Replacing a legend: Passion, knowledge, faith make Anthony Lucas ‘a natural fit’ to succeed Kevin Kelley as head coach at Pulaski Academy

By Nate Olson | Photos by Jimmy Jones

When former Pulaski Academy football coach and athletic director Kevin Kelley accepted the head-coaching job at Presbyterian (S.C.) College in May, an opportunity presented itself that Anthony Lucas had been pondering for a while. 

But Lucas, the wide receivers coach at PA at the time, didn’t immediately think of himself. His thoughts turned to Jason Wyatt, the Bruins’ co-defensiive coordinator, who had served under Kelley his entire 18 years, and Madison Taylor, the other defensive coordinator, who joined the staff the same time as Lucas before the 2012 season.

“I was pushing for (Taylor and Wyatt) because they had more experience and had been there longer than I had,” said Lucas, a former star wide receiver at the University of Arkansas who had a brief NFL career cut short by injuries.

What Lucas didn’t know is Wyatt and Kelley were pushing for him. 

“(Lucas’) biggest strength is his passion for the best interest of every kid,” said Wyatt, who succeeded Kelley as the PA athletic director. “He is a very honest with a genuine persona and his honesty comes out when you talk to him. Sometimes it is cliche, but (Lucas) really has the best interest of the kids, and they are special to him. What better person to be our head football coach than someone who cares that much for the kids and will be that passionate about them and the job?”

The entire staff had offers to follow Kelley to the Football Championship Subdivision program, but Sam Witcher and Kelley’s son, Zack, are the only coaches who joined him.

That left Wyatt, Taylor, Lucas and defensive line coach Adam Thrash, a former Bruins star signal-caller. Offensive line coach Blake Amsler, a former standout PA lineman, had served as an IT specialist for the school but had left earlier in the spring to pursue an IT opportunity in private business.

With PA also searching for a president, Kelley was asked to weigh in on the coaching situation. His recommendation was to keep the staff intact. 

“I love PA, and we had built something for the kids teaching life lessons and winning, and I wanted to continue that,” Kelley said. “Keeping these guys on the staff was the best way for that to happen. It was a natural fit for Anthony and the other guys to be in leadership positions. They all had the personalities to fit those positions and benefit the kids.”

Lucas was chosen to be the head coach. It was a dream come true after he had turned down offers from other programs during his time at PA as he “prepared himself for the right time” to make a move.

“I was so excited, and I knew PA made the right decision,” said former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who coached Lucas for two seasons. “Just his character and work ethic and commitment to make a difference in young people’s lives … he was so happy to get the opportunity, and I know he will do a good job for PA and those kids.”

Keeping the staff in place

Kelley, who first served as a PA assistant, became the head coach in 2003. He soon made national headlines with his embrace of the analytical side of football, playing the percentages and electing to never punt and to always onside kick. 

He was wildly successful and gained many accolades, including national media appearances and speaking engagements at such prestigious events as the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Even as Kelley made headlines, every member of his staff knew how much they were valued for their roles. 

Kelley’s final group of assistants was extremely tight-knit, spending hours together at the school or at Kelley’s house eating pizza while breaking down film and watching Dallas Cowboys games. They didn’t think of each other as coworkers but more as friends. That cohesion helped lead to the Bruins winning their sixth title in the past seven seasons last December. 

So, when Kelley decided to leave, the rest of the staff deliberated on what would be best for the program, as friends would. The news didn’t blindside the staff, Wyatt said. Even though there had been opportunities for Kelley to leave before, Wyatt and his fellow assistants knew early when the Presbyterian talk began that this opportunity was different. 

All of the remaining coaches made “family decisions,” according to Lucas, to stay at the school. Wyatt was married in March and became a stepdad to three children. Lucas, Thrash and Taylor each have small children. 

