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The Coaches McKinney: Frog & Pollywog

The Coaches McKinney: Frog & Pollywog

Frog & Pollywog
Being a coach’s son was natural training for athletic director

One of Pollywog’s earliest memories is learning to turn on the lights at Grizzly ­Field House. He also learned to run a scoreboard and mop the gym floor.

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Pollywog is Dr. Darren McKinney, now 42 and the new director of athletics and student activities for Fort Smith Public Schools.

He got that nickname from his father, Doug, who was nicknamed “Frog” in college because of his jumping prowess in basketball.

Doug McKinney came to Fort Smith in 1964 to coach basketball at Darby Junior High School, where he stayed for eight years before moving on to Northside High School.

Although his son has degrees in chemistry, American history, teaching and education administration, what he learned while tagging along with his dad may have had the most influence on his career.

“I grew up at the Northside gym. That was my second home,” Dr. McKinney said. “As a coach’s kid, it was, ‘Here are the keys, go take care of things. Go put the balls up, go get jerseys put up.’”

Keeping statistics for his dad put him ahead of the game in math.

“I learned how to calculate percentages way before I was taught in school because I had to do them at every quarter and at half time … because I had to hand it to him on a shot chart,” Dr. McKinney said. And that was when he was just 7 or 8. He had mastered running the scoreboard a couple of years earlier.

Doug McKinney grew up in Mulberry. His father died in World War II, five months after he was born. His mother worked in the town diner making pies for $18 a week but the young boy was able to supplement that with farm labor.

“In the spring, you’d pick strawberries, green beans and then you’d start hoeing soy beans. Then, you had hay to haul, then watermelons and cantaloupes,” he recalled. “They didn’t have any restrictions. If you were big enough, you could work.”

His high school basketball team won the state championship in 1960 and that earned him the attention he needed for a college scholarship. He signed with Arkansas Polytechnic College, now Arkansas Tech, to play both basketball and baseball. After his freshman year, he was offered a contract to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“At that time, if you signed a professional contract, you couldn’t play amateur basketball and that’s the only way I could go to college,” he said. And that was his mother’s dream.

Upon graduation, he joined Coach Jim Rowland at Darby.

“At the time I was there, all the junior high (basketball) games were played in the afternoon,” he said. “At Darby, we had 1,500 kids. Our gym was the old little gym, they called it The Pit. They would sell 450 tickets and would alternate the grades. When they sold 450 tickets, that’s all you could pack into it.”

When they weren’t on the football field or the basketball court, the two young coaches had a different kind of assignment.

“Coach Rowland and I were what you would call the disciplinarians. We had to keep control,” he said. “With 1,500 kids, we had science and fine arts, 250 (students) at a time for four periods in the auditorium. So our job was to keep order.”

And how did they do that?

“With an iron hand,” he chuckled.

“The story was if they didn’t have a pencil, they would stand ’em up, give ’em three swats, give them a pencil and sit ’em back down,” Dr. McKinney laughed.

In 1972, Coach McKinney made the move to Northside, where he had a 32-year career as head basketball coach, assistant football coach and drivers education instructor.

Two years after he arrived at Northside, he was chosen to replace the legendary Gayle Kaundart, who was at the pinnacle of his career. During his 19 seasons at Northside, Kaundart led the Grizzlies to five state championships – the last in 1974. Following that season, Kaundart was hired to coach the Westark Lions.

That put Coach McKinney in a unique position when he learned his son was applying to replace another legend, Jim Rowland. The respected athletic director retired after more than 50 years with the school district, the last 25 as A.D.

“I knew what I went through and I said, ‘You’re going to be second-guessed and when you have a decision, half the town will be for you and half the town will be against you. You’ve got to do what you feel is right and don’t worry about it. You’ve got to do what’s best for Fort Smith,’” Coach McKinney said.

Dr. McKinney’s biggest hesitation was following in the footsteps of a man who seemed to be everywhere at once.

“I knew what Coach Rowland did and where he went. Time. Time was the biggest thing. He went to everything,” he said. “I’ve got two daughters that are 8 and 5. I want to see them grow up.”

Fortunately, Caroline and Maggie enjoy going to games, as long as it comes with popcorn.

“They like watching sports but we also try to do different things with them,” he said. “It’s fun to watch my oldest one now start picking things out that she’s overheard me say – kinda like what I used to do with my dad.”

He also has the support of his wife, Jennifer, a teacher at Kimmons Junior High.

“She understands the time but she also understands this is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Dr. McKinney said. “To me, this blends the two things I’ve done before, the coaching aspect and being an administrator. It just takes those two things and puts them together.”

He was hired as an assistant seventh-grade girls coach at Kimmons in 1998 and became principal at Darby in 2005. Dr. McKinney’s new title includes more than athletics. He’s also director of student activities, which includes band, choir, cheer and dance.

“They work just as hard as the coaches. Whereas our football coaches are out there working and practicing, our band folks are doing the same thing. They’re getting their drill ready for marching season. They need that recognition,” he said.

“Coming in, to make this job my own, I’m going to do things a little bit different,” he said. “I’ve got two great people who have set the bar really high for this job – Coach (Bill) Stancil and Coach Rowland.”

­­And has his Pollywog nickname disappeared? “Among my friends, it hasn’t.”

There's more to the story:

• There has been a McKinney teaching at Kimmons since the second year it opened. Eugenia, Doug’s wife, from 1965 to 2004; Darren from 1998 to 2005; and now his wife, Jennifer, who moved from Darby to Kimmons in 2005 when Darren became principal at Darby.

• Doug coached all girls athletics at Northside the year Title IX was instituted.

• Darren has been the PA announcer for Northside football for 19 years.

• Doug helped choose the colors for Chaffin Junior High when it opened. He can still list the colors of all the teams in the conference.

• Darren’s brother, Doug Jr., aka Tadpole, is a lawyer and worked as a Naval nuclear engineer on submarines and served in the Air Guard.

• Eugenia McKinney was pregnant with Darren when Northside won the state basketball championship in 1974. Coach Kaundart’s wife told her she couldn’t have the baby until the season was over. She complied.

• Darren has taught classes at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith for 10 years.

• Fort Smith elementary schools used to have flag football teams. Howard always won.

– By Donna Payne

This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.

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