FAYETTEVILLE — Bill Blankenship might be selling a book to a publisher about now, except last spring there was a call from an old coa c h i n g friend telling him about “ t h e p e r - fect job” at Fayetteville High School.
It could have been that Blankenship was planning on visiting Rick Jones at Greenwood for the book that still aches to be written. Jones would be worth at least one chapter as one of the Giants of the 918, as former coach at Broken Arrow and a giant of a high school coach.
“I was going to write that book that I’d been thinking about,” Blankenship said. “You know in the Bible, there is writing about the Amorites, the giants.
“I’d already been down to Fort Worth to talk to F.A. Dry, now 90. He was the Tulsa coach who signed me in 1975 and he coached up until last year. I’d sat down with him, interviewed him to write a chapter.”
The reference to the 918 is the Tulsa (Okla.) area code. Blankenship fits in that list of giants from that region. He’s a giant of a coach and just as much a giant of a man, gentle and kind, with a flair of treating others with class.
Blankenship coached Fayetteville to the 7A state football title this year in his first shot in Arkansas. He’d won three Oklahoma titles in his last four years in a glorious 15-year run at Tulsa Union.
That’s when he decided that his goal of becoming a Division I head coach would require a clear separation from high school. So he quit at Union, ultimately sitting out a year altogether. He’d eventually land on Todd Graham’s staff as an assistant coach at Tulsa. He worked with Graham and offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn and then Chad Morris, then was hired as head coach at his alma mater in 2010 when Graham and Morris left.
There were tremendous highs during his four years as head coach, but terrible lows, too. He coached the Golden Hurricane to the Conference USA title, a Liberty Bowl win over Iowa State and coach of the year honors. Two years later, after the TU football budget was slashed over and over, Blankenship was fired.
It’s in matter-of-fact tones that Blankenship talks about those Tulsa days. I have been down this road with him before. Maybe this makes us both old, but I was the beat writer at the Tulsa World when John Cooper benched Blankenship, a drop-back thrower, in the middle of his senior year. Cooper left a throwing offense to convert to the veer with a pure runner at quarterback.
There were the same kind of tones as Blankenship talked about his daily walks from Fayetteville High past Reynolds Razorback Stadium to an apartment — before he and wife Angie found a house — during his first weeks in Fayetteville.
“My first college start was in that stadium,” Blankenship said. “I lost three times there as a player, twice more as an assistant coach. I lost there as a head coach.”
There was no sound of bitterness when he talked of the 2012 loss to the John L. Smithcoached Razorbacks. The Golden Hurricane was on a roll and appeared on the way to victory when wide receiver Keyarris Garrett, a 6-3 beast, hauled in a fourth-quarter pass.
“They called him for offensive pass interference, pushing off,” Blankenship said. “That was the turning point in that game, a huge play. He was our big-time player and was having a big game.”
And, that was all Blankenship said of the 19-15 loss. He didn’t complain about the call, 50-50 at best. It was no different than I remembered in 1979 when he was benched by Cooper.
You can find all the on-line accounts of his firing at Tulsa. There won’t be any real shots fired by Blankenship, although there is a really good piece written by Tulsa World columnist Bill Haisten last summer — as Blankenship was being hired at Fayetteville. He told Haisten about regrets he didn’t fight harder for his job or for improvements in the TU program.
All of those near misses against Arkansas are still in Blankenship’s memory bank and they came back as he took those walks.
“That’s some of the things I thought about as I went by the stadium,” Blankenship said. “You can see down into the stadium to the field. But what I mainly thought, ‘Wow, I’m blessed to be here, now the coach at the school at the bottom of the hill.’ I’m so happy.”
That’s the same Blankenship who shook my hand as a TU player, expressing thanks for the time spent for an interview. For sure, he thanks Rick Jones for being persistent in telling Blankenship to inquire about the Fayetteville job.
“I was working as a volunteer coach at Booker T. (Washington High School in Tulsa),” Blankenship said. “I was just waiting for the right fit. I didn’t know what it would be.”
It wasn’t going to be joining Justin Fuentes at Virginia Tech, the foe for the Razorbacks next week in the Belk Bowl.