Wyatt, also the dean of students at the time, held a meeting with the others to discuss the open positions and formulate a plan. All four knew the head coach and AD jobs would be split among two people

“Jason led the meeting, and he told us the route we should go and said, ‘Anthony this and Adam this,’’’ Lucas said. “We just listened to him, since he has the most experience, and we just gave him our two cents. We are close friends, and we have disagreements sometimes; however, we all need each other, and we are there for each other. This was a good discussion.”

Kelley agreed with the proposal, and it was approved by incoming PA president Brock Dunn. Wyatt moved to athletic director, Lucas moved to head coach, Taylor became the defensive coordinator and associate head coach, and Thrash the offensive coordinator.

“Those guys stayed (at PA), and I felt good with the leadership that was in place, and I knew they helped me build the foundation and keeping them there was best for the school,” Kelley said.

“Jason was with me for all 18 years, and if I won nine state championships, so did he. Being the athletic director was a good fit with him being an administrator. Madison knows both sides of the ball so well and studies so much and has so much football knowledge, we needed him or Jason on defense. 

“And with Anthony’s passion for our players and the program, he was a natural fit to be head coach.”

While Kelley was ecstatic to be a college coach, part of his heart will always be on the west Little Rock campus. The thing that bonded him with the staff was their deep commitment to the players and parents and the rest of the PA community. All the men wanted to make sure the players were taken care of, and it’s the reason Kelley was against the idea of hiring from outside the staff.

“When (Kelley) announced to the kids he was leaving, we spoke with the team,” Wyatt said. “We told them that Bruin football will continue as a community made up of the players — past and present — and the parents. It’s a spiritual identity and everyone plays a role.

“(Kelley) played a big part in that. I worked with him for a long time, and I never felt like just an assistant. He made us all feel important, and that kind of goes for the community, as we are all part of something bigger. That was the message we wanted to send to our team: ‘The program needs you, but no one is bigger than the program, and everyone has a role to play and a sense of responsibility.’”

Lucas rounded out the staff with Jerrod Barnhill, a former Maumelle offensive coordinator, taking over the offensive line position vacated by Amsler. In the summer, Wyatt visited with former Bruins star defensive lineman Dirk Tanner during a chance meeting at a Little Rock restaurant. Tanner, who had been working in the real estate business, jumped at an offer from Wyatt to coach the defensive line at his alma mater.

Learning as much as he could

Whether it’s someone who has known Lucas for more than 20 years — such as Nutt and Lucas’ former position coach at UA, Fitz Hill — or those at PA who have been acquainted with him for a shorter time, all agree that Lucas’ upbeat personality and kindness make him unique.

“You just feel his passion and honesty,” Wyatt said. “You feel good talking to him. If I am having a bad day, I talk to him, and I feel better.”

Wyatt said Lucas’ passion for his players is unmatched. It’s that enthusiasm that attracted Kelley to Lucas when Lucas was training kids at the DI workout facility in west Little Rock. 

“I offered him a job three or four years before he came,” Kelley said. “He is a good man, and we wanted someone like that. He is a great example. He also has a great knowledge of the game. He was a great player. I don’t think you have to be a great player to be a great coach, and there have been great players who weren’t great coaches, but that is not the case here.

“The biggest thing he brings is passion for the game. When you have so much passion that you will spend as much time as you need to on something and exhaust all of the resources to find the answer you need, you are going to be successful.”

It was that passion that drew Nutt in as well while Lucas was breaking Razorbacks receiving records in Nutt’s first seasons on The Hill. It’s one of the reasons Nutt and Lucas are close and visit “at least once or twice a month.”

What Nutt didn’t know until years later was how good of a coach Lucas would be.

“We coached a camp together in 2012 or ’13, and I saw him interacting with the kids,” Nutt said. “He was just a natural.”

Kelley said Lucas had some adjustments to make once he became a member of the staff. 

“He came in trying to win the kids over and kind of be their friend, and he really didn’t have to do that,” Kelley said. “They were naturally drawn to him, so he had to get a little more disciplined.

“The other thing was, he was such an unbelievable athlete that when he coached these kids, he was asking them to do certain things, and they couldn’t do that. He had to learn that what came easy to him didn’t come easy to them and adjust.”

