A light shining in the shadows. It seems like it’s always been this way for Conway boys basketball.
There always seems to be a good coach waiting in the wings, seasoned nicely from rising through the junior high ranks.
After C.D. Taylor developed the Cats into a premier state basketball program led by Marvin Delph, his top assistant (Joe Graham) was ready and primed to take over and keep the victories churning.
When Graham retired, James Bates, who had been highly successful in junior high and served as Graham’s assistant for a time with the varsity, was ready and willing and led the Cats to a 7A state title.
When Bates left coaching, there was Will Johnson, a bright, energetic, up-and-coming coach, who took over and the foundation of one of the top programs in the state held true in the toughest conference in the state.
When Johnson resigned for family reasons earlier this spring, there was Brian “Salty” Longing, who had been a loyal assistant to both Bates and Johnson, was waiting for the chance.
Longing has always been there. He’s as much a fixture at the school as the Wampus Cat statue without being defaced.
He played for Joe Graham. He continued a line of Conway guards who migrated to Hendrix to play under Cliff Garrison. That’s a masters and a doctorate in coaching right there.
He worked camps during the summer. As an assistant, he saw firsthand the work and the style in competing against some of the best high school coaches who have ever worked in the state, including Charles Ripley, Al Flanigan, Oliver Elders, Eric Burnett, Jerry Bridges and Clarence Finley, to name but a few.
As he was growing up, he observed how some of the great coaches in the old AIC did their jobs, guys such as Garrison, Don Dyer, Bill Vining, Monroe Ingram, Terry Garner, John Widener.
When Longing rose through the junior high ranks to become a varsity assistant, he filled the role perfectly. He was steady on the bench. He earned the trust of the players. And he helped develop a string of young players on the junior varsity.
When Johnson got the job in 2014, Longing was the varsity assistant coach. He would have been a logical choice. He probably wanted the job more than he let on.
This impressed me: The chemistry seemed to work. Johnson proved himself as bright, young coach who understood young men and basketball. And Longing kept on keeping on, never wavered in his loyalty to the program, was a steady hand on the sideline and helped make Johnson a better and wiser coach. And always learning, he seemed to become an even better student of the game because of working with Johnson.
While there were plenty of strong candidates for the Conway job, none was so qualified and such a natural fit as Longing. He had paid his dues.
When the Conway job opened again, I thought immediately of Longing and North Little Rock’s Johnny Rice. Their stories of loyalty to their hometowns and their rise through the junior high and assistant’s ranks almost perfectly parrallel each other.
When the North Little Rock job opened, Rice was ready and has had the Charging Wildcats as a perennial state title contender ever since.
Longing was ready for the Conway job. Longtime observers of high school basketball in the state told me it would be a travesty if he didn’t get it. His longtime work as an assistant and the way he has coached and handled young players are widely respected in the coaching ranks. His pedigree and his passion for Conway are unquestioned.
Finally, he’s got his chance. He’s earned it.