Friday, June 01, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Coach Hick–63 years of service

Leader sports editor

Bob Hickingbotham might say it was by chance that he ended up in Jacksonville. The Jacksonville community would say it was great fortune.

Hickingbotham spent the last seven years of his 15-year teaching and coaching career at Jacksonville High School. He’s spent every year since as a stalwart volunteer for the community, coaching the Gwatney Chevrolet American Legion baseball teams and running the Jacksonville Youth Baseball Association.

The Gwatney American Legion club won two state championships under Hickingbotham in 1984 and 1988. There were two years as state runners-up and a 12-year span from 1984 to 1995 that saw eight district championships. Three were in succession from 1990 to 1992. In 1988, Gwatney won 22 consecutive games en route to the state title.

Over the years, well over 100 of Hickingbotham’s players went on to play college baseball and five signed professional contracts with major league organizations.

“I love doing it,” Hickingbotham said. “I love baseball and I love coaching kids. I’ve been coaching since before I was out of high school and I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can.”

Hickingbotham’s service at Jacksonville has not gone unnoticed. Field 1 at Dupree Park was renamed Hickingbotham Field, and in 2007, he was part of the inaugural class of the Jacksonville High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Hickingbotham’s journey to Jacksonville and his days of volunteering started long ago. As a sophomore in high school in 1949, Hickingbotham began coaching Buddy League and Little League baseball in McGehee.

“I’d drive around and pick those kids up and put them in the back of a borrowed pick up truck,” Hickingbotham said. “I’d have about 16 of them in the back. I’d make them sit down in the floor and that’s how we got to games.”

He was an early success as a coach too.

“We won the district tournament in Crossett that first year, Hickingbotham said.”

After graduating from McGehee High School and earning a basketball scholarship to Arkansas A&M (now UA-Monticello), he coached American Legion baseball for the first time at Dermott after his sophomore year in college.

No longer living at home and no longer having access to the one family vehicle, Hickingbotham had to hitchhike 30 miles home during breaks. That’s partially how he became associated with Dermott youth baseball.

“The only roads from McGehee straight to Monti-cello were dirt and gravel,” Hickingbotham said. “The paved road went to Dermott and then turned north. So we’d head out on the paved roads and hitchhike through Dermott. It was tough at first but after a while the people realized we were students and would pick us up.”

After his time volunteering at Dermott, Hickingbotham got his first paid coaching job at Arkansas City High School in 1957, before he graduated.

Between volunteering at Dermott and teaching at Arkansas City, he got an opportunity at a professional baseball career.

In 1956-57, Hickingbotham interrupted his college classes to when he signed to play minor league baseball in Seminole, Okla., and Grand Island, Neb. They were D and C level teams in the Kansas City Athletics major league organization.

After two years, he decided to hang up his pro cleats and begin his teaching career, but he continued to play semi-professional baseball for 10 years, winning state player of the year twice.

In his first job, he coached four basketball teams, taught five classes, drove the school bus and acted as junior high principal at Arkansas City, all for $1,800 in 1957.

He completed his degree and took a job at Perryville High School in 1958. He left there after five years and went to England for one year.

That year he coached girls basketball and that team won 30 games and a state championship in the 63-64 season. England’s football coach Kenneth Miller was then hired at Jacksonville. His old coach at McGehee was also there and Hickingbotham was asked to join them. And that began what’s now a 47-year relationship, over 40 of which has been spent as a volunteer, with the community of Jacksonville.

Hickingbotham left off teaching and coaching in the Jacksonville school district in 1971. He earned his masters degree in 1968 and went to work at the Department of Education in 1971 as the director of driver’s education. He held that post for 19 years before retiring and going to work for his brother Frank, founder of the TCBY empire. All the while he spent summers working with the Jacksonville American Legion program and heading up the JYBA. In 2000, he retired altogether.

“Well I say that’s when I became a full-time baseball coach.” Hickingbotham said.

He’s now in his 42nd year coaching the Gwatney Chevrolet American Legion program, 40 as the head coach, and 38th year running the JYBA. And he’s never taken any money for it.

“They came to me and wanted to give me a little money one time,” Hickingbotham said. “I wouldn’t take it because if they started paying me, then they’d want the right to fire me too.”

“Coach Hick” as his players call him, even many who are middle aged now, does think he may give up the JYBA someday, but can’t see himself giving up coaching the legion program.

“I just can’t get my hand out of baseball and I like being around the kids too much,” Hickingbotham said. “I love helping a kid who wants to learn and I don’t have any other hobbies. I don’t fish or hunt. I love baseball and I love being around kids.”