“I could have gone as a consultant, the same thing I did for Justin at Memphis,” Blankenship said, noting he’s still got 18 months from his TU buyout. “But it didn’t fit. Angie looked at the travel. You can’t get to Tulsa or Colorado (and grand kids) very easy.”
Bill and Angie have been married 38 years. Most every step in his career has involved prayer and consultation with Angie.
“The Fayetteville job, that’s different,” he said. “For her, just a few hours from Tulsa and not so bad with flight connections to Colorado.”
Still, it wasn’t a slam dunk move. There was the thought that the book needed to be written. He’d already lined up interviews.
“I was going to do a chapter on Dale McNamara, the TU golf coach,” he said. “One on Ken Hayes. He coached at Tulsa, Oral Roberts and Northeastern State. These are giants from the 918. And, there are a bunch like them still alive. They have great stories. There are lessons to be learned from each one.”
The book can wait. Blankenship is still teaching lessons, just like his dad did for years coaching everything at Spiro, Okla., near Fort Smith. He’s still busy mentoring coaches and high school players, making time when they come back to hug his neck, just like they did his father at Spiro.
“That’s what always stood out,” Blankenship said. “We lived right on Main Street in town. I’d come home and there would be a car out front and there would be a doctor or lawyer from some place far away. They’d come back to see my dad. That’s the influence he had on them. I want to do the same thing, leave the same mark on the players I coach. I hope they want to come back.”
Blankenship’s style is fatherly. He can be firm, but he’s not someone who blisters a player. I watched as a player returned to the sideline after losing a fumble against Har-Ber, one of Fayetteville’s big wins. There was a hug, a whisper to the ear. There was a pat on the back as the player moved past.
“I don’t yell,” Blankenship said. “I do remember F.A. Dry sitting in my living room in Spiro to recruit me to Tulsa. He said no one was going to yell at me. I would have run through the wall for him.
“I may get after players in practice, but I don’t yell in games. I’ve always believed the number one motivation for players is playing time. That’s all it takes.”
What it does take is good players. That had to be one of the appeals in the Fayetteville job. That was one of the messages from Jones.
“Rick called and asked me to look into it,” Blankenship said. “He said it’s the right fit. He told me to call Steve Janski.”
But Blankenship didn’t call the Fayetteville athletic director as he’d promised.
“I think three days went by,” Blankenship said. “Rick called me back. He said they have good players.”
There may have been a mention of the quarterback, two-year returning starter Taylor Powell. Either way, Blankenship knew Powell was there. Early on, it was clear there was other talent, too. Blankenship points to the talent in every conversation now, too.
“I’d like to tell you what we did this year was pure coaching,” he said. “I was very fortuitous. There were good players here and they had been coached very well. They knew how to win. I knew that when I came here and I knew it was a good nucleus with a starting quarterback who had won.”
It still wasn’t easy. First, Blankenship had to figure out names. He did that by going to watch 7-on-7 tournaments in the summer, while still living in Tulsa. He encouraged the returning staff to run the show, call the plays and keep everything intact from the previous year.
Offensive coaches Benji Mahan and Brooks Coatney called the shots. Blankenship just watched.
“My intent all along was to just leave it alone until Christmas,” he said. “It wasn’t broke. Don’t try to fix it. And, I’m not big into watching film. I wanted to watch them at 7-on-7 and formulate opinions, learn names.”
It was early July when he changed his mind.
“Benji and Brooks brought it up,” he said. “They said, ‘Why don’t you do it now?’ I’d been a head coach for 26 years and I’d always called the plays. I was going to give it up. They talked me out of it.”
Still, it looked a lot like what had been run before early on. Blankenship prefers working with a tight end or H-back, using systems he learned from Graham, Malzahn and Morris.
“They had been in sets with four wide,” he said. “There really wasn’t a tight end. So I just worked with that. I did change it to my terminology.”
Blankenship said his offense works best with a great tight end, something Tulsa had with Little Rock Central product Charles Clay, still in the NFL.
“You have a Charles Clay, it’s tough on the defense,” he said. “If you have a hybrid guy like Clay, it gives you a great threat as a receiver and a great blocker on the edge.”
Eventually, Blankenship spotted a player on the roster that fit close enough, wide receiver Brennon Lewis.
