Hendrix set to bring back football for first time in 53 years against Westminster
CONWAY, Ark. -- Buck Buchanan didn't shy away from the job of rebuilding the football program at Hendrix College.
In fact, the Texas native — whose accent bleeds part Texan and part Cajun after more than a decade at Louisiana College — actually wanted more than anything to become the Warriors' first head football coach in 53 years.
Buchanan will finally have the opportunity to show off more than a year of behind-the-scenes work on Saturday when Hendrix hosts its first football game since 1960.
The tiny college in Conway, Ark., just north of Little Rock, has an enrollment of just more than 1,400 students and has long been known as one of the top academic schools in the South. What it hasn't been known for, despite a full array of men's and women's varsity sports, is football.
That will change against Westminster, a game that has been a long time coming for former Hendrix football players such as Vance Strange — a member of the last Warriors football team.
"The key thing is that it is born again," Strange said. "The guys like me, those are the guys whose eyes tear up when they see this coming back."
The Division III school first fielded a varsity football team in 1906, and save for a five-year break during World War II and a one-year hiatus in 1956, Hendrix football was a staple of the college until the end of the 1960 season.
That was when, during a postseason awards banquet, school officials announced that the program was finished because of a lack of financial support. Hendrix won its final game, a 7-6 victory of Ouachita Baptist in 1960, but that wasn't enough to save the program.
"It upset, to say the least, that bunch of men," Strange said. "It was such an emotional shock."
Hendrix continued with a wide variety of 20 athletic programs since the demise of football, fielding everything from basketball to golf and lacrosse. However, it wasn't until a 2008 survey showed that 95 percent of potential students showed football as a positive influence that the school began to seriously consider a return to the gridiron.
The first step was raising money, which Hendrix did. The Warriors will play this weekend in the newly constructed Young-Wise Stadium, complete with a lavish press box and field house, including a weight room that's open to all of the school's students. Then came the matter of finding a head coach willing to work for more than a year without so much as a player, much less a stadium.
Enter Buchanan, the quick-witted former Austin College football player who later gave up thoughts of law school to stick with the game he loved as a coach.
Buchanan was hired at Hendrix in March 2012, after he arrived for his interview with a 12-month checklist of things to do in advance of the school's first game. His list was based on the experience he had as an assistant coach at Louisiana College, where he helped start that program in 1999 before later serving as the school's associate head coach.
The former nose guard is quick to point out the virtues of Division III football, as well as the talent level — saying "I think the biggest misconception is that Division III football in intramurals in pads." He's also excited about a roster of 55 players, including 48 freshman, who he's had together only since the middle of August.
"Our No. 1 goal is to develop the culture here, but I believe we can win here," Buchanan said. "And I believe we can put a championship program together here. Had I not believed that when I looked at Hendrix, I wouldn't have come."
Buchanan has a full coaching staff at his disposal with a wide variety of experience, including former Oklahoma State and Army assistant coach Johnny Burnett, the Warriors' assistant head coach and works with the defensive secondary. Burnett was talked out of retirement by Buchanan, who he had coached at Austin College, to come to Hendrix — where he's felt right at home.
"In 44 years I've been doing this, starting a program is the one thing I had never done," Burnett said. "And I could see this was a situation where I'd have a chance to coach the kind of kids I had at Army, high-academic kids who are excited about the chance to play football."
Junior wide receiver Casey Caton is one of the few upperclassmen on the new Hendrix team, having transferred from Division II Harding University. The Rogers, Ark., native said he wouldn't have come to Hendrix without the opportunity to play football, but that once the opportunity presented itself, he couldn't pass up the chance to play in Buchanan's wide-open offensive style.
"Once I heard about it, and the type of guys they were looking for, and kind of coaches they had, I knew this would be great," Caton said. "I'm not going to go to some state school and get screamed at and cussed at every day. I wouldn't look forward to that. I like it where the coaches are the same off the field as they are one the field. They don't put on a show for you."
Regardless of how Hendrix fares Saturday, as well as the rest of the season, Buchanan is in for the long term — and he believes the school is as well.
"They're not going to get rid of Hendrix football (again)," Buchanan said. "Hendrix football is back, and it's going to be a viable part of this college. It's going to be a part of Arkansas."