Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Coaching Situation at Arkansas

They'll be announcing the NCAA Tournament pairings today. Not so long ago (or so it seems), that was an important day in my life.

In my home state of Arkansas today, there seems to be some uncertainty about the future of the relationship between my alma mater, the University of Arkansas, and the basketball coach, John Pelphrey.

Pelphrey's position was a bit shaky when the Razorbacks went one and done in the SEC Tournament last week, but the reports I heard indicated that, even so, he would remain the coach for another year.

Lately, there have been reports that Pelphrey violated NCAA rules, and many people now seem to feel that all bets are off.

I have no special insights into the situation. Since I no longer live in Arkansas, I often feel as if I am an outsider when it comes to these things. Today, I have been trying to learn what I can from a distance.

I was acquainted with John Brummett, now of Arkansas News, when I lived in Little Rock and worked for the Arkansas Gazette. He is, as he says, a political columnist, not a sports columnist, but the lines are often blurred in Arkansas when the Razorbacks are involved.

And I think he makes a good point when he says that Arkansas has lost its "brand." One of the things I always admired about Brummett was his way with words, and he shows that in his column about Razorback basketball.

"The problem with University of Arkansas basketball," he writes, "is that it ... is Elvis without a hip, Dylan without a lyric, Michael Jackson without the moonwalk."

Football will always have an identity in Arkansas, but other sports need a "brand" with which fans can identify. Basketball got that from Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson. It doesn't seem to have gotten that from the coaches who have come along since.

Harry King of Arkansas News says there won't be an announcement made on Pelphrey's fate until the weekend is over at the earliest — and if the Razorbacks somehow manage to get into the NIT, it will probably wait until after they have been eliminated.

Joanne Gerstner at the New York Times reports there have been rumors that Missouri coach Mike Anderson is a top contender for the job. Anderson, as Gerstner observes, has roots in the Arkansas program, having been an assistant under Richardson when the Razorbacks won their first — and, so far, only — national basketball title in 1994.

Ah, yes, 1994. I remember it well.

It had been years since I left Arkansas, but I followed the Razorbacks that season with a real sense of pride.

I had been just a schoolboy when Sutton came to Arkansas and turned the U of A basketball program into something more than a diversion between football seasons. The national title was like the culmination of all his efforts.

It had grown before my very eyes. It was still growing when I left the state. And, nearly 17 years ago, it blossomed under Richardson into a national champion.

The Razorbacks made it back to the national title game the following year but lost to UCLA.

I don't know all the details about what led to Richardson's departure from Arkansas — and it isn't really something I want to explore today, anyway — but things just haven't been the same for the program since he left.

In the years after I left Arkansas, I always knew the Razorbacks would be in the NCAA Tournament, so I didn't really pay close attention to the regular season. And even when they dropped from the national rankings, I wasn't overly concerned.

But in recent years, the Razorbacks seem to have returned to the basketball swamp in which they existed before Sutton came along.

Sutton brought a magic to the Arkansas basketball program, and Richardson picked up the baton when Sutton dropped it in his haste to take the job at Kentucky, but Sutton made his way back to Oklahoma, where he made a new name for himself at Oklahoma State.

Thus, I think one of the most interesting reports I have heard comes from Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman, who suggests that Arkansas might replace Pelphrey with his former Kentucky teammate and now Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford.

Could Ford restore the magic that the Arkansas program needs to bring fans to the games and make Razorback basketball nationally prominent again? His first two years at OSU resulted in 20–win seasons and consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, but the Cowboys' record this year was much like Arkansas', and it is doubtful they will make it three in a row.

Still, if the U of A's administrators believe Ford can restore the Arkansas brand — make it his own — it might be worth a try.

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