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Honoring a coach

by Rex Nelson | November 12, 2022 at 3:30 a.m.

It's the day of the annual Battle of the Ravine football game in Arkadelphia, and that has me thinking about coaches. For many Arkansans my age, coaches were among the most important people in their lives outside their parents.

Last year, Ed Henry asked me to write about his former coach, the late Mickey O'Quinn. I grew up in Arkadelphia, where O'Quinn was a longtime professor and later athletic director at Henderson State University. I was the center and his son Darren was the quarterback on an Arkadelphia High School football team that reached the state championship game in 1976. Our families knew each other well.

It wasn't until years later, however, that I realized what a pioneer O'Quinn had been in high school athletics in the areas of off-season strength, conditioning and agility programs. He also was a pacesetter when it came to filming games and practices. He even designed exercise machines.

Henry and Jimmy Baker were 1955 graduates of Arkadelphia High School. Both played football and basketball with O'Quinn as their coach. Several years ago, they decided to give back to their alma mater with the establishment of the Mickey O'Quinn Scholarship. A committee made up of the executive director of the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program, the Arkadelphia High School athletic director, an at-large member and an O'Quinn family member chooses the scholarship recipients.

The purpose of the scholarship is to assist students who are competing in college athletics as walk-ons or in a limited athletic scholarship capacity. Each scholarship is a minimum of $2,000 and a maximum of $4,000. Scholarships are awarded to male and female athletes.

O'Quinn was born in August 1929 in McRae. He grew up at Malvern in a home without a father. His son tells me he was shuffled among aunts and uncles. O'Quinn contracted polio as a child. The disease affected one leg from the knee down with little development of his calf muscle and foot. He was told he would never play sports.

O'Quinn proved the doctors wrong. He was an all-state football player at center and linebacker in high school. He first attended George Washington University in 1948 before transferring to Little Rock Junior College, where he was part of an undefeated team that won the National Junior College Rose Bowl in 1949. Jimmy Karam was the coach as the Trojans defeated the Dons of Santa Ana Junior College in the junior college version of a national championship game.

O'Quinn went on to become a football co-captain at Henderson. O'Quinn, who later was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, might be the only football athlete to have played for three previous Hall of Fame inductees--Duke Wells, Bo Rowland and Bo Sherman.

It was as a high school coach at Arkadelphia, Warren and Parkin that O'Quinn really made his mark.

At Warren, the swimming team he coached won 18 state championships and produced more than 50 state records. His Warren football team won 54 of 63 games at one point, including a team that gave up only two touchdowns all season. O'Quinn went on to serve as strength coach at the University of Arkansas as the Razorbacks won a version of the football national championship in 1964.

After receiving a master's degree and doctorate in Fayetteville, O'Quinn joined the Henderson faculty in 1969 and stayed there until retiring in 1998. In addition to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, O'Quinn was inducted into the Henderson Reddie Hall of Honor and Warren Hall of Fame.

"It was 1954, and I was a 16-year-old teenager," Henry told an interviewer a few years ago. "I was looking forward to spending the summer having fun with my buddies and then on to a big senior year of high school in Little Rock. At that age, I had no goals or ambitions. That changed in a heartbeat when my dad announced that he had taken a job as a manager of a butane gas store in Arkadelphia and we would be moving."

Henry was working in the store one day when a man came in to tell him that O'Quinn wanted to see him.

"I went, having no clue as to why," Henry said. "Coach O'Quinn was an imposing guy physically. He said that he wanted to offer me the opportunity to join the football team. I thought about it and decided to take him up on it. Late August 1954 had a number of 100-degree days. It was the toughest time physically I had ever experienced. When two-a-days ended, I was the starting right end. At the end of football season, I became a starting forward on the basketball team."

Henry said O'Quinn was from the "old school" and "handed out a lot of tough love. Everything he did was to make us better athletes and just as importantly better people. I really didn't understand this until later in life."

Henry went on to graduate from Little Rock University (the former LRJC and now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) and then spent the next 42 years in banking. He retired in 2004 as executive vice president of the west region for Regions Bank.

"The good things that have happened to me are a result of lessons I learned in 1954-55 from Coach O'Quinn," Henry said. "I hope this scholarship perpetuates the value and impact a coach can have on young people still trying to find their way in life. The greatest compliment I ever received was a notation from Coach O'Quinn in my high school yearbook."

Here's what O'Quinn wrote to Henry: "I only wish you had been a sophomore instead of a senior."

On this college football Saturday, my wish for your children and grandchildren is that they have a special teacher or coach in their lives.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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