Sports Hall of Fame welcomes Stephens

by Hunter Brooks
Mike Kemp photos

During his 10-year tenure (1972-1981) at UCA, Ken Stephens led the Bears to four Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference titles, including the NAIA national championship game in 1976.

In February, Stephens was honored for his accomplishments with an induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

While at UCA, Stephens had a 67-35-6 coaching record and left as the winningest coach in school history. He now stands third.

“I got the induction call in the first part of December,” Stephens said. “I thought if I was to ever get inducted it would have happened 20 years ago — when I was hot, when I was doing all of these things. I haven’t really coached in Arkansas in the last 20 years. I was very surprised when it happened, but pleasantly surprised.”

Prior to his time at UCA, Stephens coached high school football at Crossett, Bethany (Okla.), Walnut Ridge and Conway. In 1960, he served as an assistant coach at what is now Arkansas State University before returning to the high school ranks at Morrilton.

From 1960 to 1973, Stephens was the head coach and athletic director at North Little Rock High School. His teams won state titles in ’65, ’66 and ’70. This success caught the eye of then-University of Arkansas head coach Frank Broyles, leading to Stephens being an assistant for the Razorbacks in 1971.

Stephens left UCA in 1982 to take the Lamar University head coaching job, where he spent four seasons. After Lamar, he coached Arkansas Tech from 1986 to 1992, when he retired.

“I love the Xs and Os of coaching,” he said. “I love the checker game. I loved trying to stop people and trying to score on them. I just really enjoyed the dynamics of a sport that had a lot of people moving around at one time. I don’t know any other sport that has 22 people running around at one time, so there’s a lot of strategy involved.”

Stephens came out of retirement in 2001 to coach Ranger College (Tex.), taking over a program that had won only one game during the previous two seasons. While winning only 15 games in four years, he was nominated for National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Coach of the Year in 2002 for turning around the program. The 2002 Ranger squad won five games. Stephens retired from coaching for the final time in 2004.

“I probably retired too early when I stepped away in ’92,” he said. “I was 62, and that’s young by today’s standards. I got a call from Dale Morris, who I coached at UCA. He was athletic director at Ranger College, and his coach had quit in the spring. He called and told me I had to go help him out because he was without a coach and spring practice was about to start.

“Initially, I didn’t want to because it was a long way from Conway, and my wife was here, but I went and toured the place and I liked it. He kept calling until it finally hit me, ‘Why not?’ I wasn’t doing anything else. It was only supposed to be for a year, but I ended up there for four.”

After graduating from Conway High School in 1948, Stephens attended UCA where he was a two-star athlete in football and track. On the track, he became the first AIC athlete in any sport to be named All-American two years in a row.

During his junior and senior years, Stephens finished national runner-up in the 120-yard high hurdles. Those were the only two 120 hurdle races he lost in his collegiate career, as he won four consecutive AIC individual titles in that event.

On the gridiron, Stephens played defensive back and still holds the UCA record for most interceptions in a single game with five. He graduated from UCA in 1952 with a BS degree in education.

“I’m probably more proud of my coaching accomplishments (than athletic) because it was over a longer period of time,” he said. “Athletic-wise was not bad. Of course it was so long ago no one knows it. I had a good high school career in both (track and football). Of course at UCA, I did both, and I loved track because I was probably a little better at it than football.”

Among those who have played or coached under Stephens are Charlie Strong, the current head coach at Texas; John Thompson, who led Arkansas State to bowl wins following the 2012 and ’13 seasons; Bill Keopple, head coach at Southern Arkansas; Monte Coleman, head coach at UA-Pine Bluff; and Barry Switzer, who was a sophomore at Crossett when Stephens was an assistant coach there.

Stephens currently works at UCA as an assistant supervisor in the Office of Student Success.

“It’s all about building relationships,” he said. “I loved coaching because of the camaraderie of the team and the personal relationship you can have with a player — advising them and helping them out on and off the field to be a more productive person in every way, not just as an athlete but as a citizen.”