In 1981, when the Jefferson Prep Patriots won the Class A State football championship with a 14-7 win over Lewisville, one of the biggest, strongest, toughest players on the team was a lineman named Buck James.
“I thought I was strong,” he recalled recently. “I thought I was tough. But I found out I wasn’t.”
James explained, “When I went to high school, the weight room was not a priority. When I went to college to play (at the University of Arkansas at Monticello), I thought the world was blue or green when I was on the football field because I was either looking at the sky or the ground. Because I got whipped. Because I wasn’t physically strong as those guys that came from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and came from good programs.
“And I told myself, if I ever become a coach, it won’t be because of strength, it won’t be the reason we get beat or won’t be the reason we can’t compete.
“John McDonnel, the great track coach at Arkansas, said every great coach has got to have a line that you don’t let the kids cross. Mine’s been the weight room.”
Is James calling himself a “great” coach? He would say he didn’t mean it that way but considering he turned around two down programs at Star City and Camden Fairview then took over an already consistently good Bryant program and took it to greater heights, he qualifies. He’s won four State championships including three in a row now at Bryant and he’s closing in on 200 victories as a head coach.
Starting a coaching career
As an assistant at Monticello High School, James gathered wisdom from the likes of Hall of Fame coach Johnny McMurry.
“He knew his stuff,” James said. “The coaches I worked with were some veteran guys and I learned the weight room. I learned the conditioning. I learned development.”
He took his ideas to his first head coaching job at Star City, which enjoyed unseen success, winning 36 games in four years.
“We had a heck of a run,” he recalled. “We went to Thanksgiving (State semifinals) three years in a row. We won 10 games a year for three years in a row, won two conference championships. We had a 9-1 season one year. That was unheard of there.
“Then the Camden Fairview job came open and it was tough the first year,” James said. “The most I ever had in off-season was like 24 kids. The first year we had to put it all in during football season. We went 4-6.
But the coach saw the potential.
“We scrimmaged (Fairview) when I was at Monticello,” he said. “They had just unbelievable athletes. I mean they’d almost beat us within a half inch of our life. And every year, we’re in the playoffs and Camden Fairview was beat. I said, ‘What the heck happened to Camden Fairview?’
“I didn’t know the problem,” James related. “I didn’t know what was going on. But I knew if you could go in there and do what we did, you could be successful.
“(At Camden), we got to (three) championship games and we got to semifinal games, but we only won one State championship,” he said. “But we had a chance. We were winning two of them on the last play of the game. We just couldn’t get over the hump, mentality-wise.
“But the kids bought in. I mean, they played their guts out.”
Needing help for a special needs child, James started looking for a job in central Arkansas. He wound up offensive line coach and assistant athletic director at Little Rock Christian.
“We put in the weight program there,” James related. “Those guys that are seniors now were seventh graders when I was there. And I had all of them in the weight room. I’m not saying I did all that. I’m just saying I was a part of building that work ethic and that culture. They’ve done a great job since we left. They’ve been in three State championship games with those guys. And they’re in the weight room every day now.
“Everybody can go into the weight room and do their job,” James explained.
The move to Bryant
Initially at Bryant, the demands of James and his staff led to lots of kids quitting, some of which had come out to try to get a second chance to play football after falling short under the previous coaching staff, led by head coach Paul Calley.
“That’s been normal everywhere I’ve been,” James said. “I told them, those who stay will be champions. The workload was probably more than they were used to, I don’t know because I wasn’t here. We asked them to lift weights.”
All teams lift weights, though.
“If you lift right, it helps you,” James stated. “It helps you in a lot of ways, from self-esteem to being a better football player, baseball player or basketball player.
“If you look at it, LeBron James is the biggest, strongest guy in basketball and he’s the best. You look at golf, Tiger Woods is the best. He’s the biggest, strongest golfer. You look at football, the biggest, strongest guys are the best players. I mean, Bo Jackson was one of the greatest players ever and he was big and strong.
“I can sit here and name numerous guys,” the coach mentioned. “In any sport, the bigger, stronger, tougher, committed guys are going to win. That’s what we try to get our kids to buy into, and our parents and our community, they let us do it.
“It’s just a mindset. It’s just a mentality. It’s just a way of doing things. I’m not saying what I did was better. I think I fixed some things that were hurting. But the biggest thing is we got in the weight room.
