Former UCA, Tech coach inducted into Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame

By Tammy Keith Published March 9, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Ken Stephens of Conway played football and ran track in high school and at the University of Central Arkansas prior to his 43-year coaching career. Stephens said he had some great assistant coaches and outstanding players, including three who are now head coaches: Monte Coleman, Charlie Strong and Bill Keopple. Stephens was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 28.

At least two things can be said about longtime coach Ken Stephens of Conway: He’s a winner, and he knows how to give a speech.

He proved it Feb. 28 when he was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Most of the other 10 inductees went over their requested three-minute time limit. Way over.

Stephens, 82, admitted to the crowd that it was “hard to coach for 43 years and put it all in three minutes.” He hit a few highlights and pointed out that through coaching, he met his “beautiful wife, Donna,” who was seated at the head table.

She was a sports reporter for the former Arkansas Gazette when the couple met.

He was a coach at Arkansas Tech by then, divorced and with a lifetime of experience behind him.

It’s no secret that he and Donna have an age difference, but that doesn’t matter to “Coach,” as Donna calls him. He knows age is just a number, and he’s had lots of numbers — most of them good.

For example, he had a 39-year head-coaching record of 235-171-16 that included high school, four-year colleges and junior college.

He coached players whom people might recognize — like Barry Switzer. Switzer was a student at Crossett High School before he became the coach of the Oklahoma Sooners and the Dallas Cowboys.

Stephens said he didn’t notice anything special about Switzer.

“I didn’t know he was going to be famous,” Stephens said.

Before Stephens was a coach, he was an athlete, and a good one at that.

He was a standout in football and track at Conway High School.

Born in Conway, he was the third of four children of Earl and Edna Stephens. His dad was a dairyman; his mother was a homemaker.

They moved to Kansas City when he was 10 and lived there four years. Because it was during World War II, there weren’t enough teachers in the eighth grade, so he skipped it. When the family moved to Conway, he started the second semester of ninth grade and was on the track and football teams.

“I always liked to run,” he said. “That was a good sport for me.”

In 1948, Stephens went to Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas, on a football scholarship and also ran track.

He once had five interceptions against the College of the Ozarks (now the University of Ozarks in Clarksville), which is still the school record for interceptions in a game. He was also a two-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics track All-American.

Coaching wasn’t on his mind then.

“I had to declare a major; I declared premed,” he said. Math was not his best subject. “I was terrible — that’s why I quit.”

By default, almost, he became a physical-education major.

“I don’t think I ever thought I’d teach or coach,” he said.

Stephens played football before safety was a big issue. The helmets didn’t have any face protection his first year.

“I had my nose broken, a tooth knocked out. They started putting one bar on the helmet,” he said. “Now they have cages, almost.”

Silas Snow, the future president of UCA, was superintendent of the Crossett School District and recruited Stephens as a teacher and assistant coach.

After one year at Crossett, where Stephens drove a school bus, taught four classes and coached, he left for a job as head football coach at a high school in Oklahoma.

“We won the conference championship my only year there,” he said. “That’s when I got bit. I was hooked.”

Stephens was married at the time and quit coaching for a year to work for his father-in-law at Ward Body Works in Conway. Knowing coaching was his calling, Stephens went to George Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn., which merged with Vanderbilt University, and earned a master’s degree in physical education and administration.

His reputation as an effective coach was spreading, and Ivan Grove, the football and track coach at Hendrix, told Stephens if he wanted a job at Walnut Ridge High School, all he had to do was go ask for it.

Stephens was there for two years, and his quarterback was Sammy Weir, “a great athlete,” Stephens said, who later went to Arkansas State University, then played professionally for the New York Jets and Houston Oilers.

Weir came to see Stephens the night before the Hall of Fame induction.

“He said, ‘Coach, I came down here just to see you,” Stephens said.

Weir also worked on Stephens’ coaching staff in 1964 when Stephens was at North Little Rock High School.

Stephens’ first college coaching job was in 1960 as an assistant at Arkansas State College, now Arkansas State University, in Jonesboro.

“I really enjoyed that,” he said.

From there, he went to Morrilton High School, then to North Little Rock in 1963, where he was athletic director and head football coach.

He said he enjoyed the athletic director position.

“You can really control your destiny then,” he said.

Stephens started something new for high school football. At the time, football players played both offense and defense.

“I decided, I believe we have enough players, I’m going to start playing these guys one way,” he said. Instead of 11 starting players, the team had 22.

“The next year (in 1965), we won the state championship,” he said, as well as in 1966 and 1970.

Stephens’ phone rang again, and at the other end was one of Frank Broyles’ assistants at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, asking Stephens to come to the hill.

