Leader Blues

Friday, January 09, 2009

SPORTS>>Harper says he’s up to challenge at Searcy

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Tim Harper led his Des Arc Eagles to the 2A state championship game in December.

Now, he’s leaving the comfort of an established, successful program to take on a major challenge as head coach at Searcy, which won just three games over the previous four seasons.

Harper figures if he’s willing to accept that challenge, his players should be willing to do the same, and that is the message he imparted when he met with them earlier this week.

“I told them you can only be backed into a corner so long until you eventually have to come out fighting,” Harper said in a phone interview on Friday. “But you’re going to have to work harder than you ever have before. To be truly a team, you have to share that sacrifice.”

Harper, whose Eagles won their first 13 games last season before falling 10-8 to Junction City in the championship game, replaces Bart McFarland, who compiled a 3-37 record over four years. Harper said he understands and appreciates what McFarland went through.

“I know it’s been a tough road for him,” he said. “And I understand that if I’m not careful or fortunate, I could be the next victim, so to speak. I haven’t heard anything but good things about him. But I understand he was under the gun. It’s tough to turn a program around and it wasn’t on real good footing when he got there.”

Harper’s resume would suggest he’s up to the task of taking a program from the ashes and resurrecting it. His first coaching job was at Lewisville back in the mid-90s. The Red Devils had lost 30 straight when Harper took over. What Harper wasn’t aware of was that the junior high team was on a 24-game losing streak.

“The future looked bleak at best,” he said with a laugh.

But over a three-year period, the varsity and junior high teams posted a combined record of 25-30-1.

“We felt like we turned it around,” Harper said. “The situation is very similar to the one at Searcy and that mayhave been what helped me get the job at Searcy.”

After his stint at Lewisville, Harper, who is a Baptist minister, spent a year working with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in southwest Arkansas before taking the Des Arc job in 2003. There, he turned around another struggling program. After going 3-7 his first season with a team comprised of 17 sophomore starters, the Eagles improved to 10-2 in 2005.

Harper said he is proud of the disciplined approach he takes as a head coach and said he intends to instill a rigorous offseason program.

“It will be to the point of not only developing them physically, but improving their mental toughness as well,” he said. “I did that at Des Arc.”

Harper figures that approach might lose him some prospective players, but he’s okay with that, he said. The good news is that 74 players between 9th and 11th grades have announced they are playing and eight more who are playing junior high basketball are also committed. Five more since Tuesday have expressed interest and three others are planning to get their schedules changed so they can play.

“I’m hoping they’ll buy into what we’re doing,” Harper said. “The numbers are improving already. We think we’re right around 90, but once we start pushing them, those numbers will probably start dwindling. But that’s what it’s going to take at this level, better numbers.”

Searcy has averaged around 60 players over the past four seasons.

As an example of Harper’s disciplinary approach, he said no player missed more than one or two practices this entire past season, which has been a problem at Searcy over the past few years.

All 22 jobs are open, Harper insisted, adding that even the three returning All-Conference players will have to earn their jobs.

Harper’s style of play has always been multiple, with a slight emphasis on the run over the pass. The Eagles have rushed for more than 3,000 yards over the past four seasons, but Harper said he’d be thrilled for the Lions to hit the 2,000-yard mark at the 6A classification.

Harper said he will continue to preach at the Higginson First Baptist Church, where he has commuted 27 miles over the past six years.

“I feel like I’ve been called to coach as much as I have to preach,” he said. “It has never been a conflict of interest with me and I don’t foresee it being one.”

While Harper said it is tough to leave the community of Des Arc, he is thrilled with the challenge that lies ahead.

“Anybody who loves to coach loves the challenge,” Harper said. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do here and I think we can do it. But the kids will have to pay a high price for success. And the bar has to be raised not only for the kids but for the parents, too.”