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PREP FOOTBALL: Mountainburg coach Tom Harrell ends iconic 32-year coaching career at same school

by LELAND BARCLAY Special to the NWA Democrat-Gazette | December 19, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/ MICHAEL WOODS Mountainburg head coach Tom Harrell watches his team during Friday nights game in Elkins in 2003.

MOUNTAINBURG -- Tom Harrell has wall decor that few high school football coaches have ever had in their office.

On the wall behind his desk are 32 neatly aligned framed photos of his teams at Mountainburg High School during his head coaching tenure.

He added the last one this season as Harrell announced during the summer that it would be his last as the coach of the Dragons.

"It doesn't seem real that we went through all of those," Harrell said, looking at the three decades of Mountainburg teams he coached. "You'd be surprised how many times we refer to that wall. Somebody will bring up a kid or a kid comes in here and they go over there and look. You go back and find what years they played. I can always remember students by who the football players were that were in their class."

Harrell was the longest-tenured active head coach at a single school in the state before his recent retirement. He took over that mantel when Cabot's Mike Malham retired three years ago.

"It seems like a blur now," Harrell said. "I can remember every one of them."

Only coaching legends Malham (38 years at Cabot), Jarrell Williams (36 years at Springdale), David Alpe (36 years at Malvern), and Bernie Cox (35 years at Little Rock Central) spent more years at one and only one school as a head coach.

"Back when I was younger, I thought I might want to go to Alma or Van Buren or Ozark," said Harrell, who finished his career with a 173-153-3 record. "It didn't take me long to realize this is where I fit. I know what the grass is like here. It might look greener on the other side, but there might be a bunch of side burs in it. I like dealing with country people. For the most part, that's what we've got here."

ON THE WAY

Harrell played for the legendary Frank Vines at Alma and was a member of the Airedales' 1980 state championship team.

He started at free safety, kicked three extra points and a 27-yard field goal in Alma's 24-15 win over Wynne in the state championship game at Wynne that capped a perfect 14-0 season.

He also started on the 1979 team that lost to Arkadelphia in the championship game.

After graduating from Alma, Harrell went to Westark Community College (now the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith) for three semesters and then to Arkansas Tech where he decided to go into coaching.

Harrell graduated from Tech in 1987 and applied for and interviewed for a junior high basketball job that was open at Mountainburg. Chris Nolen also applied, and the job went to Nolen.

So Harrell volunteer coached under Glen McCutchen for two years before McCutchen went into administration and left for Van Buren.

Mountainburg superintendent Floyd Cagle then offered the job to Harrell, who was 27, and he worked with Nolen, who became his long-time assistant coach in football.

A TINY BURG

Harrell has certainly seen plenty during his tenure as the head coach of the Dragons.

Before Interstate 49 was built, almost every car that made its way to Northwest Arkansas and the University of Arkansas passed through Mountainburg, tucked in between the Ozark Mountains.

When the construction on I-49 was completed in 1999, the town was bypassed and was left as just a dot on scenic Highway 71. The Silver Springs Truck Stop and Restaurant, and the full-service gas stations soon closed.

For many years, Lake Fort Smith Park was a popular summertime destination for area teenagers with a swimming pool and spillway in addition to the cool waters of the lake.

When the new dam for Lake Fort Smith and Lake Shepherd Springs was finished in 2006, the old park was flooded as part of the new water supply, and a new park was opened further north on Highway 71.

A tornado wiped out part of the town a few years ago and almost destroyed the Dairy Dream, home of the famous Mountainburger.

Mountainburg has mostly played in the state's smallest football-playing classification through the years but was moved up a couple of times when school enrollment ticked up a bit.

"When they were building the dam and the interstate, that's when we went to 3A," Harrell said. "We had some people move in that bumped our numbers up, probably more because of the dam than the interstate. There was always Shiloh Christian and Charleston."

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER

Mountainburg competed in the same conference as Shiloh Christian in the Saints' early years as well as other prominent teams like Charleston.

Some of those old Dragons team photos don't have a lot of players in them.

"My first year here, Glen was coaching, and we had nine kids at football practice," Harrell said. "I was like, you've got to be kidding. That was for the morning practice. That night, we had six that wasn't there that morning. That was an eye opener."

Harrell points at the photo of his first team as head coach in 1990 that lost just two games to Charleston and Hackett in the 4A-West.

"That team was really talented," Harrell said.

In 1994, Mountainburg finished 5-5, including a 14-12 loss at Shiloh Christian.

"We went to Shiloh with 13 kids on the bus," Harrell said. "We should have beaten them. We missed two field goals."

Harrell was an innovator as a head coach, experimenting with different plays and formations not only to fit his personnel but to try to give his players any advantage he could.

"We lined up in the Shotgun, but we weren't Spread. We ran Single-Wing, Wing-T version," Harrell said. "Some of the best teams we had we didn't throw the ball but six or seven times a game. One year, it was week four before we completed a pass and went 9-2."

One thing that Harrell's teams never were was a wide-open passing attack that is the norm in today's game.

"Bad things happen when you throw it," Harrell said. "There were years that it wasn't out of choice. I enjoyed throwing the ball. I think it's fun for the kids but there were a lot of years that we weren't equipped for it. We didn't have kids that could throw it, and we didn't have kids that could catch it. It doesn't take very many second-and-10s, third-and-10s, fourth-and-10s and punt to figure that out. You can teach them to run the ball, stay in bounds and run the clock."

