story by Aric Mitchell
The Fort Smith Southside Rebels have seen many great coaches come through in their nearly 50-year history, from Jim Rowland, the man responsible for handing perennial powerhouse Northside its first defeat, to Barry Lunney, who won multiple state championships before building a nationally ranked program at Bentonville.
One of the many to leave his mark with the Southerners was Bob Gatling.
Gatling coached his first season in 1982 and his final in 1988. During that time, the school saw disappointment, growth, tragedy and triumph. Here are some of the teams responsible:
1982 Southside Rebels
This squad was coming off a 3-7 record in the 1981 season, so expectations were not high. Add to the mix a first-year head coach, and .500 seemed like the best anyone could hope for. Gatling had other ideas, however, overcoming two early losses against Blytheville and Conway to put together a much-needed winning season.
The next two games would bring wins for the Rebs before another close defeat to Springdale would launch them into victory mode. Southside downed Alma, Fayetteville, Forrest City, and Russellville, outscoring their opponents 74-21, before losing yet another one to Northside. In spite of the loss, the Rebs pushed the Grizzlies to the limit, falling 23-20 in a barnburner.
1983 State Champion Rebels
Gatling didn’t believe in incremental gains as was seen in the ’83 season. The second-year head coach took his team all the way to Little Rock for a showdown with the heavily favored Little Rock Parkview squad consisting of all-state powers James Rouse and Keith Jackson.
The Rebs were not intimidated, taking an early 6-0 lead and booting a second half field goal to take the contest 9-6. Southside may have lost in overtime to their crosstown rivals in the last game of the regular season, but the school’s first state championship was a big enough consolation prize.
1986 Southside in the Semifinals
Gatling found it difficult topping his team’s ’83 accomplishment of winning the most coveted crown in the state. His teams struggled through two disappointing years in 1984 and 1985 before finally forging ahead with another great season. The Rebels would finish 8-3 in ’86, going as far as the state semifinals before falling to Marianna in a heartbreaking 14-12 loss. However, Gatling was able to snap a seven-year Grizzly winning streak with a 10-6 victory during that season’s Battle of Rogers Avenue.
1987 Battle of Rogers Avenue Times Two
The good news to come out of this season was that Gatling was able to make it two-in-a-row for in-season victories against Northside. The bad news: his team met the Grizzlies again in the state championship game and lost by three touchdowns, 27-7. The year, however, was a win for Fort Smith. The Rebels ruled the conference, while the Grizzlies ruled the state. And it was a shade of things to come just one year down the road.
1988 Gatling Goes Out with a Bang
Six days before the crosstown rivalry game versus Northside, the Rebels faced an indescribable tragedy that is, thankfully, rare in high school sports. They lost quarterback Wes Gibson to injuries sustained in a heinous car accident. Gibson survived, but it was very touch-and-go for a while, with the QB barely having the strength to write a three-word note of encouragement to his teammates in the week leading up to their state championship rematch against Northside. The note read, “Luck tomorrow night,” and many felt the Rebs would need it after suffering a 30-3 loss in their first game against the Grizzlies.
The rematch would prove an altogether different affair. Ultimately determined by an extra point, Southside would win its second state championship, sending Gatling out with a bang.
Gatling’s seven years at Southside would see six winning seasons and two state championships, setting a standard of excellence for things to come. Head Coach Barry Lunney took over in 1989 and nabbed two back-to-back titles of his own in 1991 and 1992, sending a message to Northside, and the state, that Rebel football was here to stay.