Former coach receives Hall of Fame honor

By Donna Stephens Originally Published February 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 22, 2013 at 11:11 a.m.
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Don Nixon of Conway remembers growing up in southwest Little Rock at his family’s grocery store, Nixon’s Trading Post, which was situated near a fork in the road on the old Hot Springs Highway.

One road went to Ferndale, the other toward Saline County. Looking back, Nixon, now 85, sees that place as a metaphor for his life.

“My life took a lot of forks,” he said. “It forked many times.”

The latest will put him in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Nixon, a longtime basketball coach, will be inducted, along with seven others, at the organization’s 55th banquet on March 8 at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

Nixon, already a member of the Arkansas High School Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Central Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, coached at Pulaski Robinson, Mabelvale and Little Rock Central high schools and the University of Central Arkansas. His Central team won Class AAAA state championships in 1970 and ’72 (and finished runner-up in ’69 and ’71) and won the first Arkansas High School Overall Championship in ’72. From there, he went to UCA through the 1979 season, taking two teams to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City after winning the District 17 Tournament.

“A lot of people don’t remember that, but if you won District 17, you won the college state tournament,” he said. “But whatever awards I won, the kids did. I never made a basket or pulled down a rebound or intercepted a pass. All I did was direct things. They did the play.

“It’s their award more than mine.”

Growing up, Nixon helped his father with another family business, Lake Nixon, then a swimming area open to the public.

“Some days I washed down bathhouses or got ready to open up,” Nixon said. “We had a dance floor, and my mother ran the concession.”

He graduated from Mabelvale High School in Little Rock and joined the Navy during World War II. He spent 14 months in service, including a stint in the South Pacific. He was on leave when the war ended.

After his service, he returned home and enrolled in Little Rock Junior College (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock), where he reconnected with an old high school acquaintance, the former Betty White. They’ve been married now for 65 years. Along the way, they adopted two children, Michael and Pamela, and raised three grandchildren, Shawn, Scott and Brandy.

Nixon transferred to Arkansas State Teachers College (now UCA) and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Education degree in science and biology in 1951. His first job was teaching junior high science and social studies at Joe T. Robinson High School (now Pulaski Robinson).

“I was not the regular coach that you might think of who came out of college and majored in PE,” he said. “I’m not sure I even had a PE course. I had come out of the Navy and World War II. I was raised in the country mercantile business and in the swimming business for years.”

One of those forks in life came when a Robinson coach left during the school year.

“During softball, they had me out there coaching softball,” Nixon remembered. “Next thing you know, they’d hired me to coach. I’d played in high school.”

He hadn’t planned to coach, but he was baptized quickly — four basketball (junior and senior boys and girls) and four softball teams.

“Joe T. had some pretty good athletes, but we didn’t have many,” Nixon recalled. “They had to furnish their own shoes, wash their own uniforms and pay their own transportation. These kids won in spite of me.”

He remembered that during his second year, Joe T.’s gym was converted to classroom usage, so the basketball teams had to practice outside and play all their games on the road.

After spending 1952-54 at Robinson, he returned to his alma mater, Mabelvale, from 1954-59. After coaching at the junior high level from 1959-67, Nixon coached the boys team at Little Rock Central from 1968-72 and the men’s team at UCA from 1972-79.

“I was always lucky to have a bunch of real smart kids,” he said. “On one team at Mabelvale, three became doctors. We had real smart people. You had to tell them what to do, but if they raised their hand in a timeout, you let them ask a question.”

Although his focus was basketball, he also served as assistant in various sports, particularly football and track.

A couple of stops into his career, Nixon started to get serious about basketball.

“It was either get serious or get out,” he said. “I was going to clinics every chance I had and studying the game.”

After a year as an assistant, he took over as head coach at UCA for the 1973-74 season, leading the Bears to a 22-9 mark and the NAIA National Tournament. They returned to Kansas City in 1974-75. In six seasons, he compiled a 95-76 record.

Some of his players went on to become successful coaches themselves. James Dickey, now at Houston, is a former head coach at Texas Tech. John Hutchcraft is the legendary Guy-Perkins coach; Gary Davis was the successful baseball coach at North Little Rock.

After retiring from coaching, Nixon managed the UCA student union for nine years.

“That fit in with all of my experience running Lake Nixon and helping my dad in the mercantile business,” Nixon said.

Cliff Garrison, a longtime men’s coach at Hendrix College and another member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, said Nixon’s success at all levels made him a good selection for this year’s class.

“I always admired watching his teams play at Little Rock Central,” Garrison said. “They played pressure defense, and they played hard, and he got the maximum out of his players. He had an outstanding career and is an outstanding gentleman and person.

“He was very intense on the court, but very deserving.”

One of Garrison’s legendary tales about Nixon involves halftime of a UCA-Hendrix game, then a storied rivalry. At the old Grove Gymnasium, the small visitors’ dressing room was across the hall from the Warriors’.

“We must’ve been ahead at halftime,” Garrison said. “I don’t even remember how the game came out, but I could hear him in our dressing room. I later found out that he kicked the trash can, and it went up to the ceiling, came down and landed on his foot, and he couldn’t get it off. He was cussing and kicking, and the players were trying not to laugh.

“He still owes me for a trash can.”

Years later, Nixon still remembers his players’ reaction.

“They were hiding their faces, dying laughing,” he said.

But nobody’s laughing now.

For more information about the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, call (501) 663-4328 or visit www.arksportshalloffame.com.

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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