Newport-Batesville: A thing of the past?

I often find myself on the road on autumn Saturdays, driving to and from Ouachita football games.

I listen to college games on the radio, everything from the LSU Tigers on WWL-AM to the Iowa Hawkeyes on WHO-AM. When the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy listening to Bill Keedy do the color on Arkansas State University football broadcasts. Coach Keedy’s passion for the Red Wolves and for the game of football itself is contagious.

“I just sit up there in the booth and try to explain football to the listeners in a way I think they can understand,” Keedy told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Three Rivers edition (a product of the newspaper’s promotions department) a couple of years ago. “Broadcasting has given me the chance to be around football, a game that I love.”

Keedy, an Arkansas State graduate, is in his 12th year as a part of the school’s broadcast crew. In Newport, though, he’s not known as a broadcaster. He’s instead known as one of the best high school football coaches ever.

Keedy had a successful run as the head coach at Paragould High School in the early 1970s. Following the 1975 season, he received a large raise to go to Sylvan Hills. But after just one season as the head coach there, he returned to his hometown of Newport in 1977.

Keedy compiled a 175-48-3 record at Newport before retiring. His overall record as a head coach was 199-55-4.

He was the district coach of the year 17 times, and his teams reached the playoffs 19 times.

Newport won state championships under his leadership in 1981 and 1991. Greyhound teams also reached the championship games of 1988 and 1989. The Greyhounds made it as far as the semifinals eight times.

Keedy later was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

It made me sad — very sad — when I heard that Coach Keedy had tears in his eyes Wednesday night during a special meeting of the Newport School Board. The school’s administration has decided to end one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the state — Newport vs. Batesville.

They’ve met 92 times through the decades.

For years, the game was played on Thanksgiving Day. My father was the head coach at Newport for the 1948, 1949 and 1950 seasons. Years later, I would pull out the old “Lakeside” yearbooks he kept at our home and marvel at the size of the crowds for those games. The black-and-white photos told the story.

This was a big deal.

Batesville has grown steadily through the years as a college town in the Ozark footballs. Like many Delta towns, Newport has lost population and suffered economically.

Still, it’s amazing that Newport School District administrators would so quickly end a tradition that dates back almost a century.

“A lot of schools have lost their tradition, but we have found a way to maintain ours,” Keedy told the school board members. “Don’t let us lose our tradition. If we continue to lose kids, then people, there will be a time to holler calf-rope. I just don’t think that time is now. I was told we had 56 kids out for spring football, and we dress around 35 right now. Fifty-six kids are how many kids Searcy has, and they beat Batesville.”

Keedy said of current Greyhound coach Jeromy Poole: “We didn’t hire him to drop Batesville, we hired him to beat Batesville, and I meant that as a compliment. I think he is a fine, energetic young man who has the best for this program in mind. I think he is trying to build this program back up, and I think he can do it.”

Keedy, like most folks in Newport, was blindsided by the decision to end a treasured northeast Arkansas tradition.

“I have talked to many people who feel the way I do,” he said. “Without this coming before the school board or without us having any knowledge of this, something is just not right. The time for this was in June when we could have had time to evaluate and prepare and maybe come up with a compromise.”

The board took no action Wednesday.

Coach Keedy’s son, Billy Keedy, announced his resignation from the school board because of the strain it was causing him.

“I have watched as minor issues have become major problems,” he said.

So will the administrators — some of whom are still relatively new to Jackson County and lacking any sense of history and place, change their minds?

“It’s a tradition that’s maybe the oldest in the state,” the elder Keedy said. “The traditional game against Batesville has always been the game. Back in the old days, it didn’t matter if you lost every game. If you beat Batesville, you had a successful season.

“I found out through the rumor mill and then found out from the Batesville paper. Our school board was not aware of this taking place.”

“We are not out to do away with the rivalry,” the school’s superintendent, Larry Bennett, claimed in an interview with KAIT-TV in Jonesboro. “It’s just that we need to regroup so that we can be competitive, and there are going to be people who disagree with that. It’s just a numbers game and safety. They’ve got two to three times the number of student-athletes that we have.”

Yet what about the fabric of the community — its history, its traditions?

Were those things even taken into consideration?

Were the players asked their opinions?

“What I would have loved to see happen is maybe have a compromise,” Coach Keedy said. “Give us two more years to try and build our numbers up. If Batesville continues to grow and Newport continues to decline, then I think you have to seriously consider dropping.”

About 100 people attended Wednesday night’s special board meeting.

