Cross-town rivals set to meet Nov. 13

After holding a nine-point halftime lead last year, UCA prevailed, 68-40. But there wasn’t much more success for either team after that.

The Bears finished 9-21 overall, including 3-13 in the Southland Conference. Rand Chappell was fired at the end of the season. The Warriors went 7-16 overall (4-12 in the SCAC). Dan Priest resigned following the season.

So this time, two men will make their debuts in this rivalry.

Hendrix’s Thad McCracken served as an assistant under Priest for four seasons before taking the Hendrix women’s job last year. He led the Hendrix women to their first SCAC Western Division title after a 20-5 overall mark (13-3 in league play).

Corliss Williamson, the former Russellville High, Arkansas Razorback and NBA star, succeeded Chappell, arriving after three seasons at Arkansas Baptist College, including one as head coach. He will lead the Bears in their first season of full eligibility for Division I postseason play.

So while they and their teams come from different places, they will be baptized together in this rivalry.

“This game is a great opportunity for our guys to play against good, Division I competition,” McCracken said. “While our guys won’t be as big and athletic as the UCA players, we will have a lot of skill and can hopefully make up for our deficiencies by playing hard and playing smart.”

Williamson pledged a change in culture” in a letter to supporters.

“This year we promise a change of pace in the action and fun,” he wrote. “We are going to run a fast-paced offense with lots of movement that will allow our players the freedom to showcase their talents. We are also implementing an ‘in-your-face, pressure style of defense’ that will guarantee turnovers and fast break opportunities. We want to create one of the most exciting atmospheres in college basketball.”

For years, the rivalry was one of the most exciting in Arkansas basketball as the cross-town teams battled for Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference supremacy. Stories abound of fans lining up in the old Grove Gymnasium on the Hendrix campus for hours before the tip. That facility featured seating practically on the floor, leading to an up-close-and-personal experience for fans, players and coaches alike.

While UCA’s Farris Center didn’t offer such an intimate atmosphere, the rivalry was always one of the highlights of the season there. The series featured overtime games, buzzer-beaters and a few blowouts.

UCA leads the series, 70-54.

For nearly 15 years of the rivalry, Cliff Garrison patrolled the Hendrix sideline opposite his good friend Don Dyer at UCA. Garrison had played at UCA and coached for a year under Dyer at Henderson before taking the Hendrix job in 1972; Dyer made the move to Conway in 1979.

“Any time you have two teams in the same conference in the same city, like Henderson-Ouachita or Hendrix-UCA, it’s a great rivalry,” said Garrison, who coached the Warriors 31 years before moving into administration. “When I got to Hendrix, I had three seniors, and it was obvious how much it meant to those guys and how much they looked forward to it, how much energy and excitement there was.

“As coaches, we went to church with those folks. When you come in there after a game, either you’re feeling pretty good or not feeling very good. If you lost to Southern State at Magnolia, nobody is going to say a whole lot, so you come back and lick your wounds and get ready to go, but when you play your cross-town rival, it takes on added excitement.”

At Henderson, Dyer was involved in the state’s other cross-town rivalry against Ouachita Baptist. He said both series featured packed gyms and drew great interest.

“When we’d go over to Hendrix, people would be standing around the end line, around the wall,” he said of his 14 seasons with the Bears. “It was completely filled up, and they’d bring a bunch of folks over here, too. People would be lined up outside the gym, waiting to get in.”

He said the series was “no doubt” the best atmosphere of any he was involved in at UCA.

Garrison remembered Grove Gymnasium, which seated 1,500, packed by 6 p.m. for a 7:30 game and how the late Hendrix athletic director, Dr. Bob Courtway, dreaded it every year because he knew he’d face crowd control issues.

“When you came out to warm up, you’d have a packed house,” he remembered. “Normally, small college basketball fans come right at or right after the tipoff, so that game was different. You almost had to keep from getting them too high. If you didn’t watch it, they’d use all that adrenaline in the warm-up with the crowd, which would be chanting back and forth already.”

Some of those chants included, “Here’s the keys,” and “You’re going to be working for us.”

The Farris Center, too, drew nearly full crowds despite its much larger capacity.

“Any time we played over there, it was going to be their best crowd, too,” Garrison said. “All those people who couldn’t get in at Hendrix could get in there. And as we went along there, by the time Dyer got to UCA, more times than not the game had big implications in the conference standings.”

By the second meeting of the 1990-91 season, the Warriors had won 17 consecutive AIC games, but the Bears prevailed in the regular-season finale and also in the NAIA District 17 game for a berth to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City. Although Hendrix won the AIC title, UCA took the District 17 championship and reached the national final.

“We had some great wins in the series and some heartbreaking losses,” Garrison said. “’I’ve got exciting memories of last-second shots both ways. Most games would be pretty competitive and come down to some last-second heroics.”

Despite his association with both schools, Garrison never played against Hendrix.

“They had done away with the competition between Hendrix and UCA and between Ouachita and Henderson because of the intensity of the rivalry,” he said. “They had fights, all kinds of stuff, so they suspended it for a while.”

He graduated in 1962; the series was resurrected in ’63 and ran through ’92 before resuming again last year.

“I’m glad they’re going to play,” Garrison said. “It’s always exciting, but the kids today don’t have the history of it.”

Now, maybe, they will.

“This game is great for the community as it renews an old rivalry from the AIC days,” McCracken said. “Coach Garrison was an outstanding coach and mentor at Hendrix, and our program wouldn’t have the things we do if it weren’t for him, and I am sure UCA can say the same things about Coach Dyer.”

“I haven’t been a part of the rivalry like most people have,” said Williamson, “but I’ve certainly heard a lot of the stories. I’m excited about playing this game. I think it’s great for the schools, the fans, the students and for the city of Conway.”

Nov. 13 promises an exciting tip to basketball season in Conway.

“I am sure that Coach Williamson will have his team ready to play and that this game will be a lot of fun for the entire Conway community to see,” McCracken said.