LAKE CITY — Buster Campbell tried getting out of coaching once.
The year was 1989 and Campbell had just taken Riverside to the state basketball finals. Having worked the sideline for Caraway and then Riverside since 1975, Campbell figured he’d give something else a try.
“We had an opening come up at the (Jonesboro) auto auction, which my family owned, and I thought I needed to try something different,” Campbell recalled Tuesday. “All I’d ever done was coach and I’d been at it 14 years, and it was a chance to make a little more money. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try that,’ and I was like a fish out of water. That was work and this is fun, and you get paid.”
Campbell got back in the gym after one season out of the game, returning to his old job leading the Rebels. The years and the wins have flown by for the Riverside coaching legend, who reached another career milestone Monday night. The Rebels’ 65-39 victory over Northeast Arkansas Christian Home Educators was the 900th for Campbell, who is in his 45th year as a head coach.
According to the Arkansas Activities Association record book, Campbell is only the eighth coach in Arkansas history to earn his 900th career victory, joining a group that includes a couple more area legends in Morgan Gilbert (Tyronza, Bay, Tuckerman) and Bob Paynter (Johnson City, Tenn., and Paragould).
The National Federation of State High School Associations lists only 32 coaches with 900 or more wins in boys’ basketball in its record book.
Campbell is especially proud to have averaged 20-plus wins over 44-plus seasons in the same school district. Riverside opened as the consolidation of Lake City and Caraway in the 1985-86 school year.
“I’m tickled about that, that’s a mark you’d kind of like to have, at the same school and with our players. We’ve never recruited or done any of that stuff,” Campbell said. “I’m proud of that, that we could average 20 a year. We’ve had a few lean years here lately and hopefully we’re fixing to be a little more competitive for a little while.
“I’m excited, it’s a big honor, but it’s not just me, that’s for sure. There’s a whole lot of people who played a part in this, my family, Coach (Kevin) Hall, a bunch of good players, great support from the community. You can’t stay at a place if it’s not a good place and you don’t have a lot of support and win that many ballgames without having some good players. They definitely make better coaches.”
Campbell was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018. Later that year he also received the Arkansas Diamond Award, given by the Arkansas Secretary of State to those who have made significant contributions to their community through time, talent and dedication.
Asked about his age, Campbell replied, “I like to say I’m 67 years young.” His voice could be heard across the court Monday night as he called out plays, corrections and encouragement to the Rebels.
While Campbell vividly remembers specific games from years past, personal milestones aren’t among them. He doesn’t remember who the Caraway Tigers defeated for his first victory in 1975, nor does he recall beating Augusta in the 2013-14 season for No. 800.
Campbell’s 600th victory came against Maynard in the 2004-05 season. Tyler Timms, now Riverside’s girls’ basketball coach, led the Rebels in scoring and rebounding in that game.
Watching former players such as Timms succeed is satisfying for Campbell.
“Hopefully we’re teaching a lot more than things about basketball and I think that’s been rewarding as you see these kids come back and you see them go on and do well in life and make something out of themselves,” Campbell said. “I’ve had kids go into coaching and one of my ex-players who was on the NEA Tournament-winning team in 1980 at Caraway is the AD now at Lake Hamilton.
“I’ve had several more, I don’t want to start naming because it would be too many, and I’ve had doctors and lawyers. I’ve had a lot of kids who have been successful and they come back and call me Coach, and they’re just part of the family.”
Campbell’s family is a fixture at Riverside games. So is Hall, who is in his 25th year as Campbell’s assistant coach. The two coaches “fit together like a glove,” Campbell said, trading good-natured barbs as they work together.
Asked if he might try to coach 50 years, Campbell said he still likes what he does. He missed being able to take his team to camps last summer.
“It’s kind of like Morgan (Gilbert) tells everybody – I didn’t golf, I didn’t fish, I coached,” Campbell said. “That’s kind of me. I like to watch my daughters rodeo and that’s my main hobby, I guess. I don’t know how long I’ll coach, I’m not thinking of a set date.
“I might wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and when you don’t want to do it, you don’t need to do it, but I still get excited. Every once in a while I’ll tell the kids, ‘Hey guys, I’m 67 years old and I think I’m more excited about this game than y’all are, and that’s not supposed to happen.’”