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Rockets fill coach opening, keep things in the family

Richard Cochran played football for CHS in the 1980s. Now, he’s the head coach.

Published: April 2, 2024   
Richard Cochran, seen here March 14, becomes the first Catholic High alum in school history to lead the Rocket football team as head coach. (Dwain Hebda)

Those who are new to the Catholic High football program have been treated to a couple of thrilling seasons, including an undefeated run in 2022 that took the Rockets to the 6A state semifinals and last year, where the high-powered offense outscored opponents 337 to 182 over the course of the season.

Richard Cochran is old enough to remember the last time the Rockets were as heralded year-in and year-out as they have been recently. He played for the school during its previous heyday, an era during which CHS brought home its only two state titles in 1984 and 1985.

“I showed up as a freshman in 1987 when that culture was still very much alive,” he said. “We did really well my senior year in the fall of ’90. We went 9 and 3, and we made it into the playoffs, but we ran into (Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee) Basil Shabazz, who was a senior from Pine Bluff, and that ended stuff kind of quickly for everybody. That was tough for us; if it wasn’t for him, we had a chance. We had a lot of fun.”

It is from this posture — a bridge from the salad days of the 1980s and the new era enjoyed today — that Cochran assumes the reins of his alma mater program, the first CHS alum to fill the head coaching role in school history. 

He replaces John Fogelman who’d led the team since 2012 and who left in January to return to Malvern.

Cochran, who also teaches English and religion, inherits a Rocket program whose new competitiveness stems in part from being reclassified from 7A where Catholic played the biggest schools in the state week in and week out. The new division has the Rockets on more even footing, resulting in wins and momentum not seen in decades, with expectations to match.

“There’s a lot more energy around football because of being in 6A,” he said. “The football culture is a lot more positive, like, ‘OK, we’ve got a chance to beat this opponent or beat that opponent.’ It gives them a little bit more life. There’s a lot more guys out for football right now; we’ve got 113 in the offseason and that doesn’t include the guys that are in baseball or the guys that are in soccer. That’s a lot of guys.”

The new skipper might still be getting used to his promotion, but he sounded every inch a head coach in evaluating the team’s talent coming back next year for his first campaign at the helm. The Rockets are coming off a 7-4 season (6-3 in 6A East) where the four losses came by an average of just five points. One of those close losses, unfortunately, came in the first round of the 6A playoffs, where Mountain Home sent Catholic packing, 21-16.

Key returning personnel include starting quarterback Jackson England and a bevy of running backs led by Michael Patel and Chebem Ekeanyanwu, all three of whom are rising seniors. There are also plenty of question marks on offense, however, including a depleted wide receiving corps and gaps to fill on the line.

On defense, experience is light, but the new head coach likes the potential just from a physicality standpoint, especially up front.

“We actually have some size this year; we can stare eye-to-eye at an offensive line,” he said. “It’s always been serviceable slanting guys that move fast, but we didn’t have the kinds of guys that could absorb an offensive line. We might be able to have some of that this year. They’re just unproven and that’s the thing; they’ve got size but they haven’t played yet on Friday nights. We’ll just see how they go.”

Cochrane, who played lineman at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, following high school, has been affiliated with Rocket football for 24 years, including the past 14 as defensive coordinator. He got his start under Roy Davis coaching the offensive line for four years before spending four years with a fledgling program at now-closed St. Joseph High School in Pine Bluff.

He returned to Catholic High under Coach Scooter Register in 2004 and has been here since. Cochran said he first got an inkling he could coach while pursuing his undergrad.

“In college, I began to understand the way my offensive line coach inspired people, and everything just clicked for me,” he said. “Those last couple years at college and the first year here at Catholic were the big turning point for me. I really love this. This is something I can do. I always wanted football to be a part of whatever I did as a teacher. I always wanted that to be the extension of the classroom for me.”

As the Cochran era starts, the wins and losses remain to be seen, but one thing is for certain: come what may, the new head man isn’t going anywhere.

“It’s just an amazing opportunity. I wasn’t going to be a guy that was going out and looking (for coaching vacancies),” he said. “There are guys out there that do that, and more power to them, who look around for a head coaching job just to be a head coach somewhere. I wasn’t doing that. I love this school. This is the only place I wanted to be a head coach. That’s it.

“I threw everything into this one, and if they had decided on somebody else, I was just going to stay here and keep doing what I’m doing. I love this place. This is a wonderful opportunity to be able to be a teacher here. It’s a great place to work. It’s just like a family.”

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