“He was 6-3, 200 and was more than adequate as far as the combination of skills and a blocker,” Blankenship said. “We were into the season and one day I pulled him aside to see if he might convert to the position. He said, ‘Coach, I’ve been wondering when you were going to ask.’
“That’s one of the keys to what we do. In a perfect world, you don’t have to change personnel to change formations. And, we could do that with Brennon. We had good players. We had good receivers led by Barrett Banister.”
Still, it wasn’t an easy year, Blankenship said. Transition is never easy.
“I’m not going to say it’s all fun,” he said. “But coaching is enjoyable. And, coaching is coaching. That doesn’t matter if you are at Division I or Ramay Junior High.”
Blankenship is still feeling his way through the process at Fayetteville.
“My catch phrase, give me a lap,” he said. “I haven’t finished the first lap yet to figure it all out. I had to learn everything, from ordering equipment to just how things are done.
“Really, there are some things I hadn’t done in awhile. When you are in Division I, you have secretaries, office personnel. You don’t have a Director of Football Operations in high school. I fill out the practice schedule, but I’ve done it before.”
Nothing seems to change his attitude. It’s not any different than the year he was out of coaching between his time at Union and starting to work for Graham at TU.
“I did talk radio for part of that year,” he said. “I did turn down some high school jobs.”
There was an offer as head coach at Broken Arrow.
“It didn’t seem like the right fit,” he said. “Charlie Weatherby called to offer me an assistant’s job at Louisiana-Monroe. But it paid half of what I’d made at Union. I couldn’t do that.”
Blankenship trusted that he’d made the right choice. And, he’s happy now. There have been offers to get back to Oklahoma. He confirmed a call from Owasso administrators about the open head job. All are former friends in Union schools.
“I think everyone figures they called,” Blankenship said. “With our past relationships, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t call.”
The task at hand is to retool at Fayetteville. Blankenship looks forward to it, but he knows it won’t be easy with Powell finished.
“Really, I’ve done this before,” he said. “I took the Union job and they had a young quarterback coming up, Justin Fuentes. So I had him as a three-year starter. The only other three-year starter I’ve had is Taylor.”
It was clear early on that Powell was special.
“He looked like a good one from the start,” he said. “He could manage the game when I got here. He’d been coached well and had the arm and all the ability you would ever want.
“He’s got the arm, the running ability. Really, he is a dual threat. The only thing anyone ever says is that he’s 6-1. I do think if you are recruiting, you look for the 6-5 guy at quarterback, but too many get hung up on that.
“He made big-time plays for us. I have no hesitation in telling any (college recruiter) that he has the right talent, the tools to play anywhere in the country. I recruited. I know what they want. Maybe he doesn’t fit the template as far as height, but he has the ability and the intelligence.”
They want what Fuentes has at Virginia Tech, the 6-5, 238-pound Jerod Evans. Blankenship will watch closely as the Hogs and Hokies clash next week.
“I love what I see here with Coach (Bret) Bielema,” he said. “I am going to enjoy the bowl game.”
But it will be from afar. Blankenship won’t make the trip to Charlotte. He will offer some insight into Fuentes.
“He and I have a really close relationship,” he said. “It’s developed through the years and we’ve kept it open. It was incredible to spend last year with him at Memphis and see how he’s grown into a tremendous leader.
“He’s known as an offensive guy, pretty good with a creative attack. What people don’t understand, he is tough. He’s a guy who believes in physical toughness.
“His coaching philosophy was shaped a lot with his time at TCU as offensive coordinator under Gary Patterson, the way they practiced, a physical way.
“They are going to find a way to run the football. That’s what you do as a tough team, you play defense, tackle and run the football.
“They don’t just talk it, they practice it, every day. He coaches that way. He has a real knack for getting after guys in practice. I use the phrase rip their face off. It’s like that on Tuesday and Wednesday, then by Thursday or Friday he makes them believe they can’t lose to anyone in the country.
“What he has is a balance of being able to really challenge guys to take them to the next level and not let them be satisfied. They operate with a whole lot of confidence on Saturday.”
It sounds like it could be a chapter in the Giants of the 918, from one of the new Giants of the 479.
Clay Henry can be reached at email@example.com.
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