Today's Paper Latest Public Notices Elections Core Values Newsletters Sports Archive Obits Puzzles Opinion Story Ideas
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

‘It’s really sad’

Football in LRSD in state of disrepair by Robert Yates | December 1, 2013 at 3:56 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/CHRIS DEAN - 12/04/04 - The Little Rock Central Tigers celebrate their second consecutive AAAAA state championship after beating West Memphis 41-7.

Mike Falleur spent two decades coaching in Georgia, but he’s linked to a lost era of Arkansas high school football.

Falleur was a tight end at Fort Smith Northside during the late 1970s when the state’s largest classification was normally ruled by three programs in the Little Rock School District - Central, Hall and Parkview.

Photo by Kirk Montgomery

But when Falleur, a 1980 Northside graduate, returned to his alma mater in December as the Grizzlies’ new coach, he said he was stunned to find out how much the landscape had changed.

“You always knew you had to beat them,” Falleur said of playing LRSD teams in the late 1970s. “It kind of blows your mind to see the difference. It’s sad to see that happen to any program.”

Northside, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2008, won only three games this fall. But reinforcing - loudly - how much that landscape has changed in 30-plus years, the Grizzlies thumped Parkview (42-20) and Hall (52-20).

The lopsided scores are nothing new.

A district that was once home to the state’s most dominant football programs has reached abysmal depths the past few years. The LRSD’s five programs - Class 7A Central, Class 6A Hall, Fair and Parkview and Class 5A McClellan - combined to win 20 percent of their games (10 of 49) during the regular season.

The past three months weren’t an aberration, simply a snapshot of an astonishing stretch of futility.

The combined season-end record of the five LRSD programs hasn’t been above .500 since 1999. Their record of 234-506-3 since 2000 represents a .317 winning percentage.

Other LRSD low points, collectively or individually, include:

Every school having at least one winless season since 2006.

Central losing a school-record 25 consecutive games in 2007-2010.

Class 6A Fair being outscored a combined 92-6 by Earle, a Class 3A school with roughly 700 fewer students, in 2010 and 2011.

Hall having not beaten a team that finished with a winning record since 1996.

McClellan, then a Class 6A school, not recording a first down and having minus-48 yards total offense in a 55-0 loss at Class 4A Ashdown to open the 2010 season.

Parkview winning three playoff games since playing for the Class AAAA state championship in 1983.

Repercussions from LRSD’s staggering free fall are so widespread that they have been felt 188 miles away at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

The LRSD’s once deep talent pool provided fertile recruiting ground for the Razorbacks. But it has run bone-dry and undoubtedly contributed to Arkansas’ inability to win a conference championship in football since 1989.

“I don’t ever see Little Rock coming back,” said Russellville Athletic Director Johnny Johnson, who held the same position in the LRSD for more than a decade. “I think they have fallen so far behind that I will be surprised. It’s such an uphill battle. To me, they’ve lost so many people that care about it. They’ve made their minds up and moved on, and you can’t re-cultivate that.”

RUNAWAY PAIN

Johnson’s revelation begs the inevitable question: How could the state’s largest school district ever have reached this point?

Clearly, the catalyst for the comatose state of LRSD football has been a 31-year old desegregation court case which, among other things, erased attendance zones and drained budgets.

The LRSD also has been saddled with more stringent academic requirements and longer classroom time than surrounding districts and bloodied by the explosion of private schools in Pulaski County, particularly Pulaski Academy, which began its rise to statewide prominence in the early 1990s, making a push for promising black athletes in LRSD junior highs.

Deteriorating facilities, administrative instability, stagnant enrollment, white flight, waning interest, shorter contracts for head coaches and massive population and power shifts to Northwest Arkansas accelerated the decay.

“With the district’s racial makeup changing so quickly, athletics just got so far put on the back burner,” Johnson said.

Basketball has remained strong in the LRSD, but a manpower sport like football has never recovered.

Johnson grew up in Little Rock and was LRSD athletic director for 11 years before beginning work at Russellville in July 2012. Johnson said 30 years ago, working in the LRSD was the goal for coaches around the state because the district had good facilities, pay and athletes.

“But they just went on a downward spiral, where there was no priority for keeping athletics maintained,” Johnson said. “Athletics became an afterthought, and then with the white flight beginning, too, there was nobody pushing.”

There have been 22 superintendents, including acting or interim, since 1982, according to the LRSD’s web site.

