Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

SPORTS >> Years, records collide in Cabot-Central game

Leader sports editor

Cabot Panthers coach Mike Malham has been in pretty select company for a few years now.

That company is going to be more select after this season.

The No. 2-ranked Panthers are preparing to play host to Little Rock Central in the wake of long-time coach Bernie Cox’s retirement announcement. Cox has led the Tigers since 1975, winning 271 games and seven state championships, most recently in 2004.

“Great career,” Malham said. “What worries me is they may try to win one for the Gipper. This could make their season. If they come in 0-6 and want to win one for coach Cox, we’ve got to have our kids ready to play.”

Cox’s departure will leave Malham and Harrison coach Tommy Tice as the active coaches serving the longest tenure with one program. Malham and Tice have been at their schools since 1981, and right behind is Pocahontas coach David Williams, who has been with his team since 1982.

“I’m still young and they’re old,” Malham, 56, said jokingly.

When Cox, a Jacksonville native and inductee into this year’s Jacksonville High School hall of fame, steps down, it will leave Malham as the most successful active coach in the state. His Panthers have won 233 games — losing 93 and tying four — with their last state title coming in 2000.

Williams is 183-122-3 at Pocahontas and Tice is 213-91-5 at Harrison. While Cabot stands at 6-0, Pocahontas has one victory this year and Harrison has two.

“You’ve got to have great assistants and great players and you’ve got to be lucky,” Malham said. “I’ve had all three so I’ve been real fortunate in that area. Football is a team game. No one guy does it all.”

Malham said he could empathize with Cox over Central’s recent downturn, which may have led Cox, 65, to consider retirement.

The Tigers are on a 17-game losing streak.

“Just three years ago he had back-to-back state champions,” said Malham, recalling Central’s consecutive titles that actually came more than four years ago. “And now he’s kind of hit a downturn a little bit, but it goes in cycles. We came off some good years in the 1990s and early 2000s and we had a 1-9 year in 2005.”

In looking back, Malham found another lesson for this year’s Panthers. He recalled a 0-7-1 Pine Bluff team coming into Cabot one year and beating the 6-2 Panthers, and Malham is on guard against a similar upset Friday.

“We’ve got homecoming and all that to worry about so there’s another distraction,” Malham said. “So we’re trying to keep our kids focused this week and not have a letdown.”

There is no denying Cabot has looked pretty sturdy so far this year. The Panthers avenged their only loss of 2008 with a 21-16 victory at Little Rock Catholic and went back on the road last week to beat then-No. 4 North Little Rock 17-6.

“Their only score was on a 25-yard drive,” Malham said of the touchdown, followed by a missed extra-point attempt that came after a big return. “Our special teams, we set them up there.”

Malham said before last week’s game that he wanted to avoid giving up the big play and force North Little Rock into long drives that would give Cabot more chances to force, or pounce on, a mistake.

“We needed to give them a long field,” Malham said. “They’re going to break one here and there but if we can make them go a long way I thought our chances were a lot better and everything kind of worked for us.”

Cabot, on the other hand, thrives on the long, time-consuming possession behind its dead-T offense.

“It keeps the other offense on the sideline and obviously you want to get points on the board,” Malham said. “I tell you the more chances an offense has, the more time it has to figure things out. The fewer possessions they get, the tougher it is on them and I feel like we limit their chances because we do control the clock.”

It’s an approach that has worked so far. Malham just wants to keep it going, whether coaching against a legend or not.

“Right now we’re 3-0 in the conference and we’re one up on Bryant and North Little Rock and two up on Catholic and one up on Russellville,” Malham said. “So right now we’re sitting as good as we can sit.”