Rick Jones knows football. Moreover, the coach who has won seven state championships at Greenwood knows football players.
Occasionally throughout his storied career, a player from the opposite sidelines warrants a little more than the usual end-of-the-game handshake.
“I don’t usually talk to opposing players, because sometimes it can be bad business,” Jones said. “But if a guy stands out on the positive side, I’ll try to seek them out and say, ‘Wow! You played really, really well. You’re a great football player.’”
It’s a rare compliment from a coach who’s arguably the best in the state. Jones may single out only a small handful of opponents each season, if any at all.
New Siloam Springs head football coach Brandon Craig posted a 77-34 overall record and reached the state playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons as head coach at Oologah (Okla.) High.
This past season, Jones sought out an El Dorado linebacker who made “like 1,000 tackles against us” during a 52-21 Greenwood win.
Back in the late 1980s, a player Jones sought out was Brandon Craig, who Siloam Springs hired on Friday to be its next head football coach. Craig played tight end for two seasons at Yukon (Okla.) High before “taking one for the team,” he said, to play quarterback his senior season.
During a playoff game against Jones’ Edmond (Okla.) High team, Craig caught Jones’ attention.
“He stood out as having a great motor, fire and intensity,” Jones said. “He was especially tenacious in the way he got after us. That’s what I remember.”
Jones is not alone as far as Arkansas coaches praising Siloam Springs’ hiring of Craig, who replaces Bryan Ross.
After earning All-City and All-District honors at Yukon High, Craig went on to play tight end at Northeastern Oklahoma State in Tahlequah. There, he met another current Arkansas football coach in Stephen Neal, who has led the Blackhawks to deep playoff runs in his first two seasons at the school.
Neal lined up at linebacker for the Redmen (NSU changed its mascot to the RiverHawks in 2006), so regularly found himself on opposite sides of the ball as Craig during practice.
“We would get to butt heads every so often and I imagine he got the better of it,” Loyd said. “He was a heckuva better athlete than me, so he actually got to play … He was one of those guys who overcame playing against guys who may have been better athletically with his smarts and his work ethic, which was what a lot of us had to do on those Redmen teams.”
Craig was a bit of a “practical joker” who “would always pop something off, then run away laughing,” in those days, Neal said. Craig also had a level of positive energy that was contagious to those around him.
“He was always jumping around. Everything he did was up tempo because he was generally excited to be there,” Neal said. “He’s a high-quality, high-class guy. He’s always up beat. No matter what was happening around him, he was always in a good mood and those are the kind of guys you want to be around.
“That’s the same way he is as a coach. He hasn’t changed a bit and that’s why where ever he has been, he’s been successful.”
While still in college, Craig did a coaching internship at Tahlequah High and got to know Shane Holland, who’s now a coach at Decatur. Holland said he could immediately tell Craig “was a good, young prospective coach.” They later coached against each other when Holland was at Jay (Okla.) High and Craig was at Oologah (Okla.) High, where he led the Mustangs to the state championship game in three of the past four seasons and to the state quarterfinals in seven of his nine seasons as head coach.
“He’s done a great job at Oologah. He’s been outstanding, especially the past few years,” Holland said. “His teams always play hard, are very disciplined and very well-coached. He obviously does a great, great job.
“Siloam Springs got a good coach.”
Around that same time, Rogers High hired head coach Charlie Cooper away from Tahlequah. Craig asked Cooper if he could come with him to complete his college internship with the Mounties, so Cooper convinced NSU to grant Craig an exemption to do the internship out of state.
“You could tell then he was going to have some success,” Cooper said. “He was a rookie coach, but he was a very intelligent young man and worked hard. He was like most interns. He didn’t know anybody except for myself and another assistant when he got there, but the thing I remember is how well he fit in. He wasn’t a know-it-all and that’s very important. He got along with everybody because he’s an easy person to get along with.
“(Siloam Springs) will like him. He’ll hit the ground running.”
Craig then headed to Fayetteville to set up the health and physical education program at The New School. From there, he went on to Choctaw (Okla.) High as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach and also coached the track team to seven state championships from 1994-2001. He spent the next three seasons as offensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Oklahoma City’s John Marshall High before taking his first head coaching gig at Campus High in Wichita, Kan. He piloted the program’s turnaround as he led the Colts to their first seven-win season and first trips to the playoffs in school history.
An opportunity at 6A Del City (Okla.) High convinced Craig to return to Oklahoma to become its defensive coordinator for two seasons before Oologah hired Craig as its head coach in 2009. He took a team that had averaged just five wins in the previous three seasons to average of 8.5 wins during his tenure. Along with the state finals appearances, Craig’s stint also included four seasons with 10 wins or more and trips to the playoffs in eight of nine seasons.
Long-time Miami (Okla.) News-Record sports editor Jim Ellis said Craig has made Oologah a thorn in the side of the Miami Wardogs and others in Oklahoma 4A District 3.
“Boy, he’s really been successful down there,” Ellis said. “I still contend that this is the toughest 4A district in the state and he’s been able to win and win at a very high level. We’ve really been impressed with how he’s handled that program down there. He’s really turned Oologah into something special and I imagine he’ll do the same thing (at Siloam Springs).”
On his application for the Siloam Springs job, Craig wrote he was interested in Siloam Springs for “several reasons” but “one that interests me the most is building a program the school and community can be proud of at all times.” He added that coaches have a chance to make a difference in students’ lives and said his goal will be “to make Siloam Springs champions on the field, in the classroom and in life.”
“He’ll do a fantastic job there,” Neal said. “The kids will love him and the community is going to fall in love with him, too. Before long, the community will be following the team religiously just like they did at Oologah.
“Siloam did a great job in hiring this man.”
What has impressed Cooper the most about Craig has been his ability to adapt his schemes to different personnel. A team may not have a drop-back passer or a power runner, but Craig has always found a multiple, spread-oriented offense system “that fits his players” and gives his teams a chance for the most success.
When considering the Panthers’ job, Craig reached out — some by text, others with an actual phone call — to each of these friends from the coaching community. Cooper, Holland, Neal and Jones each have found success in making the move from Oklahoma to Arkansas like differences in the state’s governing bodies for high school athletics and differences in postseason formats.
When Craig has specifically about the Panthers’ program, Jones didn’t mince words. His Greenwood teams have dominated Siloam Springs with only one loss in the past 14 years under coaches Billy Dawson, Clint Ashcraft and Ross, who Jones said did an excellent job of having his teams prepared.
“I told him my thoughts, good and bad, but all we know is anecdotal stuff from the outside looking in,” Jones said. “It was sort of some coach talk, some brutal honest discussions about where they are talented, where they weren’t talented, what they did well and what they didn’t do well.”
Since that first meeting on the football field when Jones was a coach and Craig was a player, they’ve stayed in regular contact and followed each other’s careers. Jones even interviewed Craig for a job in the past, so they’ve been acquainted “for a long, long time,” Jones said.
“He’s always been able to adjust to different situations and different states,” Jones said. “He’s hard-working, very intense and has a great understanding of what he wants to get done and how he’s going to do it. You can count on his teams being well-prepared, physical and tough.
“He’s had a lot of success. He’s done it before and he’ll probably do it again.”
Makes sense. Jones obviously knows football coaches, too.