Former El Paso Bert Williams was in the middle of two of the most important cultural landmark events of the 1960s: the first major city in the South to officially integrate post-Reconstruction, and the first NCAA Championship basketball team to start five black players. About a week ago, this civil rights giant suffered a heart attack and was put into an El Paso area hospital’s cardiac arrest unit, according to my author friend Rus Bradburd. Bradburd is a former UTEP assistant basketball coach who wrote the biography of Razorback coaching legend Nolan Richardson, an El Paso native who alongside Bert Williams’ played a central role in paving the path to Texas Western’s 1966 NCAA title.
Their stories began to intertwine in the late 1950s, when Bert Williams was an El Paso alderman who helped Richardson get into his first college, Eastern Arizona, as a baseball player. After Richardson returned to El Paso, Williams got him to join his fast-pitch softball team, according to Bradburd’s Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson. After one game, Williams convinced Richardson to go with him to a popular local restaurant, the Oasis, despite the 19-year-old Richardson’s protest he wouldn’t be served there.
Williams insisted they enter anyway, given his connections in city government and Richardson’s status as the best athlete at Texas Western, now known as UTEP. Sure enough, the waitress refused to serve them the beer and Coke they ordered. Williams tried to force the issue but failed. He grabbed Richardson by the elbow and headed for the door, then warned the owners “I’ll be back.”
The incident shook Williams up. He immediately began drafting legislation to officially end segregation of El Paso hotels, theaters and restaurants. Williams told Bradburd: “The city was divided by railroad tracks, but the laws were enforced more arbitrarily for Mexican-Americans, and there were places were they could eat without trouble.” But attitudes were not so permissive for blacks. Williams rallied fellow aldermen to his side, revised the wording of the ordinance and got it to pass an initial vote.
“Both El Paso newspapers, the Times and the Herald-Post, published editorials condemning the progress,” Bradburd wrote in Forty Minutes of Hell. “The mayor vetoed the ordinance, but Williams had enough votes to override him. ‘It was just by coincidence that Nolan was there that night at the Oasis,’ says Williams, who was subsequently elected mayor himself. ‘After I witnessed the way he was treated, such a great kid and the star of the college, I knew I had to do something.’
Bert Williams’s heroic act made El Paso the first major city in the Old Confederacy to officially desegregate. Yet Williams’s courage—he ignored numerous threats and enormous pressure—was barely reported nationally and remains nearly forgotten even in El Paso*. [Texas Western coach] Don Haskins took notice though. The town’s new progressive status would have a profound effect on Texas Western’s ability to recruit black athletes,” including Arkansas native Jim Barnes**, who would become the 1964 NBA Draft’s No.1 overall pick.
Don Haskins, son of an Arkansan and Hank Iba protege, had arrived on the UTEP campus in 1961 and would go on to become Richardson’s mentor. Haskins leaned on Richardson, the team’s only black local native, to become the social host for black recruits—given he knew the lay of the land and where to go to avoid unofficial Jim Crow sites. Although Richardson graduated from UTEP in 1963, he would stay around the area and play a big role in helping Haskins’ recruit many of the players who formed the 1966 title team.
Although El Paso itself was now officially integrated, Richardson preferred taking recruits to far more racially tolerant Mexico.
“In Juarez, black men could eat thick steaks, dance with whomever they wanted, and stay out as late as they pleased,” Bradbury wrote. “Heroes from the 1966 team, such as Harry Flournoy, Orsten Artis, Bobby Joe Hill, and Nevil Shed all socialized in Mexico with Richardson and had a lively time. As such, Mexico as well as Bert Williams hold a place in the history of American college basketball; they were largely responsible for the recruitment and comfort of the historic Texas Western team.”
For Razorback fans, the question never gets old: Will basketball coach Mike Anderson lift the program to the same levels reached by his mentor Nolan Richardson? Tonight’s game, on the road against No. 20 Iowa State, should provide the best start of an answer yet. The greatest Arkansas teams of the early to mid 1990s regularly defeated ranked non-conference teams away from home but that hasn’t happened since 1997*. But, so far, all signs point to this being the best Arkansas team since that era.
