Sports

Coach Bennie Harris, in his 33rd coaching year at Bradley, welcomes three more banners

Coach Bennie Harris, who just led another high school boys team to the state title, points out a couple of his favorite banners.

Before his Bradley High School Bears played this past March 11 in the Arkansas 1A state title, Coach Bennie Harris told his team a joke to help settle their nerves in the lockerroom.

Two buzzards are perched on a limb, both growing hungry but not seeing any prospect of carrion. “What did one buzzard say to the other?” Harris asked his team.

They didn’t know.

“’Patience, my [backside]. I’m about to KILL me something!’”

“That kind of broke the ice,” Harris said. “It might not have been that funny, but they laughed.”

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But the joke’s spirit kicked in late in the third quarter of the 35-5 Bears’ game against the 39-4 County Line team of Branch, Arkansas. Down by nine points at 1:36 left in the third, and having endured a long scoring drought in the second quarter, the Bears went on a 16-8 run to tie the game 41-41 with 52 seconds left in the fourth.

Then the Bears’ Jaylan Taylor got a steal and Coach Harris called a time out five seconds later, with 30 seconds left on the clock.

During the ensuing possession, Bradley took the ball out under the County Line’s basket, but the team from Branch did not press. The Bears showed their patience in their half-court set, passing the ball among their guards and small forward eight times between the circles.

With eight seconds left, Bradley’s Tyrese Harris launched a high-arching 25-foot three-pointer from the center left. The ball glanced the rim but dropped and Bradley went ahead, 44-41.

County Line called timeouts as the clock ran down to 1.5 seconds left without the team answering Tyrese Harris’ three.  But County Line turned it over on a five-second call while trying to take the ball out. Drake Price of County Line stole the ball, in a play reminiscent of Larry Bird stealing the ball at the end of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons, but, unlike Bird, Price had no time to pass, having to settle for a shot that hardly got airborne.

When the final buzzer sounded at Hot Springs’ Bank OZK Arena, Coach Harris had won his third state title, his second with the Bradley boys team.

The 2022 Bradley High School Bears hold up their trophy on the afternoon of March 11, having just beaten County Line 44-41. Courtesy of Bradley High School.

As I am visiting his small office a week after his big win, I’m marveling at the plaques on the wall and the trophies on shelves. “It’s not the neatest office you’ll see,” he remarks.  Still, the only thing resembling disorder is a few papers on his desk where an open laptop sits. The plaques are arranged in a solid grid and the trophies stand up straight. It is hard to see where he could make any additions.

A few of the plaques in Coach Bennie Harris’ office in the Bradley High gym.

Harris grew up in Bradley, but before being made coach of the high school boys’ and girls’ teams, he coached in the nearby towns of Lewisville for two years and Foreman for ten. “Then I came home,” he says. 

At a 2010 dedication of Bradley High’s baseball and softball park to Travis S. Gore, Harris told about a time when he was driving a patrol car through town as a police officer, when he found he had to pull over for a car following him closely behind. It was Gore, then the superintendent of the Bradley school district, and after they stopped, Gore tried to hire Harris to be the school’s basketball coach.

Gore did get his wish and Harris is now a full-time coach at Bradley High, but when he taught, he was a health and science instructor. “Now I have four basketball periods and two classes where I monitor computer classes.”

Earlier than that, he had ambitions toward being a pro player, “But I got my shoulder tore up,” he says. “The next best thing was to be a coach. . . . If I couldn’t play, I wanted to be a coach. So I’m living my lifetime dream.”

When I quiz him about his coaching philosophy, Harris cites Al McGuire, who reached success with the Marquette Golden Eagles in the late 60s and mid-70s, winning a national championship in 1977 with a team that at the time had the most losses of any team advancing to the title game of the NCAA tournament.

In terms of his strategy, Harris says, “I’m flexible. It depends on my talent. If I have the talent to play a fast pace, I will. If not, I don’t. We’ll slow it down. In a small school, you’ve got to coach according to the talent that you’ve got.” 

The championship season was a case in point, right down to the last game. “This year I had a little more height and a little more range. So we played a different kind of defense, so that our length would cause a little more problems,” he says. The championship game confirmed the wisdom of his choice here, with Bradley frequently disrupting County Line’s passing lanes and inflicting more turnovers than they gave up.  This was especially on display during the 19-8 run that closed the game out.

Another strategy, for psyching out opponents, becomes plausible as I follow Harris to the Bradley gym, where his Bears play their home games. “Did you see the banners,” he had asked me.  

Hanging high over the Bears’ gleaming court are dozens of green banners in observance of the boys’ and girls’ teams successes during Harris’ tenure. Banners for two state championships loom over the press box. It’s hard to see where the next three, won by the Bears this year, would go. I ask Harris if the sight of all these has an effect on visiting teams. “I hope they do,” he says.

A few of the banners hanging in the Bradley High gym.

But the facilities all look top-notch, especially considering the town’s population was 616 in 2010, two years before the gym was built. (In 2020, it was 405.) “I have to credit the superintendent [of the Bradley school district] at the time. He told me ‘Give me some time, and I’ll get you a new gym.  And he did.” That superintendent was Gammye Moore.

Now Bradley High School has the good problem of needing a new place to post another life-size picture of a new title-winning team in a gym where two such images, from one boys’ team in 1994 and one girls’ team that went undefeated in 1999 and 2000, are already on prominent display.

I ask Coach Harris whether, for all his success, he still gets nervous before or during games. “Oh yeah,” he says, “Real nervous. Nerve-wracking. But I try not to show it, because [otherwise] the kids are going to panic. I have to try to keep my composure.” When I ask him how he keeps his team calm, that’s when he tells me the buzzard joke he told before the title game.  

Harris’ laugh is that of a coach whose team stopped waiting and seized its title, of a coach whose jokes do work.

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