Between 1968 and 1998, Bryant Hornets football teams posted a winning record exactly two times. In 1972, they were 6-4. In 1985, they went 7-4 with the first trip to the post-season since the program started in 1949.
So when the Hornets ran through the regular season undefeated then won their first State playoff game even in 1999, long-suffering Bryant football fans were absolutely giddy.
Daryl Patton was in his second year as head coach. A star quarterback on that 1985 team, Patton had returned to his alma mater and gained the high school head coaching job in ’98. On his staff, his assistants included a young offensive line coach from Gurdon named Paul Calley, a former starter at center for Henderson State University.
After ’99, the question arose: Was that a flash in the pan, a one-year anomaly, or was change really afoot? The questions persisted when the Hornets went 5-5 in 2000. But the Hornets bounced back with winning campaigns in 2001 and 2002. Patton was getting all sorts of attention statewide and after the ’02 season was hired at Fayetteville.
Lots of people feared that Patton might take all the success with him. Could someone else maintain Bryant’s evolution? At first, the head coaching job was offered to defensive coach Steve Griffith who had led the freshman team to some success before joining the high school staff in the mid ‘90’s. But he turned it down and recommended Calley who was hired.
The Hornets haven’t had a losing season since. And a year after Patton became the 14th active head coach to win 100 games at the same school, Calley became the 15th to reach that landmark at Bryant with his team’s heart-pounding 27-24 win at Alma Friday night.
“I’m so proud for Paul,” Patton commented. “Anytime you get to 100 wins, that shows he’s been around for a while, he’s had good players and good coaches with him and he knows how to motivate, fire up kids. He’s a good football coach, one of the best I’ve ever coached with.
“We kind of kick-started it when I was there but Paul and them have really built the program,” he added. “To do what they’ve done over the last 12, 13 years is unbelievable. It really is. To take a program at Bryant that, really, for 49 years averaged three wins a season and to build on what we started there in ’99 — I think he’s won four or five conference championships (five) and that’s a program that had never won one. He’s done tremendous things there and it’s an honor to have 100 victories.”
In the process, Calley, with Griffith staying on as defensive coordinator along with d-line coach Brad Stroud, has brought through a number of assistants, all offensive coordinator, some who were record-setting quarterbacks in their playing days, who have gone on to be successful high school coaches including Jared McBride, now head coach at Hot Springs Lakeside.
“Paul Calley is one of the best head coaches in high school football,” stated McBride, who was a star at Nashville. “He works hard at developing relationships with his players and his coaches. He has a way to get the most out of the athletes that he has.
“The key to Paul’s success is that he cares about his kids,” McBride added. “He taught me that if the kids don’t play hard it doesn’t matter what they know or what scheme you run.”
The first of those offensive coordinators was Josh Floyd, who went on to lead his alma mater Shiloh Christian to State titles and has since been hired to coach at Trussville High School near Birmingham, Ala.
“The thing I liked about Paul is he can obviously be a real fiery guy,” Floyd said. “He’s great at getting kids excited. I remember, just off-season workouts, he was a guy that would get in there and work out with them a little bit. I think the kids really enjoy playing for him.
“He does a good job of having a relationship with the kids but also getting the best out of them,” Floyd continued. “He’s great at getting that o-line to play really well. I think he’s willing to do whatever it takes on offense. I know he’s changed things up over the years, back and forth. You may have a system in place but you’ve got to adapt to what you actually have talent-wise. He’s always done a great job of that. And, obviously, they’re always pretty good on defense. They always give themselves a pretty good chance to win.”
Brooks Coatney, a star at Greenwood in high school, assisted at Bryant then was hired at Ozark as a head coach, moved on to lead Van Buren and has recently joined the staff at Fayetteville with Patton to serve as offensive coordinator.
“I think one of the things that I took from working with Coach Calley is his interaction with the players,” Coatney said. “I think one of the biggest goals you can have as a head coach is that you’ve got a group of guys on Friday night that go out and play their best for you because they have enough respect for you as a coach. Coach Calley, I think, puts a team out on the field each and every Friday night that just plays their guts out for him. It’s that kind of respect that the players have for him that I really took with me from my time there.
“I think his interaction with the other coaches on the coaching staff — he’s had a really good track record of working with guys and helping them develop into respectable coaches,” Coatney mentioned. “The influence he’s had on me, I can’t say enough about it. He definitely prepared me in all phases to be a head football coach — really, everything in my coaching career, being under his guidance and seeing how he did things from day-to-day.”
Calley has also earned the respect of those that have competed against him, his peers.
“I’ve known him for a long time,” said Conway head coach Clint Ashcraft. “We probably talk on the phone every other week or so. We stay in touch and visit with each other. During the spring, we keep in touch. I really like the guy. I really respect the guy.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that Bryant teams are always well-coached, well-prepared,” he added. “We have a lot of respect for them and their team and their coaching staff. Every year, you watch them when you’re getting ready to play them and one common theme we say is those guys always play really hard. You know going into the game, it’s going to be a battle. It’s a big game and it’s a good rivalry, one that I think both schools look forward to.”
Cabot coach Mike Malham agreed, saying, “They do a great job over there. I like ol’ Paul. I’ve got a lot of respect for Paul and their staff. When we play them, we better be ready because their team’s going to be ready.
“You know, they’re kind of like us on the other side of Little Rock,” Malham added. “They don’t have a lot of D-I’s (Division I college prospects) running around there. They’ve got your average athletes and they work them hard and they’re one of the best-prepared teams. They play hard and they win. And that’s why they win.”
Ellis “Scooter” Register, now at Little Rock Central, has led teams against Calley’s Hornets for years, at Little Rock McClellan, Catholic and El Dorado before Central.
“Paul refers to me as Grandpa,” Register related. “I actually like that since I have two wonderful grandchildren.
“We’ve actually become what I would consider good friends,” he continued. “That’s been the result of several competitive contests through the years. Paul has done a marvelous job as head coach at Bryant. His teams are always well prepared and well coached. His competitive spirit is very evident in his players.
“Congratulations, Coach, on your 100th win,” Register added. “Job well done. I hope I’m around to congratulate you on being a grandfather as well someday.”
Of course, winning is the ultimate goal. It’s the payoff for all the work the coaches and players put in. But most of the athletes that have played for Paul Calley will tell you he helped them develop as a person, to become responsible citizen and have a good work ethic.
“He showed us how to be a man on and off the field,” was the way more than one former player put it.
“We’ve maintained a close relationship and our families spend time together,” Coatney concluded. “I don’t know if I’ve ever actually told him but my daughter is named Cali (after him). I think that speaks for itself.
“I have the utmost respect for Coach Calley,” he stated. “I can’t say enough good things about him and what he’s done for the program in Bryant is unprecedented. He deserves to get the recognition of being one of the top coaches in our state.”