Johnson said many school districts around the state have had superintendents who were former coaches, but “strictly academic people” have overseen the LRSD throughout much of the past three decades, and many were from out of state and out of touch with the district’s football struggles.

“How much different would Little Rock’s athletics been if you might have had a superintendent like Ray Peters or if you would have had a superintendent like John Kelley, people that coached in that district and saw the value of athletics and wanted to make sure Little Rock was in the forefront,” Johnson said.

Peters was Hall’s football coach in 1957-1963 and LRSD athletic director in 1964-1986.

Kelley was Parkview’s football coach in 1979-1998 and now an assistant principal at the school.

The careers of Peters and Kelley intersect at the peak of the LRSD’s power in the early 1980s, when Central, Hall and Parkview combined for 12 state championships in 1973-1982.

The LRSD’s decline, beginning in the mid-1980s, coincided with instituting a 2.0 grade-point minimum for eligibility - higher than guidelines of the Arkansas Activities Association, the state’s governing body for high school athletics - eliminating in-school athletic periods and funding for something seemingly as innocuous as a letter jacket.

There also was talk in the early 1990s to play games on Saturday morning, instead of Friday night, to save money.

TRANSFERS OF POWER

Federal desegregation laws, in an attempt to promote racial equality in Pulaski County, led to players being able to transfer under majority-to-minority rules, or to attend a magnet school.

Majority-to-minority transfers, particularly prevalent in the 1990s, allowed a black player from the LRSD to attend school in the Pulaski County Special School District or the North Little Rock School District.

Magnet schools, which draw students from throughout Pulaski County, are public schools with specialized courses. Johnson said both programs have eliminated players’ loyalty to a neighborhood school. Central, Fair, McClellan and Parkview are all magnet schools.

Tailback Dedrick Poole lived near McClellan but became the all-time leading rusher at Central (6,059 yards) in 1999-2001.

Halfback Darren McFadden lived near Central, but attended Pulaski Oak Grove, a Pulaski County Special School District school, where he was a Parade All-American as a senior in 2004, became maybe the greatest player in Razorbacks history and the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

McFadden’s older brother played football at Central, and an older sister was an outstanding track and field athlete there.

“I think my first year at Little Rock, the number of kids that should have been going to J.A. Fair and McClellan to play football, most of those kids were either in the county somewhere under M-to-M, playing at Robinson or Sylvan Hills or Oak Grove,” Johnson said. “The deseg arrangements and the M-to-M transfers have had a huge effect on athletics in Little Rock.

“I think everybody knew about Darren McFadden living in Central’s zone but going to school at Oak Grove.”

Little Rock Central Coach Ellis “Scooter” Register has seen plenty of change in the LRSD during the past 30 years. Register began coaching in the LRSD in 1974 and was an assistant at Hall before leading McClellan in 1990-1994.

Register guided the Lions to the Class AAAA state championship game in 1994 and also had stints at El Dorado (1995-2002) and Little Rock Catholic, an all-boys private school (2003-2009) before moving to Central, where he inherited a 21-game losing streak.

“When you look back on it,” Register said, referring to the beginning of the LRSD’s slide in the 1980s, “I guess the signs were there.”

THE DARK AGES

Legendary Parkview basketball Coach Charles Ripley, went a step further, calling the elimination of an in-school athletics period a death sentence for LRSD football.

“It kills your offseason program,” said Ripley, who began coaching football in the LRSD in the late 1960s.

“It hurts you during the season.”

Some 30 years ago, players at Central would rush from their final class of the day to historic Quigley Stadium to begin workouts at around 2:30 p.m.

Today, LRSD football programs often don’t start football practice until after 4 p.m. because of block scheduling in place for many years.

“For the most part, it’s after school,” LRSD Athletic Director John Daniels said, referring to football practice in the district.

Most surrounding districts, however, begin practice every day around 2:40 p.m., Daniels said. In a perfect world, he said, LRSD programs would practice each day from 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

Daniels said there have been conversations with new LRSD Superintendent Dexter Suggs about tweaking the block scheduling format to address the LRSD’s football struggles, but nothing more.

The problems are compounded because the LRSD transports athletes home after practice and games, which places a further strain on a player’s home life and the district’s pocketbook.

Daniels said the LRSD’s annual athletic budget is roughly $400,000. But that figure is essentially offset because the district spends roughly the same amount annually on athletic transportation, Johnson said, fallout from the long-running desegregation case involving three public school districts in Pulaski County: Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County.

