Two Coaches Who Left Their Mark on Fort Smith Athletics
At some ancestral point, every Fort Smith family came from somewhere else. Some who came here made little or no mark. Others improved Fort Smith in a big way. Jim Wyatt and Bill Crowder are two of this city’s transplanted improvers.
The two coaches improved Fort Smith a small handful of athletes at a time. Their tools were ball fields and gymnasiums. Westark Community College would become their common denominator. The late legendary Coach Gayle Kaundart would be on their Mount Rushmore. Both of their professional careers would end at halls of fame.
Although these days one man may seem crusty while the other man displays a dab of ice cream on his crust, the pies are nevertheless wonderful. Crowder, 81, and Wyatt, 75, are now retired. Both men exude faith and class.
“You don’t realize before you retire, how fast time passes once you do retire,” Wyatt said.
Crowder added, “Amen.”
“The reason is,” Wyatt continued, “it takes us so much longer to do the things we want to do daily. You get into a routine. I get up and go feed my horse, come home, go work out and by that time, it’s time for a nap. Before you know it, it’s nightfall and the day is over.”
Wyatt added that his seven grandchildren, “have something going all the time, but it’s enjoyable.”
“I play golf occasionally, but I haven’t played in a while,” Crowder said. “I like to garden. I’m trying to play the violin, or (what) you call the fiddle. I’m self-taught. I play the guitar and the piano a little bit, but I’d like to get someone to teach me how to handle a bow.”
Crowder’s agenda includes following his two granddaughters’ dance teams and tennis and watching American Legion and Boys Club ballgames. He serves on the alumni board of the University of the Ozarks and is involved with the Sertoma Club. Politically active, Crowder counts U.S. Sen. John Boozeman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack as friends.
“I try to stay busy,” he said.
“I sold my boat a few years ago,” he added. “I loved to fish. Now, I’d have to have a pontoon. Otherwise, I’d be in the water ... swimming.”
“We used to fish with a guy named J.W. Loyd, who knew the lakes like the back of his hand,” Crowder recalled. “We used to catch some crappie!”
Wyatt echoed his love of fishing. Coaches and fishing are synonymous. The conversation immediately turned to fishaholic and newly retired Van Buren Coach Merrill Mankin, who played baseball for Crowder at Westark.
“He told me the other day, he was going to call me and take me fishing.” Wyatt said of Mankin. “But he hasn’t called.”
Word up, Merrill.
In 1952, the year before Mankin was born, Wyatt and his wife, Janie, came to Fort Smith from Fourche Valley (Yell County), where Wyatt had coached his initial year. Born at Bollinger hospital in Clarksville in 1939, Wyatt grew up at Branch where his dad operated a general store. A 1957 graduate of County Line High School, Wyatt played basketball under Jimmy Charles at Fort Smith Junior College from 1957-1959. At that time, FSJC games were played at the Wheeler Avenue Boys Club. Wyatt graduated in 1961 from the College of the Ozarks in Clarksville.
Although he described his year at Fourche Valley as “wonderful,” in the spring of 1962 Wyatt walked away from a $360 per month salary and $25 per month rent to contact Fort Smith Public School Superintendent Chris Corbin about the coaching vacancy at Ramsey Junior High. Corbin sent Wyatt to coach and athletic director Bill Stancil.
“Well, actually Coach Kaundart hires the basketball coaches,” Stancil told him.
“I said, ‘Where will I find him,’ and he said, ‘Well, right now he’s up at Red Star, which is where his wife (Ruth) was from. Her folks had a farm up there.
“So Janie and I got in the car and drove up there, found their place. Gayle was sitting out there under the shade of a tree, watching his father-in-law bale hay. Gayle was never big on physical labor,” Wyatt said with a laugh. “Ruth would agree. He’d stand on a basketball court and coach all day, but baling hay wasn’t his thing.”
A short time later, Kaundart called Wyatt and told him he had the job. The Wyatts moved to Fort Smith in 1962 and rented a small house. In the fall of 1962, the entire Ramsey coaching staff consisted of Bill Malone, Wyatt and seventh-grade Coach C.B. Fargo.
Wyatt recalled his first year.
“We had several good players. Jim Files was a ninth-grader. Keith Summy, Dennis Wells. We weren’t really good that year, and most of it was my fault. I was new to them; they were new to me.”
Wyatt displayed remorse as he seemed to draw a comparison between himself and Ronnie Bateman, who had coached Ramsey to a championship the year before.
However, he smiled as he recalled eighth-grader Steve Peoples, who today is head track and assistant football coach at Southside High School.
Wyatt became Bateman’s assistant at Southside in 1965 and would remain there until 1974. As he spoke of Bateman, Wyatt wore his love and admiration like a comfortable shirt.
In 1974, Westark president Shelby Breedlove called Crowder to his office and asked him to take over the basketball program. Crowder declined, but told Breedlove he would contact some possibles. The first man he called was Gayle Kaundart.
