This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:
Don Nixon didn’t set out to be one of the state’s best basketball coaches.
In fact, he didn’t plan to be a coach at all.
“I was an accidental coach,” Nixon says. “I was teaching high school science and history at Joe T. Robinson, and the coach left during my first year there. They asked me to step in and take his place. I figured it would be for just a few months. At the end of the summer, they still had not hired a new coach and asked me to do it again. Even then, I thought I would put in a year or two and then move on to something else. Obviously, I never moved on.”
Nixon, who had graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas) in Conway in 1951, went on to a stellar coaching career. He coached four basketball teams — junior high boys, junior high girls, senior high boys and senior high girls — at what’s now Pulaski Robinson from 1952-54 before moving to his high school alma mater at Mabelvale from 1954-59.
After coaching at the junior high level in the Little Rock School District from 1959-67, Nixon coached the boys’ team at Little Rock Central High School for five seasons and the men’s team at UCA from 1972-79. Nixon’s Central Tigers won Class AAAA state championships in 1970 and 1972 along with winning the state’s first overall championship in 1972.
On the evening of Friday, March 8, Nixon will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Nixon was raised in rural Pulaski County, where his father sold spring water and later was in the grocery business. Nixon’s father built Lake Nixon, a 35-acre reservoir that’s now owned by Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church and operated as a day camp and retreat.
“A lot of our grocery customers out there were moonshiners,” Nixon says. “They bought plenty of sugar.”
Nixon attended Lawson Elementary School on Lawson Road through the eighth grade. That’s where he learned the sport of basketball on an outdoor court while also excelling at fast-pitch softball, which was a popular sport in those days. He went from there to Mabelvale High School, where he continued to play basketball and softball.
“We only had one softball loss in four years at Mabelvale,” Nixon says. “I played in the outfield mostly. We had two really good pitchers, which was the key in fast-pitch softball. We also had quality basketball teams.”
Nixon joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. He was stationed in San Diego and later in the South Pacific.
“World War II ended, and they let me go after 14 months,” Nixon says. “I decided to attend Little Rock Junior College (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) on the GI Bill. My goal wasn’t to coach. My goal was to go into business and make some money.”
After two years at LRJC, Nixon went to ASTC in Conway to earn his bachelor’s degree.
“Jobs were hard to get, so I jumped at a teaching position,” Nixon says. “My first contract was for $2,131. That was for the entire school year.”
After taking on the basketball coaching position, Nixon read everything he could get his hands on about famed Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) basketball coach Henry “Hank” Iba.
“He was a tough-nosed coach, and that’s what I wanted to be,” Nixon says. “He also stressed defense. I’ve always believed that defense is the key to the game. That’s probably because I was a much better defensive player than I was a shooter in high school.”
Nixon also was the boys’ and girls’ softball coach at Robinson, which didn’t have football in those days. In 1953, both his senior high boys’ and senior high girls’ basketball teams won county tournaments and conference championships.
“I had a really talented team coming back at Joe T. Robinson when Mabelvale called,” Nixon says. “I thought I would turn things around quickly over there, but it took a little longer than I thought. I then had what was going to be my best team at Mabelvale coming back in 1959. I had worked with a guy named Eugene Keaton, who had moved on to the Little Rock School District. He came out to Lake Nixon, where I worked in the summer, and said he needed to see me. I remember exactly what he said: ‘They sent me out here to hire you.’ He already knew what I was making and quoted me a figure that was quite a bit larger. So I left Mabelvale and went to West Side Junior High in Little Rock in 1959.”
Nixon later would move to Southwest Junior High. There were state championship tournaments for junior high basketball in those days. His 1964-65 West Side team was the state runner-up. His 1966-67 Southwest squad won the state championship.
That’s when Nixon was offered the job of head boys’ basketball coach at the district’s largest school, Little Rock Central. He replaced Jim Cathcart, who moved to Hot Springs High School as athletic director. Nixon’s first team in 1967-68 captured a share of the conference championship. His second team was the state runner-up, losing to North Little Rock in the finals. His third team won the state championship in the spring of 1970, beating Fort Smith Northside.
Jim Bailey wrote in the Arkansas Gazette: “Little Rock Central’s Tigers built a mountain of momentum in the second half late Saturday night in Barton Coliseum, and from its pinnacle, they read a most unlikely final score: Central 75, Fort Smith Northside 48. Going for his fifth state tournament championship, which would have been a record, Northside veteran Gayle Kaundart absorbed perhaps the worst beating of his illustrious career.”
Nixon said of Kaundart (who had won state titles at Northside in 1958, 1959, 1965 and 1968): “The old fox is hard to beat. We knew the only way was to keep the pressure on.”
Nixon’s fourth team at the school was the runner-up to North Little Rock. His fifth team in 1972 won the Class AAAA state championship and the first overall title. Overall tournaments pitting the winners of each classification against each other were held from 1972-92.
“I had a lot of great players at Central,” Nixon says. “You don’t make it to four consecutive state championship games without those kind of players. I had coached many of those boys in junior high, so I knew what I was dealing with.”
UCA Coach Cliff Horton and a member of the school’s board of trustees visited Nixon soon after the Tigers had captured the 1972 overall championship. They convinced Nixon to move to Conway and serve as Horton’s assistant. Nixon was being groomed.
After one year, Horton stepped down as head basketball coach to become the school’s full-time athletic director. Nixon moved up to head coach, taking the Bears to NAIA District 17 championships in 1974 and 1975 and spots in the NAIA national tournament at Kansas City.
Nixon retired at the end of the 1978-79 basketball season and was replaced by Don Dyer, now the winningest basketball coach in both UCA and Henderson State University history. Dyer was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.
“Don was on the floor all of the time,” Dyer says of Nixon. “Whatever he said, that’s how it went — both for his players and the officials. He always had their attention. He was on the job constantly.”
Cliff Garrison, who spent 31 seasons as the head basketball coach at Hendrix College in Conway and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, says the most fitting adjective to describe Nixon is “intense.”
“I always admired how he handled his kids,” Garrison says. “His teams executed on defense as well as any team you would ever see. And they were always disciplined. You have to adjust when you move from the high school level to the college level as a coach, and Don had the ability to adjust. He was just a tremendous competitor.”
Garrison especially remembers an incident when UCA was playing Hendrix in that once-heated Conway basketball rivalry.
“After the game, I went into the dressing room UCA had used, and the trash can was just mangled,” Garrison says. “I later found out that Don had kicked that trash can at halftime and gotten his foot stuck. I think the old Navy man came out in him.”
Dyer, meanwhile, remembers a game when his son Don Paul was young. The younger Dyer had eased up to the door of the dressing room to hear Nixon’s halftime talk.
“Don Paul said to me, ‘Dad, you should have heard the things he was saying,'” Dyer says, laughing.
“I was fortunate enough to have smart players,” Nixon says. “They went on to become doctors, dentists and lawyers. A number of them went into coaching. I often think back to when I started as a coach with our teams sometimes playing on outdoor courts.”
It was quite a career for the man who considers himself an “accidental coach.”