By: Chris Dortch
SEC "Blue Ribbon" Report
The first step Arkansas made toward hiring Mike Anderson as its basketball coach took place on March 1, 2009, when the school honored former coach Nolan Richardson and his 1994 national championship team.
In 2002, after 17 years, Arkansas fired Richardson, and the split was like an acrimonious divorce. Richardson later sued the school for discrimination, lost, and turned his back on the program he had built into national power. But after former athletic director Frank Broyles—who had fired Richardson—resigned in 2008 and was replaced by Jeff Long, Arkansas reached out to Richardson, who checked his pride at the door of Bud Walton Arena and allowed himself and his team to once again bask in the glory of their championship season.
"I think some people use that 'healing' term too often, but in this case, I think it's an apropos word," Long told the media the night Arkansas honored Richardson and his team. "I think healing is a key term for what's happening here, and it's not just with the student-athletes and the coaches. It's the fan base as well."
"I had no reason to have an ill feeling whatsoever," Richardson said that night. "Whatever they wanted of me, I was willing to give, and the reason I'm so willing to give is because they're honoring my guys. These are my guys."
One of Richardson’s guys, the
guy, in fact, was Anderson, who had played for Richardson at Tulsa and joined his staff at Arkansas, where he stayed 17 years, until the bitter end. Anderson was more than just Richardson’s protégé. Their relationship was more like father and son. Sometimes, Anderson could even sound like Richardson, especially when discussing a subject he was passionate about, such as the boss’s famed “40 Minutes of Hell,”
full-court pressing style.
After Richardson was fired, Anderson was fortunate when the top job at UAB came open. Anderson had been snubbed for coaching jobs before—including twice at his alma mater Tulsa—perhaps because no one thought he could take Richardson’s system and make it work anywhere else. But make it work he did—in four seasons at UAB he was 89-41 with four straight postseason appearances, the last three in the NCAA Tournament. Richardson was in the stands in Columbus, Ohio in March 2004 when UAB bounced Kentucky, the old coach’s former SEC rival, from the NCAAs to claim a spot in the Sweet 16. Don’t think he didn’t love every minute of it.
UAB’s success was achieved on the strength of Richardson’s frenetic, gambling defense, recreated to perfection by Anderson, who eventually made the leap to a power conference school in 2006, taking over a Missouri program left in shambles from the Quin Snyder era.
Once again, Anderson proved he was up to the task—he was 111-56 in five seasons and took his last three teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas fans watched Anderson’s progress from a distance, all the while hoping he might one day return to Fayetteville and get 40 Minutes of Hell cranked up again. Anderson was too close to Richardson after the latter’s firing and had no chance to ascend to the top spot in 2002. And four years ago, after Richardson’s replacement, Stan Heath, was sent packing, Anderson decided he wanted to stay at Missouri.
Arkansas’ coaching search after Heath’s ouster turned out to be a disaster when former Creighton coach Dana Altman was hired and actually appeared at a press conference, only to get spooked and hightail it back to Nebraska the next day. John Pelphrey was eventually chosen to take over the program, but the former Billy Donovan assistant, despite an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season, could never come close to restoring the program to the levels Richardson and Anderson took it in the early ’90s.
Though others had taken over the once-proud program, Anderson had to know he was still loved in Arkansas. When Missouri played there in December 2007, the fans gave him a standing ovation.
Anderson has never said publicly, but perhaps he turned down the Arkansas job in 2006 because of how the school had treated his mentor. Thus, that night in March more than two years ago, when the great 1994 Razorback team was honored, may have paved the way for Anderson’s eventual return, because now it could be with Richardson’s blessing.
After two questionable hires in the post-Richardson era, Arkansas has finally knocked one out of the park. His record at UAB and Missouri is proof that, contrary to what Tulsa administrators may have thought years ago, Anderson has been able to take what he learned from the master, add his own tweaks, his own staff and players he recruited, and win.
Arkansas needs Mike Anderson. The state is basketball mad, but no one would have known that by looking at the empty seats in Bud Walton. Attendance has been slowly declining since Richardson’s heyday. A building that once held 20,000 screaming fans became a ghost town. You could practically see the tumbleweeds rolling across the court.
The Southeastern Conference needs Mike Anderson, too. More specifically, it needs Arkansas basketball to be good. No one who was in the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center on March 13, 1992 will ever forget what happened that day. Arkansas fans, eager to take in their first SEC Tournament, had been slowly drifting into the building, unnoticed by anyone who hadn’t witnessed the phenomenon before. And when their beloved Razorbacks walked into the building, the fans stood up, thousands strong, and began calling the Hogs.
“It was amazing,” SEC associate commissioner Mark Womack told this writer for the book, String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball
. “People just looked around the arena in awe. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”
Suddenly, the SEC Tournament had outgrown the BJCC and Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym. Suddenly, the Georgia Dome and New Orleans Superdome had to be called in to help. With 6,000 or more Arkansas fans teaming up with 15,000 from Kentucky, extra seats were needed. The SEC Tournament became a hot ticket, a happening.
Since Richardson’s ouster, tournament attendance has been on the decline, because so has Arkansas basketball. Kentucky fans still do their part and always will, but the league has missed those cardinal-clad Hog fans, the school’s crazy pep band, and that haunting chant:
“Woo Pig Sooie!”
Arkansas fans had better set aside some vacation time for March 8-11, 2012. The SEC Tournament is in New Orleans. And the Razorbacks will be rocking that town, now that Mike Anderson, the second-leading practitioner of 40 Minutes of Hell, is back on The Hill.