Raymond Bright was a success on the football field and the track during his many years as a coach for the Conway School District and for what’s now the University of Central Arkansas.
Bright, who died in June 2008, was an even bigger success off the field. He left behind a legion of friends and admirers.
“When I first received the news that legendary coach Raymond Bright had died, I tried to think of people who loved him who might furnish some kind words for a feature obituary,” David McCollum of Conway’s Log Cabin Democrat wrote the week of Bright’s death. “That got wonderfully complicated because the widening list included just about everybody I know in Conway. It was like I could close my eyes, put my finger on a random page in the phone book and take my pick.
“During 25-plus years here, I don’t know of a more beloved figured in this community, and I mean the kind of ‘take you outside and me and my buddies will totally whip your booty if you even think of saying a derogatory word about Coach Bright’ type of love. He had a large family. He had a larger extended family.”
Bright will be inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 3. Tickets for the annual banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.
Bright is among 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Hall of Fame Class of 2012.
The Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship basketball team.
Bright graduated from what at the time was Arkansas State Teachers College in 1949 and began his coaching career later that year at Conway Junior High School. After two years of coaching football, basketball and track at the junior high level, he was promoted to the job of head football and track coach at Conway High School.
His track teams won district championships for seven consecutive seasons and state championships in 1954 and 1957. The Wampus Cats finished second in the state meet in 1952, 1955 and 1958.
In the fall of 1958, Bright returned to UCA as head track coach and assistant football coach. His track teams won or shared five Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championships in eight years. After winning the AIC in 1962, the Bears placed seventh out of 92 teams in the NAIA national meet. A member of that team, Gerald Cound, won the 880-yard run to become the first Arkansas runner to win an event at the NAIA national meet.
Cound said Bright was respected “not just for winning and losing but for teaching you how to deal with life, how to live life.”
Bright promoted the sport of track and field during the 1950s and 1960s, helping it enter its most popular period in the state. He was one of the first AIC coaches to schedule his teams against out-of-state competition and take his athletes to meets in bordering states. He began holding home meets at night in order to attract larger crowds.
In football, Bright also achieved success at both the high school and college levels. As head football coach at Conway, his teams went 8-2 in 1951, 7-4 in ’52, 6-5 in ’53, 6-4 in ’54, 5-5-1 in ’55, 4-7 in ’56 and 10-1 in ’57. The Wampus Cats won district championships in 1951 and 1957.
At the college level, Bright was UCA’s backfield coach and recruiting coordinator from 1958-64. The Bears had won a total of 13 games in seven years before he joined the staff. During the seven years he was the backfield coach and recruiting coordinator, the Bears were 50-14-2, winning two AIC championships.
Bright became head football coach in 1965. His 1965 and 1966 teams earned shares of the AIC title. He left coaching after the 1971 season and was later UCA’s director of housing, retiring from that job in 1983.
Bright previously was inducted into the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame and the UCA Sports Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was awarded the Elijah Pitts Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Conway Athletic Awards Commission.
“When I think of what he has meant to my life, tears come to my eyes, and I just don’t do that,” said Henry Hawk, a 2006 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. “He could call you an S.O.B. and do it in a way that made you happy.”
Hawk, a Conway native, was an all-state player in football and basketball in high school. He had a successful career as a running back at UCA and later was a high school coach at Conway and North Little Rock.
“I don’t think I would have finished high school if he had not stayed on me,” Hawk said of Bright. “I don’t think I would have gone to college other than because I wanted to be a coach just like him.”
McCollum wrote: “Bright was crusty on the exterior, firm with a loud, gruff voice. That masked a soft heart for people, especially helping young men become the best they could be. … Most of his peers and players he mentored described him as a genius at motivation, a maestro of pushing the right inspirational buttons that struck just the proper chords for every individual.”
“He had a knack for dealing tough love,” said Kenny Smith, a former head football coach at Conway High School. “Every young person is different, and you have to push different buttons. Raymond knew just the right buttons for everybody he coached. Anybody you talked to who played for that man was honored to be one of ‘Raymond’s boys.’ He helped so many people and touched so many people’s lives, it was unbelievable. He made you want to give your best effort because you did not want to disappoint him.”
Smith, who played football for Bright in college, added: “He was tough, he was firm, but we knew that he wasn’t doing anything that was not good for us. Once you were one of ‘Raymond’s boys,’ the bond was phenomenal. And it was not just the All-AIC guys or the first-team guys. It was everybody who put on a uniform. He turned a lot of young adults into men. That was his business. We were all his family.”
Bright’s most talented football player was perhaps Bobby Tiner, who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. Tiner, a Morrilton native, was a four-time All-AIC selection in football and basketball. He piled up more than 6,100 yards of offense in his four years as a quarterback, leading the Bears to two conference championships.
“There was never a finer man to walk the face of this earth,” Tiner said. “The many lives he affected are now affecting thousands of other lives. His legacy will be going on for a long time. I don’t have any idea what it was or how to describe it, but once you came into contact with the man you didn’t want to do anything wrong.”
Tiner, who later had a successful tenure as a high school head football coach at Pulaski Oak Grove, said Bright was an innovator.
“He was so far ahead of his time in football in the mid-60s, it was unreal,” Tiner said. “I don’t know how he came up with some of the stuff he did. I went up to the line of scrimmage with three or four options other than the play I had. For that era, it was unbelievable.”
Of his high school playing days in Morrilton when his Devil Dog teams had to take on Conway, Tiner said: “They whipped us in football, whipped us in basketball and about anything you could play. But when I got to ASTC, I knew why. Y’all had Raymond Bright.”
Bright, a Hope native, served four years in the Navy during World War II. He had not played football in high school.
“The Hope Bobcats were the greatest team in the world, I thought,” Bright once said. “Back then, they had players from Texas and everywhere else. They recruited. I wasn’t big enough. I weighed 110 pounds.”
He was up to 140 pounds after four years in the Navy and decided to play in college.
Buzz Bolding, the former Conway High School athletic director who played football in college for Bright, said Bright wasted no time getting the team’s attention in his first year as head coach.
“Coach Bright gained the respect of all those players in 1965,” Bolding said. “We started that year with 90-something kids and ended up with 40 or 45. But they were 45 dedicated to that program and to that coach. We would do anything in the world for that man beause we knew he would do anything for us. I am truly proud to be called one of ‘Raymond’s boys.”’