Rush Harding: The coach’s son
By: Rex Nelson's Southern Fried
Rush Harding is the son of a coach and proud of it.
Harding, the chief executive officer of the Little Rock-based investment banking firm Crews & Associates Inc., grew up at Clarendon, a historic east Arkansas city on the banks of the lower White River.
Clarendon, which is located near where the Cache River flows into the White River, was first settled in the late 1700s by French hunters and trappers. They recognized the bounty that came from those two slow-moving rivers and the surrounding bottomland hardwood forests. Clarendon’s importance increased in the 1820s when the builders of the Military Road from Memphis to Little Rock chose it as the White River crossing point. A ferry was operating there on a regular basis by 1828.
When Monroe County was created out of parts of Arkansas and Phillips counties in November 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat. It remains so to this day. The town became an important port for cotton and other commodities. A factory was established to produce buttons from the millions of mussel shells found in the rivers. The hardwood forests were harvested for lumber. Some of that wood was used to make baseball bats for a time in the early 1900s at the Moss Brothers Bat Co.
Rush Harding still loves Clarendon. That love is evident to anyone who has ever visited with him.
As a boy, Harding thrived there. He hunted, fished, swam and played multiple sports. An upscale restaurant that the Harding family will open New Year’s Eve in Little Rock will be named Cache in honor of the area where Harding spent his boyhood.
“I thought Clarendon was the Garden of Eden,” Harding says as he sits in his office high atop the First Security Building in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District. “We were Methodists and never missed church. And I never missed an athletic event in town. If I wasn’t playing in it, I was attending it with my dad.”
Harding’s father, a legendary coach who went by the name of Buddy, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 in recognition of the almost four decades he worked with high school athletes. The elder Harding, whose football teams were 151-57 at Clarendon, also built the school into a track powerhouse.
The seventh-grade teams were called the Alley Cats. The junior high teams were the Cubs. The high school teams were the Lions.
His father’s work ethic was transferred to Rush Harding, who hasn’t missed a day of work for being sick in the past 37 years. Harding also has been active in the community. He’s a past president of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and continues to serve on the Hall of Fame board. He also has served on the University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees and on the board of the Arkansas Arts Center.
The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will honor Harding when it holds its annual fall salute on Thursday, Oct. 24. The event will begin at 6 p.m. in the Jack Stephens Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
This will be the fifth consecutive year for the Hall of Fame to put on a fall salute. Past honorees are Conway businessman Stephen L. Strange Sr., former University of Arkansas basketball star Joe Kleine, former University of Arkansas football star Jim Lindsey and former University of Arkansas track and field coach John McDonnell.
“My dad coached through my ninth-grade year, and then the principal’s job came open,” Harding says. “He had wanted to coach me all the way through high school, but the increased salary was important to our family. My mom was the guidance counselor and the home economics teacher. With two teachers in the family, you just couldn’t turn down a big pay increase.”
Clarendon went 5-5 in football during Harding’s sophomore and junior seasons.
Ronnie Kerr, who later would become a head coach at the college level at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, came to town in the fall of 1971 for Harding’s senior year. With Kerr as the coach and Harding as the quarterback, Clarendon compiled an 8-2-2 record. The only losses were in the first game to Augusta, which was coached by east Arkansas icon Curtis King (a 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee), and in the final game to Walnut Ridge in the semifinals of the state playoffs. The tie games were against Brinkley and Carlisle.
“We tied Brinkley 7-7, and I threw two touchdown passes,” Harding says. “I threw an interception to Brinkley’s Jerry Eckwood, which he took all the way for a touchdown. I threw the other touchdown pass to Gary Cook on our team.”
Eckwood went on to become a football star at the University of Arkansas.
Cook went on to play a major role in Harding’s life.
“Gary wanted to go to West Point and play football for Army,” Harding says. “He talked me into going to West Point with him. People told us that it would be unheard of for two boys from the same school to get appointments to the U.S. Military Academy, but we did. That was Gary’s dream, not mine, but I decided to go along.”
During the summer prior to his senior year, Harding was elected governor of Arkansas Boys State, a one-week program in civics that’s sponsored by the American Legion. A year later, he would hand the gavel over to the new Boys State governor, a high school student from Hope named Mike Huckabee.
During their senior year, Harding and Cook were the co-valedictorians at Clarendon High School.
In late May, three days after the graduation ceremony, Harding received word that Cook, who lived near the small community of Monroe, had drowned. He had been swimming in a rice irrigation ditch. It was Coach Ronnie Kerr who took Harding to the scene of the accident that awful day.
Heartbroken, Harding reported to the U.S. Military Academy on June 15 for the start of a grueling summer as a plebe.
“I had wanted to go to UCA, not West Point,” Harding says. “But people I respected said that I had received a coveted appointment and needed to follow through. I decided to prove that I could do it. They would haze the plebes in those days, but I stuck it out. I reported for football but frankly was too slow to play at that level. The coaches suggested that I join the sprint football team.”
Army has a rich football tradition with three national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners and 26 Hall of Famers. The sprint football team, which has been around since 1957, has a tradition of its own.