The most dramatic evidence is below. Look at this steady improvement through Anderson’s first four seasons in Fayetteville:
The Razorbacks’ scalding shooting from the outside this season – 46% on three-pointers – has been a major reason for the boost in Effective FG % and True Shooting % (definitions below). That shooting helps space the floor and lead to a nation-leading assist rate. But the Razorbacks can’t rely on shooting at this clip in the kind of hostile environment the Cyclones’ Hilton Coliseum will present. So it’s important they get to the line and build an early lead.
Referee bias (conscious or not) toward the home college team makes it doubly difficult for visitors to play from behind or in a back-and-forth affair. “On the road especially you want to help keep the officiating out of it as much as you can,” Nolan Richardson said in a phone interview.
As always, defense fuels offense for a “40 Minutes of Hell”-style program. The below numbers show that while Arkansas is playing at a faster rate than ever in the Anderson era (78 possessions per 40 minutes vs. 72 in his first year), they are barely giving up more points. This is a credit to the lower rate at which they are fouling this year than the past two seasons (more experienced players) and fresher second-half legs generating turnovers at a higher clip (more depth).
It’s likely older Razorback stars like Bobby Portis, Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls will play well at Iowa State, where the Cyclones are 50-4 the last five years, Iowan-Arkansan sportswriter Nate Olson points out. They proved they could deliver on the road last season and have played in similarly intense arenas like Kentucky’s.
The pivotal issue is how Arkansas’ three first-year guards – Anton Beard, Jabril Durham and Nick Babb – play. “You’re as good as your guards take you,” Richardson said. So far, all three have played their supporting roles well but they have played in only one game away from Bud Walton Arena. While often what’s needed is a timely, clutch three in the vein of Scotty Thurman, this year the right play may simply be avoiding a turnover and making a timely entry pass to Portis. Last year, “we got discombobulated in the final few minutes of games,” Portis told USA Today, recalling seven losses in ten road games. “Are we going to finish teams off? That’s the biggest question.”
To me, North Little Rock native Anton Beard is the most important of the three young guards. Perhaps I’m simply biased, as I have followed him closely since he was a freshman in high school and seen many of his games at Parkview High and North Little Rock. He’s a champion, point blank, winning three state titles in four years. Point guards simply don’t start for Parkview coach Al Flanigan as freshmen. He’s the only one who has, and that season I watched him lead his team to a victory at Hall High School in the middle of its four-year run of consecutive state championships.
So far, Beard the collegian freshman has played the role of a scrappy, clutch shooter (46.2% on threes) off the bench who has a not-stellar 1.2 assists-to 1 turnover ratio. “Beard is moving in a pretty good direction,” Richardson said. “For the Razorbacks to be where they got to be, his game has got to improve.” Beard is fairly stocky, but Richardson says he (and all other current Razorback guards) don’t compare in the physical toughness department to Corey Beck, the point guard of his ’94 title team. “Beck was an animal.”
Perhaps the most apt comparison for Beard, at this point, is Arlyn Bowers who ended up pairing with Lee Mayberry as guards in Arkansas’ 1990 Final Four run. Two years before that, Bowers and Mayberry were just starting out as freshmen in Nolan Richardson’s fourth year as head coach.
Just six games into Year 4, it’s difficult to conduct a thorough comparison of Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson as Razorback head coaches. Obviously, the jury’s still out on Anderson. But the sample size is large enough now to at least take a look:
[Most conferences didn’t adopt the three-point shot until 1986-87. So 1985-86 Effective FG % stats reflect two-point field goal percentage only.]
Comparing these numbers with the last four seasons, we see Anderson’s teams have improved at more steady clip, year by year, in most categories. And from an overall statistical standpoint, Anderson’s Year 4 is significantly more impressive so far than Nolan’s.