Johnson said Little Rock is one of the few school districts in the country that buses players home after practice

“That’s a huge issue,” Johnson said.

PRIVATES IN COMMAND

Money spent on transportation could have been used to overhaul the district’s sagging football facilities, many in shocking disrepair.

The locker room at Quigley Stadium, opened in 1936, still floods following heavy rain, Register said.

Register and six assistants, like coaches did during the 1970s, share a tiny 306-square-foot office at the south end of the stadium.

The Tigers are scheduled to move into a 1,560-square-foot renovated loft next month, Register said.

But little else about Quigley Stadium has changed in decades, other than the addition of an artificial playing surface in 2009. Johnson said the $545,000 project, ironically, represents the LRSD’s dramatic makeover the past 30 years.

Central is unquestionably the LRSD’s flagship program, with 788 documented victories since 1904, 32 state championships and 2 national championships. A huge alumni base is littered with financial heavy-hitters in central Arkansas.

Yet Johnson noted Central, acclaimed nationally for its rich history, was one of the last schools in the state’s largest classification to switch from natural grass to artificial turf, and the project was funded entirely through in-kind gifts and private donations, including $250,000 from telecommunications giant Verizon Wireless for naming rights to the field.

“There was not one penny from the school district to help put money into the field,” Johnson said. “That just shows you the philosophy. It was also shocking to me how hard it was to raise money for the turf project at Central with the amount of alumni. You would have thought there would have been football players from the Wilson Matthews era all the way up to the present that would have just said, ‘Hey, we want to make that project go.’ ”

Matthews, an iconic figure in Arkansas college and high school athletics, led the Tigers to a 109-17-3 record in 11 seasons (1947-1957) and won 10 state championships and 1 national title.

Johnson said trouble raising funds for artificial turf at Quigley Stadium highlights the disconnect between the LRSD and its graduates from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

“They are so disappointed with how the school district has turned out,” Johnson said. “That’s why they haven’t sent their kids to the Little Rock School District. Even though they may be alumni of Little Rock Central, they’ve felt a need to put their kid in a private school.”

LRSD programs have been stung by several public/ private family hits the past few years.

Dynamic utility back Joe Adams played at Parkview as a sophomore in 2005 before transferring to Central Arkansas Christian, a North Little Rock private school affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

Adams went on to become an All-American kick returner at Arkansas and was a fourth-round NFL draft choice in 2012. Adams’ mother, Charlotte Allmon, graduated from Hall in 1981.

Mark Henry is among the best offensive linemen to ever play at Central, starting every game during his career and helping the Tigers capture the Class AAAA state championship as a senior in 1986.

His son, Hunter Henry, attended Pulaski Academy, an independent west Little Rock private school, where he became a Parade All-American tight end as a senior in 2012.

He started this fall as a freshman at Arkansas and, barring injury, appears headed for the NFL, too.

Allie Freeman III was a heralded point guard at Hall before graduating in 1984 and playing four seasons at Arkansas.

Freeman’s son, Allie Freeman IV, is a sophomore basketball and football standout at Episcopal Collegiate, a private school on the fringe of downtown Little Rock affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

Freeman, one of the state’s leading receivers this fall, helped the Wildcats finish 10-3 and reach the Class 3A playoff quarterfinals.

“Private schools have hurt us,” Register said.

None more than Pulaski Academy, which boasts three state championships and a Pulaski County-best 125 victories since 2003 (Fair, Hall, McClellan and Parkview all have at least 100 losses since 2000).

Pulaski Academy, a Class 5A program with an enrollment of 292 based on figures the AAA used to classify schools for the 2012-2014 cycle, has had eight Football Bowl Subdivision signees, including Henry, since 2008.

FBS is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics under the NCAA umbrella.

Henry helped Pulaski Academy finish 14-0 in 2011, win the Class 4A state championship and to No. 1 overall ranking by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

But Pulaski Academy began making waves statewide in the early 1990s after boosting its roster with two LRSD products, tailback Donte Womack and defensive end Steve Johnson.

Both attended what was then Henderson Junior High before transferring to Pulaski Academy, then beginning a recruiting campaign to increase minority enrollment and awareness of the opportunities available at Pulaski Academy.

Johnson went on to sign with Louisiana Tech, while Womack helped SMU beat Arkansas three times in his career, rushing for 212 yards as a senior against the Razorbacks in 1997.

While Pulaski Academy continues to be a gusher of FBS recruits, the LRSD has become a duster.

