Chasing Ghosts – Can Arkansas turn page on Nolan Richardson era?

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Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series continues with the Arkansas Razorbacks, who were a second-weekend perennial in the 1990s but have since fallen from the SEC’s top tier.

History | Roundtable: Why Arkansas fell from grace
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John’s | North Carolina


Arkansas Razorbacks

Icon: Nolan Richardson

Seasons coached: 1985-2002
Key accomplishments: 390-170 (.696) record, 13 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Fours (1990, 1994, 1995), 1 NCAA championship (1994)

“I realize here the expectations are really high. It’s Final Four, it’s Sweet 16s, and it’s SEC championships on a regular basis. … I really feel like [the 2007-08 team] was poised to do that.” — Stan Heath, following his 2007 firing.

“We created a monster, and you’ve got to feed it. If you run out of food, the monster comes to eat you, because he’s hungry. That’s what’s happened to Mike [Anderson]. The bar is set so high.” — Nolan Richardson, to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in March.

“[When] you start diving into the rich tradition, you can win big here in basketball, there’s no question about it.” — Eric Musselman, at his introductory press conference in April.


Ranking the Richardson chasers

3. John Pelphrey (2007-11), 69-59 (.539), 1 NCAA tournament — Pelphrey, who was best known as a key player on some of Rick Pitino’s top teams at Kentucky, arrived in Fayetteville off of five successful seasons at South Alabama. Pelphrey was set up for success — he inherited a team that would reach the NCAA round of 32 behind future NBA players Patrick Beverley and Sonny Weems in his first year — but never got the program back to the tournament thereafter and was fired after an 18-13 season in 2010-11. Declining attendance at Bud Walton Arena and a public campaign led by boosters who called for Pelphrey’s ouster helped turn up the heat on his tenure. After his firing, Pelphrey split eight seasons as an assistant between Florida (2011-15) and Alabama (2016-19) before being named Tennessee Tech’s head coach on April 6.

2. Stan Heath (2002-07), 82-71 (.536), 2 NCAA tournaments — Heath parlayed Kent State’s Cinderella run to the 2002 Elite Eight into the head-coaching job at Arkansas, but the former Tom Izzo assistant struggled out of the gate in Fayetteville and could never quite restore the Razorbacks’ past glory. He missed the NCAA tournament in each of his first three seasons, winning a total of 39 games, before guiding the program back to the NCAA tournament in Years 4 and 5 (which resulted in first-round losses to Bucknell and USC, respectively). The lack of postseason success and flagging ticket sales were reported factors in then-AD Frank Broyles’ decision to fire Heath after the 2006-07 season. Heath was subsequently named head coach at South Florida, where he went 97-129 (.429) with one NCAA tournament in seven seasons as the Bulls struggled to transition to the rugged Big East. Heath currently coaches the Lakeland Magic of the NBA G League.

1. Mike Anderson (2011-19), 169-102 (.624), 3 NCAA tournaments — Anderson, who was fresh off 77 wins in his previous three seasons at Missouri, offered Razorbacks fans a direct link back to the Nolan Richardson era. Anderson had played under Richardson at Tulsa, and had sat beside him on the bench for Richardson’s entire tenure at Arkansas. (Anderson also served as interim head coach for the final two games of the 2001-02 season, after Richardson’s controversial firing.) And though the Razorbacks were always a tough out under Anderson, they never quite got back into the national conversation or challenged the SEC power structure under his stewardship. Arkansas won just two NCAA tournament games in Anderson’s eight seasons, and a second-round exit in the 2019 NIT was the final straw leading to Anderson’s dismissal on March 26. Three weeks after being fired at Arkansas, Anderson was named head coach at St. John’s, succeeding Chris Mullin.

N/A. Eric Musselman (First season) — Musselman, who went 110-34 (.764) in four seasons at Nevada, was named head coach at Arkansas on April 7.


Roundtable: Why Arkansas fell from grace

If you narrow your focus to the period between 1989 and 1995, Arkansas was as important as any program in college basketball. Nolan Richardson’s teams won 22 NCAA tournament games during that stretch, including three separate runs to the Final Four, a national title, and Arkansas was never worse than a 5-seed. In your estimation, what was the biggest factor that caused the Razorbacks to fall off that pace?