But it’s important to note that Nolan’s Year 3 team finished 11-5 in conference vs. the 10-8 record Mike’s Year 3 team had. Nolan made the tournament in 1987-88 (losing in the first round to Villanova) whereas Mike hasn’t yet. In Year 4, Nolan got a massive injection of talent when Bowers and Mayberry arrived, along with fellow freshmen Todd Day and Oliver Miller. Their play paid immediate dividends, and the Hogs ultimately finished 13-3 in conference and 25-7 overall. They lost in the 1989 NCAA Tournament’s second round.
We’ll see if Mike’s Year 4 team keeps pace. A win tonight certainly certainly helps toward that end.
* November 29, 1997 was the last time Arkansas beat a ranked team on a neutral court in pre-conference play. Arkansas beat No. 17 Fresno State in Phoenix. And December 6, 1992 was the last time the program scored such a win on the road. The Hogs beat No. 9 Arizona in Tucson, AZ. Mike Bibby was 14 years old.
** Using data from six of Hogs’ first seven games in 1988-89 (Box score from Game No. 5 not available at HogStats.com).PS: Partial season data not available for Turnovers Forced Per Game, so this stat instead reflects per-game average from entire 1988-89 season.
Effective Field Goal % adds weight to three-point shots. Formula: (FGM + (0.5 x 3PM))/FGA
True Shooting % is similar, but also factors in free throws. Formula: Pts/(2*(FGA + (.44*FTA)))
As far as I know, this is the only version of the 4-page thing available online. Here’s the first half. Below’s the second:
[Below is text not entirely visible in the above and below sections]:
He coached five seasons at Tulsa, going 119-37 for a searing .763 winning percentage. But every great character in American literature faces adversity … faces heartbreak. And so it was for Nolan Richardson.
“It was Monday, right after the NCAA pairings were released (in 1985) and we thought our daughter Yvonne was sick with the flu,” he said. “We were getting ready to play UTEP in the NCAA Tournament…
In the late 1990s, Sidney Moncrief was nominated to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame four straight years. The Little Rock Hall High alumnus wasn’t voted in, though, and now stands as the one of the top two non-inducted guards in the game’s history. “I think in time that will happen,” Moncrief, a former Razorback All-American, told me on the phone today. “There’s a time frame for everything.” Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who’s being inducted today, told me Moncrief deserves to join him one day. I believe such a moment will happen sooner than later but that’s a story for a different time.
In the meantime, let’s focus on a Razorback who got in on his first try: Nolan Richardson. Few Division I coaches not named Roy Williams or Jim Boeheim have won 500 games in shorter time than he did, and nobody before or since has taken the University of Arkansas to the same heights. Tonight is Richardson’s night, and here’s Moncrief’s take on it:
“I was very excited for Nolan. The impact he’s had on the game of basketball and people-wise … It goes beyond basketball; It’s overall impact on people, more specifically when you’re a college coach, it’s all about the young men you are leading and the impact that you have on them. And he’s done that for years. I’m very proud he was [chosen to be] inducted.”
PS – Moncrief now lives in Dallas, where he runs his own business and has written five books. He’s currently working on a book called “Your Passport to Manhood,” the latest in a Passport-themed series. Last season, he worked as a Milwaukee Bucks analyst but he said it isn’t set if he will return to that position.
As you know, Hamburg native Scottie Pippen made the original Dream Team in 1992 and the 1996 Olympic team which grabbed Gold in Atlanta. Pippen made by far the greatest splash of any national team Arkansan, but he wasn’t the first to do so in an Olympics. That honor goes to Gordon Carpenter, native of Ash Flat in northeast Arkansas. And there are plenty others who have made national teams for other competitions. Below, I present the first (and I will bet you $25) only comprehensive list anybody has ever bothered to assemble on the topic:
JUNE 2015 UPDATE
Seven-feet-three Connor Vanover of Little Rock was just announced as – by my count – the first Arkansan to make a full-fledged junior U.S. national team in basketball. Congrats to the rising sophomore (and I do mean rising – he grew eight inches before entering eighth grade) . Hopefully, he will one day join some of the legends below on a U.S. senior national team.
