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The Little Rock School District's athletic programs aren't interested in taking a backseat to similar organizations across the state.

Recent coaching moves have seemingly backed up that claim.

The district has made a number of notable hires over the past two years that Athletic Director John Daniels believes will make their teams even more competitive than what they already are.

"The expectations, for us, is that we kind of want to set the bar now versus somebody else setting the bar and us looking up at them saying how do we get there," he said. "We're saying let's just set the bar and attract the best coaches, the best people ... let's put the best people in front of our kids."

Daniels thinks the LRSD has done just that by tabbing several proven educators to lead various programs, namely at newly constructed Southwest High School.

The institution is the first high school to be built in the city in more than half a century and will officially open for instruction in August.

The first significant hire put in motion was Daryl Patton, a four-time state title winner, to lead the football program.

The last time a team from the district won a state football championship in Arkansas' highest classification was in 2004 when Little Rock Central captured the second of back-to-back titles. Patton, who was hired Jan. 29, led Fayetteville to state titles in 2007, 2011, 2012 and 2015 during a 13-year stint. The Saline County native and Bryant graduate has won more than 65% of his games in his 22 seasons as a head coach.

The district has also secured a pair of respected coaches with championship pedigrees to guide Southwest's boys and girls basketball teams. Chris Threatt, who won a pair of state titles at Little Rock McClellan, was picked to guide the Gryphons while Charlie Johnson, a three-time champion, will lead the Lady Gryphons.

Daniels was especially high on Johnson, who had coached boys basketball for the past 23 years.

"We want people with high character, and obviously Charlie has that," Daniels said of Johnson, who took the Little Rock Hall girls to a title in 1997 before winning championships with the Little Rock Fair boys in 2000 and 2003. "With us knowing who he is, what he stands for, what he says, it was an easy choice. When he brings something to the table with a parent and the kids, and he puts it out there and he's going to stick to it. You go A to Z in everything you look for in a coach and with Charlie, you can check off all those boxes with him.

"He's not gonna sugarcoat anything. If you can't do the things he's asks of you, you're either going to be at the end of the bench or in the bleachers."

The noteworthy hires didn't start with Southwest. The LRSD chose Brian Ross in 2018 to replace Oliver Fitzpatrick as the Little Rock Central boys basketball coach. Ross had previously won three state titles in four years at Baptist Prep, but it took him just two seasons to do the same at Central. The Tigers were named co-champions in Class 6A this past season.

At Little Rock Parkview, the district went with a University of Arkansas icon to replace a legendary coach. Scotty Thurman helped deliver the Razorbacks its lone national title in 1994 and was chosen to take over for Al Flanigan, who retired after the 2018-19 season after leading the Patriots to seven state crowns during his 23-year run.

"In today's environment, with school choice and all the other options involved, parents basically can look at the school and know if it's academically sound" explained Daniels, who's been the district's athletic director since 2015. "They're going to look for the best, and if their kid is athletic, and they feel like they're going to be really good in whatever sport it is they're playing, they're going to take their kid to that coach and say, 'do the best you can.' They may get an academic scholarship but now, they may also have an opportunity to get an athletic scholarship, too.

"We're looking for character people in our district. We want people to be around kids that we know are gonna shine off the court as well as on the court, and we've shined on the court for a long time."

Four other splashes the district has made centered around Little Rock Hall, which will be known as Little Rock Hall STEAM Magnet beginning this school year. Jim Withrow, who'd carried Sylvan Hills to the postseason 11 times since 2007, was hired in February to coach a Warriors team that hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 1993. Jon Coleman and Selita Farr, a pair who've coached a combined 31 years at Hall, were also rehired to lead their boys and girls teams, respectively, while Zavier Lewis, a 10-year coaching veteran, was named the school's head volleyball coach.

In addition, Marlon Williams, who found success with Conway Blue on the junior high level, was charged with returning the Little Rock Central Lady Tigers' basketball team back to prominence following the retirement of long-time coach Michael Green in April.

Daniels noted that the football, basketball and volleyball coaches have been moved from a 205-day contract to a 245-day contract. The 40 extra days, according to Daniels, will allow them to do other things with their teams aside from summer workouts, like fundraisers and community service initiatives.

"Everyone needs to understand this that we are not satisfied, and we have a ways to go," Daniels said. "We're not satisfied now. In order to have good athletic programs, you have to have good people running them. We've lost kids to other surrounding districts over the years, and we're not going to lose those kids anymore."

The coaching additions aren't expected to cease just yet. A few other positions are yet to be filled, and Daniels said the district is going to continue do what's they feel is best.

"We're putting the foundation out there," Daniels stated. "Look what Brian Ross did in what, two years? We're gonna hold our coaches accountable to what we expect. Central Arkansas should never be behind in sports, period. The fact that we got behind, I don't know how we got there.

"But we're catching up quickly, and when we get through, we will be the best before it's all said and done."


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