By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Ben Baker’s coaching career covered a lot of stops and left as many impressions.
Baker, who was Gore High School’s first football coach and the second at Hilldale while also serving stints at Muskogee, Fort Gibson, Wagoner and Stigler, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 64.
“You just knew from being around him that God made him to be a coach,” said Stigler superintendent Clayton Edwards, a member of Baker’s first staff at Gore and part of his later staff at Hilldale.
“Two things I can say about Ben is that he was very organized and a good technician. Those two qualities also made him a good teacher.”
“Technician” was a word used by Jamie Young, who coached with Baker on several Muskogee High staffs.
“Jeff Lee was an all-state fullback for us one year and there was a play we ran with him that was Ben’s play and it was really effective,” Young said. “It kind of started as a power sweep and went back to the fullback.
“Ron McHenry, the coach at Coweta was the all-state coach Jeff’s senior year, and Ben and I were on the elevator with him at one point at the coaches clinic that week. We didn’t know him that well at that time but we really tried to sell him on using that play in the all-state game standing in that elevator.”
Gore Public Schools this past fall honored Baker with a plaque at the stadium.
Curt Denton, who now coaches girls soccer at Muskogee High, had Baker as a position coach from 1978-80 and would have Baker on his staff while coaching junior high football at Alice Robertson in 2003-04.
“He was an encourager during some of the tough times my family and I have had, both as a coach and during my son Matt’s health issues,” Denton said.
Matt suffered from a complex nerve syndrome after a severe knee injury in his playing days at Warner that required treatment not covered by the family’s insurance after he left Warner.
“I remember the day he showed up at my door with money...” Denton said, his voice quivering.
“But he was an encourager as a coach as well. He knew how to tell you when you did something wrong and praise you when you got it right.”
Baker’s journeys would reconnect him with Denton as a member of his junior high staff at Alice Robertson. “One of the first things we did was issue equipment to seventh-graders who back then were still part of the football program within the school,” Denton said.
“We were having to actually show some of the kids how to dress out and I remember him coming up and saying ‘what have I let you get me into?’ It was one of the lighter moments I remember. He always had a great sense of humor and demeanor.”
Don Stout was defensive coordinator under Baker at Hilldale, where the Hornets in 1985 had their best season to date, going two rounds into the Class 2A playoffs in a 9-3 campaign.
“Probably one of his coaching highlights there was when we beat Morris on our home field and they went on and won state,” Stout said. “I was young in the business at that time and he was a mentor to me. He was a man of great character and you could see that in the way kids who would relate to him even after graduating and coming around.”
Scott Puckett was a sophomore lineman on that 1985 team. His son Chandler is the current Hilldale quarterback.
“He was a hard-nosed, old-school type and I really liked that in him,” Puckett said of Baker. “We had a drill one day and he got upset with the way we were doing it, so he got down in a three-point stance and told all of us to give him our best shot. I don’t remember who it was that hit him but he came up with blood on his face. We wound up doing up-downs after that. He was hard but he also let you know he cared about you.”
Dale Condict arrived at Wagoner and hired Baker out of retirement for a two-year stint as a lay coach, including the 4A state finalist year in their first season.
“I had coached with him at Muskogee and hiring him was one of the smartest things I did when I got here,” Condict said. “He loved coaching linemen and he had so much initiative. When you were in a drill involving half the kids, like offense against the defensive scout team, he’d take everyone standing around and go find something to work with them on.”
Survivors include his wife Bonny, sons Scott Baker and Brent Baker and a daughter, Jill Smith. Visitation will be at Cornerstone Funeral Home, 1830 N. York St., from 5-7 p.m. today with services set for 11 a.m. Thursday at First United Methodist Church.
“You just knew from being around him that God made him to be a coach,” Edwards added.