1. Gordon Carpenter
Carpenter, a 6’6″, 200-pound big affectionately known as “Shorty,” was one of Arkansas’ first great basketball players. He led Ash Flat in northeast Arkansas to the 1939, upsetting much bigger teams in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, and then went on to star on the University of Arkansas’ first Final Four team in 1941. He led the Hogs to their first undefeated SWC record and ended his college career on the All-SWC team.
He then played for the Phillips 66 powerhouse basketball team, which was technically amateur and allowed him to retain eligibility for international play (the Olympics were then off-limits to paid professional athletes). The Phillips 66 team was on par with the best professional teams of the era, and Carpenter helped lead them to six straight national titles. He made the AAU All-America team each year from 1943-1947 and helped his team qualify to represent the U.S. in the 1948 Olympics by beating the University of Kentucky in a Madison Square Garden (weird, I know).
In those London Olympics, Carpenter had a turn as hero, according to this book. In a game against Argentina, the U.S. was trailing by six points with four minutes to go. Coach then inserted Carpenter and he scored 10 points in two minutes to help the Americans turn the tide and win. The final score of the game was 59-57, according to linguasport.com.
Two years later, Carpenter became head coach of the national team at the first basketball World Championship (now called the basketball World Cup) in 1950. The host nation, Argentina, took Gold and the U.S. took Silver.
A native of Tuckerman in Sharp Co., the 6’8″, 240-pound Barnes trumps Corliss Williamson, Andrew Lang (and so far Bobby Portis) as the most dominant collegian big man the state has produced. He was dirt poor as a child, often playing in socks because his family couldn’t afford shoes. Around 18 years of age, he moved to Oklahoma to finish high school. Barnes then dominated junior college competition for two years, and then did the same at Texas Western. He averaged 29 points and 19 rebounds his senior year, and a few months later became the first of two Arkansans ever drafted #1 overall in an NBA or NFL draft.
Before his pro career, though, Barnes traveled to Tokyo with other top collegians like Larry Brown and Bill Bradley. He was the fifth-leading scorer on the Gold-winning team. In the Finals, the U.S. squared off against the U.S.S.R. Barnes’ speed and agility, like center Bill Russell’s four years before, was a big reason the Soviets could not hang with the Americans.
That team’s head coach was Henry Iba, who happened to the mentor of Barnes’ college coach Don Haskins. Coincidentally, Haskins became the mentor to Nolan Richardson, one of Barnes’ Texas Western teammates. Richardson thought highly of Barnes’ character: “Jim was one of those men who was thrilled to play for their country. He took the opportunity seriously and played every possession hard.”
3, Sidney Moncrief
When it comes to Moncrief and Larry Bird sharing the same court, the headliner will forever be their legendary showdown in the Elite Eight of the 1979 NCAA Tournament. Before these two All-Americans clashed in front of a national audience, though, they had two summers before joined forces to topple other countries.
In 1977, the Little Rock native represented the U.S. in the World University Games (similar to what would be a U-21 competition today). Moncrief helped the U.S. tear through the event, in Bulgaria, with an 8-0 record. He led the Americans with 16 points in the finals against the U.S.S.R.
Undoubtedly, Sid shot the ball at a high clip that tourney. It’s amazing to think that as a freshman, the 6’4″ forward led the entire nation in field goal percentage, as this July 26, 1977 article points out:
NB: You’ll notice one of the assistant coaches was none other than Bill Vining of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. The national team program wanted coaches from all levels of college basketball, and Vining, being the small college level bad-ass he was, was selected to rep that segment.
Another one of Arkansas’ famed Triplets, Delph was a part of a wonky 1978 World Championship team made up of neither college or professional players. College players should have filled out its roster but by October – when the event occurred – they were already in preseason and prohibited from competing.
So the U.S. sent a squad made up mostly of Athletes In Action (a religious organization) ballers, and finished 6-4. This isn’t all that bad considering many of the communist national teams were made up of essentially professional players who had state-provided sinecure jobs.
Delph, a Conway native, averaged only 5.5. points in the six games he played. But hey, the U.S. was 5-1 in those games (losing only to the U.S.S.R.), so that’s something.
