Now a Wampus Cat: After 5 titles at Bryant, James heads to Conway

Bryant head coach Buck James celebrates with his players after Bryant's 42-38 win in the Class 7A state championship game on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. .More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Conway has been near the top of Class 7A's high school football over recent years, among the best of the rest behind five-time state champion Bryant.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Wampus Cats hired Buck James, the man who has had a firm grip on Arkansas' largest classification since taking over at Bryant in 2016.

James notified Bryant Superintendent Dr. Karen Walters of his intention to leave for Conway on Tuesday morning and met with his new team later that afternoon.

"It definitely brings a sense of excitement," Conway Athletic Director Clint Ashcraft said. "You know, he's familiar with us. He's familiar with our kids. He's familiar with our coaches. He's going to bring his ideas and his nuances in to our kids and the staff that he puts together, and we're just hoping that leads to great things for our football program."

James did not respond to interview requests by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday.

In seven seasons at Bryant, James compiled an 80-9 record, winning state championships each of the past five seasons, a streak that is a record in the state's largest classification. He departs the Hornets amidst a 53-game winning streak against in-state opponents, dating back to a loss to North Little Rock on Oct. 25, 2018.

Bryant went 12-0 last season and beat Conway twice on its way to another state championship.

James has a 210-52 record in 21 seasons as a head coach in the state. He won a state championship as a player with Jefferson Prep in 1981, as an assistant at Monticello in 1994 and as a head coach at Camden Fairview in 2012 before moving to Bryant.

James is succeeding former Conway coach Keith Fimple, who became Springdale's athletic director in early May.

He is the third departure from Bryant's football coaching staff this offseason. Offensive coordinator Kirk Bock is set to become Bryant's new athletic director, and defensive coordinator Quad Sanders became Jonesboro's head football coach March 14.

Ashcraft said that once Fimple resigned, Conway put together a short list of coaches in and out of Arkansas to gauge interest. He said once James signaled there was mutual interest, it wasn't hard to see who the best candidate was.

"When you put his resume on the table, you know, try to top it," Ashcraft said. "Once there was some interest there, and it was both ways, it kind of took [on] a life of its own.

"We kept talking to other people because you never know how things are going to play out. [But] once it got to where we knew this was serious for both parties, we kind of shut down all the other talks and wanted to finish this line all the way out."

James met with Conway brass multiple times in the weeks following Fimple's resignation. The two sides met face-to-face twice before James informed Ashcraft that he had accepted the position on May 26.

James and Ashcraft's relationship goes back to 1998 when the former was coaching at Monticello and the latter at Watson Chapel. Between coaching clinics, team camps and going head-to-head on Friday nights, the two have stayed in touch for nearly 25 years.

"Mine and his conversations are always really good," Ashcraft said. "We've coached against each other at multiple places, in the playoffs and stuff, so I know what kind of man he is. And I know what he brings to programs."

James joins a Conway program that has won eight games or more in each of the past six seasons with 10 victories in 2022. But despite all that success, the Wampus Cats have not won an outright conference title since 2014 and are in search of their first state championship since 1967.

"I think all your great coaches are fueled by challenges," Ashcraft said. "The fact that we're right there, and the opportunity is there to come in here and take it one step further, I think that's something that kind of drives Coach James."