John Pennington, who once played for the Greyhounds, put it this way: “It’s part of what makes small town America great. Friday night in America. Batesville vs. Newport. It’s what Friday night in America is all about. It’s a big deal, and it’s one of the bigger gate receipts for both schools. … It’s important.”

At least it used to be important.

With the decline in population in large parts of south and east Arkansas, we’ve seen numerous high school football programs become mere shadows of their former selves — Crossett, Forrest City, Marianna and Hughes to name a few.

Camden High School — once the home of the mighty Panthers — no longer even exists.

But is it wrong for a smaller school such as Newport to play a larger school such as Batesville, to try to overcome the odds one Friday night each year and occasionally pull an upset?

No Newport-Batesville football game?

We might as well just declare that Arkansas can no longer compete in football with Alabama, that the Razorbacks should stop trying to beat Kentucky in basketball and that we’ve called off duck season while we’re at it since those mallards are so hard to bring down with steel shot.

Let’s also call up St. Louis and tell the Cardinals to forfeit to the Phillies since the pundits don’t think they can win that series.

If my dad were still around, he would be as sad as Coach Keedy.

19 Responses to “Newport-Batesville: A thing of the past?”

  1. Delta says:

    Interesting piece. I grew up in, and played for Stuttgart, where we had a cross county rivalry with DeWitt. I think we beat them most of the time, but they always came to play. I don’t think that one is going on these days, which is a shame. I wound up becoming good friends with some of those guys after playing against them.

  2. Jim Brownd says:

    I player with Billy when he was a sophomore on a team that really wanted to win a game, however on Thanksgiving 1960 we came close to beating Batesville. No matter what the record, people loved to go back and forth to the “Newport-Batesville Thanksgiving game”. It saddens me to think anyone would pull the plug on such a special event.

  3. Michael Simons says:

    SAD almost as sad as when Holly Grove dropped Football in 1985/86 and when Gillett and St Charles closed the doors.

  4. Larry I. says:

    Great article Rex! I played for the Greyhounds in the early 1980s and there was no bigger game on the schedule than the one with the Pioneers. Ironically, when Newport was hammering Batesville on an annual basis in the 1980s and 1990s, Batesville administrators didn’t pull the plug on the series because they couldn’t compete. Batesville went to work and built a program that could compete. Newport needs to do the same ….. It truly is one of the great rivalaries in the state and should be preserved.

  5. Peggy says:

    Check out the “Save the Newport vs. Batesville Rivalry” Facebook page to see how some of the Newport Folks feel about the issue.

  6. Former Player says:

    I understand tradition, but I think what you will find interesting is that if you ask any Greyhound players from the past 5 years, very few of them will rank playing Batesville in the top 5 indicators of success for a season. You can view that however you want, but fact is when a school has 3 times as many players it is a safety hazard. Also, another obvious reason to why things have changed, is that this rivalry always had conference implications. The game meant something, not just as a “tradition,” but tangible implications on a season`s success. It is easy to ignore everything and say keep tradition when you are not the one`s suiting up, or the coaches who are trying to make it to the playoffs having to just hope that a team with 3 times as many players does not injure some of our kids (and we had some pretty badly banged up from this year`s game). The sad part of this is not that the ending of a rivalry, because if we were to all be honest with ourselves this has not been a rivalry in 10 years, when we changed conferences. The sad part is that many people are having to come to the realization that things have changed. Fact is, the changed has already happened. Now it is either adapt or let the change kill you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The players from the last five years don’t count Batesville as an important game because they haven’t felt the joy of BEATING Batesville.

  8. Former Player says:

    I beat Batesville my Junior year (less than 5 years ago) and we played them close my senior year. If I was to rank the important and meaningful wins during my time playing, that game wouldnt even be in the top 5. It had no implications on us making the playoffs. No implications on us winning a conference championship. Our rivals were always Stuttgart, Osceola, Dollarway, and Lonoke. Because those games had tangible meaning. To get to where we wanted to go, we had to beat those teams. In a perfect world, I would love to keep the game, but not at the risk of a player`s health. That is selfish.

  9. Former Player says:

    *just wanted to correct myself and say I did not beat Batesville. We as a team beat Batesville.

  10. Realist says:

    The size of team and players is not valid argument as a former player previously mentioned. Anytime you engage in contact sports you assume the risk of injury as one of Newport’s players was injured and out for the season in last week’s game against Stuttgart, a team that is in Newport’s conference. If we as individuals, as team players, and as a community fail to rise to the occasion of a challenge, we hope can we have to reach or surpass goals that make us be better than who we are. If we succumb to the status quo and refuse to face strong odds to overcome, what good are we?
    Thank you, Rex, for this well written article. Traditions like this are much more than a football game, the significance to the communities involved is invaluable.

