LITTLE ROCK – Predicting high-school football games for The Associated Press, the successful formula was about coaches.
The only games staffed were the championships at War Memorial Stadium so, for years, Little Rock Central, Harrison, Fort Smith Southside, Springdale, Barton, Pine Bluff, Wynne, and Cabot were quick picks because Bernie Cox, Tommy Tice, Barry Lunney, Jarrell Williams, Frank McClellan, Marion Glover, Don Campbell, and Mike Malham Jr. were in charge.
It took about half of the 1979 season to pick up on the 25-year-old wunderkind in South Arkansas, but once John Outlaw was identified as another coach who won nine or more every year, Arkadelphia was the choice week in and week out. For nine years, I rode that train and Arkadelphia won 84 of 105 games.
His 1987 team was 14-0 and I could not disagree with AP voters who made the Badgers the No. 1 team in the state, the first time a team from a lower classification held that lofty position.
John Thompson, defensive coordinator at Arkansas State University, was two years behind Outlaw at the University of Central Arkansas. They roomed together when Thompson was a sophomore and Outlaw was a senior and they stayed close.
When Outlaw became the head coach at Arkadelphia, he offered Thompson the position of defensive coordinator. At the time, Thompson was working for his dad, Ralph, the coach at Forrest City, who reminded him that Forrest City was in a higher classification and that Arkadelphia and had never won a state championship.
“Dad said I was crazy,” Thompson said. “I went because of Outlaw, 100 percent. Once you met him and were around him, you never forgot him … one way or the other. He had a magnetism about him.”
Whatever he had going, people around him believed. As soon as he arrived, Outlaw rounded up seven Arkadelphia athletes who had either quit football or been kicked off the team.
The Badgers beat Little Rock Mills in the season opener and then lost to Ashdown by a point. The next day, later labeled “Black Saturday,” Outlaw ordered up 100 40-yard dashes to identify any quitters. Nobody bailed.
“If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Thompson said. “Outlaw could exaggerate.”
Arkadelphia did not lose again that year, pitching a shutout throughout the state playoffs.
Outlaw was demanding, Thompson said, but assistants stuck with him because he treated them so well.
“For … anybody loyal to him, he’d give them everything he had … money, clothes, whatever,” Thompson said. “It was totally unconditional with him.”
He was a character — Brut cologne from the mid-60s, jeans rolled up, big Aviator glasses. “When you were around him, you were going to have fun,” Thompson said.
Almost eight years ago, I drove to Forrest City to hear Outlaw address coaches in town for Thompson’s benefit golf tournament. He explained how his team at Lufkin, Texas, had gone to the spread after years of him being adamant about lining up and running the ball. The stubborn ones, he said, “always thought everybody wanted to play football and then kids started going into the gym and not coming back.”
Outlaw insisted that his coaches be fathers so he refused to schedule meetings after practice and insisted coaches must be gone from the school by noon on Saturday.
He hired his first offensive coordinator after almost 20 years as a head coach and became what he called a manager. His contribution to the game plan was the requirement that Lufkin throw deep at least twice in the first quarter.
“When you take chances on the football field, it shows your kids you are not afraid of losing,” he told the coaches.
His teams at Arkadelphia, Sherman, Texas, and Lufkin only lost 87 times in 393 games. Outlaw, who died suddenly in late 2011, will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on March 8.