Reminiscing about Razorbacks and Final Fours

Photo: SEC Sports/ESPN

If our lives were normal.

I’m not sure how many times that thought has crossed my mind over the last three weeks, three weeks that in many ways have moved swiftly, but in others have dragged like months.

Of course things aren’t normal, or at least the way we like to think of normal. COVID-19 came in like a roaring lion in the second week of March, and as we embark on the oddest April of any or our lifetimes, the virus doesn’t resemble anything like a lamb.

But again, if our lives were normal, college sports fans would be anticipating NCAA basketball’s Final Four today. It was scheduled to be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday with the tournament title game scheduled for Monday night.

I’m not exactly sure what I will be doing Saturday during the five or six hours that would have been dedicated to watching hoops coverage.

Maybe, I’ll be reading during a portion of that time period, most likely cooking something on the grill, and probably watching a Western on TV with my dad. Doing quite a bit of that lately.

Maybe I’ll spend some time reminiscing with him about Razorback sports. We’ve always done that, even when I was a child and had very little to add to the conversation. Over the last few weeks, we’ve done a lot of it to just fill the time that we would have spent actually watching the baseball and basketball Razorbacks do their thing.

My first recollection of hearing the words Final Four was in 1978 when Eddie Sutton guided the Razorbacks to the NCAA national semifinals for the first time since 1945. The Hogs also played in the 1941 Final Four, but from what I’ve read, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was the more prestigious of the two events at the time.

The late 1970s is when college basketball really took off in popularity, and it skyrocketed in the 1980s, coinciding with ESPN’s coverage of early tournament rounds before CBS locked down the rights for all of March Madness.

Sutton, off course, along with The Triplets — Sidney Moncrief, Marvin Delph, and Ron Brewer — made college basketball important in the state, and the 1978 team winning the Southwest Conference Championship was the capper. Interest was growing and was only going to get bigger.

I have distinct memories of watching Arkansas’ 64-59 loss to Kentucky in the semifinals at St. Louis with my brother and my dad. My brother was in his first year of dental school after attending the University of Arkansas and serving as a student trainer under Dean Weber, who is beloved by a host of former Hogs and now works with the Razorback Foundation.

I remember my brother being angry and then despondent after the loss. It’s truly the only time I ever remember him being that way, although Razorback football of late has stressed the limits of his patience like it has will all of us Razorback fans.

I actually remember more about Arkansas (32-4) playing in the consolation game — the final one in NCAA history — the following Monday. I listened to it on the radio by myself after school. The Hogs won a hotly contested game with Notre Dame, 71-69, thanks to Brewer’s buzzer beater from the top of the key. Delph led the Razorbacks with 21 points and Brewer had 20 in their final games in the Cardinal and White.

The game was broadcast on a tape-delay basis on TV in the Memphis area that night, and I stayed up past midnight to watch with my dad. Even though the Hogs finished third, it felt like a real accomplishment, especially beating Notre Dame.

At the time we had no clue that weekend would be the apex of Sutton’s 11-year run as the Hogs’ basketball coach. The Razorbacks would make the NCAA Tournament each of his last seven seasons for a nine-year consecutive streak, but the Hogs would never make it past the Elite Eight again under Sutton.

The Razorbacks would not return to the Final Four until 1990 in Denver when Nolan Richardson’s fifth, sophomore-dominated squad knocked on the door of the national title but were again denied in the semifinals, this time by Duke, 97-83.

That squad featured Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller as sophomores, but senior Lenzie Howell was the glue for that team. Stocky, but quick Arlyn “Truck” Bowers was a solid point guard with Ron Huery playing well off the bench. The Hogs (30-5) won the SWC regular season and tournament titles and famously beat Texas three times that year.

I’m not sure if the stage was too big for the Hogs, if they had trouble with the altitude or what, but Duke with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Phil Henderson were too much for them that day. The Hogs fell behind early by double digits, but fought back to take a 69-62 lead with 10 minutes to play in the second half, but then the Hogs just faded. The Blue Devils ran away with the game in final minutes.

Duke may have worn themselves out, beating the Razorbacks that day because they were on the ugly end of one of the worst beatings in NCAA championship play the following Monday. UNLV, featuring Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, punked them, 103-73, for the national title. Of course, Duke got its revenge the next year, knocking off the undefeated Runnin’ Rebels in the semifinals before beating Kansas for the title.

With Day, Mayberry, Miller having two seasons left, my thought was that the Hogs would quickly return to the Final Four, but the Hogs didn’t make it back to the basketball Promise Land until 1994 when they won it all.

I’d argue that Arkansas’ 1990-91 team that lost to Kansas, 93-81, in the Regional Semifinals at Charlotte, N.C. was Richardson’s most talented team, but there is no doubt that his 1993-94 squad was his best and most cohesive team. They played to win every night out.

That squad just felt like a team of destiny from the start of the season, which featured an early 120-68 blitzing of Missouri in newly opened Bud Walton Arena. That Tiger squad would go undefeated in the Big 8 and advance to the Elite Eight. That season also included standout Razorback victories over Memphis, 96-78, at the Pyramid and Kentucky, 90-82, at Rupp Arena.

When the Razorbacks erased Kentucky’s double-digit lead at Rupp, I’d seen enough to believe that this Hog squad, featuring Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Dwight Stewart, Clint McDaniel, Al Dillard, Roger Crawford, Darnell Robinson, Lee Wilson, and Elmer Martin was something special. They proved it night in and night out with a toughness, grit and consistency that was marvelous to watch.