There aren’t many blank spots on former NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President, now New York Knicks head basketball coach. On every big stage the Little Rock native played, he left his mark.
Yet there’s the stage he never played on.
It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher was a part of in his 18-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.
The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.
Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.
It could have been much, much different.
What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.
As a Hog, Fisher likely would have helped stabilize the state’s flagship program during one of its most tumultuous periods and provided guard depth in a season in which it was sorely needed. In the 1995-96 season, for instance, the Hogs at times started four freshmen, including guards Pat Bradley and Kareem Reid. That team ended up making Arkansas’ fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen, but how much further could it have gone with a seasoned leader like Fisher?
All aboard the speculator, folks. Alternate history isn’t just for Civil War and JFK buffs any more…
FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE
Before delving into conjecture, let’s look at the facts: Fisher grew up in Arkansas basketball’s 40 Minutes of Hell heyday of the early 1990s and, like so many other young ballers in Little Rock, would have loved to join in on the fun. As a Parkview High School student, he looked up to the Hogs’ All-American point guard Lee Mayberry.
Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson knew about Fisher. He and his assistants had seen him play plenty of times in the summer circuit while scouting Arkansas Wings teammates like Corliss Williamson and Reggie Merritt. Fisher, never the most talented or most athletic player on his AAU or Parkview teams, didn’t yet shine like he would a few years down the line.
Instead, he was grinder. “He has one of the best work ethics I’d ever seen, at that age or even now,” Williamson said. “You know how a lot of us are as teenagers,” he added. “We want to hang out and do different things, whereas Derek was more focused. He was always trying to go out and lift weights or get up extra shots.”
Still, Richardson didn’t offer him a scholarship. He said the six-foot, 173-pound Fisher was then more of a shooter than pure point guard and wasn’t yet a player who could compete for playing time in a deep backcourt. In hindsight, though, Richardson said he considers his decision not to pursue Fisher as one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
Fisher, who grew up west of Boyle Park, landed near home at UALR. It wasn’t easy. The Trojans’ head coach Jim Platt doubted he was worth a scholarship, according to Fisher’s autobiography Character Driven. But a couple of assistant coaches (he had played for one on the Wings) convinced Platt otherwise.
Fisher earned the starting job a few games in, and as his stock rose over the next couple of seasons, so did that of the team he’d so wanted to join in Fayetteville. From 1992 to 1994, the Hogs made the leap from national contender to national champion. Fisher often visited Fayetteville to see his Razorback friends, hang out and go to dinner, recalls one such friend Reggie Merritt. In the summers, they played pickup together in Little Rock.
Fisher was familiar with Arkansas’ program and its players. That’s a main reason he briefly considered transferring there, said Merritt, recalling a conversation he had with Fisher in the spring of 1994.
Over the preceding seasons, Fisher and his teammates had gotten progressively more fed up with the attitude of Coach Platt. By January, they were ready to go public with their grievances, according to Character Driven. They chose the even-keeled Fisher as unofficial team spokesman: “It was really something that came from my teammates,” Fisher said in a telephone interview in early October. “It wasn’t something I assumed would be my responsibility.”
It became his charge when he and other Trojans boycotted a practice by taking a trip to the mall instead. An ad hoc summit was called. Assistant coach Dennis White visited him at his apartment along with UALR’s former athletic director, Mike Hamrick.
Teammates wanted Fisher to request a meeting with the entire staff, minus Platt, to air concerns — that in preceding months he’d become too negative, too sarcastic, crossing the line between barbed motivation and verbal abuse. They had Fisher voice an ultimatum: Either fire Platt, or we won’t play in an upcoming rivalry game against Arkansas State. “Once I was asked by my teammates to fill that role, at that point I embraced it 100 percent and really immediately took on that leadership and protector mentality of looking out for what’s best for my teammates, even more than for myself,” Fisher said.
LEADING THE TROJANS
At the meeting, Fisher explained the team’s decision to boycott the ASU game unless Platt was immediately replaced. Hamrick explained contractual terms made this impossible, but did promise to investigate the complaints and evaluate the situation at season’s end, Fisher wrote in Character Driven.
