In 1993, Lyon College fielded a baseball team for the first time in school history under the direction of Kirk Kelley. Twenty-two years later, Kelley is back to help re-start the school’s football program.
“I always said, ‘I want to coach football before I die,’” Kelley said. “I always thought I would be the 65 year-old assistant at the local high school. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would come back to coach football.”
Kelley is entrusted with guiding the school’s first football squad since 1951. Then known as Arkansas College, the Batesville, Ark., institution had its program vanquished for 64 years until the school’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in 2013 to reinstate the sport.
“This has really kind of brought our campus together, given us a rallying point,” said Lyon College athletic director Kevin Jenkins. “It’s something I think that is kind of a focal point to look for as we started the year. The buzz is back, talking about having small college football being back on our campus and in our community. It gives us an opportunity for our students to all kind of rally together. What we’re hoping it does is not only be our college team, but we want it to be our community team.”
Founded in 1872, Arkansas College organized a football team in 1890 and played its first intercollegiate game in 1913. The sport was dropped for the first time in 1935, but returned in 1947. The comeback lasted only four years, however, as football was again disbanded in 1951.
Hoping to close the gender gap and provide another community activity for its 745 students, school officials discussed the potential of bringing back football. The Board of Trustees vote became official on June 24, 2013, and one month later Kelley was hired as head coach.
Kelley got his start at Arkansas College in 1993, one year before the NAIA school changed its name to Lyon College. Kelley started the baseball program and stayed for 17 years as head coach and athletic director before becoming baseball coach at the University of Central Arkansas in 2011. Though he had never coached football before, Kelley’s familiarity with the school and starting a program from scratch gave him the confidence to accept the head coaching position.
“I know what kind of student-athletes can succeed here,” Kelley said. “We have very strong academic standards. Finding the right fit was probably one of the main things. It’s a process, it takes time. I’m kind of used to the grind of it all. I loved every second of coaching baseball, but it’s a whole different energy. It’s unique.”
Kelley spent his first year on the job recruiting and observing. Since he had never run a football program before, he reached out to other teams to pick the brains of veteran coaches. He spent extensive time at Division II’s Pittsburg State in Kansas to learn from head coach Tim Beck and his staff.
“I respect the game of football and the profession of coaching way too much to think I could jump right in and know everything that was going on,” Kelley said. “I’ve always been a watch-and-learner, but I’ve really had to step it up a notch. I wanted to hire great coaches that I could trust. They’re great coaches and good football guys. The old saying that you want to surround yourself with good people, I think I’ve done that.”
While Kelley is focused on the play on the field Jenkins has his eyes on its development. Alumni donations and fundraising have the program on solid financial footing.
“When we started football we wanted the revenue that was going to be generated through tuition dollars to go toward the education of the student-athletes,” Jenkins said. “What we want them to come here for is to get a college education and be productive once they leave after four or five years, however long it takes them to finish their degree here at Lyon College.”
The Scots begin their 11-game slate on Aug. 29 with a visit from Tabor College at 1 p.m. Home games will be played at Batesville High School’s Pioneer Field. Jenkins said if the school can generate enough funds it will look to build an on-campus facility in the future. The team is a member of the Central States Football League.
With a largely inexperienced roster (only four of the 85 players have collegiate football experience) and a first-time football coach the Scots figure to face an uphill battle in year one. The belief is that in the near future the program will thrive on and off the gridiron.
“I want it to be a huge part of our college community, and that’s why the college brought it back,” Kelley said. “That’s what we want. Obviously we want to win, but we want to see our kids graduate.”