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Championship caliber: Larry Lacewell, 85, won at every place he went

by Bob Holt | May 19, 2022 at 6:54 a.m.
Larry Lacewell, shown in his office in 2000 when he was the Dallas Cowboys’ director of scouting, died Tuesday night at his home in Jonesboro. He was 85. A native of Fordyce, Lacewell coached Arkansas State in 1979-89, leading ASU to a pair of Southland Conference titles and the NCAA Division I-AA championship game in 1986. (AP file photo)

Whether Larry Lacewell was Oklahoma's defensive coordinator, Arkansas State University's head coach, Tennessee's defensive coordinator or the Dallas Cowboys' director of scouting, he helped his teams win championships.

Lacewell, who died Tuesday night at his home in Jonesboro at the age of 85, won Big Eight championships and national championships with the Sooners, Southland Conference titles with ASU, an SEC title with the Vols and Super Bowls with the Cowboys.

"It's a tragic loss," said Barry Switzer, who as the head coach at Oklahoma and with the Cowboys twice worked with Lacewell. "We lost a great one.

"Anyone who didn't know Larry Lacewell missed out."

A Fordyce native, Lacewell was the winningest coach in ASU history and led the program to a 69-58-4 record from 1979-89 with four consecutive NCAA Division I-AA playoff appearances from 1984-87, including a championship game appearance in 1986 when the Red Wolves (then known as the Indians) lost to Georgia Southern 48-21 in Tacoma, Wash.

ASU won Southland Conference titles under Lacewell in 1985 and 1986.

"First and foremost, we've lost an icon in Coach Lacewell," said Tommy Walker, an ASU offensive lineman from 1980-83. "He definitely made an impact on a lot of people's lives at Arkansas State with his philosophy of hard work and dedication and relentless effort.

"We learned so much from him and the coaches he had in place over that period of time.

"I think he had a great connection with his players and meant so much to us, but he also had a great connection to our training department, the equipment managers.

"Basically anybody that was around him, he was such a positive influence."

Lacewell, inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, played halfback at Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas-Monticello) and began his coaching career in 1959 at Alabama as a graduate assistant for Coach Bear Bryant, another Fordyce native.

Oklahoma won six consecutive Big Eight titles from 1972-77 and back-to-back national championships in 1974-75 during Lacewell's stint as the Sooners' defensive coordinator from 1970-77.

"Larry was the best defensive coordinator I ever had," said Switzer, who played linebacker and center at the University of Arkansas and was a Razorbacks' assistant coach before going to Oklahoma. "He worked hard at it and he was smart. He was a guy who took a lot of pride in his work."

Switzer grew up in Crossett, about a 90-mile drive from Fordyce.

"I met Larry when we were 13 years old," Switzer said. "We're known each other all our lives. He was the closest friend in coaching I ever had."

Lacewell left ASU to become defensive coordinator at Tennessee, where he helped the Vols and Coach Johnny Majors -- a former Arkansas assistant -- win the 1990 SEC championship.

"I hope I leave Arkansas State better than when I found it -- and it was good when I found it," Lacewell said when he took the defensive coordinator's job at Tennessee. "I do believe we have made tremendous strides these past 11 years."

After Tennessee played in the Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl with Lacewell running the defense, Dallas owner Jerry Jones, a former Razorbacks offensive lineman, hired Lacewell to be the Cowboys' scouting director in 1992.

Lacewell was on the Dallas staff for three Super Bowl titles -- in 1992-93 under Jimmy Johnson, a former Arkansas player and assistant coach, and in 1995 under Switzer.

"Larry was a guy that recognized talent and he helped the Cowboys get a lot of great players," Switzer said. "I went to Dallas because of Larry. He helped talk me into going there.

"I valued his opinion so highly and had a lot of respect for Larry."

Lacewell worked for the Cowboys until retiring in 2004. He had been in failing health in recent years after suffering a stroke.

"Larry Lacewell was a friend and an outstanding football mind," Johnson said in an ASU news release. "He loved talking football, and as we all know that knew him, loved talking. That's why it was so tragic the last few years with his medical issues. He'll be missed."

After Lacewell's retirement from the Cowboys, he was honored by the Arkansas General Assembly in February 2005.

"The legendary coach and my very good friend, Larry Lacewell, made history at Arkansas State University as our winningest coach ever," Mike Beebe, who was Arkansas' governor from 2017-15 and earned degrees at ASU and the UA, said in an ASU news release. "A gifted football authority and athletic director, Larry was a consistently steady voice for his young charges, and an inspiration and example to all.

"He touched the lives of countless people of all ages and was a respected mentor and encouraging motivator, endowing future generations with guidance and expertise."

Lacewell resigned at ASU on Jan. 21, 1990, the same day Ken Hatfield resigned as Arkansas' coach to take the Clemson job. Known for a keen sense of humor, Lacewell joked that even when he thought he'd be the big story in Arkansas for a day, he was upstaged by the Razorbacks.

"When Coach Lacewell walked into a room, he basically filled it up with laughter," Walker said. "People loved to hear his stories."

Lacewell was inducted into the ASU Athletics Hall of Honor in 1987 and Ring of Honor in 2001 and inducted into the Arkansas-Monticello Hall of Fame in 2003. ASU's most valuable player award is named in Lacewell's honor.

"On behalf of our entire Arkansas State football family, we extend our deepest condolences to the family, friends and former colleagues of coaching legend Larry Lacewell," Red Wolves Coach Butch Jones said in a statement. "Arkansas State owes an overwhelming amount of gratitude to Coach Lacewell, one of the most prominent leaders and coaches in A-State history who had a profound influence on countless student-athletes and the lives he touched. His many accomplishments are well-documented and speaks volumes about the impact he had on our football program, athletics department, university, community and beyond.

"Larry Lacewell will forever be remembered as one of Arkansas State's all-time greats."

Lacewell played high school football for his father Arvel and earned all-state honors as a senior, according to an ASU news release. He was one of two five-sport lettermen in the history of Fordyce, lettering in football, basketball, track and field, swimming and tennis.

Lacewell's first ASU stint was coaching the freshmen football players and track and field team in 1960-61. He then was an assistant at UAM, an assistant at Kilgore (Texas) Junior College (winning a national junior college championship in 1964) and was an assistant at Wichita State and Iowa State before going to Oklahoma.

As ASU's athletic director, Lacewell helped lead the transition to NCAA Division I (now FBS) status.

"The Coach Lacewell era was instrumental in building the foundation of where we are today," Walker said. "His legacy will live on forever."

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