The Game Changer

Not many schools would be willing to risk a 50-year undefeated record, but Hendrix College is thrilled at the prospect

Photography by Sara Blancett
HendrixFootball-post

From left: Johnny Burnett, Joe Berardi, Jordan Neal, Justin “Buck” Buchanan, Reed Heim, Matt Best, Josh Montgomery and David Batson.

In the fall of 1913, the University of Mississippi brought a team of 18 football players to Conway to take on the Bulldogs of Hendrix College. The day before the game, the Conway newspaper trumpeted the momentousness of the occasion.

“Ole Miss, the gridiron team which is dreaded by all Southern colleges, will arrive in Conway for a battle with the Hendrix College football aggregation,” the Log Cabin Democrat reported. “The record on the scalping path made by Ole Miss this season, as well as past seasons, is a source of much pleasure to their fellow students, while on the other hand they invariably leave many mourners behind them.”

The writer didn’t have that kind of overwrought praise for the Hendrix football team, warning that there was “a noticeable lack of pep and ginger among the squad.” The people of Conway were a different story as excitement built in the days leading up to the game. The newspaper reported the day before the contest: “On every corner, in every store, in every nook—and, in fact, at every place where there are as many as two persons—the sole topic of conversation concerns tomorrow’s football game.”

Hendrix stunned Ole Miss, 8-6, on the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1913. That night, more than 200 Hendrix male students, accompanied by the school’s band, marched through downtown Conway. The men were dressed in pajamas. They eventually made their way to Central College, a school for women that was located on what’s now the campus of Central Baptist College. It was quite a scene.

For the decades following, football was part of the Hendrix culture. And then it wasn’t. In 1960, as the school struggled to maintain a decent number of players on the field while struggling even harder to pay its bills off the field, the football program was dissolved. More than a half-century later, the story of that football program is scarcely detailed in the school’s Hall of Fame room. Other sports—basketball, baseball, track and field—dominate its walls and the trophy cases downstairs in the Wellness & Athletic Center, which is known on campus simply as the WAC. Football, though, had remained a part of the Hendrix heritage, remembered fondly by older alumni.

This fall, the program will be revived. Although it may not find Ole Miss or any of the old rivals on the schedule—as Arkansas’ sole NCAA Division III football program, Hendrix will be competing against the four-year, non-athletic-scholarship schools from Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Alabama that comprise the Southern Athletic Association—there’s little doubting the enthusiasm with which the new program has been received.

When developing a new program, however, you need a face. Hendrix administrators, board members and former alumni are quick to say that new head football coach Justin “Buck” Buchanan is just the man for the job. And what a job it is—building a college football program from scratch.

Sitting at a table in the Hall of Fame room on an early-summer morning, Buchanan looks the part with his flattop haircut and stocky build. But listen to him talk and you quickly realize that he’s no stereotypical college football coach, the kind of man who talks in clichés and urges players to give “110 percent.” Instead, Buchanan sounds like a coach who’s right at home at a highly rated institution where academics, not athletics, steer the ship. Even still, for all the strides he’s made since arriving in Conway from Louisiana some 15 months ago, there’s still much for the face of Hendrix football to accomplish.

It’s normally quiet on the Hendrix campus in the summer. But just behind the WAC, construction workers scurry to prepare the school’s new stadium for the first game, now just a couple of months away. The stadium was among the least of Buchanan’s worries when he arrived. Each piece of equipment had to be ordered. A schedule had to be crafted. High school students had to be made aware of the program. Relationships had to be built with members of the Hendrix faculty, especially those who were critical. Hundreds of hours had to be spent on the road visiting high schools in Arkansas and surrounding states.

“That Xs and Os stuff kind of works itself out in the end,” Buchanan says. “What we had to do is get in front of every good student we thought might be interested in playing here. We sent literature. We attended games. We wanted to find players who will make the faculty, staff, administration and alumni really proud at Hendrix.”

The set of challenges Buchanan encounters as the coach for a small liberal arts school with high academic standards is a far cry from what most other coaches might expect to be saddled with. However, as a product of Division III, he’s not unfamiliar with what’s been thrown at him thus far.

