training-camp practices before the 1993 season. … Yet when Jones fired Johnson, Lacewell went from Johnson’s frying pan back into an old line of fire. Talk about mixed emotions.

“It had been a long time since it happened, about 16 years, and maturity and a deeper spiritual awareness have given Lacewell a better perspective on why it happened. But it did happen, and suddenly Lacewell was faced with having to work closely with the childhood friend (Switzer) who had an affair with his wife.”

Bayless went on to write: “The afternoon Switzer’s hiring was announced, Lacewell told me, ‘The good Lord put us on the earth to forgive and forget.’ Lacewell has forgiven the affair but can’t completely forget. He and Switzer have worked productively, mostly because of their professional respect for each other. Switzer, who leans heavily on Lacewell’s advice, says, ‘Larry Lacewell knows as much about this game as anyone I’ve ever been around.’

“Around the office, he and Lacewell can still laugh and tell stories, like the time in an Oklahoma City airport bar that Switzer decked a guy for making fun of Lacewell’s shoes. But Lacewell draws the line at running with Switzer after hours as they once did. ‘I have different priorities now,’ Lacewell says. ‘My family is more important to me.'”

Lacewell was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He’s a member of the Hall of Honor and the Ring of Honor at Arkansas State. He’s also in the UAM Sports Hall of Fame.

After returning to Arkansas, Lacewell and his wife divided their time between homes at Jonesboro and Hot Springs. He was a fixture at Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame events and often commented on my Facebook page.

Asked about Jerry Jones, Lacewell told The Oklahoman several years ago: “Jerry is probably the most remarkable person I’ve ever been around. He’s the eternal optimist. I’ve never seen anyone like him in my entire life. The world can be falling apart, and he would think the sun is shining. He’s great. He’s a brilliant person. People keep saying the Cowboys need to hire a football man. Jerry has been in the business more than 20 years. Good Lord, I have to believe he’s just as much a football man as Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt after 20 years. Jerry doesn’t get enough credit because he goes on the sidelines and talks as much as he does.”

Of Jimmy Johnson, Lacewell said: “Jimmy was an extremely smart, calculated person who knew what he wanted and how to get there. Jimmy frankly was lucky the year he had 500 draft choices following the trade with the Vikings. That’s hard to screw up when you have that many picks. But Jimmy had an eye for talent. No doubt, when he left it hurt us. I was still learning what I was doing. Gradually, we all improved as a scouting department.”

Lacewell remembers the 1966 season at Oklahoma fondly.

“I coached the freshman team,” he told the Oklahoma City newspaper. “We played real games. I was the head coach. I was such a good coach I had Steve Owens on that freshman team, and Kansas State beat us. They hadn’t beaten anybody. I thought I was a big shot coach and was tired of coaching only the freshmen. I stupidly left for Wichita State. Fortunately they hired me back a few years later.”

He called the chance to return to Oklahoma in 1969 the greatest thing to ever happen to him.

“Other than 1970, when they wanted to fire all of us, from 1971 on it was an incredible run,” Lacewell told The Oklahoman. “I came from a small town in Arkansas. To suddenly be a big shot and have the only television assistant coach’s show in the country, drive a Cadillac and coach a great defense was a thrill. I was such a good coach I made the Selmons great, Rod Shoate great, Randy Hughes great. It was amazing how great I was. Seriously, we had such terrific players that I feel blessed to have coached them.

“I’ll always be thankful to Barry because he saved all of our jobs in 1970 when we went to the Wishbone. Barry studied the Wishbone so hard and knew it so well that helped us get to where we needed to be. Barry never gets enough credit for being the one who helped get the program rolling again. Everyone knows Barry and I had our problems, but it wasn’t quite what people thought. But it wasn’t good. At the same time, I don’t believe you walk away from a relationship where you could use the word ‘love’ to describe how much we respected one another. We had known each other since I was in the eighth grade. We came from similar backgrounds. We had great admiration for each other. It was pretty easy to repair our friendship. It has flourished over the years.”

Best wishes to Larry Lacewell, a colorful Arkansan if there ever were one, as he recovers from his stroke.

Post to Twitter