The players decided to keep playing but, predictably, UALR sputtered, dropping nine of its last 14 games. At season’s end, Platt was let go. New coach Wimp Sanderson had work to do. “When I got there, it was chaos, kind of,” Sanderson recalled. “It was just a bad situation.” All of his players were quitting the program and looking into transfer possibilities. Indeed, shortly before Sanderson was hired, standout freshmen Malik Dixon and Muntrelle Dobbins had entered Hamrick’s office and requested transfers.
They eventually stayed, as did Fisher. I asked Fisher if he considered transferring to Arkansas, as Merritt had recalled: “Once I was at UALR I don’t think I had any questions about wanting to be there but I do recall the uncertainty of the situation requiring me to look at what else may be possible,” Fisher said. “But I don’t think those thoughts ever went to a place where I formally thought I would transfer from the university.” Fisher is careful not to slam the door on the possibility of a consideration, though: “Reggie’s memory may be better than mine.”
Trojan fans have no problem recalling the accomplishments of Fisher’s final two seasons on campus: Sun Belt Player of the Year honors as a senior and a career that left him second on UALR’s all-time lists for scoring, assists and steals. Yet the question remains: What if he’d packed his bags for the Ozarks after that sophomore year?
IF HE’D BEEN A HOG
Almost certainly, Razorback Fisher wouldn’t have put up as big of numbers playing in the SEC as he did in the Sun Belt. He likely would have sat that first year — 1994-95 — per NCAA transfer rules. Still, he would have scrimmaged with Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Al Dillard, keeping his game plenty sharp.
And he would have absorbed lessons from those veterans that would have proved immensely valuable in the following two seasons.
The 1995-96 team started off with so much promise, yet ended up with so many question marks. Yes, the ‘96 Hogs lost nine scholarship players from the year before, but were also prepared to welcome in the nation’s top recruiting class — including junior college players such as forward Sunday Adebayo, center Kareem Poole, point guard Marcus Saxon and shooting guard Jesse Pate. Saxon and Pate had formed the nation’s best JUCO backcourt at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.
Academic issues prevented Saxon and Poole, however, from ever making it to campus. The team’s depth was further depleted when freshman guard Marlon Towns had to sit out the first couple months as an ACT score eligibility issue was cleared up. This meant almost the entire bulk of the point guard duties fell on the shoulders of 5-10, 165-pound Kareem Reid. “He’s got to be the man right off the bat,” Richardson told theArkansas Democrat-Gazette in October 1995.
Fisher, who’d put on significant muscle since Parkview, would have alleviated Reid’s burden while providing more size against opposing guards. Fisher’s role would have increased even more when the team’s leading scorer, Jesse Pate, was ruled ineligible to play in February 1996 because the NCAA said his transfer grades had not been certified properly.
Despite all the flux (Adebayo was also ruled ineligible), the team managed to finish 20-13 while leading the SEC in rebounds, three-pointers and assists. But Fisher would have helped do more than anchor the backcourt; he also would have provided much needed maturity, especially for the young guards. In the summer of 1996, Reid was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in a dormitory room along with Marlon Towns. “I think [Fisher’s] leadership would have benefited our team,” said shooting guard Pat Bradley, “We were immature, but talented.”
The actual ‘95-‘96 team lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Massachusetts 79-63. Center Marcus Camby was UMass’ star, but the team’s engine belonged to its Puerto Rican backcourt of Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla. Against UMass, Reid and Bradley had to log 37 minutes each. Fisher would have allowed them to stay much more fresh while likely chipping in 13-17 points of his own. It would have been a nailbiter, but it’s possible that these alternate history Hogs would have beaten UMass, then taken down an Allen Iverson-led Georgetown in the next round. They likely still would have lost to eventual national champions Kentucky in the Final Four, but making it that far would have been plenty impressive. Granted, Arkansas fans at the time wanted more, but in the last 16 years they have learned how rare Final Four berths are.
For Fisher’s part, he doesn’t dwell on all these what-ifs. He insists he’s a Trojan, through and through. I asked him during that pivotal spring of 1994 if he’d ever imagined how he would do playing with the likes of Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Kareem Reid. “Not really,” he said.