“For so long, everything was going outside of the walls,” he mentioned. “There were people that were training the kids for football that weren’t on the football staff. They were going to get trainers and stuff like that. You’ve got to have a sense of camaraderie. You’ve got to have a shared pain. You’ve got to compete against your teammates.
“That was the problem when we got (to Little Rock Christian). They were doing their training like what we did at Bryant, farming it out. And I ain’t going to say it’s all of them. But it was the good players. And because that’s how they make their money is to get the good player out there and put them on social media. That’s what was happening out there too. They started doing it all in house and you look at the success they’ve had.
“And (at Bryant) we asked them to do their training together,” he said. “Now, if I pay a guy to train me and I get tired, he’s probably going to say, ‘Well, take a breather.’ We were all in this together. We all rolled our sleeves up together. I mean, if you go out there and train yourself, you’re not going to be pushed.
Wheelbarrows need to be pushed
“A lot of people — I’m one — aren’t wheelbarrows,” the coach explained. “I mean, they sit there until they’re pushed.
“Shared pain. You do things together. You play beside a guy. You live beside a guy. You dress beside a guy. You compete against a guy. All those are things you do in football and that’s what you’ve got to do in the weight room.”
Obviously, it takes talented players too, but they have to, in coach speak, “buy in,” meaning the players have to believe in what you’re asking them to do. There’s a trust, a commitment that’s required.
“I think we had a buy-in from kids because, you can look at it, the number of kids in the last five years that we started that didn’t start in junior high,” James illustrated. “Just because you’re not a good junior high player doesn’t mean you can’t be a good high school player. It just means you didn’t develop as fast. If you’ve got heart and you’ve got character and you’ve got a will to win, it doesn’t really matter your size in football.
“Now, if you don’t want to work and you’re small, that’s tough,” he said. “If you’re weak and you don’t want to work, that’s tough. But if you’re willing to do those things — look at our receivers; look at some of our d-backs. They weren’t physical creatures in junior high. Our linemen developed in a nice way. We’ve got some mentality and some strength there. They were in shape. They were agile and they gave us a chance to be successful through a lot of hard work.
“And what’s hard work? Going until you’re tired or going past when you’re tired or just until you don’t feel comfortable. I think the first term I told them when I came in the doors was ‘We’re going to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.’
“I think that’s life. I think that the lessons that you learn in football should be the same lessons that you learn in life as far as getting you to the point where you can be successful in life. Because it ain’t easy. Most adults know, it’s tough out there in the real world. If you can learn some of those traits in sports, in school and growing up with your teammates and they can be a family in it together then it gives you a chance to be successful. And I think that’s really what we’ve done.”
For his last few years, Calley declared that for things to change the way they needed to at Bryant, he would have to leave. He felt that he’d been at Bryant too long to get things, mostly off the field, changed. He proved to be prophetic.
Calley resigned after a strong season in 2015. James was hired.
“Paul Calley, Steve Griffith, Lance Parker and John Wells then Brad Stroud — they were very honest with me,” said James, who noted that he and Calley talked for over three hours on a couple of occasions.
“Every place has its quirks or its traditions or things that don’t work and things that work,” James said. “Paul was up front. Everything — I mean, he was dead on. Everything that those guys told me that needed to change, things that needed to be fixed are things that I saw and things that we did. I couldn’t have done it without that kind of transition. It would never have gotten to the point that it did as fast as it did.
“Steve, John and Lance went through spring football with me,” he noted. “Usually, when I go somewhere, it’s such a change that we don’t ever really do good the first year. But those guys did an unbelievable job of helping me get started.
“Having Steve and John and Lance, knowing they weren’t going to be here was huge,” James emphasized. “Really, a lot of unselfish men did a really good job of helping steer me on the right path. I could’ve taken off in completely the opposite direction without their help.
“I applaud those guys. The job they did and the way they did it was big. I think they wanted the program to succeed. I think they wanted it to be better. I think, honestly, they gave me the best advise they could give me. I’d been around the block a couple of times and I saw that they were genuine and true.”
The coach eventually got cooperation from all the coaches from seventh grade to freshmen.
“Going to one terminology through the district was a big plus for us,” he related. “Kids knew a little bit about what was going on when they got here.
“I asked them,” he said of the junior high coaches. “I’m sure (athletic director) Coach (Mike) Lee had something to do with it. But I mean I just asked them, and they were willing to do it. They were willing to buy into it. The coaches wanted to do it and the kids were wanting to buy in.
