A casual observer might call the down-to-the-wire victory Fayetteville High pulled off at North Little Rock High on November 23 an act of God. North Little Rock had just finished surging back from a 24-6 deficit early in the fourth quarter to take a 28-27 lead with 30 seconds left in the 7A state playoff semifinals. As the teams lined up for the ensuing kickoff, the home crowd was rocking. Surely, after so many close calls, North Little Rock would make its long-awaited appearance in the state’s football championship game.
Then, the most statistically probable miracle in Arkansas sports happened.
In 25 seconds, Fayetteville drove the ball down the field with almost surgical precision. A 22-yard kickoff return and two passes totaling 37 yards led to a 38-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights and cut through the heart of every blue and yellow clad fan in the stands that bitter cold night.
Was it manifest destiny that Fayetteville return to its third straight championship game, where it would win its second straight title?
But, more likely, it was only the latest result of Arkansas sports’ own law of probability: Most things being unequal, northwest Arkansas football teams have the edge over central Arkansas counterpart long before they ever take the field.
Since 2004, no central Arkansas team has made the finals of 7A, the state’s largest classification. A team from the northwest, including Fort Smith, has won the title every year since 2005. Each runner-up since 2006 has also been from NWA. This year, NWA dominance extended to the second-largest classification when Greenwood beat Pine Bluff 51-44.
Central Arkansas’ biggest schools keep falling short. “Frankly, it’s almost embarrassing to those who have some pride in your athletic programs,” says Frank Williams, the athletic director at Little Rock McClellan High School, which is in 6A.
Why can’t anybody beat NWA?
“All coaches have talked about it from time to time, and everyone has their own theories,” says Shane Patrick, head coach at Springdale High School and former president of the Arkansas Football Coaches Association.
Coaches agree it’s not for lack of players’ effort or talent central Arkansas has fallen behind. North Little Rock, for instance, likely had seven future Division I players. Its 2012 squad was loaded, like the Keith Jackson-led Little Rock Parkview teams of the early 1980s or juggernaut Little Rock Central teams which followed 20 years after.
Raw athletic ability and talent, though, doesn’t go as far as it used to. “It’s not all about your athlete against my athlete” anymore, Williams says. The capacity to maximize a player’s potential has skyrocketed for schools willing to invest in such development.
“There is a constant push to get better in this [7A-West] league,” Bentonville coach Barry Lunney told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2010. “Students have to compete academically to get into college. They’re going to have to compete again to get a job. It’s all about competition.”
Following are some areas where central Arkansas lags:
On the whole, the NWA programs have more assistants on staff. The 7A-West teams have 8-10 assistants each. North Little Rock, by comparison, is at the high end in central Arkansas with eight (correction: six) assistants. Pay is also typically more, says North Little Rock head coach Brad Bolding. A decade ago, Bolding made an $11,000 stipend as an assistant coach at Rogers High School. Last season, his NLR assistants made $4,500 each.
2. Player development
More coaches mean more one-on-one time with younger players.
In NWA, this time comes in the form of a regular workout period specifically for sophomore football players. An assistant coach or two can be tasked with making sure these students develop into better, stronger players.
That’s not the case across central Arkansas, Fayetteville’s head coach Daryl Patton told the Democrat-Gazette in 2010. Patton coached Bryant until moving to Fayetteville in 2003. “At Bryant,” Patton recalled, “it was hard to practice varsity and sophomore guys at the same time, so a lot of those guys became dummy holders.” North Little Rock’s Brad Bolding adds: “We get our kids, and it’s like starting over with them because they haven’t done as much position-specific stuff” with drills at the varsity level.”
Bryant’s current coach Paul Calley says this issue persists, causing many younger players to lose interest in football and quit. “They’re committed in northwest Arkansas to developing kids at the lower level,” he adds. “We lose a lot of players here.” Bryant had 23 seniors among its 108 players this season.
The NWA sophomores are more likely to stick with the program “because they feel like they’re getting attention,” Springdale’s Shane Patrick says.
A decade ago, the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s public school-funding system, including facilities used by teachers and students, was inadequate, inequitable and unconstitutional. This problem is especially evident in some buildings of the Little Rock School District and financially-strapped Pulaski County School District.
While there have been some recent updates – Verizon donated $250,000 to Central High for new turf in 2009 – wholesale renovations in the districts have been more rare, as a former candidate for the Little Rock School District’s board pointed out in an e-mail to the Democrat-Gazette last September.
“One need only visit the locker rooms of Quigley Stadium at the most famous high school in America [Central High] to see the abject failure of the district to provide quality facilities for its students,” wrote Frances Johnson, who ran to represent Zone 7. “Little Rock is the richest public school district in the state, so money is not the issue. It must have the will to compete with neighboring districts, private and charter schools — both in excellence and facilities — to succeed.”
That will pervades NWA communities. There, facilities are typically newer and nicer than in central Arkansas (n.b. Conway and Cabot have also invested in major facility updates). Naturally, better weight rooms and indoor practice fields attract better student-athletes. And not only students from nearby schools, but also those whose parents are transplanting from other states. “We have move-ins every year,” Fayetteville’s Daryl Patton told the Democrat-Gazette in 2010. “Recruiting is a bad word, but it’s the allure of the program that kids want to be a part of.”
4. Community Support
Difference makers such as extra coaches and snazzy equipment – football throwing machines, endzone cameras, video replay boards – derive from community support.
In NWA, it’s not only individual parents who help their children succeed but also groups consisting of alumni and fans. Booster clubs have helped fuel NWA’s rise by purchasing extra amenities not covered in the school district’s budget. Springdale football, for instance, receives $28,000 a year from its school district. But the Bulldogs’ booster club annually raises twice that amount, Shane Patrick says.
Nine years ago, Rogers High’s booster club had roughly $90,000 in its coffers, according to North Little Rock’s coach Brad Bolding. He adds NLR doesn’t come close to that amount. Bolding says he appreciates that NLR players and parents work very hard with what they’re given, but he’s frustrated higher ups don’t place the same emphasis on athletics in NLR as in Rogers. “When they need cross country state championship rings, [the booster club] bought them. Here, you better go out and fundraise.”
For these reasons and more, don’t expect Northwest Arkansas’ rise to taper off. Bryant’s Paul Calley agrees: “The way it looks it’s permanent. I’m gonna say there’s always gonna be two teams in Northwest Arkansas that are better” than the best team from another part of the state.
Central Arkansas isn’t only falling behind in high school athletics. The disparity extends to academics, and down to economic forces that decades ago started attracting more and higher-paying jobs to northwest Arkansas. Even central Arkansas’ long-standing status as the state’s cultural heart is in danger. In 2011, the world-renowned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Bentonville.
In high school, the arts, like athletics, are meant to teach students lessons to be applied outside the classroom or court. More and more, this state’s football coaches and players learn that all the discipline, hard work and want-to in the world can’t overcome an uneven playing field.