Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Different styles, similar results

Leader sports editor

Cabot coach Mike Malham and Bentonville coach Barry Lunney Sr. are two of the most renowned coaches in the history of high school football in Arkansas.

They also prove there is no single formula for winning at an impressive clip.

The two meet each other for the fifth time in their long and successful careers when their teams play at 7 p.m. Friday at War Memorial Stadium for the class 7A state championship.

Lunney is the standard bearer for success in high school coaching, but Malham is one of the few whose record does not pale in comparison, and their styles could not be more different.

Lunney has made five coaching stops over the years while Malham has made two. Lunney is a year older than Malham, but hasn’t been a head coach for as long.

Mike Malham, a 1971 graduate of Little Rock McClellan, was an assistant coach under Bill Reed at Jacksonville and helped that school win a state championship. In 1980, he took the head coaching job up the road at Cabot, and has been there since, winning two more state titles as the head Panther.

Lunney, a 1970 graduate of Fort Smith Northside, was an assistant at Greenwood and Fordyce before getting his first crack as a head coach at Beebe in 1988. He spent two years there before getting a job in his hometown, but at the old rival, Fort Smith Southside. In 16 years as the head Rebel, Lunney won four state championships before taking over at Bentonville in 2004. He has already added two more state titles as a Tiger, and will be vying for number seven on Friday.

Despite coaching in the same classification for the last 20 years, the two legends have only met four times, all four in the playoffs and twice in the state championship game.

Lunney and the Rebels beat Cabot in the 1997 state championship game the first time the coaches stood on opposite sidelines. The very next year, when Southside thought it had its best team of Lunney’s career up to that point, Cabot upset the Rebels in the semifinals, only to run up against Cedric Cobbs and the loaded JA Fair War Eagles and lose the title game.

Two years later, they met again for the 2000 state title and Cabot completed a perfect season by beating the Rebels 28-21. Another two years later, Southside came to Panther Stadium and beat Cabot in the 2002 semifinals. Lunney, after having lost his last two games against the hard-nosed Panthers, was moved to tears during the post game interview after beating them in 2002.

They haven’t met since.

Friday’s meeting is the rubber match. Former assistants who are now head coaches gave some insight into what it was like working for the legends, and what they took with them when they embarked on their own head-coaching careers.

Beebe coach John Shannon spent many years working as Malham’s offensive line coach. The one thing he says he gleaned from the head Panther was to be organized and in tune with the program.

Mountain Home coach Benji Mahan had a very different kind of boss at Fort Smith Southside and Bentonville, working for a coach who was primarily hands off.

Said Shannon, “He’s probably the most organized man I’ve ever met,” Shannon said. “He has his work in order, practice plans, playbooks, paper work. He starts keeping stats on players in ninth grade, and he has the pulse on every aspect of that program all the way down to seventh grade. He visits practices and knows everything from what needs to take place in practice, to how many sets of shoulder pads need replaced. He delegates and he lets his coaches coach, but every aspect he’s involved in.”

Mahan said working for Lunney wasn’t quite the same. There weren’t the meticulous notes and charts, and there was little involvement with others’ tasks once a plan was put in place.

“I hope the right word is trust,” said Mahan. “I think coach Lunney trusted his coaches. That’s not to say he didn’t have his say. There were some closed-door meetings where he’d lay out what he expects, but once the door was opened, he let us go about getting it done.”

Lunney has changed systems over the year as well. He started out as a Wing-T coach at Beebe, and ran that system at Southside until the late 90s, when he switched to the spread formation.

“One of the things I liked about coach Lunney was his willingness to change,” Mahan said. “It’s kind of ironic, because one of the things I really admire about coach Malham, having coached against him for two years now, is his commitment to his system.

“Coach Lunney switched to the spread and things didn’t go very well that first year. But then that second year they set all kinds of passing records and won a state championship.”

Malham’s Dead T offense doesn’t lend itself to an array of play-calling choices. The Panthers depend on precision, and just being better at what they do than their opponents are.

Lunney has been known to fly by the seat of his pants come game time, and his assistants were aware of it.

“We assistants knew to work on things in individual practice that weren’t necessarily in that week’s game plan,” Mahan said. “Because we knew you never could tell what play might be called if he spotted something he thought he could exploit,” Mahan said of Lunney. “You just had to have your players ready for anything.”

That kind of unpredictability has never been Malham’s modus operandi. In fact, it’s never any secret at all what the Panthers are going to do on offense.

But both coaches have enjoyed long and successful careers, despite doing things so differently.

“The one thing I think you have to admire about both of them is the longevity,” Mahan said. “This is a tough occupation. There are a lot of critics and both of them have hung in there all these years. It’s great to see both of them still operating at such a high level.”