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Clay Henry

CLAY HENRY: Ruple feared on the field, gentle giant off

While imposing physically, it was hard to find a nicer man off field, even while coaching at Conway High School.

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Just weeks after becoming sports editor at the Log Cabin Democrat at age 22, I walked into the athletic department office at Conway High School. It was August of 1976 and I was quaking in my shoes.

There was this mountain of a man rising from the couch. He just kept getting bigger. I’d never seen a more imposing figure.

Ernest Ruple (Arkansas Communications)

He stuck out this huge hand. I’d never felt a bigger or stronger hand shake.

“Hi, I’m Ernest Ruple,” he said. “We are going to have a good time this football season. We’ve got a good team. You are going to like being around us.

“Oh, I know your daddy. You come from good stock.”

I knew that the All-SWC offensive tackle for the 1967 Arkansas Razorbacks did know my father really well. They’d done lots of interviews. As a Razorback captain, Ruple was among the most sought after interviews from that team.

We became great friends. I grieved last week when I received notice of his passing last week. His memorial service was Monday in Conway.

Ernest Ruple was an imposing person, but a gentle giant in every way. Interviews with him were delightful. If I screwed up as a young reporter, he never mentioned it or made you feel uncomfortable to come see him. He was the same every day.

Win or lose during that 1976 season, he was great outside the locker room or during the week in his office. He was bigger than life and made me feel special.

You got used to his bigness and a little sarcastic humor that popped in now and then. He could intimidate if you didn’t know his true nature.

There was a scar on the side of his face from a high school car wreck that also lessened his hearing. But Ernest always heard you. He’d turn his head to the other side and make sure there was solid communication.

Those Wampus Cats were good. They went 9-3 on the way to the AAAA-West title. My first year at the Log Cabin Democrat was pretty special. Not only did I get to cover Ruple’s football team, but also Coach Joe Graham’s hoopsters, 36-0 overall state champs.

What a start that provided to a young reporter with only part-time experience at the Arkansas Gazette as a tutorial. Granted, that was a damn good tutorial, but I wasn’t prepared to be a beat writer. Conway readers clamored for every word I could cram into two pages of sports coverage to be about the Cats. I wanted to do right for them and for Ernest Ruple.

Like Graham, Ruple was a tremendous coach. He just didn’t ache to be a ball coach like Graham. They’d both come up from the Conway junior high ranks and were ready to handle the job, but it wasn’t the one Ruple wanted his entire life.

The big man – 6-5 and around 300 those days – really thought of himself as a farmer like his wonderful father. He’d grown up on the grand family farm in the Arkansas River bottoms near Lollie. He’d eventually till the land near Bigelow. That’s where he lived when he passed June 9 at the age of 86.

Yet for a handful of years in the Conway school district, he’d farm kids, develop them into men. He did it the right way, with respect and tough love. He was exactly the kind of coach you’d want for your son.

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“Exactly,” said Bobby New, an assistant with Ruple at the junior high and later the high school before getting into school administration that would end with his great run as Fayetteville Schools Superintendent.

I knew Bobby, and brother Mike, during both their Conway and Fayetteville days. Mike helped me find Bobby for a visit about Ruple. My old college roommates, Hal Hunnicutt and Leo Crafton, both pointed to Bobby as my starting point on anything about Ruple.

“I’ve really known him all my life and there are three phases,” Bobby said. “There’s the player, the coach and teacher and these last years as farmer, father and friend.”

We will start with the high school player, a star in football and track. Ruple also set school records in the discus and helped the Cats to a state track title.

“First, you think about all the great athletes who came through Conway, you start with Ruple, the first great big man we had, maybe the best still,” New said. “I was two years behind him and just idolized him.”

New was stunned when Conway head coach Rex Lovell turned him into an inside linebacker. He’d played quarterback and defensive back in junior high but learned linebacker in August camp.

