Courtesy: UA Athletic Communications
Third seasons have been somewhat of a barometer for Arkansas basketball coaches in the modern era Razorbacks basketball. The ones that have done well have generally gone on to success, while the ones that haven’t, well, haven’t.
When I write modern era, I mean since former Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles decided it would be profitable for the program to not just field a basketball team but to truly strive to be competitive in the sport. That moment came the instant he added the role of athletics director to his longtime assignment of being the Hogs head football coach in 1974.
Broyles was a man of vision. As a four-sport letterman at Georgia Tech, he not only wanted Arkansas to be strong in football, but also in all sports, but particularly basketball.
Why hoops? From his professional friendships with prominent basketball coaches Dean Smith and Bobby Knight, he knew the sport could turn a profit if handled correctly, even in the South where football was not just king but the end-all and be-all of college athletics.
Within five years college basketball, which had been dominated by UCLA the previous decade, would explode across the country with the rise in popularity of the NCAA Tournament and the competitiveness of the sport itself.
In conferring with the two coaching legends, Broyles likely felt out Knight and Smith to see if either would come to Arkansas and build a new program. There is some question as to whether Knight actually considered making the move. He did visit Fayetteville, but obviously, Knight and Smith had infinitely better jobs at Indiana and North Carolina respectively, where basketball had always been a priority.
What Broyles did gain from the conversations were two candidates in Bill Guthridge and Eddie Sutton. Guthridge was Smith’s top assistant at North Carolina who would ultimately take over from Smith when he retired in 1997. Sutton was a talented up-and-coming coach at Creighton, who had played and cut his coaching teeth under legendary coach Hank Iba at Oklahoma State.
There is a bit of confusion to whether Guthridge turned the job down or was ever actually offered the job, but ultimately Sutton was Arkansas’ and Broyles’ man to build the Razorback basketball program, and no doubt his experience at building programs at Creighton and Southern Idaho Junior College served him well. It also didn’t hurt that three of the best prep basketball players ever to lace up sneakers in the state of Arkansas were coming into their own in Conway, Fort Smith and Little Rock.
Sutton’s first two teams went 17-9 and 19-9, but by his third season, his Razorbacks were ready to make some waves. Armed with the legendary Triplets Marvin Delph of Conway, Ron Brewer of Fort Smith and Sidney Moncrief of Little Rock, Arkansas roared through the regular season and the Southwest Conference Tournament with a 26-1 record. Arkansas’ only loss came to Memphis State, 69-62, in a game at Little Rock.
By virtue of winning the SWC Tournament, the Hogs made the 32-team field of the NCAA Tournament, but ran into an experienced squad in Wake Forest. It appeared the Razorbacks would roll past the Demon Deacons in the first half as the Hogs raced to a double-digit lead. But Wake Forest pressed Arkansas into submission in the second half and won 88-80. As great as The Triplets were all three, who stood a tall 6-4 for guards in those days, played post in high school and were not yet the best of ball handlers.
Despite the earlier-than-expected exit from the tournament, Arkansas let the nation know it would be a program to be contended with under Sutton. Of course, the next season the Razorbacks made it to the Final Four, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion Kentucky. The Razorbacks also became the answer to a trivia question by beating Notre Dame in the NCAA’s final consolation game ever played.
That third season put Arkansas basketball on the map, and the Razorbacks remained a national player until Sutton opted to crawl to Lexington to take over Kentucky’s program following the 1984-85 season.
After being used by Villanova’s Rollie Massimino to garner a bigger raise in the same year his Wildcats pulled off an amazing upset of Georgetown in the NCAA title game, Broyles hired Nolan Richardson away from Tulsa following the 1985 season.
Richardson’s transition wasn’t exactly smooth as the fast breaks his teams eventually became famous for. His basketball philosophy was diametrically opposed to Sutton’s. Richardson’s Hogs struggled with the move to his system, much the way the football Razorbacks are struggling making the change from Bobby Petrino’s style to Bret Bielema’s this season.