Playing teams like Rison, Hermitage, Strong and Junction City forced Harrell to be innovative.

"I'm very creative," Harrell said. "It's more suited for a small school to be that way. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

One claim to fame is that Mountainburg is partly responsible for Strong's state championship in 2011.

Kenneth Dixon was the star running back for Strong that season and played a first-round playoff game at Mountainburg.

"When we played Strong, I wanted shock and awe," Harrell said. "I don't want them to have a clue who to block. We lined up in a 4-4 stack, 5-2, 6-2, 3-3 stack. Every play, we would give them a different look and stunt like crazy. The only way we were going to stop Dixon was to get him before he got going. First half, it worked. They were running Wishbone, and they'd toss it to him and we'd tackle him about the time he would catch it."

Mountainburg led 28-13 early in the third quarter, and still led 28-27 in the fourth quarter when the Dragons stopped Dixon on a two-point conversion attempt after a touchdown. Dixon, though, led Strong on a game-winning drive for a 35-28 win.

The difference was Strong moved Dixon to quarterback in the second half, and Dixon finished with 239 yards and two touchdowns rushing and 6-of-8 passing for 87 yards and a touchdown.

"I've never seen anybody like Kenneth Dixon," Harrell said.

Dixon played quarterback the remainder of the playoffs and finished the season with a single-season state record 3,153 yards and 39 touchdowns. He set a championship game record with 348 yards with 5 touchdowns.

"They owe us half of that state championship," Harrell said.

DOING WHAT'S BEST

Harrell quit playing scrimmage games about 10 years ago after his prized quarterback Bobby Pixley was injured in a scrimmage game.

"I lost him for the first game," Harrell said. "We had scrimmaged, and he got dinged up. That was one thing that was in my mind."

The other aspect of not playing a scrimmage was the time spent on the game. As a rural school, practice time was valuable.

"It seemed like we would spend a couple of days preparing for whoever we were going to scrimmage," Harrell said. "Then the day of the scrimmage we didn't do anything. Then the two days following, we watched film of the scrimmage."

Also, he didn't want to give teams a look at his team. There were years Harrell didn't even have a name for what kind of innovative offense he was going to run.

"Then a part of me didn't want the other teams to have a clue as to what we were going to run," Harrell said. "One year, we had a guy from Hackett come over here and sit in the bleachers to watch us practice because we didn't play a scrimmage game. I went up and ran him off."

Mountainburg opened against Hackett several years, and the game developed into a rivalry of sorts. Other years, Mountainburg opened against Crawford County rival Cedarville.

He also never held two-a-day practices.

"I immediately decided it was senseless to try to have two-a-day practices, Harrell said. "We just went 6 o'clock at night for 32 years. We never did have morning practice. We got them here once and we'd work about three hours. A lot of these kids work. They've got jobs."

Even game nights had odd situations.

"I had one kid, who said coach I've got to drive my stock car," Harrell said. "It was on Friday night. I let him go at halftime to go drive at Crawford County Speedway."

Sometimes even practice had to be compromised.

"No other coach in Arkansas has had some of this stuff," Harrell said. "I had to stop practice and let a dump truck drive through the middle of the football field. Then it would come back."

The Dragons were flagged for having a dog on the field against Shiloh Christian one year. Then when the dog showed up again, they were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

When he did play scrimmage games, he had to cancel one of those once.

"We had to cancel a scrimmage one year against Green Forest," Harrell said. "There was a crazy person on the loose over here on the interstate, and they had us on lockdown. We had to call Green Forest and tell them to turnaround, we couldn't play."

Maybe the worst was in 2002 when Harrell canceled and forfeited the final three games of the season due to low numbers of players available to play.

"We started off with about 20 and had nine season-ending injuries," Harrell said. "I'm talking lacerated kidneys, torn ACLs, broken legs. We went through five quarterbacks. We ended up with 13 kids. We called it. We had a lot of sophomores that played. It's not good when you have to start a bunch of sophomores. They got beat up pretty good. They toughened up quickly."

That next season, the Dragons came back, made the playoffs and won a playoff game.

"We came back the next year and beat Hector, which was undefeated, in the playoffs," Harrell said. "We were a four seed. We bounced back from it."

BUS RIDES

Harrell and the Dragons endured a lot of road trips during his tenure, which is common in the playoffs in the state's smallest classification.

After beating Hector in the first round in 2003, Mountainburg made a five-hour trip to Hughes and lost the next week.

Mountainburg has played at Murfreesboro, Junction City, Des Arc, England, and McCrory among others in the playoffs.

This season, he made one last trip with his Dragons and, of course, it was a long one going to East Poinsett County near Jonesboro.

It was one final bus ride to reflect on his last game as head coach at Mountainburg, ending a career that placed him on a list with the most iconic coaches in the state's history all at a small school nestled in the mountains in northern Crawford county.

"They accepted me," Harrell said. "It will always be a special place to me."

  photo  Mountainburg football coach Tom Harrell during his early days of coaching the Dragons.
 
 
  photo  Tom Harrell, Mountainburg head football coach, is seen on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in his office in Mountainburg. Harrell, who is retiring as head coach after more than 30 years, has photographs of every team he has coached on the wall. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)
 
 
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