MONTICELLO — The winningest coach in the history of college athletics in Arkansas has coached his last game.
Alvy Early, who won more than any coach in the history of college athletics in Arkansas, regardless of the sport or division, finally met an opponent he couldn’t defeat. Early lost a short, sudden battle with cancer today, ending a storybook coaching career that covered a half-century. Early coached the women’s basketball and softball teams at the University of Arkansas at Monticello for 39 years, including three years when he coached both sports and served as the school’s athletics director at the same time, never missing a beat. Before coming to UAM, he was a successful high school coach in West Fork.
The numbers don’t lie. Early’s UAM teams won a combined 1,178 times, more wins than any college coach in the state’s history. Second on the list is Norm DeBriyn, who won 1,161 games as head baseball coach at UA-Fayetteville. Early passed his old friend in total victories last year.
For Early, coaching was always more than a job. It was his hobby, his passion, his life. “I’ve always said I’d coach as long as I was able and I got to do that,” Early told a visitor just weeks before his death. “How many people get to do something they love their whole life?”
Early’s list of accomplishments is a long one. He is a member of both the UAM and Arkansas Sports Halls of Fame, was the Gulf South Conference Softball Coach of the Decade (2000-09), won championships in two leagues in both basketball and softball and took the Cotton Blossoms basketball team to the cusp on a national championship in 1990.
He’s coached a combined 19 All-Americans (11 in women’s basketball and 8 in softball) and his softball team has produced a staggering 40 selections to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Academic Team.
But numbers don’t begin to tell the story of Early’s impact on the lives of the young women he coached.
Carol Harrington of Hamburg was a two-time All-American center for the Cotton Blossoms basketball team. She gets emotional talking about her former coach. “I never had a father in my life,” she says. “When he opened up his home to me, to see what a loving, caring father is supposed to be like, that was probably the moment I was able to perform the way that I did.”
Heidi Martin Cox is the head softball coach at Benton High School. At UAM, she was a record-setting outfielder who lost her father shortly after coming to Monticello. “I’ve always looked up to him,” says Cox. “After my daddy passed away, he became like a father to me. When some jobs come open or some situations come up and I need someone to talk to, he was the one I called.”
Lindsey Kight was the linchpin of four straight Gulf South Conference Western Division championship teams from 2001-04, a dominating, record-setting pitcher. “He was so successful because he took the players who already had a good foundation and he made them strive to be that much better,” says Kight. “He pushed you to the point where you didn’t think you could go anymore. He got more of out his players than they thought they had.”
Early came to what was then Arkansas A&M in 1963 but his journey to Monticello took a few twists and turns along the way. Born in Fort Smith, Early lived in Van Buren until his father moved the family to Pahokee, Fla., a small farming community on the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee in south central Florida.
Early was a five-sport star at Pahokee High, lettering in football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis. Early caught the coaching bug in high school but after accepting a partial football scholarship to Potomac State College in West Virginia, returned to Pahokee after his freshman year, homesick and confused about his future. He spent the next three years, in his words, “hanging around the coaches at Pahokee High” while trying to sort out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
Pahokee Coach Web Pell saw promise in Early and told his former player that if he was serious about coaching, he would have to go back to school. “Coach Pell told me you have to go through the system if you want to coach,” Early said. “You can’t just hang around here.”
Early came to Monticello thanks to Robert Maxson, a teacher and assistant coach at Pahokee High who was an Arkansas A&M graduate who would go on to become president of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Maxson had already sent several Pahokee athletes to Monticello and encouraged Early to give it a try. A friend drove Early (and Early’s car) to Monticello and took the car back to Florida. “I thought if I still had the car, I wouldn’t stay and would end up in Vietnam,” Early recounted in an earlier interview.
Early received a college deferment from the local draft board and went on to letter in football, baseball and tennis at A&M, graduating in 1967 before landing in West Fork, where he coached the football and girls’ basketball teams. He married Nancy Baker of Monticello his second year in West Fork and by the time the women’s basketball coaching job at UAM came open in 1979, the couple had three sons.
Early took over a women’s basketball program that was already among the state’s best and carried it to new heights. UAM won the NAIA District 17 championship in 1982 and began a heated rivalry with Arkansas Tech in the 1980s. The Blossoms won Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championships in 1986, 1987 and 1990. Led by two wondrously talented All-Americans – Tina Webb and Rose Avery – the 1990 squad averaged 100 points a game, outdrew the men’s team and came within an eyelash of winning it all, losing by seven points to Southwestern Oklahoma in the finals of the NAIA National Tournament.
Early guided the Blossoms to championships in their last year in the AIC (1995) and their first in the Gulf South (1996).
In 1996, UAM launched a softball program and a year later Early became the head coach, the same year he was named athletics director while still coaching women’s basketball. Under Early, the softball team became an instant winner, capturing seven GSC West Division titles over the next 13 years. He was twice named GSC Coach of the Year and in 2010 was named the GSC Coach of the Decade.
When UAM left the GSC to join the Great American Conference in 2012, Early led the Blossoms to the new league’s first regular season and tournament championships.
“Playing for Coach Early was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Emilie Hobbs, an All-American second baseman and ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District selection in 2010. “He always stressed academics and chose players who could excel on the field and in the classroom.”
Coaching runs in the Early family. His three sons, Preston, Brian and Kent, followed their father into coaching. Preston, 47, is the winningest girls’ basketball coach in the history of Rogers High School; Brian, 45, is the defensive line coach at Arkansas State; and Kent, 42, is a successful softball coach at Bentonville High School, the winner of three Class 7A state championships.
One of Early’s oldest friends in coaching is the man he surpassed last spring as Arkansas’ winningest college coach. “I’ve known Alvy Early ever since I first came to Arkansas in the fall of 1969,” says Norm DeBriyn. “He’s been very influential in my life and my family. We played softball together and we’ve just been connected ever since. He’s impacted so many people in so many great ways. For as long as he did it and for as long as he coached, he just had a feel for athletics like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Early’s coaching success always stemmed from a simple philosophy – get good players and get them to play hard. “I think the key is getting character in your talent and being able to get them to perform at a high level,” he said.
After nearly four decades, Early leaves behind a lasting legacy as a coach, as a mentor, and as a friend. His successor will have some awfully big shoes to fill.