28 Jan 2010 UCA honor finally on track
In 2001, the university’s board of trustees voted to name a track and intramural facility in honor of Stephens, who was associated with UCA across five decades. He spent 31 years at UCA and retired with the longest tenure of any employee in the history of the UCA athletic department.
But when that track was demolished a few years later to make way for a parking facility, the honor was effectively pulled.
Now, though, the new track and soccer facility at the corner of Dave Ward Drive and Donaghey Avenue, which replaced the previous one west of the physical plant, wears the Stephens name — Bill Stephens Field. The board made it official in November.
“I think it’s very good that the stadium is named after him,” said Richard Martin, the UCA track and cross country coach who followed his mentor in those positions. “They never put up a sign on the first one. He did a lot for the program.”
Bill Stephens Field will host its first track meet, the UCA Relays, on Saturday, March 13.
“It’s an honor, and I appreciate the board and (former) President (Win) Thompson doing it,” Stephens said. “The track is beautiful. I haven’t walked it, but I’ve been out and looked at it.”
Thompson lauded both decisions to name the facility after Stephens.
“It’s a deserved honor, and I’m pleased for him,” Thompson said.
EARLY DAYS AT ASTC
Stephens, 77, a Conway native, played halfback for Arkansas State Teachers College (now UCA), and ran the high and low hurdles, the 440 and mile relay for the Bear track team. He won several Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference hurdle championships.
After graduating in 1955, Stephens coached at Wynne, Carlisle, Paragould and Conway high schools.
He returned to his alma mater, from which he had earned his master’s degree in 1956, in 1967 as assistant track and football coach under Raymond Bright. He continued to coach track and became head coach in 1973. In 1981, he moved into administration. He served as athletic director until he retired in 2000.
During that tenure, according to Jimmy Bryant, director of the UCA Archives, Stephens was instrumental in the building of the new Estes Stadium and in raising funds for all UCA athletic programs. As athletic director, he began UCA’s soccer program, among others.
In addition to his duties at UCA, Stephens also served in the Arkansas House of Representatives for 22 years. Among his successes there was his sponsorship of the legislation that changed the name of State College of Arkansas to the University of Central Arkansas. Gov. David Pryor signed that bill into law on Jan. 21, 1975. According to the Nov. 6, 2009, UCA board minutes, Stephens “in his 22 years in the House of Representatives contributed significantly to development in Faulkner County and at UCA.”
Stephens and Bright recruited Martin for football and track to UCA from Lufkin, Texas, in 1971. “If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be here,” Martin said. “I’ve been on campus since 1971, and I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve seen what he’s done for the program as a coach and also through the legislature, as well as what he did as athletic director.”
In addition to competing for Stephens, Martin also worked under him as an assistant coach. He said he learned a lot from him in that role as well.
“He was real strict as far as discipline,” Martin said. “He didn’t put up with horseplay, and with me just starting as an assistant coach and (graduate assistant), I was more on the players’ side because a lot of the players I was coaching, I ran with the year before, and I was doing some of the things they were doing and getting in trouble for.”
Martin admitted to trying to protect his former teammates.
“Coach Stephens would let me handle the discipline problems,” he remembered. “His discipline was getting rid of you. He didn’t put up with nonsense. He was real strict, and I would try to take up for them.”
Martin recalled that after consulting with Stephens, he would return to the athlete and say, ‘Look, I got you (back) on the team, but don’t forget, whatever you do now, he’s going to get on me, not you.’ But Martin said the athletes never burned him.
Martin especially remembered the 1979 Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference Championships. Stephens was in the legislature that spring, and most of the coaching duties fell to Martin.
“Whatever I did, right or wrong, he always stood behind me,” Martin said. “He always had my back. He might pull me in the office and say, ‘I might would’ve done it this way,’ but he never overruled me.”
On the bus heading to the AIC meet at Henderson State that year, Stephens asked him about the previous night’s curfew. “He never asked me if everybody made room check, but he asked me then, and I didn’t answer him because half the team broke curfew,” Martin remembered. “I said, ‘Coach, the whole year you haven’t asked me that — why do you have to ask me now?’
“He said, ‘Well, did anybody break the rules?’ and I said, ‘I’ve never lied to you, and yeah, we had some people break curfew.’”
When Stephens asked who the guilty parties were, Martin named half the team. Stephens told him they wouldn’t compete.
“I said, ‘Coach, but we can win,’” Martin remembered. “He said, ‘No, I’m not going to let them run.’”
When Martin walked to the back of the bus to deliver the verdict, he remembered that “you couldn’t hear a pin drop.’”
“I didn’t try to talk him out of it because I knew how he was,” Martin said.
The Bears arrived for the meet several hours early, and those who had been deemed ineligible to run stayed on the bus.
“Thirty minutes, an hour goes by, and everybody’s just sad,” Martin said. “I’m just sick. Finally, Coach Stephens came up to me and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to let you make the decision.’
“I said, ‘Coach, if you let me, I’m going to let them run, but I don’t want you to be mad at me.’ He said, ‘No, you’ve got to learn. One of these days, you’re going to have to make those decisions.’”
So Martin told the athletes left on the bus that he had talked Stephens into letting them compete.
“I told them, ‘We’d better win this track meet if I let you run.’ My job was on the line. I think he would’ve kept me, but I told him we could win. I had a good feeling.”
The Bears won, and no one missed curfew again.
UCA ATHLETIC DIRECTOR
One of Stephens’ first moves as AD was to name Martin his track replacement in 1982.
“By then I thought I was ready to become a head coach because of all the authority he gave me when I was assistant coach,” he said.
Martin said as athletic director, Stephens was more laidback. “He let me coach my program and never came over there and told me what I needed to do,” Martin said. “He let everybody coach their program and do their job. He just always told us to make sure we followed the rules and to keep our athletes from doing anything to embarrass the university.”
Under Stephens, UCA’s football team won the NAIA national championship in 1991 and the men’s basketball team played in back-to-back NAIA championship games in ’91 and ’92. Stephens shepherded the move to NCAA Division II shortly after that.
According to UCA sports information, several new programs were begun under his direction, including women’s fast-pitch softball, the first collegiate program in the state, as well as men’s and women’s soccer.
“Bill was already the athletic director at the time I came to UCA, so I can’t take credit for appointing him to the position, but he continued to serve with distinction in that role until his retirement, which he took over my objection,” Thompson said. “He did a wonderful job as AD in many ways, but at least from my perspective, one of the highlights was leading UCA from NAIA to NCAA Division II.”
Martin said the new track itself was top of the line. Fundraising efforts continue in order to add bleachers and lights. “Once they get through, it’ll be among the top facilities,” he said.
Martin knows personally the influence Stephens has had.
“My life would’ve been totally different if he hadn’t helped get me here,” he said. “I don’t know what I would be doing now if I didn’t end up at UCA.”