Rick Thurow remembers some early inspiration after Ken Stephens took over as North Little Rock’s head football coach in 1963.
“Coach Stephens told us in meetings that North Little Rock had never had a state championship team, had never had an all-state quarterback,” said Thurow, a sophomore in 1963 who now lives in North Little Rock. “That was the way he challenged us — you’ve got a chance to do something the school and the football team has never done.
“He instilled in his other coaches to challenge us throughout our entire time. They gave us the opportunity to match the challenges. We knew if we did, we would find success.”
While North Little Rock recently won its first state championship in 45 years, Stephens led the Wildcats to three in his eight-year tenure: 1965, ‘66 and ‘70.
As a senior, Thurow became the Wildcats’ first all-state quarterback and earned Scholastic All-American honors. He went on to play at what was then Memphis State.
Some keys to the success?
“The main thing he did, he was the Gus Malzahn of the 1960s,” Thurow said. “We would do the exotic stuff that really befuddled defenses — all kinds of crazy things. That made it fun because nobody had ever seen stuff like that. He was very innovative in his coaching, and that carried on beyond his high school coaching days.
“It was always a lot of fun. In addition to just being successful, he brought some things to the table that probably wouldn’t have been had he not been there. He got real innovative.”
Times Sports Columnist Harry King, a long-time Arkansas sportswriter who covered Stephens’ early North Little Rock years for the Arkansas Gazette, remembered an early showdown with No. 1-ranked Fort Smith Northside.
“Northside had a great defense,” King said. “Ken designed a tight end screen — nobody screened to the tight end back then. He had decided this tight end screen would work. I want to say it was in the second half of a scoreless game, and the Wildcats were somewhere near midfield when he called it.
“There was nobody in the middle of the field, as he expected, and it’s a good thing because the tight end took about 15 seconds to cover 45-50 yards for the touchdown. I’m pretty sure that was the only score of the game.”
James Thompson of North Little Rock, who succeeded King on the Wildcats beat for the Gazette in 1965 after King went to the Associated Press, said another factor was the farm system of the junior highs.
“Ken could look at the eighth grade team at Ridgeroad and say, ‘Hey, that guy’s going to be a good quarterback,’” Thompson remembered. “They all played in the same system since junior high, and when they got to the high school, there was always a good quarterback.”
Stephens’ film study was also cutting-edge. Thompson said Stephens had two copies made of the 16 millimeter game films, and the offense took one to one room for study and the defense took one to another.
Thompson wrote in a column for the Gazette then that Stephens was “even platooning his game movies these days.”
“It’s strictly for teaching purposes,” the column quoted Stephens as saying following a season-opening win over Jacksonville. “This way the defensive coaches can take home the defensive reel at night. That all cuts down on time. When you platoon, you almost have to have two films.”
Thurow agreed the platoon system was a key.
“We felt like that was a big deal,” he said. “And having us look somewhat like the Dallas Cowboys was pretty cool. Our colors were blue and white, and Coach Stephens instilled a little red in the uniform. We had the shiny silver blue pants, and he put a star on our helmets.
“We thought that was pretty cool stuff. He really classed up the uniforms. Before it had just been blue and white with numbers, but he brought a level of class to our uniforms and helmets.”
Thurow also remembered the trip to the 1966 Cotton Bowl a few weeks after the Wildcats’ first state championship.
“We had blazers on when we went to the Cotton Bowl,” he said. “The booster club had a fundraiser and got enough money so we got on a bus and went down and saw the Hogs play LSU. To my knowledge, they’d never done anything close to that to recognize the team and show support for the football program.
“And Rabbit Burnett, the principal, had made a comment that if and when we ever won a state championship, he would lead a march down Main Street. After we won the game at Quigley Stadium, by the time we got back, we saw this horde of people walking down Main Street with Mr. Burnett leading the way.
“That was pretty cool. I’ve never seen anything like it. He just brought a whole new level of interest in football, just a different mentality and a different excitement than was there previously. He revitalized the thinking and got everybody excited.”
Thompson remembered that North Little Rock had always played a back seat to Gene Hall’s Little Rock Central, and Little Rock Hall under C.W. Keopple also came on.
“I don’t think Ken and Keopple were enemies, but the week of the Hall-North Little Rock game, neither one would talk,” he remembered. “Central was still a rival, but Hall really became a big rival, and North Little Rock played (Little Rock) Catholic on Thanksgiving.”
King remembered that Stephens shared that tight end screen play with the young Gazette staffer. Thompson recalled a similar instance, later after Scipio Jones High closed and the Wildcats integrated. Stephens tipped him off to the first play of the season when Carl Lowe from Jones was one of the fastest players in the state.
“I’d been going over to practice, and maybe Wednesday or Thursday before the opener, I’d asked him something about, ‘What are you going to do with Lowe?’” Thompson recalled. “Ken said, ‘I’m going to tell you what we’re going to do on the first play. We’re going to fake the ball to the fullback and then throw the ball deep to Lowe.’
“Before the game, I told the Democrat reporter, ‘I’ll bet you $5 that Carl Lowe touches the ball on the first play.’ He said, ‘No, I know what Ken does — he’s going to run the fullback up the middle.’ Sure enough, the quarterback faked the ball to the fullback and rolled out to his right and hit Lowe down the right sideline, and he was gone 30 or 40 yards for a touchdown.
“The Democrat guy just kind of looked at me like, ‘Oh, hell.’ I don’t think I collected the $5 because the poor guy wasn’t making much at the Democrat. But it was great to see the expression on his face.”
Said King: “Those days of trust between coach and media might be long gone, but they were much appreciated.”
After graduating from Memphis State, Thurow followed his mentor into the coaching profession.
“I modeled myself and my mentality after Coach Stephens,” he said. “When you bring a lot of pride in your team and enthusiasm, it boils over to all the players, the boosters, the fans, the students. That’s what he did. If you don’t infuse the enthusiasm, you don’t have anything. I modeled my pattern of work after the way he coached us.”
More than 50 years later, Thurow said he can see some similar things following the 2017 championship.
“I see people at the grocery store wearing jerseys and Wildcat stuff,” he said. “I think this coach (Jamie) Mitchell has brought some enthusiasm back. They’ve been on the brink the last couple of years and couldn’t get over the hump.
“I think this win this time was pretty exciting for the city, and I hope it’ll continue on. He seems to have a good program. He’s got a lot of kids playing.
“In my day, the numbers had really dropped, and when Coach Stephens came, when we started winning, more guys wanted to participate.
“The timing was good for Coach Stephens. He cultivated a mindset of winning football.”
(Donna Lampkin Stephens has been married to Ken Stephens since 1996.)