Armed with a booster club containing men like C.A. Fawcett and Sandy Sanders, and with Wyatt as his assistant, Kaundart established a program that during their 13 seasons, would make nine NJCAA National Tournament appearances, including a national championship in 1981.
It turns out, Crowder knew people.
Even today, looking through the 1948-49 Perryville (Ark.) High School yearbook, Billy Mac Crowder, then a 10-grader, can tell you where virtually everyone pictured is living, or if they’re living. It is a precious characteristic of a man who has lived his life on his own terms.
Crowder recounts in his book, “Success Is More Than Wins,” an early childhood in rural Perry?County without electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.
“I remember doing my schoolwork using the coal-oil lamp for light,” he wrote.
“Some of the great times of my life I remember as a very happy child growing up in a very loving environment that included discipline, work and the love of my parents.”
Crowder’s father, Dewey, would be elected Perry County sheriff. However, it was a Perryville High School coach named Clarence Higgins, who himself would later improve Fort Smith by way of the Fort Smith Boys Club, who would play a role in Crowder’s future at Fort Smith.
Entering the College of the Ozarks in 1952, Crowder placed Kaundart in his story early on.
“Gayle had already graduated before I was there, but we played under the same guy, Coach (Frank) Koon, one of the finest guys anyone would ever meet,” Crowder said.
Graduating in 1956, the 23-year-old Crowder was immediately hired as head football/baseball/basketball coach and athletic director at Ozark. His second year there, Crowder temporarily filled a vacancy in the high school principal’s office. Forced to choose between coaching and administration at the beginning of his third year, Crowder chose coaching. Administration was not his favorite role.
“One dad had moved in from California and his youngster was giving Mrs. Greer trouble in her English class. I brought him down to the office. I told him, ‘I don’t want any more misbehaving in Mrs. Greer’s class or anywhere else. If I have to call you in here again, I’m going to (introduce) you to the paddle.’ This was when you could use a paddle,” Crowder inserted.
“He kept going on. I brought him down. I got a witness. I busted his butt good and quick. About midnight, his dad called me and said, ‘You know in California, we don’t believe in whipping kids.’
“I said, ‘You’re 1,506 miles from the state of California. You’re in Ozark, Arkansas. If he can’t behave himself right there, I’ll bust it again until we get him straightened out.’”
Crowder invited the dad down for a visit for the following morning, saying, “‘We’ll get this matter settled.’ He never showed up. Took his kid out. I guess he went back to California.”
Crowder would accept a coaching position offer from head Coach Fritz Ehren at Springdale High School in 1959. There, he would meet and marry his wife, Jean. He also would become acquainted with head baseball and basketball coach at Fayetteville High School, Shelby Breedlove.
In 1965, Breedlove, who had joined the faculty at Fort Smith Junior College in 1960 and had become athletic director and dean of men, hired Crowder as men’s basketball and baseball coach. Three years later, Crowder moved exclusively to baseball.
Under Breedlove, Fort Smith Junior College would transition to Westark Junior College in 1966 and to Westark Community College in 1972.
During his 33-year career in Fort Smith, Crowder posted a 1,003-559 record and would promote 500 players to four-year schools. Three of his players, Steve Haaser, Johnny Mason and Merrill Mankin, would hold head coaching positions in the Fort Smith Public Schools.
The UAFS baseball field was named in honor of Crowder in 1994. He was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame in 2001 and into the UAFS Hall of Fame in 2010.
Jim Wyatt would serve as athletic director at UA-Fort Smith from 1982-1998. He would direct the UAFS fitness center until his retirement in 2003.
Because of the efforts of Fort Smith Public Schools athletic director Jim Rowland, and former Crowder player and head coach Johnny Mason, the late Ronnie Bateman holds the unique distinction of being in both the Northside High School Hall of Honor and the Southside High School Hall of Fame.
If young men dream dreams and old men tell stories, it is because young men are not old enough to have stories to tell.
Consider this story:
There is a small boat on the Arkansas River, with three fisherman bait-casting. Crowder in front; Wyatt in the middle; Kaundart in back.
“Crowder’s got a humped-back Rebel on there that he’s throwing,” Wyatt said. “The Rebel flips the top of my cap when he draws back to cast. I think to myself, ‘I’d better keep my eye on him and stay out of his way.’
“I lost my focus on him and started paying too much attention to my fishing. All of a sudden, he has hung that hump-backed Rebel in the back of my ear. He didn’t know where it had gone. He just had a lot of line on that reel and he couldn’t figure out where his lure went. I knew he was going to yank it, so I reached up and grabbed the line. Gayle is sitting in the back with his arms crossed just watching. But, he didn’t get to set the hook on me.”
While Coaches Wyatt and Crowder may still be dodging lures, it’s warm to think that, hopefully, Coach Kaundart is sitting up above, with his arms crossed, just watching.