Few Arkansans even know there is such a sport. What’s known now as the Collegiate Sprint Football League was started in 1934 by George Little of Rutgers. The league’s seven charter members were Cornell, Lafayette, Rutgers, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Villanova and Yale. Yale and Lafayette disbanded their programs at the start of World War II. Play was halted for all schools from 1943-45 due to the war.
In 1946, the U.S. Naval Academy joined the conference and dominated play until the Black Knights came along 11 years later. In its first six years in the league, Army put together a 32-3-1 record and won four titles. After a losing season in 1963, the Black Knights won 17 of their next 18 games. Army had 21 consecutive victories between 1972, when Harding played, and 1975.
The rules of sprint football are largely the same as those for varsity football. Four days prior to a game, though, all sprint football players must weigh in at 172 pounds or less. They must weigh in again two days before a game. Scouting opponents is forbidden, and practice cannot start until three weeks before the first game.
Harding enjoyed playing sprint football. His heart, however, wasn’t in finishing school at West Point without Cook and then serving as an Army officer.
“I started my sophomore year that next summer, but I was miserable,” Harding says. “I didn’t want to become a career military officer. I had spent some time in Conway with friends and decided that I wanted to be a real college student and do the kinds of things most college students do. So I resigned my commission at West Point and enrolled in college at Conway.”
The Bear football team had an outstanding quarterback named Sam Coleman coming in. Harding knew he would never start at quarterback in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. He decided instead to join the basketball team, which was coached by Don Nixon, who was inducted earlier this year into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
“I mainly sat by Coach Nixon and kept the shot charts,” Harding says. “I wasn’t eligible the first semester. I did play a bit during the next semester. It was a great experience for me. I got to be around guys like James Dickey, Joe Couch and John Hutchcraft.”
After playing basketball during the 1973-74 season, Harding decided to concentrate on his studies. He graduated in 1976, having majored in math and English. The son of a coach, Harding had once thought he too would teach and coach. He had, after all, grown up around coaches and sports. His Thanksgivings were spent attending Clarendon’s rivalry games against Holly Grove. His summer memories were of attending the annual coaches’ clinic and the all-star football practices in early August with his father.
“My father knew how to connect with young people,” Harding says. “To be honest with you, I was kind of scared of Daddy, but I always knew he loved me. My mom was the nurturer and the encourager. My dad was the boss. No one in Clarendon ever challenged his authority. Yeah, he was the boss.”
Harding’s father had lined up a job for him teaching and coaching at Forrest City at a salary of $8,400 a year.
“I just couldn’t make the math work in my head,” Harding says. “I didn’t know how I could live on that. I was in Little Rock one night and a guy asked me what I would do with $12,000. I thought he meant $12,000 a year and told him that would be wonderful. He said, ‘I’m talking about $12,000 a month selling bonds.’ I decided to give it a try. They would pay me $450 a month plus commissions. I asked my dad for a loan of $300 to rent an apartment, and he wouldn’t do it. I had to go to the bank and get the loan.”
Few people have ever outworked Rush Harding, the overachiever who had been Boys State governor, an Eagle Scout and the high school valedictorian. He joined T.J. Raney & Sons Inc. of Little Rock and, through hard work, soon was experiencing financial success.
“I had never taken a business class,” Harding says. “Things just worked out. When Bob Raney Sr. died in 1979, seven of us left the company and went out on our own.”
Adron Crews, John Bailey, Rick Chitwood, Jim Jones, James Lake, Rob Owens and Harding formed Crews & Associates.
Adron Crews died in May 1996 while on a business trip to New Orleans. In 2000, Crews & Associates became a wholly owned subsidiary of First Security Bancorp.
When Rush Harding was a boy, his father would take him on his birthday in late July to Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock to buy baseball bats from Lee Rogers. Harding has vivid memories of visiting with Rogers, who had starred in multiple sports at the University of Alabama and settled in Little Rock after having pitched for Doc Prothro’s Little Rock Travelers. Rogers was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1983.
Not only birthdays revolved around sports for Rush Harding. So did the other days of the year.
Sports have remained important in Harding’s life. In 1986, Harding’s father retired from school administration. Rush Harding’s parents moved to Little Rock so they could watch Rush’s sons, Buddy and Payne, grow up and participate in sports.
“Team sports have been a top influence on me, and that’s because of the relationships I’ve had with teammates and coaches,” Rush Harding says. “One of the best compliments I ever received came from J.B. Grimes, who was a year behind me at Clarendon and went on to be a college football coach. I wasn’t the greatest athlete to ever come through that school, but J.B. once said to me: ‘You were a leader. You led our team.’ Participation in sports made me a better husband, a better friend and a better employer. In a sense, I’m still kind of a quarterback. I like to have a positive impact on the young people who work here. I do a lot of coaching down here at this office each day.”
Harding’s son Buddy recently had a son of his own. The baby’s name: Rush Harding V.
The grandfather isn’t quite ready to slow down.
“I got certified to teach several years back because I figured that I would get out of the business by this age,” says the man who will be honored later this month by the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. “I later decided to stick with this. We have about 250 employees who are my teammates. I didn’t take that job my dad got me at Forrest City all those years ago, but I’m still teaching and coaching. It’s just not in a classroom or on the sideline.”