Buster Campbell was 26 years old when he took the Caraway Tigers to their one and only Northeast Arkansas Invitational Championship in 1980. Twenty six years later, the 52-year old Campbell led the Riverside Rebels to their first ever NEA Title.
After celebrating this season's championship, several members of the 1980 NEA Championship team and their families decided to surprise Coach Campbell with a reunion and celebration of their own.
Surprising Coach Campbell is not the easiest thing to do, but members of the 1980 team did just that when they showed up for Riverside's game against Rector January 13 at Caraway. Campbell's eyes lit up when he saw his 1980 team sitting on the Riverside bench when the coach strolled out of the dressing room after halftime of the Rector-Riverside Junior High game. Hugs and handshakes followed as Campbell and his former team took some quick pictures before Campbell resumed coaching the junior high to a homecoming victory.
After Riverside's victory over Rector in the senior high game, Campbell was treated to a reception in the hospitality room where a slide show of the 1980 NEA tournament along with other pictures and accomplishments of the coach and his players careers were shown. Campbell and his former players enjoyed a meal and reminisced for the next couple of hours. When it came time for Campbell to say a few words, tears welled up in the coach's eyes as he talked about one of his more special teams.
"This was a great bunch of kids," Campbell said. "It was the first time and as it turned out the only time Caraway ever won the NEA Tournament. I really loved visiting with the former players and I have gotten a big kick out of seeing them again. You really get close to them, and it's funny, they always seem to like you a lot better after their careers are over. The players coming back to see me really means a lot and pays you back when they come in for a visit like this," Campbell said.
Campbell said one thing he remembers most about the 1980 team was that they just did not like to get beat.
"They were a hard nosed bunch on the court, but they never gave you any problems off the court," stated Campbell.
Caraway's run to the NEA title in 1980 was an improbable one. The Tigers had started the season 5-7 and Campbell held a team meeting to ask the players what was wrong.
"We told coach that we were dead legged from all the pre-season work we had done, and we needed a break," former Tiger Ricky Waters said. "Coach Campbell gave us the Thanksgiving holidays off, and we went on a 17 game winning streak, including winning the NEA," commented Waters.
The Tigers were the sixth seed entering the 1980 NEA tourney and had to face an undefeated Tyronza team that was favored by many to win the state championship that year. Caraway had beaten Weiner 80-66 in the first round to set up the quarterfinal game against number one seeded Tyronza. Mike Brickell poured in 31 points and Waters controlled the boards as the Tigers easily disposed of Tyronza, 83-66. Two late free throws in the semi-finals helped Caraway knock off a strong Marmaduke team led by All-State guard Brett Gibson and currrent Marmaduke Head Coach Steve Richey. The Tigers then met Clover Bend, who was coached by Missouri Hall of Famer Hoss Jones. Jones had one of the state's best players in Scott Pierce, but the Tigers proved too tough as they roared past Clover Bend 62-49 to claim the championship.
"This was really a neat experience," Waters said. "It was Caraway's first, and as it turned out because of the consolidation, only NEA championship ever. It really meant a lot for us to win it for Coach Campbell, and I am extremely glad that he won it this year with Riverside," said Waters.
Campbell praised all of the players from the 1980 team and recalled some of their finer points.
"Waters was an animal and a warrior on the boards," Campbell said. "It wasn't unusual for him to grab 20 rebounds in a game, which is something you don't see anymore. He would have rather got the rebound as scored points. He was a great player. Mike Brickell was an excellent scorer. He had a nose for the basket. Mike put up back to back 31 point games in that 1980 NEA tournament against Tyronza and Marmaduke. Gary Overman was our point guard. He is maybe the best I have ever coached. He was calm and cool and never lost his composure. Johnny Berry was probably our most underrated player, and he was also our best pure shooter. Ricky (Waters) probably doesn't like to hear this, but pound for pound his little brother Jimmy may have been the best rebounder I have ever coached. Keith Pendegraft was a 6'5" post player which was unusual in that era. Ricky Austin and Kenny Stallings were our first two players off the bench, and they often gave us a big lift. Everyone on the team contributed. It was really a special bunch," continued Campbell.
Other members of the 1980 team included Terry Hinton, Barry Riley, Roger Williams, Jeff Rea, Todd McCormick and Mark Shasteen.
"In 30 years of coaching, I have had six or seven teams that I thought could have won a state championship," Campbell said, And the 1980 team was one. They were a good 'ole bunch of kids who loved to play basketball," concluded Campbell.
Several of the players talked about their NEA experience and also gave praise to their former coach.
"We were a real close bunch of guys," said former All-NEA forward Mike Brickell. "We had a real good tournament and luck was with us. I was real lucky in the tournament, having those back to back 31 point games. I really had a good time. Ricky Waters and I were real good friends and all of us seniors were close and ran around a lot together. We spent a lot of time shooting baskets in the gym. We wanted to give Buster recognition because we think so highly of him. He is one of the best coaches ever at Caraway," concluded Brickell.
"It was really good seeing the guys," said Ricky Austin. "It was more like a big family reunion. I can't really remember a lot of the details of the tournament, but some of the guys told me that I made a big play at the end of the Marmaduke game that helped us win. We were more like a family than a high school basketball team. It was great for a small school to win the NEA. It was like us winning the Rose Bowl. We all have a lot of love and respect for Coach Campbell. He spent a couple of study halls a day tutoring us to help us with our grades. He was always there for us, whether it was homework or anything else," concluded Austin.
"Coach Campbell was probably the most influential person in my life, along with my Mom and Dad," said Waters. "He was always there to support you and he always had time for his players. I remember when I was in the ninth grade I told Coach Campbell I wanted to coach someday. I didn't know you had to go to college to become a coach. Coach Campbell encouraged me and made me believe I could accomplish my goal. He helped me get a scholarship to Central Baptist College. I went on to become a head coach and now I am a principal, with a chance to become a superintendent in the new few years. I owe it all to Coach Campbell," said Waters.
"When I coached, my entire philosophy was based on what Coach Campbell does even today," continued Waters. "I just gave my offenses and defenses different names. I am very appreciative that I got to play for him. There is not a better coach in Northeast Arkansas. A lot of people don't see the inner parts of Coach Campbell. But he really cares about the kids and will do anything for them. I truly believe if I came to him with a problem or if I needed financial help, he would do everything in his power to help me. He is that kind of person. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for him," stated Waters.
The 1980 Tigers went on to finish 27-12 and captured the District Championship after finishing conference runner-up. The Tigers advanced to the State Tournament before losing in the quarter-finals when Waters suffered a season ending injury in the second quarter. The Tigers set several records in the 1980 NEA tourney. In the first round win over Weiner, Caraway set the field goal percentage record of 58% as they hit 32-55 shots. The Tigers broke the record in the next game against Tyronza, by going 38-62 which was 61.3%. Caraway also set the record for least fouls in a game by committing only 10 fouls against Marmaduke.
It was a special night for Coach Campbell and his former players, who got one more chance to reminisce about their glory days. For Coach Campbell's former players, he has been more than just a coach and teacher. He has, and still is, a true friend. It was a night that none of them will soon forget.