Instead, he was out to prove himself from Little Rock. “Had I had the opportunity to play at the SEC level or ‘big college’ level, I could have been as or more impactful as those guys were. And I had a lot of respect for what those guys accomplished in their years at Fayetteville — no question about it.”
But he was also driven to carve out a career that would also be worthy of much respect, “to work as hard as [he] possibly could to put UALR on the map.”
The above is an update of an article that originally ran in 2012 in Sync magazine
Is it in the least surprising that a city known for its wind should have so many interesting people floating in and out of it, seemingly carried aloft by the currents of fate?
When I heard Nolan Richardson was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this August, one of my first thoughts drifted northward to that great city on a lake. Ten years ago, Richardson’s reputation in Arkansas was marred after an ugly firing from, and lawsuit of, the university with whom he’ll always be linked. The idea of enshrining Richardson seemed far-fetched in that period.
In the last five years, though, we’ve seen a whole-scale rehabilitation of Richardson’s image in the state and nationwide. Much of this, of course, has to do with the passage of time. It also helps Richardson that none of his successors have achieved anything near the same level of success he did in Fayetteville. An ESPN documentary, released in 2012, also helped Richardson by essentially canonizing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style among the great strategies in basketball history.
But I think one of the most important reasons for Richardson’s resurgence into the public’s goodwill has been his biography, written by Chicagoan Rus Bradburd. Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” published in 2010, is a must-read for all fans of college basketball and students of the race relations in the South. It goes back to Richardson’s west Texas background to explain the complicated roots of his anger, and it lays bare the knarled relationship between he and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. It shows, in a way no mere article or documentary could, the extent to which the passion that led to the 1994 championship and the frustration that led to the 2002 meltdown were two sides of the coin.
I’ve talked to Bradburd in person and over the phone a few times about Richardson, Arkansas sports, the craft of writing and more. He’s a fascinating person in his own right, a creative writing professor who’s also spent a year coaching professional basketball in Ireland while learning how to play the fiddle. Oh, and this: He was also a Division I assistant coach who “discovered” a largely unknown point guard named Tim Hardaway in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.
In the early 1980s, while a teenage Hardaway walked to courts to hone his craft, there would have been at some point a large, 6-7 heavyset older man driving a cab by those same courts. Perhaps, they knew of each other. Likely they didn’t. The man’s name was Nat Clifton. He is one of the most significant figures in NBA history, a man who will posthumously be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Richardson.
Modern society promotes instant results, and the impression they are always possible no matter the field. This mirage causes much stress in the world of college coaches, where in order for most new hires to build winning programs, a number of foundational changes must first be made – from making sure the players attend class and do their own tests, to recruiting guys who fit a particular style of play, to convincing a super-talented player it’s worth staying for a sophomore or junior season before bolting to the NBA.
Waiting for all these changes can especially be tough on fans of a program that has already been to the promised land. Especially when the coach who led the program there has an heir apparent who takes over for him. Everybody hopes – against reason – the successor will equal or surpass the mentor.
For the sake of perspective in these situations, it’s good to compare actual season-by-season results. In Part 1, we looked at how Mike Anderson’s first two seasons at Arkansas stacked up against his mentor Nolan Richardson’s first two seasons there. So far, Anderson comes out ahead.
How does this combo compare to other “legend-successor” duos around the nation? I’m especially interested in programs which, like Arkansas, have only won one or two titles. I’ve thrown the UCLAs, Kentuckys and Dukes out because those programs are quite frankly at another level in terms of branding and ability to recruit.
Below are the programs I consider most similar to Arkansas in terms of prestige. We’ll start with a legend-successor duo involving Eddie Sutton, the coach who preceded Nolan Richardson at Arkansas. If Sutton hadn’t left Arkansas for Kentucky in 1985, Richardson and Anderson likely never coach the Razorbacks. We’ll also see that Anderson’s first two seasons stack up well against Tom Izzo’s head coaching start at Michigan State.