Sutton and the graduation of mainstays Joe Kliene and Charles Balentine left the program in a bit of disarray. There was some talent, but the new coaching staff had to deal with drug and other disciplinary issues among the players that were kept mostly under wraps at the time. Richardson’s first team finished 12-14, but his second team improved to 19-14 with an NIT appearance during a season when Richardson lost his youngest child Yvonne to leukemia.
His third season remained one of transition; however, the Razorbacks played well enough to earn their first NCAA bid of the Richardson era. As so many teams do in their first trip to the Big Dance, the Hogs fell, 82-74, to Villanova in the first round.
However, Richardson and his staff signed Lee Mayberry, Todd Day, Oliver Miller and Lenzie Howell that spring, and that nucleus would ignite the Hog to heights the program had never achieved before including three Final Fours, a runner-up finish and the 1994 national championship.
After suffering through two brutal losing seasons, Stan Heath’s 2004-05 squad managed to post an 18-12 record, but the Razorbacks’ dismal, 65-46, loss to a mediocre Tennessee squad put Heath on notice. Though he would guide his next two teams to NCAA Tournament appearances, Heath was fired for not meeting expectations. Heath might have been let go at just the point when the program was going to turn the corner, but honestly it was surprising Arkansas didn’t pull the plug on him after the third season. Arkansas made the move fearing his next senior-laden squad would make it to the NCAA Tournament again, thus prolonging the inevitable.
The seemingly abrupt dismissal of Heath from the outside led to a hiring fiasco that saw big name after big name spurn the Hogs for better jobs. Dana Altman eventually accepted the job and was announced as coach, but two days later returned to Creighton after discovering academic issues that plagued the program up until this season. Arkansas ended up with a coach who was over his head from the beginning in John Pelphrey.
On the surface, Pelphrey appeared to be a decent “Plan D.” His basketball bloodlines were impeccable. He was one of Rick Pitino’s Unforgettables at Kentucky, and he had worked as a trusted assistant for Sutton at Oklahoma State and Billy Donovan at Florida before finding a measure of success as the head coach at South Alabama.
Pelphrey won with the senior-laden team he inherited from Heath in his first season. The 2007-08 Hogs finished 23-12 and won the school’s first NCAA Tournament game since 1999, defeating Indiana, 86-72, but his squads went 14-16 and 14-18 the next two seasons. The writing was on the wall and an 18-13 finish with a first-round exit from the SEC Tournament wasn’t enough to keep his job.
Now, Mike Anderson is embarking on his third season as the Hogs’ head coach. By all accounts, Anderson, who served 17 years as a Razorbacks assistant for Richardson, was a home-run hire by UA athletics director Jeff Long and the favorite choice for the job by former players and fans. No previous Razorbacks basketball coach had experienced the success Anderson had in stops at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri before taking the Arkansas job.
His first two squads finished 18-14 and 19-13, but Anderson has yet to fully implement at Arkansas the style that garnered him so much success at UAB and Mizzou.
Will this third season be the charm for the Hogs and Anderson?
The media, which covers the Southeastern Conference, isn’t counting on it, voting Arkansas eighth in the league last week during SEC Basketball Media Days at Birmingham, Ala.
But don’t count Anderson and the Hogs out this season. Yes, this squad lost most of its scoring with the departure of Marshawn Powell and B.J. Young and a good bit of potential with the transfer of Hunter Mickelson to Kansas.
The Razorbacks lack outside shooting and do not have a proven point guard, but the long, lean and explosive makeup of this squad does suit the type of defense Anderson endeavors to deploy. Reports are that there is better team chemistry among this group and that the players genuinely appear happy to be in the program. If that’s true, that hasn’t been the case since Richardson was dismissed in 2002.
This is not a make or break year for Anderson. Arkansas has to be patient with him as he digs the program he loves out of the hole two bad hires mired it in. The program, its fans and administrators have no other viable choice.
But, this could be a year in which the Razorbacks turn a corner. If that were the case — just like with Sutton and Richardson’s third seasons — it would be a great sign for future of Razorbacks basketball.