Panthers’ football tradition a family deal

Bigelow Coach Luke Starks is doused after the Panthers’ victory Friday in the Class 2A state championship game.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Bigelow Coach Luke Starks is doused after the Panthers’ victory Friday in the Class 2A state championship game. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

With a 28-14 win over East Poinsett County on Friday afternoon in the Class 2A state championship game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock , Bigelow Coach Luke Starks accomplished one family's mission that was 32 years in the making.

When Bigelow -- then named Bigelow East End -- began a football team in 1992, Jeff Starks was tabbed as the man to lead it.

The Panthers struggled in those early years. They finished 4-24-1 in their first three years as a program, finishing last in the conference each season. Bigelow's first winning season came in 1999 with a 6-4 campaign.

Jeff spent 27 years as the Panthers' head coach, building the program from the ground up. Luke played for his dad from 2011-13. In those three seasons, the Panthers were 20-13. When it was time for Jeff to hang up the whistle in 2018, there was an obvious successor -- his son.

Starks faced a similar fate to his father's first season as the Panthers finished 0-10 in 2019. But in the four years since, it has been an unprecedented level of success. Since 2020, Bigelow has a combined record of 48-4, including Friday's win.

In 2020, the Panthers fell to Des Arc in the semifinals. In 2021, it was Hazen in the quarterfinals. And last season, it was a first-round upset by Earle that ended Bigelow's season.

Three of the four wins over the past three seasons have come in the playoffs, ahead of the ultimate goal of reaching and winning the program's first state championship.

But that all changed Friday.

The Panthers were the last team standing, dousing Starks in ice water, draping the state title banner in front of the team photo and hoisting the championship trophy.

"We've been fortunate with an absolutely phenomenal group of kids that's been through this program the last four years, a great staff to help with that [and] great support with the community," Starks said. "So you know, no one person can accept responsibility or praise for what's definitely been a group effort. We're very fortunate with the kids we've had in the program."

With the win over East Poinsett County (12-2), Starks and the Panthers put the final touch on the greatest season in program history. It was the Panthers' first state championship in their first final appearance, their first undefeated season and fourth time in program history to finish with 10 wins or more, three of which have come since Luke's hiring.

"It's outstanding and awesome and lots of emotions," Starks said.

Starks, 30, became the youngest coach to win a state title since Warren's Bo Hembree won championships at Warren at age 28 in 2001 and at 29 in 2002.

The Bigelow faithful repaid Starks and his team's success with a packed section of War Memorial Stadium. The announced attendance was 4,358, about two-thirds of which were wearing Bigelow black.

"We had a great turnout," Starks said. "I think the bigger part of the county was here. We did a great job traveling and filling the stands and [I'm] very, very thankful for that. It definitely changes how the players respond to things and kind of the energy that they bring. I was very, very, very appreciative of all the turnout and support we got, not only today but throughout the year."

Starks asked around for advice ahead of Friday's game from coaches who had experienced the complexities of the state championship stage.

From his father, the answer was more simple.

"He said chill out a lot," Starks said with a wide smile.