It’s Sunday afternoon, the first weekend of the NFL Playoffs, and Bryant Head Football Coach Buck James is doing exactly what you’d expect. He’s at home, watching football.
“I’m still a football junkie, a sports junkie,” he said. “I try to be a fan when I watch on television, but I still have my lineman roots, so I’m watching a lot of the game within the game.”
It’s been a little more than a month since James’ Hornets claimed Bryant’s first state title with its 27-7 redemption win over the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats at War Memorial Stadium. That’s given this lifelong coach plenty of time to reflect on his program’s climb to Arkansas high school football’s mountaintop.
“Hard work paid off. That’s really it in a nutshell,” James said. “The last two years, I thought we were physically inferior to some of the top teams, but this year, we turned that corner and were able to physically match up with them.
“To be a champion in this league, it comes down to being more than just a good team. There are so many good teams at this level,” he added. “You have to have some luck, but you also have to be a complete team at all levels. You can’t just have a good running back or a good defense. It has to be complete, and when we made that turn, I think, is when it all paid off.”
Success is often born from setbacks along the journey, and that’s exactly what James points to in his Hornets’ run to the 7A title. While undefeated at home, Bryant suffered two road losses during the 2018 season, a 36-35 defeat at Fayetteville and 34-28 at North Little Rock.
“That was just what the doctor ordered for us. We had to see what was needed to improve, and that’s what our players did,” James said. “Walking off the field at North Little Rock, I told our coaches, ‘That may be the best thing that could’ve happened to us.’ After that loss, our guys returned to the practice field and got to work. It was raining, but they got out there and had some of the best practices of the season. They held one another accountable and put in the work. We were determined it wasn’t going to happen again.”
Coaching through a season with high expectations is not a new experience for James. He was an assistant coach at Monticello during the Billies’ 1994 state title run. As head coach at Camden Fairview, James led the Cardinals to a 90-12 record during nine years, three state title appearances and a championship over Batesville in 2012.
“At Monticello, our coaching staff was so small, just four of us. It may have been the smallest staff in the state at that time, so to take a program that had never been there before to a championship was special,” he said. “At Camden Fairview, I was the head coach, and sometimes you doubt yourself after losing two. But we got it done in 2012. That was more of a relief than anything.
“Here, I was able to enjoy this so much more,” he added. “It was our first time there against a team we hadn’t beaten a few times, but our team had a real sense of resolve and confidence. With such a great coaching staff and me as more of a CEO, it was easier to see the process, where we’d been and what we’d become as a program. I had a chance to soak it in and celebrate what we’d accomplished together.”
The path to a championship is long and often years in the making. For James, his hard-nosed, blue collar approach is one to which his players can attest. “I sometimes tell my guys it’ll take them until they’re 30 to get over playing for me.”
Even with that determined approach, though, James wasn’t opposed to making some changes to get the best from this Hornet squad.
“One of the things we have to be careful with regarding our players these days is burnout,” he said. “In the past, we may have pushed them too hard at times, so we worked to change that this year.
“I would cut practices short, giving them some time off and breaks, just trying to keep them fresh because our schedule was the hardest Bryant has ever played. It was grind, but by the end of the year, we were playing our best football and still getting better. The kids knew their job, what was expected, and they delivered for us.”
One thing that’s unique for Bryant, especially in the 2018 season, was where they began and ended their season. With a 10-1-1 record at the legendary War Memorial Stadium, James says his players are clearly comfortable there and see it as sort of home away from home.
“We use War Memorial as a home field advantage,” he said. “Our fans are awesome, and when we play there, they come out to support us. North Little Rock is such a difficult place to play, and we kept telling our kids, ‘If we can get them on a neutral field, it will be different.’ Fortunately for us, that’s how it played out.”
Now regarded as one of the best high school football coaches in Arkansas and the winner of the Farm Bureau Insurance Coach Of The Year, James says the fire to succeed that started during his playing days in Pine Bluff is still strong, and as he sees it, there’s still more work to be done.
“I’d like to do it again, to win another state championship,” he said. “I get enjoyment out of coaching young men and want to keep on doing so for another 10 years. I’m still hungry and want to compete.”
His teams begin and end every session together with the chant, “Be the best.” That’s a mantra he’s carried with him for more than 25 years. The Hornets also tout the unique motto of #212.
“That’s the temperature where water boils,” James said. “We use it to describe our effort. At 211, water is hot, but with one more degree of effort, it will boil an egg, produce steam, even power a locomotive. Sometimes, that little extra degree of effort is all you need.”