While Lucas was very athletic, Nutt also lauded his ability to learn. Lucas said even when he was the No. 1 receiver for the Hogs, he studied the other receivers in the corps to see if he could pick up something they did well and apply it to his game. 

He quickly made the adjustments Kelley suggested, and he took notes on many other things he noticed from Kelley and the rest of the staff.

Lucas said other programs called while he was establishing himself at PA. He was a natural candidate given his position at PA and his college and NFL playing experience.

“I really didn’t want to rush being a head coach,” he said. “I wanted to learn as much as possible. I was contacted by some schools after I had been here three years, and I had some people reaching out this year when I was about to (take the PA job). I knew I wanted to be a head coach, but I just wanted to learn as much as I could and for it to be the right time.”

A solid foundation in faith

The constant through Lucas’ life has been his parents. He doesn’t get through an interview without mentioning them. Nutt also gave them plenty of credit for raising Lucas the right way.

Gerald and Rena Lucas still reside in Tallulah, La., where Anthony grew up.

“They are huge,” said Lucas, who is married to his college sweetheart, Devae, and has two young daughters. “My parents are everything. I still lean on my mom and dad for advice on making decisions, and they are my true prayer warriors. They have been supporting me like parents should do, and they played a major role in my life. We are very tight.”

Part of the lessons his parents taught were to lean on the Bible and its teachings. Lucas can quote scripture backward and forward. 

It’s his faith and upbringing that gave him the confidence to take a job that comes with a tremendous amount of pressure to win. The Bruins have won so much, there might be more pressure to win at PA than at some college programs. Kelley built a monster and was able to feed it consistently like very few coaches in Arkansas prep football history.

“I wear size 12s, and I wear them every day,” Lucas said. “(The pressure) isn’t something I think about. I know that I am fortunate and blessed no matter what happens. Romans 8:31 says, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ I know the expectations, and I know we have to win, but I know what I am getting into, and I know I have Jason Wyatt, Madison Taylor, Adam Thrash and Jerrod Barnhill backing me, and the community is on board. So, it’s really not a lot of pressure. We just have to get out there and play football and do what we do.”

If there are turbulent times, Nutt is betting on Lucas’ level head to prevail.

“We saw it at Arkansas,” Nutt said. “He doesn’t get too high or too low. If there are some tough times, he will lead them out. He has the ability to lead players, and they will believe in him and get back on track.”

Kelley has seen how this close-knit group works together, and it’s why he is confident Lucas and the staff are ready for a greater challenge.

“If I ever had to step away because of something crazy with school, (the staff) kept things going at practice,” Kelley said. “It’s their mission, and they believe in what they are doing. That’s why I know they will do well.”

Kelley said he will be a resource if needed, but he won’t offer any unsolicited advice because “I wouldn’t want anyone to do that to me.”

“I took an hour to watch the scrimmage (against Bryant) the other night,” Kelley said. “I am always going to have time for this program. It means a lot to me. I love our players and have invested so much in these seniors, and I care about the staff — they are good friends.

What encouraged Kelley about the Bryant game film was how that senior class led a charge to erase a first-half deficit against the three-time defending Class 7A state champions and clawed their way back to take a 35-28 lead in the third quarter. 

Kelley also saw his unorthodox philosophies regarding onside kicks and not punting were still intact.

“We aren’t going to change a thing. We are going to do the exact same thing, and the kids are more excited about it than when (Kelley) was here,” Lucas said. “We have a great senior kicker (Vaughn Seelicke) and a solid recovery team put together, so we are ready.”

Kelley or not, everyone expects PA to be at War Memorial Stadium in December. If it happens, it will be a little more special for a group of coaches who look to carry on a legacy of winning well into the future. 

“Of course, it would be great satisfaction,” Lucas said. “We just want to keep everything going with a successful program, and we don’t want to change anything despite losing Coach Kelley. To be able to get back to War Memorial Stadium and win a state championship with these guys would be a great satisfaction.” 

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