The Texas native was a defensive lineman at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He graduated with honors in 1998 and was part of the staff that restarted football at Louisiana College in Pineville, La., in 1999. Buchanan held the title of associate head coach at Louisiana College from 2006 to 2011 and helped guide the team to four consecutive 7-3 records. During the summers, he would head to Europe to coordinate football camps in Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.

Buchanan says the seasons he spent at Louisiana College prepared him for the challenges at Hendrix. “I had already helped start a program from scratch,” he says. “I know how to create competitive teams. I knew I wanted to be a head coach, but it had to be the right kind of institution. This is just the kind of place I’ve always wanted to be. It’s a nationally recognized school, and Conway is a great town in which to live.”

One of Buchanan’s first orders of business upon landing in Conway was the small matter of putting together a staff. He wasted no time in calling an old friend, a veteran coach by the name of Johnny Burnett who had once coached at Austin College. Burnett spent 17 years at the U.S. Military Academy and was the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Oklahoma State University from 1996-98. When Buchanan called, Burnett was coaching at Highland Junior College in Kansas and thinking about retirement.

Why Hendrix? Why move yet again?

“At this stage in my career, I want to be around coaches I like and be around kids I like,” Burnett says. “I want to live in a town I like. I’m too old to put up with all of that other stuff. I want to coach the kinds of kids I would take home for dinner. That’s what we have at Hendrix. And in Coach Buchanan, I saw a man who was working late hours to ensure everything was taken care of.

At the Division III level, there aren’t the full-time travel coordinators, tutors, nutritionists, equipment managers and the like that are found at Division I programs such as the University of Arkansas. All of those duties fall to Buchanan and members of his staff. The late hours are part of the deal.

“These guys all have a Division III background,” Buchanan says. “They knew what they were getting into.”

Buchanan expects to have 60 to 65 players on his team this fall with more than 20 of them from Arkansas.

“That was our goal for 2013,” he says. “We wanted to make sure we had the right people; players who were a fit for Hendrix. We were very selective. We’ll grow the program to more than 100 players at some point. For now, we’re trying to establish a foundation.”

Hendrix administrators and trustees are hopeful that the football program will eventually become a shining example of how things are done at the Division III level. Little Rock insurance executive Marty Rhodes, a member of the Hendrix board in 2008 when the decision was made to add football, explains it this way: “As Hendrix College continues to grow, we need to envision new ways to enhance the complete educational experience at Hendrix. After significant research and a comprehensive discussion, the board saw this as a constructive way to create new opportunities for future Hendrix College students.”

***

However, Hendrix is far from alone in this endeavor.

Nationally, 17 colleges and universities are set to launch football programs between 2013 and 2015. Twenty-eight other schools have begun football programs since 2008. On the West Coast, Pacific University in Oregon resumed playing football in 2010 for the first time in 19 years. The team attracted 130 players, increasing the male share of the student body from 35 to 40 percent at the 1,600-student school. Across the country in Florida, Warner University at Lake Wales begins football this fall. The NAIA school of 1,100 says admissions are up. Nationwide, there are many plenty of examples of schools enthusiastic about taking to the field. One such announcement came this summer in Arkansas.

In late June, Lyon College at Batesville announced that, beginning in 2015, it will have football for the first time since 1950. Lyon is a member of the NAIA’s American Midwest Conference and also will work to attract non-scholarship athletes. With one school playing NCAA Division III football and the other at the NAIA level, it’s doubtful that Lyon and Hendrix will play each other.

As to why football is being added, there’s the financial factor in Division III—the fact that many parents will pay tuition so their sons can continue to play the sport they love. Room, board, books, tuition and fees at Hendrix can run more than $40,000 annually.

Although the college’s board of trustees saw this potential and voted in May 2008 to develop a football program, its efforts were soon stymied by the recession. But board members never gave up on the idea. During a board retreat in the fall of 2011, things began to move again as the decision was made to pull the trigger in the fall of 2013. It will have been more than five years between the initial board decision to resume football and the first game. But starting a college football program isn’t a simple task. Among other things, the right conference must be found along with non-conference opponents. Training supplies must be ordered and dressing rooms must be outfitted. Coaches must be in place, and players must be recruited. The complete checklist for a new program can be mind-boggling.

Despite these obstacles, David Knight of Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, the current chairman of the Hendrix board, believes the time is right.

“I’ve watched student interest and participation in intercollegiate sports grow during the past decade,” Knight says. “When I attended Hendrix in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I believe fewer than 10 percent of the student body participated in sports. Today, it’s more than 25 percent. Yet, our students’ academic performance has gone up over that same time. Recently, a Hendrix junior, Elizabeth Krug from Heber Springs, won the 2013 national championship in the NCAA Division III women’s heptathlon. That’s a great achievement. So we’re seeing our scholar-athletes excel in both areas of their lives.”

High school coaches know the “smart kids,” the ones who don’t have the talent to earn a full ride at a Division I school but enjoy the competition and can fit in at a place like Hendrix. Those coaches were happy to share names with Buchanan and Burnett.

“Coach Buchanan and his coaches worked closely with our admissions staff to find about 60 excellent students who want to play football at Hendrix,” Knight says. “I think we’re close to hitting that first-year target. We anticipate that these numbers will grow and believe that the revenue derived from increased enrollment will more than offset the program’s annual operating costs. We also believe that our students who excel both academically and athletically support the Hendrix motto ‘unto the whole person.’ We are very excited about the year ahead.”

Vance Strange, a Hendrix alum who would go on to become a college football coach and later the athletic director at the University of Central Arkansas, played on that final football team at Hendrix in 1960 after transferring from Tulane University in New Orleans. Strange says the best way to monitor what excites people locally is the “Bob’s Grill gauge,” referring to the famous breakfast hangout on Oak Street in downtown Conway where sports and local politics are discussed over coffee and biscuits each morning.

“At Bob’s, I can assure you that people are excited about Hendrix football,” Strange says.

***

No longer will the bookstore at Hendrix be able to sell shirts that proclaim “Hendrix Football: Undefeated Since 1961.” New shirts have been printed with the football logo and are now on sale. But the school will begin the season with a one-game winning streak since Hendrix ended the 1960 campaign with a 7-6 victory over Ouachita after end Carl Babcock blocked a point-after attempt following a Tiger touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Back at the WAC, however, the conversation isn’t about the past. A dozen people are huddled around the conference table, discussing the logistics of the season’s first game. School officials are hoping for a crowd of almost 4,000 people on the afternoon of Sept. 7. There will be no admission charge. UCA is on the road at Colorado that day, and the Arkansas Razorbacks don’t play until that evening against Samford University from Alabama at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Looking at the members of Buchanan’s coaching staff who have gathered in the Hall of Fame room, Strange makes it clear that he’s looking forward to the start of the season. For a veteran like Strange, the photos on the walls behind them represent more than history. Many of these people were friends. Now, he’s quick to say that Buck Buchanan might someday find his photo hanging in that room.

“I’m totally blown away by how organized this group is,” he says. “They have laid a strong foundation and built relationships with high school coaches all over this state. They also fit in with the admissions and financial aid staff at Hendrix. It’s amazing how well it has all meshed. These coaches have an understanding of where football fits into the big picture here.”

“They’ve all worked or played at Division III schools with strict academic standards,” Buchanan says of his assistants. “And they’re all self-starters. Nobody has to wake these guys up in the morning. Without that background, it would have been too steep of a learning curve in a first-year program.”

How many games should Hendrix expect to win in its first season of football in 53 years?

“We’re going to take it a step at a time,” Buchanan says. “We’ll be consistently competitive at some point. Believe me, this is a place where you can win. At the Division III level, you win with smart guys. We’re going to have smart guys.”

U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson of Little Rock once played football at Hendrix and is a proud graduate of the school. The folksy Wilson likes to quote Daniel Webster, who once said of Dartmouth College: “It is, sir, as I have said, a small college. Yet there are those who love it.”

When it comes to football at Hendrix, the judge says: “Most liberal arts schools like Hendrix emphasize physical fitness for all students, specifically including those who do not engage in competitive athletics. This, in my judgment, is a mighty good thing; something that wasn’t done in olden times when I was in college. Football is a fall tradition in this country, and I think it is going to be a very positive thing for Hendrix College.”

Wilson, Strange and other former football players plan to be at the Sept. 7 game. While Buchanan understands the unique challenges of college football at the Division III level, he also understands that even Division III coaches are judged in large part by their win-loss record.

“Everybody is happy right now,” he says as he looks at the smiling faces around the Hall of Fame room. “Hey, we’re undefeated.”

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