By Scott Goode, sports information director
In the fall of 1959, 26-year-old Carl Allison faced a daunting proposition. He had just been hired to coach a college football team that had not played a game in 28 years.
When Harding opened in 1924, the College fielded a football team that played a few games against local high schools. The football program continued through the 1931 season when, due to financial difficulties, the administration eliminated the team. By the end of the decade, all of Harding’s intercollegiate athletic programs ceased operations.
Beginning with the 1957-58 school year, the administration reinstated baseball, basketball and track with football returning for the 1959 season.
Allison was selected to direct the team. He had spent the previous four years as head coach at Clinton (Okla.) High School but became well known throughout the Southwest because of his standout collegiate career at University of Oklahoma.
During his four seasons with the Sooners, Allison was a starting defensive end and earned All-Big Seven and Scholastic All-America honors. Oklahoma won four Big Seven championships during his time in Norman.
Harding’s Oklahoma connections at the time played a large part in Allison’s getting the job. Dr. James Baird, president of Oklahoma Christian University, conducted a gospel meeting at the Clinton church where Allison attended and mentioned to him that Harding was restarting the football program and needed a coach.
“He asked me to contact Dr. Benson, and I did so,” says Allison. “He flew to Oklahoma City every Monday where he was teaching a class. I met him, and he asked me to come down to talk about the program and start it from scratch since they had not had football for those 28 years. I went down, we interviewed, and, later that summer, I moved to Harding.”
Allison knew something about winning. At Oklahoma, he was part of a team that won 47 straight football games. Allison also knew that building a program at Harding was not going to be easy.
“The smartest thing that I did was just schedule six games that first year,” says Allison. “I knew it was going to be difficult. We did not have anyone on our team that had ever played a college football game. We had some that had played intramurals at Harding and some that were freshmen just out of high school. We did not have any scholarships at all, but I was young and energetic and thought that I was up to the challenge. I wanted to get into Christian education, and that was the opportunity.”
When practice began, Allison remembers that nearly 50 players showed up for preseason drills. At the first meeting, he told players that it would be “a year of experiences.” One of those experiences was Harding’s first victory since a 19-0 win over Jonesboro Baptist on Nov. 19, 1931.
The Bisons opened the season at home against Itawamba Junior College on the newly built Alumni Field in Searcy Oct. 3. Rain the previous two days left the field in soggy condition, as Harding fell 19-0 before a capacity crowd of 1,500.
One week later, Harding collected its first win. The Bisons defeated a team of Arkansas State freshmen 7-6 in Searcy. Harding’s defense stopped Arkansas State inside the 10-yard line twice; the second of which came at the one-yard line with less than 10 seconds left in the game to give the Bisons the win.
“They had a lot of good athletes, and we were fortunate to hang on,” Allison says. “It was really exciting to win that first game. It encouraged the players and the coaches, and I’m sure it encouraged the student body.”
The team played four more games, the closest a 33-13 loss to University of Tennessee-Martin the following week.
The stretch of four games also included a trip to Cleveland, Miss., to play Delta State on their Homecoming. Walter Mays (’63), a starting offensive lineman on the 1959 team, recalls pulling in on the bus and hearing some kids saying that Delta State would score every time they rang the bell. Mays says, “We laughed because we thought they meant that they rang the bell AFTER the team scored. But it turned out the kids were right.” Delta State led 27-0 before Harding scored on a 72-yard touchdown pass against the Delta State third-string defense. It was the first touchdown allowed at home by Delta State all season.
Mays then remembers “feeling the ground shake” on the ensuing kickoff as Delta State put the first team back in and won the game 60-7. As Harding loaded the bus after the game, Mays recalls that one of the coaches said it looked “like the retreat from Gettysburg.”
“It was good experience. We played the games, got through them,” says Allison.
The team got through them mostly because of Allison’s creative coaching.
Lathan Garnett (’61), a kicker and defensive back, says that, following one of the tough losses, “When Monday practice rolled around, everyone was about ready to throw in the towel.” Coach Allison arrived in the locker with a scowl on his face and a challenge for his team.
Garnett says that Allison called his squad a “dragging bunch” and said that he believed that he could beat them in a race around the track. “He took off running,” says Garnett. “We all looked at each other and then took off after him.”