New got busy learning technique after the move from the secondary. He was far down the depth chart and barely made the travel squad for the season opener.

“I think a sophomore kicker made the trip to Forrest City for the first game and maybe three more sophomores,” he said. “I wasn’t going to play. We had a good team, with great seniors, a lot of them. I just stayed away from the coaches and near the back of the bench trying not to be observed.”

Lovell called for New when a senior linebacker went out with a broken arm, done for the season.

“He grabbed my face mask like coaches did back then,” New said. “He said, ‘We are going to flip the linebackers so you can line up behind Ruple. Just follow him around.’ So I started the rest of the season and that’s all I did, just stay behind Ruple.

“We rarely stunted. Ernest took care of the tackle and the guard and he’d usually bring down the ball carrier and I’d just jump on (the pile). Ernest always made the initial hit and my job could not have been easier.”

New said Ruple didn’t say much, but was the “quintessential leader.” You just followed him.

“He was easy to follow,” New said. “First, he looked like a bull elephant on the field, but ran like a deer. I don’t know his 40 speed, but he was fast and quick. He was All-State and he took care of our team.

“Let me just say this simply, he was the best high school tackle that ever existed.”

Whether New was talking about Conway, or everywhere, is unclear, but he was an easy pickup for Arkansas coach Frank Broyles during a time when the Razorbacks were not just grabbing the best talent in state. As the three-time SWC champs, Broyles was plucking good tackles from Texas, too.

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Ernest Ruple (Arkansas Communications)

Ruple was on the freshman team in 1964 when the Hogs won the national title. It was a time when freshman were not eligible. In ’65, he was a backup, earning a letter and then started his last two seasons. It was a great time at Arkansas with great players and he belonged.

Webb Hubbell, one year behind Ruple, also played tackle for the Razorbacks.

“When I saw him as a freshman, I was frightened,” Hubbell said. “He didn’t fit the mold of what Razorbacks had been for the previous seven or eight years. We had been fast and quick, not big. He was big.

“Ernest was striking in stature. That scar was a feature that you didn’t miss. As far as his body, I think he was probably in the 240s then and bigger than the rest of us, but our coaches got into weight training pretty soon after we got there and he started changing his body.”

The UA coaches went to Green Bay and studied isometrics in 1966.

“They brought back interval weight lifting and isometrics,” Hubbell said. “Ernie was a junior and when he went home to the farm that summer, he built his own equipment along the lines of what the coaches had shown us. He got massive.

“It wasn’t just that he got big, he got strong. It was incredible. When he came back, he just tossed us around.

“He wasn’t just big and strong, though. At 250 pounds – and no one was that big in that era – he could out run all of us. He was really good and also humble.”

It led to high interest from the NFL. Ruple was a second round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Knee injuries limited his time in the NFL. He played two seasons then returned to Conway to teach and coach.

“What we saw at Arkansas was two different guys,” Hubbell said. “On the field, you were scared to line up across from him. In the dorm, he was the nicest man.

“As a player, he finished as the strong side tackle. That’s the open side with a split end. The weakside, you had a tight end and you got double team help. He played the strong, no help.

“I just called him a gentle giant off the field. What I’ll say about him goes for on the field or off the field; whether you were a quarterback or as a person on campus, he was the guy you wanted protecting you.”

That was the man I knew as Conway High School coach, but he was as talented as a coach as he was a player.

“He was,” New said. “I was primarily a defensive coach for Ernest. He ran the offense and was always quick with adjusting the plan against a team that surprised us with something new. During games, he’d come to me and suggest a change on defense, too. He was always right. He could adapt during games.

“His deal was game day coaching. He didn’t like practices. Our practices might last only 30 to 45 minutes. He saved our players for games. And I really don’t think he wanted to coach. He wanted to farm and be in those fields riding a tractor.”

There was little doubt he loved riding a tractor. This part I’m sure about: Ernest Ruple made a big tractor look small.

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