Former coach, AD recalls tales from both sides of the ballOriginally Published September 20, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 19, 2012 at 9:34 a.m.
Tom Farmer, transportation and maintenance director for the Bryant Public Schools, has seen every Salt Bowl played between the Benton High School Panthers and the Bryant High School Hornets. He has ties to both schools featured in the annual game, as he was formerly the football coach at Benton, and the football coach and athletic director at Bryant.
BRYANT On Friday night, an ample percentage of the populations of both Benton and Bryant will make their way to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock for food, fun and a furious battle.
Tom Farmer, transportation and maintenance director for the Bryant Public Schools, has been to all the Salt Bowls played between the Bryant High School Hornets and the Benton High School Panthers, and each time, he said, it has been a thrill.
“It’s an amazing experience to watch people come in, some dressed in the burgundy of Benton or Bryant blue,” Farmer said. “You can see the colors mix together as friends at the tailgate party.
“But around 7 o’clock, the gates open, the friendship ends, and the blue and burgundy separate to different sides of the field. Then it’s war, from kickoff to when the final second ticks away.”
The annual Salt Bowl defines the great rivalry between the two cities, two schools and two football teams, so bragging rights will be settled for the next year. Yet, the competition also brings the two communities together, celebrating what they have in common, although from different perspectives.
Tom Farmer, the one man who has been the head coach of both the Hornets and the Panthers, has lived both of those perspectives, and he was the driving force behind the Salt Bowl.
Farmer, who played his high school football in Lake Hamilton, first came to Benton as an assistant coach in 1980.
“I was told it was a big rivalry, but I had seen rival teams before,” Farmer said. “But I had never seen anything like this. The people were ringed around the football field watching the game, and the spirit was unbelievable.”
He became the head coach in 1990, and Farmer said the game became a lot more serious. The rivalry took a new twist when Farmer became head coach and athletic director for the Bryant Hornets.
“I showed up to the first game in my blue shirt, and some Benton folks called me a traitor, but they were just teasing,” Farmer said.
The idea for the Salt Bowl arose when Farmer was with some friends after a 1999 game.
“That had been a tough-fought game, and people were standing on top of buildings and school buses to see into the stadium to watch the game. A friend said we needed to make the game even bigger,” Farmer said.
Farmer said a Bryant alumnus offered to buy a trophy if Farmer could think of a name for the game. From there, the idea just grew, he said.
During the offseason, the rivalry game between the two Saline County high schools was dubbed the Salt Bowl.
“The next year (2000), we were standing on the [Hornet] field, and we brought in an armored truck, and guards brought out the trophy,” Farmer said. “I wanted the players to experience something they might never get to see, an experience like a college bowl game. This game puts as many people in the stands that you find in 50 percent of the collegiate bowl games.”
Farmer said the hype was created so the game would be special, and the trophy became an important prize for both teams.
Gary James, who was manager of the Coca Cola plant in Little Rock, sponsored the first Salt Bowl. Farmer said the alliance with James is how the high school football game became a “community event with celebrations and a dinner.”
James is now CEO of the Greater Benton Area Chamber of Commerce and is still active in the Salt Bowl.
“We had some slim days at the start, but I am not sure anyone knew it would become so big,” James said. “This is a pretty unique place. There is no bridge or river that divides the cities. The neighborhoods are side by side, and we all pull together on this. But, Tom Farmer deserves all the credit for the Salt Bowl — it was really him.”
Like Farmer, James said the pregame tailgating is the most fun because it brings the communities together.
“We give away around 6,500 hot dogs and drinks. Coca Cola still provides them, and there will be about 10 guys in blue and 10 men in burgundy at the grills, sometimes with a blue and burgundy at the same grill.”
While Benton, the larger school for years, had always dominated the rivalry, Bryant won its first Salt Bowl 44-17 under head coach Daryl Patton on Nov. 2, 2000.
With the tailgate party and other events growing bigger, so did the crowds, and the game moved to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock in 2002.
“We regularly get 12,000 people or more, and we have had as many as 26,000 at the game,” Farmer said. “We let the peewee teams take the field, and they see the crowds in the stands cheering their local teams.”
The Salt Bowl organizers then sold booth space to local businesses from the two cities.
“The business people were asking, ‘How can we get involved and show our support and make a contribution?’” Farmer said.
The tailgate party has been a big event every year, except in 2005, Farmer said. “We were at War Memorial, and we were watching the truck come in with thousands of hot dogs and other food as the rain just started coming down in sheets until you could not see.”
The tailgating was canceled, but Farmer said more than 2,000 walkup tickets were sold, and most of the more than 10,000 people holding pre-sold tickets made it to the game.
Farmer has now stepped down from the athletic-director position at Bryant, but he remains transportation and maintenance director, looking after the buses and facilities for the school district.
“I miss the kids,” he said. “You don’t go into education for the money, but to make a difference in a kid’s life.”
Many of his former players, from both teams, stay in touch with Farmer, and some coach and teach at Bryant, he said.
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or email@example.com.