  11. Teacher says:

    As a teacher from Newport, our administrators have insisted we always have high expectations for our students academically so why wouldn’t we in athletics as well? What message are we sending to our students…to have perseverance when the going gets tough or to give up? What happened to the Greyhound pride and the days we cheered, “We don’t take no stuff from you…and your Mama too”?

  12. Mary Kathryn Keedy says:

    If we can’t beat them, drop them. Replace them on the schedule with a weak team that will not help them prepare for conference games. Be sure to pick a no-name, small team that will fail to excite the fans. Shouldn’t the team strive to do better. This isn’t the BCS! Losing will not disqualify, or damage the goal of winning state. Playing some no-name team that you know you will beat- is that the plan? Beating Batesville after a four year drought would inspire the team, the fans, and the community. Newport will never be revived as long as they don’t strive to be better!

  13. Don Free says:

    Rex this was a great article I had hear that Bill was going to speak to the Board and am glad he did. I graduated in 64 and still remember the game in my head we got beat that year but was still a good game. This really seems to be a strange way to make the team better. I hope they will decide not do this but know Board of Education doesn’t always look at the whole picture.
    Don Free
    Class of “64”

  14. Student of NHS says:

    This was a great article and had many great points, but what really needs to be stated is the facts. Batesville will be the top 5A school next year, while we are gradually, but surely, becoming the smallest 4A school in the state. Our guys put up a great fight this year against Batesville, however, the loss was inevitable with their outnumbering team. One of our players have stated, that they hate playing Batesville each year because they are going in to lose each game. That is what most players think and what confidence does it give a team to start off a season 0-1 every year. Coach Poole wants to move in a positive direction and give our students a chance each year with teams that are evenly matched. And as a student, I fully support him and his staff.

  15. former redskin player 1989 says:

    Coming from a Redskin who played Newport, tradition is tradition. Billy Warren would not back down from uneven odds, nor would Elmer McKissic. Nor would Benny “she still cookin away” Reynolds. I knew coach Keedy, I respect him, his family, and the NEWPORT GREYHOUNDS. I played against them at Pocahontas, and I played against great Newport players. Regarding number of players, Newport never had a problem lining up on the field with 111 players versus other schools who had 20-30 players at most. The “former player” who commented against such rivalry, needs to understand, things aren’t given to you. You earn them. MKK had it right… who bothers to be motivated for a cupcake. Play tradition, play Batesville. Football is nto a game for boys, its a game for men.. Regardles how many players Batesville currently has, it is still 11vs11. (and occasionally 12, lol.) In his opinion, u play and win or u stop playing to avoid a loss. Spoken like a true child. Rise to the challenge, answer the call. People have become too soft. Tradition rings on…

  16. Cody McClure says:

    I am a former Batesville Pioneer who graduated in 2011. I am PROUD to be a member of one of very few Batesville classes to never lose to Newport. I don’t remember all the scores in my high school games, but I sure remember the Newport scores. 24-14 my sophmore year, 36-20 my junior year, and 41-14 my senior year. Those are three of my favorite wins, because of what they meant to the community. As a recent player, I can tell you that the rivalry still existed in those years, and it was a very important game to us. We were used to kicking off each season with Newport, and the White River Bowl trophy was on the line. My junior year, someone posted a “This is Greyhound Country” sign on in front of our high school. After we won, we gave the sign back under the visitor locker room door with a giant “36-20” on the front in sharpie marker. My senior year, our coaches posted several newspaper articles identifying Artez Brown as Superman all over the fieldhouse to inspire us for the game. Point being, this rivalry still means a lot and it should be restored. From a Batesville standpoint, we have enjoyed mostly success in the game in the last decade, but we were frequently reminded of the importance of the game and the fact that Newport once beat us 23 years in a row. I understand that safety is an issue and that the game is changing, but the tradition of this rivalry should also be considered. Most of us here in Batesville were saddened to hear that there would not be a 93rd meeting in the near future. I would like to thank the city of Newport for all the memories in this game, through all the trash talking and fighting, I think for the most part both towns will agree on one thing. That being, that this game should be played again. Go Pioneers.

    Cody McClure,
    Proud member of the 89th, 90th, and 91st White River Bowl winning teams

  17. SaddenedAlumni says:

    All I have to say is that all the years we beat Batesville, they never pulled out, they never quit. There were many years that they were outnumbered and our guys were bigger. Batesville still never pulled out of the game. This is a lot of you know what. Newport should play Batesville forever. That’s just how it is. It’s the very essence of the game. The rivalries. The GAME.