Izzo is the only coaching disciple in the list who has actually outperformed his mentor.
Hank Iba (1934-1970)
Eddie Sutton (player 1955-57; assistant 1957-58; head coach 1990-2006)
1990-91: 24-8, 10-4; Lost in NCAA tourney 3rd round
1992-93: 28-8 (overall season record), 8-6 (conference record)
SRS: 21.52; Lost in NCAA tourney 3rd round
* Simple Rating System – a rating from sports-reference.com that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The higher the number, the better the team.
Yes, this season, guard B.J. Young at times resembled an over-caffeinated rickshaw driver careening into dense traffic without the slightest intention of bringing anyone aboard. Sure, last offseason the accuracy of Mardracus Wade’s three-point shot apparently learned how to ski downhill. And yes, Marshawn Powell at times mightily struggled with free throw shooting. Especially in the 7-15 clunker he threw up two weeks ago in a 72-75 loss to Vanderbilt.
It was the Hogs’ fifth consecutive opening game game loss in the SEC Tournament, marking the fifth consecutive year Arkansas missed out on the NCAA Tournament and the 16th straight season without an NIT Tournament berth.
It no longer matters how Arkansas entered this pit of gloom. All fans want to know is how quickly the program will get out of it. And, more importantly, how quickly the program will get back to the top.
Three years from now, fans won’t get hung up on any one player’s lack of court vision or another player’s season of erratic shooting. The fans won’t even care if the Hogs win a few more games in the SEC Tournament and annually start playing in a round or two of an NCAA Tournament.
They will be looking at the big picture.
In 17 years as an assistant under Nolan Richardson, Mike Anderson learned how to build programs that could consistently beat the nation’s best teams – on any court. He learned what kind of talent and basketball IQ is necessary to build a program that can make three Final Fours, what kind of cold-blooded killer instinct it takes to win a title.
How well Anderson applies these lessons and how close he gets to achieving the benchmarks of success that Richardson set will ultimately determine Anderson’s legacy. Will he always be seen as Richardson’s chief lieutenant/heir apparent, or will he be seen as a giant in his own right?
This morning, I had an enjoyable interview with Grant Hall and Vernon Tarver, co-hosts of Press Row on KREB 1190 FM in Northwest Arkansas.
One of our topics was how the coaching turnover at Arkansas since Nolan Richardson’s firing in 2002 had contributed to the Hogs being the worst team on the road in the last decade despite being good enough to be the fourth-best home team. [I wrote about this subject in detail after talking to Pat Bradley for this New York Times article].
From 2002 through 2011, Arkansas had four full-time head coaches, as well as an interim head coach when Mike Anderson took over for Richardson at the end of 2002. The Hogs have had seven winning seasons since then.
Grant Hall wondered if other Division I programs had more coaching turnover than the Hogs, which led me to research the issue.
Thanks to sports-reference.com, I found out that there at least 10 programs with coaching carousel that have recently spun faster than Arkansas’:
Pepperdine – Five coaches 2005-2011 [One of these coaches, Eric Bridgeland, stepped into the the role midway through the 2007-08 season on an interim basis; no winning seasons since 2004-05].
Utah – Five coaches 2004-11 [One of these coaches, Kerry Rupp, stepped into the the role during the 2003-04 season on an interim basis; three winning seasons since 2003-04].
Southeast Missouri State – Four full-time coaches 2006-2009 [Former Arkansas assistant Scott Edgar and Little Rock native Dickey Nutt have been part of this dizzying carousel; one winning season since 2005-06]
Wyoming – Four coaches 2007-11 [One head coach, Fred Langley, served on an interim basis in 2010-11]
Texas Tech – Four coaches 2008-12 [Pat Knight took over for his father, Bobby, during the 2007-08 season; one winning season since 2007-08]
Georgia State – Four coaches 2002-2011 [Michael Perry took over for Lefty Driesell mid-season 2002-03; two winning seasons since 2002-2003]
Texas A&M – Four coaches 2004-2011, including current Arkansas assistant Melvin Watkins [had seven winning seasons since 2003-04]