Ken Hatfield, coach
When Ken Hatfield moved into the house where he and his brother would grow up, he was captivated by the balcony on the second floor. At the first opportunity, he went out on the balcony, looked down over the rail, and fell into a tree. Extricating himself, he went back upstairs, peered over the railing again and fell again.
That was in his grandparents’ house at 726 College St. in Helena. Built in 1912, the house still stands.
Hatfield, now 63, was born in Helena, but he, his brother and their parents moved around a bit — England, Fort Smith, Texarkana. In Fort Smith, where he started school, he played hooky one day. A teacher caught him and sent him home to his mother. “She whipped the dog out of me,” Hatfield says. “I don’t think I ever missed a class again, all the way through college.”
After a divorce, Hatfield’s mother took the boys back to Helena, where they moved in with her parents. Hatfield’s grandfather, J.F. Wall, was the superintendent of schools at Helena, a post he held for 44 years.
Ken and his brother Dick, 16 months older, shared a room on the second floor. They had the usual differences that brothers have. “He jumped on me one Sunday morning, and tried to smother me,” Ken Hatfield says. The younger brother kicked the older one off. Dick crashed into a window and required a number of stitches.
Hatfield’s grandfather had been the fullback on a Hendrix College team that tied the University of Arkansas, but he was past football-playing age when the boys moved in. He took them fishing and hunting though — duck, dove, quail. “There was a lot of woods in the area then,” Hatfield says. When the Hatfield boys weren’t in class they spent all their time hunting or fishing or playing organized sports — football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring, baseball in the summer. “My mother wanted to make sure we had something to do.”
Hatfield graduated in 1961 from what was called Helena Central High School, though the campus was in West Helena. As in most Arkansas towns, the Helena schools were segregated when Hatfield lived there. He didn’t think much about it. His grandfather was superintendent of both black and white schools, and treated everyone fairly, Hatfield says. The Eliza Miller High School Buccaneers played their football games in Helena Central’s stadium on Thursday night. The white team played Friday. In the summer, the Hatfield brothers played sports with black kids. He remembers Willie “Twister” Ross, who went from Helena to the University of Nebraska and made the all-Big Eight football team. The Big Eight was integrated by then. The Southwest Conference and the Southeastern Conference were not.
After high school, Hatfield attended the University of Arkansas, where he played football and majored in accounting. One summer, he worked for Helena National Bank. He cashed a fair-sized check for a woman and gave her back both the money and the check. A supervisor, watching, suggested that his future was not in banking.
He went through ROTC, as male college students did back then, and he was in the Army with orders to go to Korea when the U.S. Military Academy at West Point called. Hatfield had done some volunteer football coaching, and West Point was looking for an assistant coach and recruiter. They said they could get Hatfield’s orders changed. “That sounded good to me.” After West Point, he was an assistant at Tennessee, Florida and the Air Force Academy. When Air Force’s head coach, Bill Parcells, left for the pros, Hatfield was chosen to succeed him. After success at Air Force, he moved on to be head coach at Arkansas, Clemson and Rice, winning conference championships and fielding nationally ranked teams everywhere he went.
But you can never win enough to satisfy everybody. Hatfield’s out of coaching now, and doubts he’ll ever get back in — not at the Division One level anyway. “I got tired of moving around,” he says, adding, “Sometimes moving is your idea, and sometimes it’s somebody else’s.” In November, Hatfield and his wife, Sandy, a professional barrel racer, moved from Houston to Springdale. They’d always liked the area, he said, and they’re within four-and-a-half hours of all the family they have left, including brother Dick, a well-known lawyer in Little Rock.
Besides working on eight-and-a-third acres of new property. Hatfield is uncertain what he’ll do next. “Maybe I can find some way I can help,” he says.
— Doug Smith