During the same 2008-2013 period, the LRSD, with a combined enrollment of 5,784 (3.9 percent higher than the early 1990s), has had only one FBS signee.

Linebacker Michael Johnson of Parkview signed with Louisiana-Monroe in 2011.

Bearden, a Class 2A school enrollment of 143, had three FBS signees during the same period.

Even more troubling is the relationship between the LRSD and the University of Arkansas.

Arkansas’ 1989 Southwest Conference championship team featured all-SWC center Elbert Crawford of Hall. Mark Henry started at guard. James Rouse of Parkview started at tailback.

Derek Russell of Central started at flanker.

Rouse and Russell were Arkansas’ leading rusher and receiver, respectively, in the 1990 Cotton Bowl against Tennessee.

“In the heyday, they used to get five or six kids out of here every year,” Ripley said, referring to the Razorbacks.

Now, there are none.

Asked if the LRSD’s decline has rocked Arkansas’ football program, Ripley said, “No question.”

The LRSD hasn’t had a signee with Arkansas since 2005 (defensive end Antwain Robinson and safety Kevin Thornton of Central). It only gets worse when Parkview (2004), Fair (2000), McClellan (1998) and Hall (1995) are factored into the recruiting equation.

Conversely, Class 7A Fayetteville had three players sign with Arkansas in February.

“I don’t know if it’s a cycle,” Register said. “I know when I took this job, I thought it was numbers.

"Across the board, we don’t have seven or eight great athletes. We’ve got some really good athletes.”

Central was the LRSD’s lone bright spot this fall, finishing 7-5 to record its first winning season since 2007 and beat two-time defending state champion Fayetteville 34-28 in a first-round playoff game Nov. 15.

The LRSD hadn’t beaten a 7A-West team on the road in the postseason since 1994, when McClellan, coached by Register, toppled Fort Smith Southside 20-13 in the semifinals.

Explosive growth in Northwest Arkansas has fueled the 7A-West into becoming the state’s premier conference for more than two decades, accounting for 19 state championships since 1983. Bentonville, for example, was the state’s 42nd-largest school in 1981 with an enrollment of 627. It’s now No. 1 with an enrollment of 2,591, armed with facilities better than many small colleges and 10 varsity coaches.

Johnson said the 7A-West long ago lapped the LRSD because of its vision and aggressive posture toward building sparkling stadiums and indoor workout buildings, in addition to having much larger coaching staffs and budgets.

Johnson said head football coaches in the LRSD are also signed to 10-month contracts, which is not the norm at a Class 7A or Class 6A school, and not attractive to an established head coaching willing to make a career move.

Ripley, who left the LRSD in the mid-1990s, said coaching in the LRSD isn’t a profession like it was 30 years ago, but a stipend (money of top of a regular teaching salary).

“I don’t think Little Rock did as good a job of monitoring and seeing what other school districts were doing to keep up with athletics,” Johnson said. “You look at the 7A-West schools, once of one them started going to 12-month contracts for coaches and once they started getting into the facilities race, Little Rock, to me, never felt the urge or the need to try to keep up with them. It’s sad.”

Perhaps Arkansas’ saddest story is Hall, which won a state championship in 1959 - its second year of varsity football - and six more between 1964 and 1982. But no former statewide power has crashed as hard as the Warriors, who didn’t have player on this year’s team born the last time the school had a winning season, 1993.

Hall hasn’t won a playoff game since 1994, has had nine coaches since 1996, owns the state’s second-longest losing streak - a school-record 27 games - and normally trails games by 35 or more points at halftime.

Hall’s program last had a heartbeat in 2011 under Rod Stinson, one of Johnson’s last major hires before he left for Russellville. Stinson, a standout running back at Pine Bluff in the mid-1990s, was 33 when he landed his first head coaching job in late 2010. He had been offensive coordinator at Pine Bluff, one of the country’s most storied programs.

The Warriors finished 2-8 (they started 2-1), but Stinson was applauded by opposing coaches because Hall was more structured.

“Rod did a good job,” Jonesboro Coach Randy Coleman said.

Stinson, now Pine Bluff’s associate head coach, said administrative turnover in the LRSD led to his resignation. Not only did Johnson leave for Russellville in the summer of 2012, Ann Blaylock retired as Hall’s principal following the 2011-2012 school year.

Stinson also said he felt handcuffed because he wasn’t able to assemble his own staff.

“I hope I did some good things,” Stinson said. “It’s hard for me to judge it because it was so short-lived.”