Allison did in fact beat his team around the track, but, when the squad arrived back at the locker room, he had instructed the team’s managers to bring in ice cream and Cokes while the team was racing around the track. Allison gave the team the day off. Garnett called it “a great lesson in motivation” that he has never forgotten.
Allison, who coached football five seasons at Harding, looks back at his first team with great memories.
“We had some fine young men, and they battled hard,” he says. “The following year we were able to provide some scholarships and get the team built to the outstanding program it is today.”
Editor’s note: Allison currently lives in Monroe, La., where he has worked the last 38 years in ministry at White’s Ferry Church of Christ.
Baseball returns to post-season play
Bison baseball reached the Gulf South Conference Tournament for the second straight season.
The Bisons had a 32-25 overall record and were 12-9 in the GSC West Division, including a victory over No. 1-ranked Southern Arkansas University. As the third seed from the West Division, the team won its tournament opener against University of Alabama-Huntsville.
Senior Adam Darby led the Bison offense, hitting .426 with 16 home runs and 64 RBI, both school records. Darby, a centerfielder from Jackson, Tenn., became the University’s first-ever position player to earn First-Team All-America honors. He signed a professional contract with the Pensacola Pelicans of the American Association following the season.).
Berryhill goes to Kosgei, Williams
Julius Kosgei and Alicia Williams were honored as 2009 M.E. Berryhill Award winners.
The Berryhill Award is given to a senior male and female athlete who possess the characteristics of athletic excellence, academic achievement, social maturity and spiritual example.
Kosgei, from Timboroa, Kenya, was a 12-time All-America honoree in cross-country and track and was the 2006 NCAA Division II outdoor national champion in the 10,000 meters. He was runner-up in the 2006 Division II national cross-country meet and in the 2006 outdoor track 5,000 meters. He was four-time First-Team All-Gulf South Conference and four-time First-Team NCAA All-South Region. He holds five school records.
Williams, a tennis player from Greenville, Miss., was a four-time First-Team All-Gulf South Conference honoree and was the 2009 GSC West Division Player of the Year. She won a University-record 70 singles matches at the No. 1 position and also won 69 doubles matches. She was a 2008 ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District honoree and a two-time Academic All-GSC honoree.
Golfers fall short at tournament
The men’s golf team concluded its 2008-09 season with a ninth-place finish at the Gulf South Conference Championship in Hot Springs, Ark. The Bisons finished with a three-round score of 925. Senior Dusty Gourley had the Bisons’ low score in each of the first two rounds and finished tied for 18th, shooting a three-round score of 223. Sophomore Michael Sitler earned Academic All-GSC honors.
The women’s golf team placed sixth in the nine-team 2009 GSC Championship, finishing at 691. The team’s top finisher was freshman Evelyn Poteet, who tied for 15th with a two-round score of 168. Senior Brandi Watkins earned First-Team All-GSC honors, and senior Natalie Gay was named Second-Team All-GSC — the first two all-conference honorees in the program’s history.
The men’s tennis team completed the 2008-09 season with a 16-7 overall record and a 2-1 mark in the Gulf South Conference West Division. Junior Marco Ruiz earned First-Team All-GSC honors after compiling a 16-1 singles record. His .941 winning percentage tied for the best single-season percentage in school history. Senior Olzhas Taniyev also earned First-Team All-GSC, and both players were on the Academic All-GSC Team.
The women’s tennis team finished with an 18-10 overall record and 3-3 mark in the GSC West Division. The top performer was senior Alicia Williams, who went 15-5 at No. 1 singles. She finished her career with 70 No. 1 singles victories, the most ever by a Lady Bison. Williams earned First-Team All-GSC, Academic All-GSC and ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District honors. Junior Lola Pardo earned Second-Team All-GSC honors.
Sophomore Daniel Kirwa was the big story for the outdoor track team. The Eldoret, Kenya, native won the 2009 NCAA Division II national championship in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at San Angelo, Texas. His four individual national championships are the most ever by a Harding athlete.
Kirwa won the 5,000 meters in 14 minutes, 17.45 seconds and defended his 10,000-meter national championship with a time of 29:46.84. His two victories gave the Bisons 20 points in team standings, enough for 13th place.
Freshman Philip Biwott placed 10th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at nationals.