Football's back for former dynasty in Arkansas
October 9, 2008
LITTLE ROCK The winning streak is a modest one by this program's standards - yet it means so much for a tiny Arkansas town.
The Barton Bears were once a high school football dynasty, but last season ended early when the school forfeited games, saying it didn't have enough players. This year, under new coach Mike Bush, Barton returned to the field - and won its first five games by a combined 161-16.
"We're excited about our start for this community and what it went through last year," Bush said. "We needed this kind of start."
There was a time when a run like this wouldn't have raised eyebrows. Barton was once a model for small programs everywhere. The Bears won eight state championships under coach Frank McClellan, who coached at the school in the Mississippi Delta for over three decades before retiring after the 2005 season.
During one stretch Barton won 63 consecutive games, a streak no school in ! the state has come close to matching.
But McClellan had to make do with low numbers at the small school, and so did his successor Jim Sain. In late September of last year, Barton canceled the remainder of its season, citing a lack of healthy players.
When Bush took over, he set about growing the roster.
"He got out and went around and talked to all the guys that weren't playing football," said Joe Tom Cunningham, who has done radio work for Barton. "They had a pretty good turnout in the spring."
Bush says the team now has 44 players from grades 10-12 - an amazing number for a team that had just over a dozen for a game last year.
"I guess all the years I was here, I didn't ever have no 40 kids out. They've done pretty good," McClellan said. "I think the community is quite excited - and they ought to be because they're undefeated."
Bush cautions against unreasonable expectations. Barton's schedule has been extremely soft so far. On Friday n! ight, the Bears host an unbeaten Harding Academy team that could provi de a quick reality check.
"We're not near the Barton of old, but we're winning games that we're supposed to win and winning them pretty convincingly," Bush said. "Obviously, we're going to have our work cut out for us this week."
Bush is from Louisiana - he played there for Alton "Red" Franklin, who coached Haynesville High School to 11 state championships. The similarities between Haynesville and Barton are striking.
"Legendary coaches both places, unbelievable conference wins, state championships. I mean, even the tune to the alma mater at Barton is the same one at Haynesville. I'm serious," Bush said. "A community that eats, sleeps and breathes football. That's Haynesville and that's Barton."
Lately Barton has been hurting a bit. The region has endured tough times economically, and the loss of Barton's football team last year was difficult.
Now Bush is helping restore a little of the town's tradition - although he's hesitant to take too much ! credit.
"I don't know if it was so much what I did," he said. "It was the situation that happened here last year. The kids, and the community and the parents realized ... they came real close to losing something that meant a lot to them."