  18. 06Hound says:

    Batesville didn’t “pull out” of the game back when Newport was beating them because they were in conference. They had no choice but to play Newport. I promise if the tables were turned during the past few years and Newport was still beating the crap outta Batesville, they would not keep playing us.

  19. underdog4ever says:

    I am not a native of Newport but I know a lot about football, and much more about growing by overcoming adversity, rising above our handicaps throughout life to achieve our goals, and nothing in life was a better example than football in Jr. High and High School.
    Football is the example that is used here, but the same principle applies to academics, to music, to art, and even to physical appearance, to be successful means practicing and preparing more than most, to be the best only means practice and preparing more than everyone else. Yet we lost that in our culture lately. We have lost the desire to work for our own success and find someone else to blame because we haven’t achieved the expectations of others. The smartest kids aren’t invited to Harvard because it is easy. The geniuses of science come from a Community College. There is no example found in life that the easy safe road taken produced achievement above average.
    Even in the last year that Newport played Batesville, Newport had more talent and potential on the bench than Batesville had starting. Line the two teams up in a contest of speed, Newport wins hands down, The same applies to strength in a weight room, and even in physical size. Newport is a winner hands down, no contest. Batesville has 11 on the field as does Newport, therefore Newport is not the smallest by any math equation that you use. Where Newport has been deficient in the last few years is leadership. In the opening quarter of the last Batesville Game, Newport players strolled onto the field where every Pioneer player ran. You can blame lack of depth when you frequently have too many players on the field, and even more frequently not enough players on the field. Newport had more broken plays than positive yards. there is so much lack of discipline, lack of motivation to win, but there was certainly not a lack of talent which is so obvious when 3 touchdowns are called back for penalties (lack of discipline), or when a second string half back can cut back across field, run through the entire Batesville defense twice and still get a 30 yard gain. The ability has always been there, but there has to be a group of leaders harness that. In Newport there is more poverty than Batesville so there are more children raised in single parent homes, and a single working parent has less time to spend on discipline and direction. But the silver lining is that these single parent children are more apt to be outside playing sports, gaining more agility, more physical fitness, more coordination and speed. But yet Newport has less poverty than Pine Bluff Dollarway, and I think last year’s Dollarway team could have played the largest, best team in the State with a chance to win. Dollarway has always had talent, even in their losing seasons it was a more physical game. But not until recent years have they had a disciplinarian as a coach who has been a TEACHER, a motivator, a second father, and someone who knows that lessons learned best are tough and require work. That leader teaches the individual accomplishment within the team structure and then structure all of these individuals to work together as a single unit where each individual plays a vital role and each individual in turns aids the other. This teacher knows the strength is a bond as a team, and those who rather seek individual accomplishments alone will have his true character tested through physical training where they soon gladly adhere or they voluntarily quit. That is what Dollarway had this past year, a refreshing sight in my 35 years of playing and watching them. And their teacher had to reach out to the kids long before they made it to high school to have that effect, because not so long ago their best talent seldom made it to high school without behavioral issues disqualifying them.
    Batesville is similar but with much less talent. Structure, Discipline, Team Character and Integrity on and off the field will win every time no mater what the score is, and given enough time, tradition and confidence, those lessons become a fabric that is woven into a community. Then with more time, winning on the score board will come naturally, as in years past in Newport. Bill Keedy was one of the greats but he isn’t unique, ask Coach Keedy to tell you about his teachers and coaches. I have no doubt he will admit that his practices and his lessons would borderline illegal cruel and unusual punishment today. Yet that was the generation that knew that hunger and fear of hunger are the core motivators to survival, not just success (literally and metaphorically) Keedy was tough but success requires the roughest, hardest preparation, that is why I think Batesville should have a Keedy Building or Stadium, because it was the beatings by Bill Keedy and his focused, disciplined and prepared Team of Greyhounds, that set the bar for Batesville and their Pioneers to become better and consistently good.
    If you want a better Football Team, you practice and play the best. Hell schedule Jonesboro if you can. Last year watching Newport play and handily beat Nettleton was very exciting, and they have more students than Batesville, thus making the argument of larger and better hurts an invalid argument. Batesville must be rescheduled before a generation forgets the importance and motivation to become better because of the tradition of the rivalry. Most importantly, quitting and walking away because you have been beaten and hurt is certain defeat. For any underdog that has experienced victory will proclaim that pain and exhaustion are only temporary yet makes us stronger and better. But the defeat from quitting is permanent and the internal agony from quitting will haunt you the rest of your life. When it comes to achievement, there ain’t no lottery.

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