By Rob Patrick
The Class 7A State playoffs are down to the final four teams tonight and, once again, it’s four teams from the 7A-West Conference, which has dominated the finals in recent years. It’ll be the sixth year in a row and the eighth time in the last 10 years[more] that a West team has won the championship in the highest classification. (The only interruption was the two-year run by the last great Little Rock Central teams in 2003 and 2004.)
It’s a frustrating fact for football fans in the central part of the state including Bryant. The Hornets, for example, have never been able to get past the second round of the playoffs since the program was turned into a perennial winner in 1999.
On his coach’s show before last Friday’s second-round game against the top-ranked and unbeaten Bentonville Tigers, Hornets head coach Paul Calley, one of the central figures in the program’s turnaround and its maintenance, was asked about that: “This has kind of been a wall, this quarterfinal game, for your program since you turned it around. How much would it mean to your program to get past this?”
“It would be big for us,” Calley answered. “No doubt about it. Like I told someone (before), our program is not geared toward winning State championships. That’s just the way it is. (Former head coach) Daryl Patton told you that eight years ago when he left and it’s still not. But that’s not the reason we’re here. We’re here to teach young men how to be good role models, good people; hopefully, good fathers and good husbands, and teach them how to be successful. Football is just a bonus. If we win, great; if we don’t, our guys are winners already.”
A few days after the Tigers ended the Hornets’ season with a 38-7 decision, Calley was asked to elaborate.
“It’s just a different mentality than it is in the West,” he said. “The West schools are all very competitive. They are going to do what they have to do to make their sports teams successful, to win. Whatever they have to do. I realized that when Daryl went to Fayetteville and all the things that they promised him, told him they were going to do. That’s one thing.”
When he left, Patton wouldn’t be that specific on the record (though he elaborated off the record). He did admit there were problems at Bryant and some of what he was talking about has since been addressed with the addition of the field house and the artificial surface on the playing field. More than anything, he emphasized that Fayetteville was “a part of the state that there’s a lot of money, a lot of supporters that are willing to do whatever it takes to give you the best chance to compete and win.”
“There’s an emphasis put on winning in northwest Arkansas,” Calley explained. “It’s such a competitive place. The schools all compete against each other. They compete for kids. There’s not a lot of room between those schools.
“The sheer numbers, that’s another thing,” Calley added. “They have more numbers. I think Bentonville has an enrollment of 3,000. You should be able to find some kids that can play.
Actually, in the 2010-12 reclassification numbers published by the Arkansas Activities Association in May of 2009, Bentonville was the largest school in the state with an average enrollment over the previous two years of 2,416.67. It has only grown since then but so has Bryant, which was the 12th largest school with an average attendance of 1,546.67. Chances are, they’re still about a 1,000-student difference.
But one must also consider the population of the towns and the financial, commercial, and corporate bases in each town. There's really no comparison.
Patton left in 2003. In 2008, he was interviewed by Robert Yates of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the dominance of the West.
Patton said there are several reasons why the balance of power has swung so dramatically to the West, notably tremendous population growth in Northwest Arkansas.
“Numbers,” Patton said. “Almost every program up here is going to have over 120, 130 (players) in the program. One thing also is we all play sophomore games and almost all have sophomore periods. For example, we get our sophomores fifth period during the day and our varsity coaches spend a lot of time with them by themselves.”
Patton said robust numbers allow Fayetteville to play a sophomore and junior varsity game each Monday night, giving approximately 70 players valuable experience.
“I know when I was at Bryant, we only played a JV game and it was hard to get all 65 kids into a game,” said Patton, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Coach of the Year after leading his alma mater to an 11-1 record and the AAAAA-South championship in 1999. “You had kids that would not get to play and they would end up quitting. As a sophomore, they may not be much. But, as a senior, they might be somebody that can help you.”
Patton said immaculate facilities throughout the 7A-West are attractive to families moving into the area from other states.
Coaching staffs are the largest in the state — normally eight or nine for each school, Patton said — and financial support is virtually unmatched.
“It all goes into it,” Patton said. “It’s just not any one thing.”
When Patton brought his team to Bryant for a playoff game in 2006, the Fayetteville roster listed 15 coaches including graduate assistants. And not only are the head coaches in the West conference the highest paid in the state but the assistants often make as much as head coaches elsewhere.
As Patton mentioned, the West schools have a period of their school day set aside just to work with their sophomores, giving them the extra individual attention that produces rapid improvement. The player-coach ratio during that period and during the regular athletic period contributes to that as well as allowing the team to include all 120 or 130 players.
And, even with all of that, Calley mentioned, “The other schools up there feel like they’re losing ground to Bentonville too. Springdale split and they’ve still got two good football programs. How good would they be if they hadn’t split?”
Bryant, of course, has a huge school district in a relatively much smaller town. (Consider the ratio of school attendance-to-population in Bryant compared to the attendance-to-general population of Bentonville.) Thus, the finances to match what happens in the Northwest just aren’t there.
At Bentonville, one observer noted that all the advertising banners at Tigers Stadium — and there were plenty of them, each paid for — were vendors for Wal-Mart, which is headquartered there.
Like the replacement of the high school itself, a lot of things have to be done incrementally in Bryant. And the District continues to grow, which creates plenty of need in other areas too. Along with the high school, there is already a need for another elementary school, which means more teachers, more buses, more bus drivers and routes, more administrators, etc. (And, as a husband of a teacher, I assure you, a good teacher cannot be paid too much.)
In athletics alone, football is not the only program that could use more coaches (though football certainly is the undisputed financial bedrock for the whole department). And, in regard to facilities, a new high school gym is long overdue.
For his part, Calley didn’t get into all of that. It is what it is. He has, in the past, expressed a desire for at least one more coach, which would create a situation where he wouldn’t have to be a position coach as well as head coach. It would enable him to be more involved than he is already in all aspects of the team.
He did mention something else that’s unique about Bryant, relating to its rapid growth.
“You know, Bryant’s different because we don’t have a lot of second generation kids,” he said of the football program. “It’s not like a small town where your parents went to school here and they stayed here their whole life and they come through that way. We have a lot of kids that move in that don’t have a football tradition in their past in Bryant. It’s just a different setting here.”
As for the other programs in the Central, Conway has already started to close the gap with the 7A-West teams in all phases. North Little Rock certainly has the potential to do so as well. Cabot’s in much the same boat as Bryant though it got a little bit more of a head start in its growth and expansion along with its response to it. The Little Rock schools have their own unique set of problems while Van Buren and Russellville are actually Class 6A schools.
(Though Van Buren would still be Class 7A if the AAA didn’t have a “multiplier” for private schools. On straight attendance the Little Catholic/Mount St. Mary combination would be 27th in attendance, in the middle of the pack among 6A schools.)
In time, things will change, but as long as the teams in the Central are still competing with the teams in the West, what they do will always have to be weighed in proportion to each other. Right now — and for the foreseeable future — they really compete on different levels.