“You know, football hasn’t changed,” James stated. “People have changed. Kids haven’t changed. It’s the philosophy and mentality of the administrations and community people, thinking that they’ve got a better way of doing it. I think that’s what a lot of football coaches battle today.
“And I’m not going to sit here and say that you can do it without good players. Obviously, we have good players, but they’ve had good players here for a long time. I remember Coach Parker telling me, ‘You know we’ve won eight games a year here for a long time.’ A lot of people would think that’s great. I think we’d won 26 or 27 games with the senior class when I got here. I’d been at schools that won 35, 36, 37, and I just thought, you know, we’re way off of where we need to be. Our goals need to be better and we need to show them that what we’re doing is good, but we can do better.
“I think our kids know that we have their best interests at heart,” he stated. “Sometimes they get jaded or shaded about the approach and we have to work through it. Like I said, a wheelbarrow don’t move unless it’s pushed. Some people are wheelbarrows, some are Ferraris, some people are tow trucks. Just different kinds of people are motivated different kinds of ways.
“But I tell you, at the end of the day, everybody wants to be successful and everybody wants to be good. That’s the key to having success is having people who are willing to do that.”
Building a strong staff
A big part of the formula has been a strong staff. Currently, that’s offensive coordinator Kirk Bock, defensive coordinator Quad Sanders, and position coaches Shane Clancy, Travis Queck, B.J. Shuler, Julian Jones and Adam Pendergrass.
“I’ve always been told that if I ever get rid of my assistant coaches, I wouldn’t ever be able to do anything, but I keep getting new ones and they keep changing jobs,” James quipped.
Asked what he looks for in an assistant, the coach said, “They’ve got to have work habits. They’ve got to have a work ethic. They’ve got to be smart and they have to be a people person. They’ve got to be guys who don’t sit in the office. They get out and talk to the kids and hang out with the kids and know how to put the whistle down.
“It ain’t about how much you know. It’s about how much you can do. I think knowing your kids and knowing how they work and knowing their personalities and all those things, I think is important.
“I’ve got a wide array of coaches and I have since I’ve been here. But I think every one of those guys love kids and they want to be successful and they’re willing to be a part of a team.
“I mean, you look at what Coach (Kirk) Bock’s doing,” he related. “He’s been to the top of the pole (as a baseball coach) and to come in here and be the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach after doing what he’s done.
“You look at Robert Hooks and what he did at Osceola. He’s rebuilding the program over in West Memphis. And Darrell Burnett’s over there at Hot Springs trying to rebuild that program. They try to do it the right way.
“The guys we have on our staff now are very unselfish men,” James declared. “I mean, they check their egos at the door. They will do whatever they’ve got to do for the team to be successful, whether it’s staying long hours, staying extra to put in the time in the weight room or whatever, the physical development.
“They’re willing to do whatever it takes. Those guys got here this summer at 4:30 in the morning and we left at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We did that for two months. And they didn’t get paid a dime for that all summer long. They weren’t on contract. And to come up here and work those many hours, a lot of guys don’t do that. Then the hours they spend during the season are unbelievable.
“I wish that I would’ve been coached like we coach,” he said. “I wish that I’d had somebody to push me past my comfort zone. I wish I would’ve had somebody make me stronger. Because when I got in college — I mean, I was as strong as anybody that played the game — but I didn’t do that when I got there. And I would’ve been more prepared for everything if I would’ve been better prepared in high school.
“Winning was just enough then. There wasn’t the mental and physical development like there is now. Now, they would check your oil. They would do that. It was old school. I was playing in an era where you got ice chips and salt tablets. We rode our bicycles to practice. We rode them home. We played in the backyard. We played at the park. Just a different lifestyle.”
Lifting and results
That takes the coach back to the weight training.
“You know, Lou Holtz said one time, figures don’t lie, but liars figure. If your numbers are not what they’re supposed to be, you’re not going to be successful. We’ve got a formula on how many guys are 1,000-pound lifters or 1,500-pound lifters when you combine their weight totals up and I can tell you before the season starts, most of the time, if you’ve got a chance to be good or not. If those numbers aren’t there, you’re not going to compete. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face. Big, strong guys beat little weak guys. That’s just the truth of it. And when you play people that are as big and strong as you are and compete like we did against Trinity Christian then it comes down to who makes some plays.”