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Arkansas won more games than any school in the country during that period, and that might have just been unsustainable in itself. Regression was inevitable. And the Razorbacks were still a winning program in the years after that run, going to the NCAA tournament four straight seasons prior to the 2001-02 campaign.

But the final straw of the Richardson era was the drama of his final season in charge. In the midst of a down season, Richardson spoke at two news conferences a couple days apart on Feb. 23, 2002, and Feb. 25, 2002. In the first, he said that if the school can “go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow.” Two days later, he referenced slave ships and said he expected “to be treated a little bit different. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on.”

The relationship between Richardson and athletic director Frank Broyles had reached a point where it was simply untenable. The most successful coach in program history was gone — and so was Arkansas’ stretch as a national program.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I spent a few days with Richardson on his ranch in Fayetteville a few years ago and I asked him this question. He admitted he was a stubborn character in those days and his athletic director, the legendary Broyles, was too. The animosity between them had been brewing for years. Long before Richardson’s final news conference, Broyles told his first-year coach to find Bob Knight so he could “teach you some damn defense.” Richardson demanded better pay. He voiced concerns about academic standards.

You had a mythical athletic director who’d changed Arkansas athletics versus a pioneering black coach who, to this day, says that if you see him in a fight with a bear, “you’d better help the bear.” Arkansas never had enough room for both oversized personalities. The behind-the-scenes drama contributed to Arkansas’ short-lived stint on top of the college basketball world.

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Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: The beginning of the end for elite-level basketball at Arkansas came in 1991, when the Razorbacks became the first defection from the old Southwest Conference, joining South Carolina as new members of an expanded SEC. The Hogs’ first six Sweet 16 teams played in the Southwest Conference, where the famed “Triplets” — Marvin Delph, Ron Brewer and Sidney Moncrief — toiled, followed by the next generation (Lee Mayberry, Todd Day and Oliver Miller) in their last three SWC seasons. The Corliss Williamson-Scotty Thurman teams kept things at a high level for a few more years in the SEC, but the Razorbacks haven’t seen the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in more than two decades since.


Arkansas has now fired four coaches since 2002, including Richardson himself, who had very persuasive cases to keep their jobs. If given more time, which of those four would you have had the most confidence in turning things around?

Medcalf: A lot of folks don’t know that Richardson lost his 15-year-old daughter to leukemia just as Arkansas was making its rise. Took him a long time to work through that. And I think it contributed to some of the emotions the world saw toward the end of his run. He still can’t walk through town without folks surrounding him. I went to a barbecue joint with him and there was a line of folks waiting to shake his hand and the owners wouldn’t let him pay for anything.

Richardson, without the Broyles drama, could have been a 30-year veteran of that program. They hired Mike Anderson, his former assistant, because of his connection to Richardson. Richardson is a different person these days. I think he had another run in him if things would have worked out.

Lunardi: Consider me a Mike Anderson fan. Anderson was 169-101 (.626) in eight seasons and 132-74 (.641) in the last six after tidying up the John Pelphrey years. Those last six seasons included three NCAA bids and two NCAA tournament victories. Not elite, but not bad, and probably indicative of the Razorbacks’ current place in college basketball’s pecking order. If just one of those NCAA trips had included a second-weekend appearance — sometimes a matter of luck more than anything — we might be writing about another school in this space.

Borzello: I guess I would go with Richardson, although I don’t have a ton of confidence any of the four would turn things around. Things went off the rails for Richardson in his final season, but he had gone to the NCAA tournament in the previous four seasons. Had the animosity between Richardson and the school not grown during the 2001-02 season, it’s reasonable to think Richardson could have gotten the Razorbacks back to the tourney consistently.

That scenario seems more likely than the other options. Stan Heath did go to the NCAA tournament in his final two seasons in Fayetteville, so he could have kept it going — but Heath also didn’t do much at his next stop. John Pelphrey went to one NCAA tournament in four seasons. Mike Anderson had Arkansas as a middle-of-the-pack SEC team throughout his tenure and I’m not sure they were ever going to get over that hump on a consistent basis.


