For Mike Guthrie, becoming a coach was never really a goal. He spent most of his younger days dreaming of joining and eventually retiring from military service — much like many of his uncles. It wasn’t until his mom married his stepdad, Johnny Mac Campbell, when Guthrie was 14 years old, did the idea of becoming a coach really take hold.
“He was an ex-coach who had become a principal and eventually a superintendent,” Guthrie said. “That is what geared me toward coaching. He led by example.”
Guthrie said he would watch as many of Campbell’s former players would stop by the house after they were grown and had kids of their own.
“He would receive Christmas cards from kids he had coached 20 years ago,” Guthrie said. “I could see the way he touched kids’ lives.
“I wanted to be a part of it.”
Guthrie was named the new head football coach for Haskell Harmony Grove on March 12.
“We actually had a lot of applicants,” Harmony Grove Athletic Director Ricky Mooney said, “but we went to him and asked if he would consider doing it from the head coaching position.
“He is who we were looking at all along. We thought with his familiarity with the kids and how much they like him and work hard for him, he seemed to be a good fit.”
Guthrie has served as the defensive coordinator for the past two seasons under former head coach Paul Calley, who left to serve as an assistant principal and assistant football coach for the Bauxite School District.
“We are already invested in the program and the kids,” Guthrie said. “I know the conference we are going in because I have coached in it before.
“I know it is going to be a difficult challenge.”
Harmony Grove will move up to the 4A Conference this season. The Cardinals will play against Nashville, Arkadelphia, Pulaski Robinson, Fountain Lake, Bauxite and Malvern.
“That’s a pretty tall feat. It is a very athletic conference, and it is a well-coached conference,” Guthrie said.
“You have really good coaches in this conference to go with some fantastic athletes …,” he said.
“We are going into a very tough conference,” Mooney said. “I just think [Guthrie] is going to get the best out of them. He has been around them for a couple of years, so he knows the kids and what they should expect out of him.”
Mooney said everybody “knows it is going to be a challenge.”
“Without a doubt, it is the best conference in the 4A as far as talent …,” Mooney said, “but he is up for it, and he is not going to back away from it.”
Guthrie graduated from Glenwood High School in 1984 and from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
He was a head coach at Lincoln High School from 2001 to 2004, at Cedarville High School from 2004 to 2008 and was an interim head coach at Bauxite High School in 2013.
“It just seems like the good Lord keeps putting us into this situation …, with the conference and all of that,” Guthrie said.
“The other schools I have been at have been in similar situations,” he said. “The year I took over at Bauxite, they had won one game a year for five years, and they are in the conference we are going to.
“Even though we have had success here, moving up to that conference and achieving that success again is going to get harder and harder to achieve.”
Brad Ray, who is an assistant principal at Fort Smith Northside High School, worked with Guthrie for three years at Cedarville.
“[Guthrie] is very intense, and he holds everyone accountable,” Ray said. “If you mess up, he is going to let you know, and that comes from the high expectations he holds people to.
“If you aren’t getting it done, he’s going to let you know.”
Ray was sitting right next to Guthrie when he received the news that his mom, Shirley, had died in 2009. Ray said Guthrie handled it well, got his stuff in order and left town to take care of the arrangements.
“We took a group of players down to see him during the visitation, and he was very emotional when he saw his players there to support him,” Ray said. “It was very indicative of how his kids felt about him. They wanted to be there to support their coach.”
Guthrie said the main thing he hopes to accomplish in his time as head coach at Harmony Grove is to build character.
“We want to try to win as many games as we can,” Guthrie said, “but to be honest, building character and putting young men out in our society who will be successful and productive in our society instead of pulling against it is a huge goal for us.
“I feel that in today’s society, we have too many going the other way. I just feel like character goes a long way when you become a grown man. It is part of our job as coaches to build that.”
Guthrie said his players are adjusting well to him being head coach.
“We have a mindset change because the offense is going to be quite a bit different, but they have taken to it well,” Guthrie said. “The kids here are hard workers. They love the weight room, and they work hard.
“They don’t back down from hard work, and that’s definitely a plus. They know what it is going to take to be successful.”
Harmony Grove has played mostly out of the spread formation for the past two years but will move to the Diamond T under Guthrie.
“I was under Don Campbell for 10 years [at Wynne], and that’s the offense he is famous for,” Guthrie said. “Not only is he a great coach, but he is a great man. He was an even better teacher.”
Campbell, who coached at the high school level for 31 years, said Guthrie is a “hardworking young man.”
“He is a very intense young man,” Campbell said. “He really pushes his players and gets after it. He is a worker and coaches hard.”
When Campbell first met Guthrie, he was coaching the seventh-grade football team. After watching Guthrie coach, Campbell made the decision to move him up to the junior high level.
“The first chance I had to move him up, I moved him up,” Campbell said. “He did a good job. I believe he won the junior high conference one year. I saw real quickly how well he could coach.”
Campbell ran the Diamond T offense his entire coaching career, and he never had a Division I player until his 24th year of coaching.
“But we also won our fair share of games,” Campbell said. “You can win with that offense to a certain degree, but gosh, it is going to be tough in that conference.
“He ain’t got a breather on his schedule.”
Guthrie said Cardinal fans should expect his players to play with character and play relentlessly.
“Our goal is to put a product on the field that our community can be proud of,” Guthrie said.
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or email@example.com.