From my Desk...
Friday Night Lights in Blytheville, Arkansas is One for the Books
Remember FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS? “Buzz” Bissenger’s true story he wrote about of Permian High School, outside of Odessa, Texas, and their 1988 Panther football team? When Carey Keefe unearthed the remarkable, untold story of the Blytheville, Arkansas team, the Chickasaws, while doing research A TIDE OF DREAMS: The Untold Backstory of Coaches Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant, Carney Laslie and Frank Moseley, she immediately saw the similarities. A “Friday Night Lights” team from 1934.
The two high school teams have many parallels. Both are located in small towns in the South. In the 80’s, when the plunge in oil prices ravaged the economy all over the State of Texas, small towns like Odessa felt the brunt of the downturn for more than a decade. In Blytheville, small town businesses were still under the cloud of the Depression, and many were barely hanging on. In the mid-30’s the popularity of football was just gaining traction, fully realized by the 80’s. The success of a local high school football team they soon discovered had the potential to create lucrative gate receipts and bolster their economy overall. Both communities, despite their economic hardships, heavily invested in the success of their high school’s football team. Each town also had the social issues of the day to contend with, predominantly those related to racism. And not-unlike many areas in the South, an obsessive culture focused on football often resulted in an intense pressure for their coaches to deliver a winning season.
But it is between the person of Head Coach Gary Gaines, brought to life in the TV version of Friday Night Lights’ (FNL) as the beloved Coach Taylor, and Blytheville’s Coach Carney Laslie, where we see the most similarities. Slogans made popular by Coach Laslie such as “Bigness is in your heart, not your body” were similar to the FNL Coach Taylor’s slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”, a mantra to FNL fans, both coaches imparting wisdom along with motivation, and discipline and having a huge heart for their players.
Like Coach Gaines, Coach Laslie was in his first head coaching job after college. And like Coach Gaines, Coach Laslie navigated the inevitable controversy and drama, which often accompany being in the limelight as the head coach of a small town, with grace and diplomacy, earning them both the admiration and esteem of many of their peers and colleagues. Gaines departed Permian to assistant coach at University of Texas. Similarly, Coach Laslie, departed Blytheville to become an assistant coach at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. And that is where the similarity stops. It was the storied run of the Blytheville Chicks of ’34, ’35 and ’36 that would put this young coach and his teams on the map.
In 1934, when Blytheville High School in Blytheville, Arkansas, hired Laslie, the young, fresh-out-of- college football star from the University of Alabama, they did so with hopes that their football program could be built into one that would bring revenue to their economically struggling town. The team he pulled together that first season was described as one that knew little if not next to nothing about football. If the town had doubts, they were soon dispelled, the winning their first game, 38 to zero. By 1936, Blytheville High School had posted the longest winning streak of any high school or college football team at that time. Twenty-eight straight games. And though they lost their 29th game, the Regional Championship played in Tennessee, their recording breaking streak made national headlines.
Coach Laslie would go on to best be known for being the right hand man of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, the duo being the most successful coaching partnership in the sport. In 1946, early in their career together, when Bryant was interviewed at the University of Kentucky about his assistant coach choice in Carney Laslie, he answered: “Well, what he did in Blytheville Arkansas coaching that team to 28 straight wins. That was impressive and something I took notice of.” You can listen to a short clip from the Blythville Chicks Chapter here:
Today it is a new generation of coaches and players at Blytheville. Blytheville High’s new coach, Mr. Gerrett Howard, has recently been permanently named as the new head coach of the Chickasaw’s. Here’s to your success, Jett,as you guide your players and celebrate a strong legacy of football in your city today!
Pictured: Gerrett “Jett” Howard(Linkedin) English teacher and head football coach, Blytheville, Arkansas. Go Chicks!