Stinson said stability is imperative for Hall to sustain any success, and pointed to the school’s coaching carousel as a major factor in its collapse.

“That’s what you’ve got to be back to at Hall, because they had talent,” Stinson said. “You saw it in the ’80s, and in the early ’90s they were pretty good when we played them. It started tailing off, and then that’s when you started losing that stability.

"It didn’t start in 2010. It had been going on for almost a decade and a half.”

Hall finished 0-10 in 2012 under interim coach Travis Mann (his second stint at the school) and 0-10 again this fall under Tim Scarbourgh, a standout tailback in the early 1990s at McClellan who was previously head coach at Lonoke Junior High School.

Pine Bluff will play for the Class 6A state championship Saturday after ending Greenwood’s 50-game winning streak Friday night. The Zebras have outscored the Warriors a combined 105-0 the past two seasons in firstround playoff mismatches.

FUTURE IS BLIGHT

The arduous task of rebuilding the LRSD’s football image belongs to Daniels, 50, who was Hall’s football coach in 2003-2005 and the school’s interim principal in 2012-2013 before officially beginning work as LRSD athletic director July 1.

“It’s going to be baby steps for awhile,” said Daniels, a Dumas native. “I realize that. Nobody’s really going to see it, and a lot of people will probably continue to be upset about the state of the program. But I can see it from the inside right now, that those small steps have already begun to pay dividends.”

Daniels has already put his small stamp on the LRSD, requiring coaches this fall to send him daily practice schedules and having district coaches conduct clinics. Daniels said he will also have a voice in hiring head coaches (it was previously in the hands of building principals).

Looking ambitiously farther in the future, Daniels said his five-year goal is to have artificial turf at all LRSD high school venues, indoor workout buildings at every high school and Parkview playing on-campus home games. Parkview now plays its games at Fair’s War Eagle Stadium. Daniels also wants every school to have seven coaches (the LRSD’s allotment).

Central was the only program this fall with seven coaches. McClellan had 6, Fair and Hall had 5 and Parkview had 4, Daniels said. The LRSD struggles to fill coaching spots because they normally have to match teaching openings the way contracts are structured.

“We have a superintendent who is pro-athletics,” Daniels said. “He looks at our athletes as student-athletes. To me, that’s a winwin for us.”

But it is a lost cause? Just regaining respectability appears to be a monumental task because the LRSD is under attack from all sides.

Pulaski Academy is entrenched as a statewide power and generates national attention because of its eye-popping passing numbers and esoteric philosophy - not punting, not fielding punts and on-side kicks.

North Little Rock, which has reached the Class 7A semifinals four times since 2006, has made a financial commitment similar to elite programs in Northwest Arkansas. North Little Rock is also scheduled to move into dramatically better facilities after its new high school is built next year.

Several coaches call Class 4A Maumelle, which opened in the fall of 2011 as the PCSD’s replacement for Oak Grove, a “goldmine,” particularly if it can break away and form its own district.

Ditto for the PCSD’s Jacksonville and Sylvan Hills, both members of Class 5A.

As bad as it’s been, the LRSD’s long-term overall football health doesn’t look much better.

“Once you get down, like any program, it’s hard to build back up,” Bryant Superintendent Randy Rutherford said.

Rutherford was around Fair during the school’s glory days, when it finished 14-0 in 1998, won the Class AAAAA state championship and finished No. 23 nationally in the final USA Today Super 25.

That team featured tailback Cedric Cobbs and defensive tackle Jayson Johnson, who both signed with Arkansas; quarterback Tye Forte, who signed with Arkansas State; and safety Fa’Quan Harris, the Democrat-Gazette Defensive Player of the Year.

Rutherford was promoted to head coach following Glenn Eskola’s retirement and led the War Eagles to the AAAAA-Central title in 1999 and the school’s last winning season in 2000. He resigned following the 2001 season to enter administration.

Rutherford returned to War Eagle Stadium last fall and watched Bryant coast to a 35-14 7A/6A-South victory. Fair, which has lost 117 games since 2000, had maybe 25 fans in the stands on a raw, rainy October night.

Clearly, the landscape had changed.

“I just remember the crowd, and you had about 20 players or whatever it was,” Rutherford said. “It’s hard to believe it’s gone down as far as it has compared to what it used to be. It’s really sad.”

Sports, Pages 23 on 12/01/2013

Print Headline: ‘It’s really sad’

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsor Content

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT