Celebrating Athletic Excellence: White County – Huckeba Indoor Football Practice Center

In the early 19th century, John Keats alleged that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”; two centuries later, Harding University illustrates the English poet’s wisdom. Completed and dedicated in the fall of 2019, the handsomely outfitted Huckeba Indoor Football Practice Center has dazzled the dozens who have already toured the facility. Certainly, its splendor will be no less impressive to visitors far into the future as long as an inspiring request to “Honor God” embellishes the walls of its lobby.

The facility is 77,146 square feet, including a full-size turf football field plus end zones (133 yards long). It provides a place to practice in inclement weather and additional space for weekly preparation. The building is the largest indoor football practice facility in NCAA Division II and one of the largest in the country for any level. (Jeff Montgomery photo courtesy of Harding University)

The university discerned a legitimate need for the center when the longtime coach for whom it is named led the football program to unprecedented success. Always competitive, Harding football surged to national prominence between 2012 and 2016, the last five years Ronnie Huckeba was at its helm. Accompanying a 47-win, 11-loss record during that period were three national rankings, including a high of No. 6 in 2016, the setting was ideal for even loftier goals. The practice center quickly emerged as a top priority, and with it came, almost simultaneously, a call for money to convert the dream into reality.

 “The Bison Brotherhood” was spectacular in its response. Former players, alumni, and friends acted with a generosity, speed, and enthusiasm that amazed no one familiar with the university. Former Harding President David B. Burks explained: “Coach Huckaba embodied the concept of brotherhood not only for the football team but for Harding University in total … He taught and shared by example his commitment to all of his players to honor God in everything they did.”

The initial gift was an anonymous $2.5 million, with another $500,000 promised until matched. Soon thereafter, campus coffers held the total needed for full funding of the $5.5 million colossus, the largest indoor practice facility in the state (yes, larger than the University of Arkansas’) and in NCAA II football. It is one of the largest, too, at any gridiron level in the nation. With a 60-foot ceiling, its 77,146-foot interior holds a full-size turf football field, plus end zones (133 yards long). Also available, in addition to the lobby, are a kicking net, storage closets, and two bathrooms. Giant fans and a heating system guarantee ideal temperatures at all hours of gridiron activity. Built directly behind Harding’s First Security Stadium home-seating section, the Huckeba Center proudly dwarfs the field on which the legendary coach gained many of his triumphs.

Paul Simmons, his successor as head football coach, quickly exudes excitement when discussing the facility. The only Bison football player ever to earn first-team All-American honors three times can now schedule workouts during the state’s most inclement weather; neither rain nor snow can cancel or halt practices. Recruitment, too, has benefited. Simmons labels his first recruiting class since its completion his “most talented,” and after suffering through a pandemic-postponed 2020 season, they will debut in Searcy on Saturday, Sept. 4, against Great American Conference (GAC) foe East Central University from Ada, Oklahoma.

The Huckeba Family posing inside the facility named for Coach Ronnie Huckeba. Back row: Jordan Huckeba (from left), Jeb Huckeba, Coach and Peggie Huckeba, Hope Huckeba Ballentine and John Ballentine. Middle row includes wives Sarah (from left) and Jami. Ten grandchildren are in front.

Coming off a 10-win, 2-loss season in 2019, Simmons predicts not-yet-seen honors for his program.

More GAC titles will be but steps on the path to consistent national success and acclaim, he suggests. Possessing an overall 3-year head-coaching record of 30 wins and only 9 losses at Harding, he candidly proclaims, “We are trying to build a dynasty here.” With the Huckeba Center a monolithic asset, there appears to be little reason to doubt he will.

Consistent with what he foresees for Harding football, Simmons was instrumental in bringing a distinctive and distinguished National Football League star to the center last November. A devout Christian, 16-season NFL tight end Benjamin Watson spoke courageously and convincingly about racism in football and “the work of God’s grace” in thwarting it. His presentation was rich in stories about how, in his own battles with injustice in the gridiron sport, “God repeatedly showed up.” It is easy to understand why the live audience of Harding football players attending the virtual lecture not only found it inspiring but now appreciate why Watson has become a national voice for diversity and unity and why they should strive to become nothing less.

The center has also become home to football clinics overseen by Simmons. Youngsters desiring improvement on the gridiron can now develop their skills in Keatsian beauty created to enhance excellence while honoring God, a structure in which 501 will “forever” take pride.

Bob Reising