The Razorbacks handled Arizona fairly easily in the national semifinals, winning 91-82. The game didn’t really feel that close. Duke beat Florida earlier to set up a second Final Four showdown between Richardson- and Mike Krzyzewski-coached teams.

What really stands out to me about that weekend in Charlotte was watching ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” Sunday morning before going to the press conferences and practices that afternoon at the arena.

Mitch Albom, who first made his bones covering Michigan’s Fab Five for the “Detroit Free Press,” made a smart-alec comment about the smartest team would win, alluding to Duke and its fine academic reputation.

Later that afternoon when asked about the comment, Thurman said he agreed that the smartest team would win, but he wasn’t referring to the Blue Devils.

Thurman, of course, nailed the 3-pointer that broke a 70-70 tie and was the impetus for Arkansas 76-72 victory over Duke. Beck and McDaniel were defensive warriors in that game. Dwight Stewart’s outside range created a mismatch that actually opened Thurman up for his shot, when Stewart dished it to him after fumbling with the ball at the top of the key. Of course, Williamson was strong in the paint and in transition.

It was a grand accomplishment for that team, Richardson, the UA, and all Razorback fans. It stands for me as a watershed moment as a reporter, observer, and as a Razorback fan.

Seeing Richardson become the first and still only coach to win junior college, NIT and NCAA national titles was heartening.

The bulk of that team returned in 1994-95 with a huge bull’s eye on their back. It wasn’t easy, but the the Hogs (32-7) made it all the way back to the Final Four in the Kingdome at Seattle as marked men.

The Razorbacks looked tough in the semis, beating North Carolina, 75-68, with Williamson and Thurman outplaying Tar Heels stars Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. Anytime a team beat North Carolina in that day and age, it was an accomplishment.

Awaiting the Hogs in the championship game was a big and athletic UCLA squad that had whipped Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys, 74-61, in the semis.

For whatever reason, Arkansas did not play their best in the 1995 championship game. That’s not to take anything away from UCLA, who played fantastic and deployed an excellent game plan in which coach Jim Harrick had his Bruins doubling and tripling Williamson in the post.

Williamson had trouble scoring over 7-foot center George Zidek, and the purposefully late double teams by Ed and Charles O’Bannon kept him from easily passing out of the double team. Williamson went 3 of 16 from the field.

Compounding matters, Thurman had an off night, too. The sharpshooter hit only 2 of 9 from the field. It was a very rare occasion when Williamson and Thurman were off on the same night, and UCLA made the most of it, taking the title with an 89-78 victory.

The morning of the title game, the NCAA named Richardson its Coach of the Year, and at the breakfast event where he was honored, a very touching video was shown detailing his career. It included information about his early struggles at Arkansas and the passing of his 15-year-old daughter Yvonne from Leukemia.

Both Richardson and former Arkansas assistant and head coach Mike Anderson, who is more like a son to Richardson than a former player and assistant, have mentioned that Richardson was not his normal game-day self after watching the video. They have said the players may have picked up on that and not played as well as they could have.

At this point who really knows? UCLA was a fine team and they were surging at that point in the season, while the Razorbacks seemed to struggle to win throughout the tournament, except against North Carolina.

Remember, Syracuse appeared to have beaten the Hogs in the second round of the tournament, and would have if Lawrence Moten hadn’t called a time out when the Orangemen didn’t have one. Arkansas escapade that game in Austin, 96-94.

The locker room after the championship loss was certainly sad, but the overriding feeling was one of relief that the season was over. While neither had made an official statement at that point, it seemed pretty clear Williamson and Thurman would bypass their senior seasons. Fans certainly debated whether either or both should, but it wasn’t really a surprise when they announced their decisions.

After going to back-to-back Final Fours, I assumed the Razorbacks would return again fairly soon, but as we know, things didn’t happen that way.

The Hogs had the No. 1 signing class in the nation that spring and seemed set to have continued success under Richardson. Richardson had solid teams after the 1995 season, but not great ones.

We know half that class was gutted by an NCAA probe that found that the team tutor had done classwork for players, and that staff members had broken NCAA recruiting rules for making too many calls. There were issues with several JUCO recruits before the season and in the middle.

The NCAA ruled Sunday Adebayo and Jesse Pate ineligible at Arkansas in the middle of the 1996 season. That ruling was overturned for Adebayo. He regained a fifth year of eligibility and returned to play a season at Arkansas after transferring and playing a year at Memphis because of the NCAA’s mistake.

Arkansas’ recruiting never really recovered during Richardson’s tenure, which ended with acrimony in 2002 when he would up suit the UA for discrimination.

Neither Stan Heath nor John Pelphrey came close to matching Richardson’s success in their coaching stints, and while Anderson dug the program out of a deep hole, in seven years, the Razorbacks made the NCAA Tournament three times.

Twenty-six years after capturing the national title and 25 years after being the runner-up in 1995, the Razorbacks haven’t sniffed the Final Four since. Arkansas hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 1996.

Had the coronavirus not halted this season during the conference tournaments, it’s doubtful the Razorbacks would have made the NCAA field. However, Eric Musselman’s energy and enthusiasm has restored the Razorback spirit, and fans are hoping for better days ahead.

It sure would be fun to have a true rooting interest in the Final Four once again.