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‘We do not focus on winning here’

Harding football coach, undefeated this season, prepares to retire.

SEARCY, Ark. — Harding University’s longtime head football coach Ronnie Huckeba will retire following the 2016 season.

But before he departs, his team is sending him out with a little hardware.

The Bisons have a 11-0 record, claiming the Great American Conference Championship. Ranked in the top five by both major NCAA Division II polls, they could seize home-field advantage or perhaps even a bye week during the upcoming playoff.

Coach Ronnie Huckeba high fives players before the Bison’s last game of the regular season. The team would go on to win 42-7 over Arkansas Tech. (PHOTO BY JEFF MONTGOMERY)
Ask almost anyone around the program how they have done it, and you’ll get a two-word answer: “Honor God.” Huckeba has focused on those words since the day he accepted the position 10 years ago.

“Our faith permeates everything we do — every decision we make, every young man we recruit, every coach we hire. That is the way it should be here,” said Huckeba, a preacher’s son from Claxton, Ga., and an associate professor of kinesiology at Harding, a 6,000-student university associated with Churches of Christ.

He draws inspiration from Moses’ command to the children of Israel, recorded in Deuteronomy 11, to write the words of the Lord on their doorframes. In the same way, God’s Word must be at the core of Harding’s football program.
“Our faith permeates everything we do.”
“You talk about it when you get up, you talk about it when you eat. You talk about it when you go to bed at night,” he said. “We have tried to do that. We do not focus on winning here.”

Ronnie HuckebaFaith and football are staples for Huckeba, the 12th head football coach in the history of Harding’s football program and the fifth since the university restarted football in 1959. From 1973-76, Huckeba was a standout offensive lineman for Harding.

After earning a bachelor’s in education, he began his coaching career as an assistant at Carlisle High School in Arkansas. He then moved to Fort Worth Christian School in Texas where he served as an assistant under Randy Tribble. See a video interview with Coach Ronnie Huckeba at the bottom of this page.
At Harding, Huckeba served as an assistant coach for 21 seasons, including 13 as defensive coordinator before then-president David Burks named him head coach.

Burks, now the university’s chancellor, said that his greatest satisfaction with the team “is the fact that they represent Harding in a beautiful way in terms of our mission and our spiritual values.”

Hucekba “has developed a model football program in my opinion for the nation,” Burks said.

The Bisons’ undefeated season hasn’t come at the expense of academics, discipline or spirituality, Huckeba and his coaching staff insist.

Paul Simmons, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, talks to players at a recent practice. (PHOTO BY JEFF MONTGOMERY)Paul Simmons, assistant head football coach and defensive coordinator, said the program has “taken more serious steps this year than in any year in the past” to ensure that players stay focused on their duties as students at a Christian university.

There is a zero-tolerance policy for freshmen on the team — and for any players with a grade point average of 2.5 or below — for missing class, Simmons said.

“Even if a teacher allows three skips, if a young man misses a class, we get together at 5 in the morning and they run five miles,” he said. “If they come here and they kill it on the football field but they leave without a degree, then they failed, we failed and they missed the boat.”

That level of discipline produces results — on and off the gridiron, said Bruce McLarty, the university’s current president.

“For the sake of Coach Huckeba, the fans and the players, I am thrilled that we are having an undefeated season to this point,” McLarty said. “However, the thing that gives me the greatest joy concerning this team is that they are truly students of Harding University.
“If they come here and they kill it on the football field but they leave without a degree, then they failed, we failed and they missed the boat.”
“How many schools can say that the football team makes them better? I believe that at Harding, we can. They don’t present us with significant discipline problems, and they (don’t) ask for special favors or concessions academically. That gives me a tremendous amount of pride in our football team.

“That they are currently undefeated is simply icing on the cake.”

Huckeba’s ability to recruit speed and athleticism and build depth in the program has resulted in wins, said former players Romas Roberson and Davonte Britt, now graduate assistants for the team. For example, the offense has churned out 6.2 yards per rushing attempt this season and averaged just shy of 400 yards per game on the ground with 49 touchdowns rushing.
“He doesn’t just say, ‘Honor God.’ He lives it.”
At the core of the statistics, however, is Huckeba’s character, the graduate assistants said.

Romas Roberson“He doesn’t just say, ‘Honor God.’ He lives it,” Roberson said. “He honors his wife, grandkids, coaches — he honors everyone he comes in contact with. That means so much to us, both the staff and the players.”

Britt added, “For me, he embodies everything that we preach.”

Huckeba will step down following the 2016 campaign and begin work with the Harding advancement team. At 61, he plans on spending more time with his wife, children and grandchildren.

After 50 years in football and 31 as a coach, he has a sense of peace with what he has accomplished in football and is ready for a new challenge, he said.

Simmons, meanwhile, will take over as head coach in 2017.

“We could not go out and find anyone in the country that would be a better leader for this program,” Huckeba said. “That makes my decision that much easier.”

See more videos of Charles Babb’s interview with Coach Ronnie Huckeba and Coach Paul Simmons at SpiritualityInSports.com.

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