Is there a formula that turns Arkansas back into a national program, or does a strengthened SEC make it an impossible mission?

Medcalf: I think Malik Monk’s decision to leave the state highlighted the ongoing challenge with the program. Fans went crazy because they knew they wouldn’t get many chances to sign a local star. Monk’s brother had played football at Arkansas. But he picked Kentucky, in part because he wasn’t a member of the generation that had grown up with “40 Minutes of Hell.”

That’s the problem with Arkansas and other middle-of-the-pack teams in Power 5 leagues. It’s hard to hold on to your four- and five-star talents. That means you don’t have a consistent regional pipeline that can help you win big. So Mike Anderson’s results might not look so bad in three or four years. In some ways, it kinda feels like Arkansas, like so many other programs chasing ghosts, is stuck.

Borzello: I don’t think Arkansas is going to be a consistent second-weekend NCAA tournament team in the near future. First of all, the peak era of Arkansas basketball wasn’t exactly decades of success followed by a steep drop-off in the last several years. Eddie Sutton had success and then Nolan Richardson took it to a new level for a seven-year stretch 25-30 years ago. Since then, it’s been a middle-of-the-pack SEC program, and that’s probably what it is on paper.

I do think Arkansas can be a consistent NCAA tournament team, however. There’s enough talent inside the state — and the majority of in-state prospects from Arkansas want to stay home for college. Anderson, despite his struggles, did go to the NCAA tournament three of his last five seasons. It’s not as if Arkansas basketball is at the bottom of the SEC. And I think people underrate the Arkansas job as a whole. The fan base is passionate and the Razorbacks fill Bud Walton Arena every game. It should be a team we see dancing more often than not.

Lunardi: There is no formula, just reality. Any ranking of SEC basketball programs would start at No. 2 — after Kentucky — and the second tier probably begins and ends with Florida. After those two, historically, there are no perennial NCAA tournament teams in the bunch. Can Arkansas join Florida at the top of the non-UK tier? Yes, but we could say the same thing about at least a half-dozen other SEC schools.


Eric Musselman joins a league where he’ll face six coaches with Final Four experience (John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Frank Martin, Ben Howland, Rick Barnes, Tom Crean), and that’s before you get to guys like Buzz Williams and Will Wade who also have a national profile. Why should Arkansas fans believe Musselman can compete with that group, and what’s one reason you’re worried for him?

Borzello: Musselman seems to be following the same formula he did at Nevada, where he turned the Wolf Pack around very quickly. He took over a program that hadn’t been to the tournament in eight years, and won 110 games in four seasons, going to three NCAA tournaments and making a Sweet 16 appearance. He did it mostly with transfers — and he’s already doing the same thing in Fayetteville. Arkansas has landed four transfers this spring, and the Razorbacks are squarely in the mix for Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. Musselman is one of the best in college basketball at winning quickly with transfers. The other thing is that Musselman will continue to play the fast-paced, up-tempo style (albeit a bit differently than Anderson).

The one negative is that Musselman doesn’t have many ties to the South. He did spend some time at LSU and he has ties to Florida, but he will have to find a way to keep the best talent in the state of Arkansas home for college. We’ve seen Musselman do it with upperclassmen and transfers, but can he rebuild a program, long-term, with freshmen?

Medcalf: His experience is his greatest asset. He’s been a leader at every level. The Nevada squad that lost to Loyola-Chicago in the Sweet 16 in 2017-18 due to its subpar defense became a top-40 team in defensive efficiency a year later.

Arkansas just signed a solid coach, but none of that will matter if he can’t get players. At Nevada, he used the transfer pool to rapidly elevate the program. Anderson tapped the junior college pool. Musselman will probably be in a similar position, where he’ll have to use a variety of avenues to boost the talent level in Fayetteville. If he can’t do that, he’ll encounter the same hurdles that Anderson did.

Lunardi: If Arkansas can break through quickly under Musselman, it could change the program’s narrative for a sustained run of greater success. But such a “run” would more likely be two or three Sweet 16 teams in an 8-10 year period rather than the national championship and Final Fours delivered by Richardson. Will that be enough to satisfy the outsized expectations in Fayetteville? Only the faithful from the Barnhill Arena glory days can answer that question.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: NC State



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