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McCollum's Column: Some special traits of three Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductees

Posted: February 27, 2014 - 8:04pm

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will induct 11 new members Friday night.

Three have a Faulkner County flavor and have added to the rich sports experience here.

I’ve had the privilege to know and/or cover all of them.

Here are my reflections:

 

KEN STEPHENS

A great player and track athlete himself in Conway, he’s a legend among Arkansas coaches — in longevity, creativity, versatility and inspiration.

He revived the North Little Rock High School program in the 1960s, leading the Wildcats to three state championships in what is still considered the “glory years,” unifying a city in the process. He helped lay the foundation for the modern era of UCA football success as one of the winningest coaches in UCA history, leading the Bears to an NAIA national title game when the NAIA was the equivalent of NCAA Division II. He has coached at every level of football except NCAA Division III and he might have tried to take on that task if Hendrix had revived it program sooner.

Those who have played and coached alongside him considered him ahead of his time as far as offensive tactics and strategy.

At age 70 in 2001, he came out of retirement to coach Ranger College at the request of a former player and gave that program new life.

But one of the greatest qualities I’ve admired in Ken Stephens is his ability to mentor and inspire former players and those around him to make coaching a rewarding and vital experience for players and colleagues alike. He has generated quite a tree of coaches from those who have played for him: Charlie Strong, Monte Coleman, John Outlaw, Brooks Hollingsworth, Richard Martin, Randy Huffstickler, John Thompson, Danny Nutt, Clifton Ealy and Bill Keopple are prime examples. In addition, Tom McConnaughey, who was a star wide receiver and went on to play with the New York Jets, became a valued scout for the San Diego Chargers.

Ricky Thurow, a star quarterback for Stephens at North Little Rock who later played at the University of Memphis, works out at the same fitness facility I do. Every time I see him, he almost never fails to ask, “how is coach Stephens doing?”

Almost a half a century later, Thurow cares. That says a lot.

 

STEPHANIE STRACK MATHIS

She’s the first former St. Joseph player to ever be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

I remember she caused former UCA Sugar Bear coach Ron Marvel a lot of heartache when she chose to play for rival Arkansas Tech after a career at St. Joseph in which she scored 1,748 career points and was a two-time all-stater.

I always considered her to be the prototype player to play for legendary coach Joe Foley, her coach at Tech at the time who is now at UALR. She worked hard, was an overachiever, was coachable and was a incredibly dependable clutch player who usually managed to get herself in the right place at the right time.

At Tech, she was a three-time NAIA All-American, scoring 2,298 points during her college career (the school’s scoring leader). She helped lead the Golden Suns to NAIA national championships in 1992 and 1993. The team that captured the 1992 title had a 35-1 record and closed the season with a 28-game winning streak. Mathis scored 670 points the next season in leading the Suns to a 31-5 mark and a repeat as national champions. Her 30 points against Union University in the national title game helped earn her MVP honors for the tournament.

A great measure of the kind of player she was is indicated in how the teams she played on succeeded. St. Joseph was a championship contender during her high school career. In her four years at Tech, the Golden Suns went 124-15 overall, 56-6 in Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference play and 52-3 at home.

 

DON CAMPBELL

Campbell coaching legacy was earned elsewhere. He retired in Vilonia.

He’s known as one of the most beloved and respected figures in Arkansas high school coaching as exemplified in his being selected to coach the high school all-star game nine times. In 1987, he earned the Lowell Manning Award as the state’s outstanding coach and was selected for the first Paul Eells Award from the Arkansas Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. That was appropriate because he was known of the good guys in the coaching profession.

Campbell, a Forrest City native, compiled a 257-98-6 record that included stops at Corning, Sheridan and Wynne.

What is impressive is the courage, perseverance and inspiration Campbell has provided while enduring a series of health issues in his retirement years.

He’s been a frequent visitor to county football games and advisor to coaches. He has been a regular at events and active participant at gatherings such as the Arkansas Sports Club.

He has visited the sick, comforted them and inspired them. He’s still influencing people in a positive manner.

His presence, his smile and his encouragement have been an exilir for many.

Hall of Fame characteristics come in several forms. In Stephens, Mathis and Campbell, we see many.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)

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