Greenwood’s Impressive Step Up Earns Rick Jones National Honor

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It was clear after Week 8 Greenwood and Rick Jones were in the midst of a season that might gain national recognition.

Winning on the gridiron is routine in this small River Valley town, but this home victory was significant in multiple ways. The Bulldogs, who moved from 5A to 6A this season, dominated 7A Fort Smith Southside 45-21. The win kept the Bulldogs’ then 32-game winning streak intact, and was a giant step in securing the 7A/6A Central Conference Title.

That is remarkable since the majority of the opponents’ enrollments resided in Class 7A. Greenwood rolled past 7A Conway 49-28 and clinched the undefeated title with a 42-7 romp of 7A Russellville.Each week on Scoreboard Central (the state’s largest post-game prep radio scoreboard show) I marveled over the ease at which the Bulldogs transitioned to 6A. After the Southside win I emphasized the magnitude of the victory, which came against a school from a larger neighboring town and a well-coached program known for playing clutch down the stretch.

Jones made a key adjustment during Week 8. He moved Arkansas commit Drew Morgan from receiver to running back. He terrorized the Rebels for more than 200 yards. At that point, Greenwood became one of the bigger national prep football stories, and Jones became a candidate for individual honors.

Rick Jones Greenwood

The Bulldogs capped the magical run going undefeated with 38 straight wins and a 6A State Title. Last week the National Federation of State High Schools Association named Jones the National Coach of the Year.Jones has set the bar so high in his 9 years (107-16, 6 state titles) the Bulldog faithful don’t hope to be playing in Little Rock, they expect it. Even when their squad moves from the comfy confines of 5A to the state’s second-largest classification in a league filled with opponents with larger enrollments.

I was one of several prep football prognosticators who figured Greenwood to play in the state title. One wasn’t going out on a limb with the Bulldogs’ tradition and glut of returners. However, I thought they might lose twice in league play. As impressive as the regular season performance was, the Bulldogs topped it in the playoffs. GHS ended El Dorado’s three-year run of state titles in the semifinals 42-39. A week later, the Bulldogs held off Pine Bluff 51-44 for the state championship. Zebras coach Bobby Bolding called the team the “most athletic” he’s coached. Some thought Pine Bluff’s speed might be a factor. It was, but not enough to deny a gritty, determined group of Bulldogs.

That’s the most important asset Jones brought with him when the school’s administration lured him from the Tulsa area. The ability to get players to “buy in” has made his teams more than competitive at five prep stops. Jones, who was an assistant coach at Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) also brings preparation and attention to detail that is rarely duplicated. His values and expectations are eagerly accepted by a group of kids, many who live in rural areas, that are used to hard work.

The combination of a coach who expects more and a team willing to believe has produced some impressive performances in nine years. Former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson led Greenwood to a 56-55 victory against Pulaski Academy in the 5A state finals in 2006. The Bulldogs trailed 55-48 with 18 seconds left when Wilson threw a short touchdown pass in the back of the end zone. In true Jones fashion, Greenwood went for two points and the win. The former Hog standout rolled to the right, and found a receiver open on that side, just across the goal line.

Four years later, Jones orchestrated another last-second comeback for the ages. Camden Fairview led by two touchdowns with less than two minutes left and was driving. The Bulldogs stopped the Cardinals on fourth down, and scored quickly. Then they got the ball back on an onside kick and scored again and added a two-point conversion to earn the title in the most dramatic fashion I’ve ever witnessed. Greenwood completed a similar comeback a year later at Camden in the semifinals en route to another state title. The back-to-back losses kept Cardinals coach Buck James up at night until this year when his club beat Batesville for the state crown.

Each season seems to bring another memorable title run. But 2012’s run may stick out  with the Bulldog faithful. Moving up in class gave Jones something for his team to shoot for. Winning in 5A had become routine. Playing in a league comprised of much bigger schools and navigating the unfamiliar 6A in the playoffs would be a challenge. Thanks in part to Jones, his squad passed the test with flying colors and finally caught the attention of national pundits.

Arkansas prep football has closed the gap between neighboring states over the past decade. Improved coaching is one reason. Gus Malzahn won state championships at Shiloh Christian and Springdale and is now the head coach at Auburn. Jones is among an elite group of the state’s coaches that could win anywhere in the country, and maybe even at a college program. Bentonville coach Barry Lunney, Fayetteville coach Daryl Patton, and Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley are also included. They all have that special knack to produce players who make few mistakes and play above their abilities.

Sports Night host Grant Merrill thinks Jones could have topped UA interim coach John L. Smith’s 4-8 mark at the helm of the Hogs this year. I wouldn’t disagree. Some smart aleck Hog die-hards would contend Mickey Mouse could have done better, but Jones’s keen attention to detail would have been just what Arkansas needed. One thing I know for sure, Jones wouldn’t have kicked a field goal on the fourth-and-one play late in the LSU game.

A month removed from one of the most remarkable seasons in Arkansas prep history, and it’s business as usual on the Greenwood campus. The rigorous off-season program is in full effect. Last season is over and a new group has its sights set on War Memorial Stadium. It doesn’t seem possible Jones can duplicate this feat, but recent history has proven he’ll find a way.

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