“I went up there one year. Really enjoyed that. I was with a great bunch of coaches,” he said, including Harold Horton, the coach who followed him at UCA.

Stephens said he realized all the coaches at U of A were “treated like gold in the state of Arkansas.”

However, Stephens didn’t want to remain an assistant.

“I always wanted to be a head coach,” he said. “I love offense. I liked to figure out how to beat people. It’s a game of checkers.”

Stephens was hired at UCA at a time when the football team was having an unsuccessful run.

“I didn’t feel any pressure. I knew I had time to turn it around,” Stephens said.

After five years, in 1976, the UCA Bears won the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship and went to the national playoffs, where they were national runner-up.

“That was further than they’d ever been,” he said. “That pretty well solidified my job. From then on, my worst year was 7-3 in 1979, and we thought that was bad,” he said.

Under his leadership, UCA also won conference championships in 1978, 1980 and 1981.

There he coached the likes of Monte Coleman, former Washington Redskins player, now head coach at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Nobody ran Stephens off, but he decided to go to Lamar University in 1982.

“If I’d really investigated it, I probably wouldn’t have gone. It was a graveyard,” he said. “I didn’t do a good job of winning.”

Stephens was fired, which is a casualty of coaching.

“It’s sort of like preaching. They get tired of you. ‘We want to go in a different direction.’ That’s a common statement made. I’ve never said, ‘And what direction is that, sir?’” Stephens said, laughing. “Why don’t they just say, ‘You’re fired! You’re outta here.’”

Still, Stephens was in demand. He received a call about the Arkansas Tech University head football coaching job, and he took over in 1986 and stayed there seven years.

Stephens said he had an “average record there,” in part because he had to forfeit games for an ineligible player. The student spent one day at the University of Arkansas after transferring from Louisiana, then came to Arkansas Tech.

“He didn’t tell us,” Stephens said. After a controversy involving a similar situation with a student at a different university, the player confided in Stephens. “I said, ‘Well, we’re not going to hide it.’ I went up and told [Don] Sevier,’” then athletic director.

It was on the Arkansas Tech football field that Stephens first met Donna, who was attending media day for the Arkansas Gazette.

“I knew of him,” Donna said, and they’d spoken by phone. She said she’d heard a fellow sports writer call Stephens the “Blond Blizzard,” a nickname Stephens got in high school.

Stephens came up, read her name tag and said hello, she recalled.

They went to lunch on campus, and she realized he was single.

“We flirted for a year before we started dating,” she said, laughing, as they sat in their living room.

The couple’s almost 32-year age difference bothered Stephens in the beginning.

“She was 27 when we started dating. I thought, ‘I wish she was 30. That would sound better.’”

Donna, who loved sports and was mature for her age, said she didn’t care.

“He was just nice. I was

intrigued, and he was fun, and he was good to me, and he took me places. I fell hard,” she said.

The couple will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary in July.

Stephens retired from coaching — the first time – in 1992.

“I came back to Conway and worked a little bit for myself,” he said.

Dale Morris, one of Stephens’ former UCA players who was athletic director at Ranger College, a junior college in Texas, called him and begged him to come work as an assistant.

The entire football staff had quit en masse, Stephens said.

“He said, ‘Ken, I’ve got a real problem. I’m getting ready for spring practice, and I don’t have any coaches. Can you come help me one year?’”

Stephens declined, but Morris called again and pleaded.

So Stephens drove down and started to work on his 70th birthday. For four years, Donna went to see him on weekends.

She also worked as the team statistician and wrote articles about the team for the local newspaper.

“I liked every day of it. I had a ball,” he said.

Stephens came back home after four years, and his coaching days are over — at least that’s what he says. He’s still not retired. He’s assistant supervisor in the UCA Office of Student Success, which tutors students and student-athletes.

“I was tough on my players. I was a disciplinarian. I demanded a lot of them, but I think they liked me. I think they respected that,” he said.

In retrospect, Stephens said, he wishes he’d been more buddy-buddy with his players, “but that was not my way to coach.”

His way worked, though. Stephens was the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1966 and AIC Coach of the Year four times, and was inducted into the UCA Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2007. The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame induction was at the Statehouse Convention Center before a full ballroom, including his three sons and other family members.

“This tops them all,” he said of his honors.

“I’ve coached in six high schools in two states and six colleges in two states — 12 schools, and I’ve loved every job I had, some a little more than others. I had a good time, even at Lamar. It was a good experience; lots of memories. And this Hall of Fame thing wrapped it up,” Stephens said.

“It sort of tied everything together in a neat bundle, and there you are. That’s your life.”

And, his was the shortest speech of the night.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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