The Hornets defeated the nationally renowned Texas program, 44-40, in week three this season.
“That’s happened to us against Fayetteville,” he continued. “That’s happened to us against North Little Rock. But we were prepared — physically and mentally prepared to play those teams.
“When I first got here, we weren’t physically prepared to play those teams. I mean, I think our record against the West was just horrible and it was because they were physically ahead of us. Now, our conference tries to keep up with us and North Little Rock.
“North Little Rock has to take a lot of credit for this too because they were wearing us out,” said James. “If we had stayed the same, we’d still be getting worn out by them. But we started doing things like they did it. We started doing things that they do, and we started competing against them every weekend. Every time we could, we’d compete against them. We started going to 7-on-7’s with them, team camps with them. We had to learn how those guys operated. I give a lot of credit to (former North Little Rock coach) Jamie Mitchell. He allowed us to come in there and do it. He allowed us to come in there and see it. He allowed us to come in there and compete against it.
“What are you going to do if you’re out there on a hot sunny day in 7-on-7 and you’re playing North Little Rock and they’re just beating you into the ground, you’ve got to do one of two things because the referee’s not going to save you, because there are none. You’re going to have to fight yourself out of it. You’re going to have to compete yourself out of it. And that’s what our kids did.
“When we went down to North Carolina for two or three years, we got to see what real dudes looked like and how they competed and how they carried themselves,” coach recalled. “It wasn’t all what we did, it’s what we showed them. I think that has as much to do with it as anything. It’s part of the program. It’s part of showing kids what they’re capable of doing, what they can be like, what they can look like, what they can play like and what happens if you don’t.
“And we had a lot of that too. We had guys that never did buy in. For the last five years, that didn’t buy in and did everything they could to avoid the weight room and everything they could to avoid the training and all that stuff. And it shows. The kids that bought in, the kids who did it, persevered, they played. They got better and they played at a championship-caliber level. Bryant’s got the right chemistry for that.
“I don’t know how many championships we can win but I can see that Bryant can be very successful for a long time unless we mess this up.”
No dinosaurs here
James has been called old-school.
“I don’t think I am. It’s like Coach McMurry said, dinosaurs died because they didn’t evolve. They couldn’t change.
“When I started out coaching, we were in the wishbone and the split-back veer, had two coverages on defense. We evolved in the strength and conditioning. We’ve evolved in offense and defense. We’ve tried to always have big numbers, to try to get as many kids involved.
“We threw for 3,000 (yards) and we ran for 3,000,” he noted of the 2020 Hornets. “We weren’t one-dimensional. Even in the State championship game and, against Catholic, they dropped eight or nine guys (into coverage) and we had to be able to run the football. So, if we couldn’t have been able to run the football, we would have gotten beat.
“The thing we pride ourself on is not being one-dimensional. That’s a tribute to our coaches and our players.”
He says the pressure on the players is greater than ever.
“It’s like I tell the kids, when I was in high school, I could’ve thrown every pass, caught every ball, made every tackle and nobody would ever really know the difference because there really wasn’t any accountability,” he explained. “There wasn’t TV and videos and all that stuff. The films that I played on are probably dead and gone. These kids have accountability. Their kids will see what they did. Their kids will see how they played. Their grandkids will see it.
“We relive our past, but these guys will have their pasts follow them all the way until they’re adults,” he continued. “That’s a lot of pressure. We talk about that stuff. It’s harder now than it was, for sure. I think that’s why you see numbers like they are because there is so much accountability. There’s pressure to overachieve.
“But really, the kids just need to have fun playing ball. Hopefully, they can look back on it and they can say, ‘That was fun. It was hard. It was tough. But it was fun. And he was fair. He wasn’t always easy, but he was fair.’ That’s what I want kids to remember. I can’t be 100 percent. I know that. But that’s what I strive for.”
Three State championships in a row and James immediately started looking at the 2021 season.
“You know winning has its problems just like losing does,” he related. “You’ve got to feed the beast. We’ve got a 30-game winning streak going. Our first game is the Salt Bowl and there’s a lot of things to get ready for.
“We had our kids back in the weight room on Monday (after the State championship game), just because that’s what we do. And we didn’t miss a beat. We didn’t have to tell the kids to come and tell them where to be. They just did their stuff.”