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Stan Heath had his chance 

Our blogging sports columnists, J.R. and Henry, are now being given some print space weekly in this section, and it couldn’t come at a better time, what with the University of Arkansas’s ongoing soap opera of an athletic department.

So, with their thoughts on Monday’s firing of men’s basketball coach Stan Heath further into this entertainment section, there’s little to add except to say that the hope here is that Frank Broyles and the powers-that-be did this knowing full well their new and better coach was on the way. If not, and if Arkansas goes through a list of so-called big names only to be rebuked and left with another up-and-comer, then Heath deserved next season to coach his best collection of players.

I will also debate one other point that J.R. and Henry and others, even national columnists, have made — that Heath’s firing was all about wins, or the lack of enough of them. Never lose sight of the fact that with Broyles and the UA athletic department, it’s first about money, then wins. Houston Nutt is apparently going to have to be caught, as a politician once said, “with a dead girl or a live boy” before he’s run out of Fayetteville, as long as Razorback Stadium remains full or close to it and season ticket sales remain strong, as they were last year. (The question no one is willing to answer now, though, is: Are they as strong in spring 2007 as before? We think not, based on the UA’s “reminders” to season-ticket holders to re-up before May 1.)

Arkansas once had a waiting list for basketball tickets that numbered in the low thousands. The number has reversed, where about 4,000 tickets now go unsold to season-ticket buyers. Figure that with 18 home games at $18 per ticket, you could get a really good coach for less than that who would excite the fan base and move those unsold tickets.

That’s why Stan Heath was fired. The statewide interest level in basketball in February was about the same as it would be for the results from the Razorback cross country meets: a little disappointment if the Hogs didn’t win, but then a “who really cares” feeling. Heath and his Hogs stirred a little excitement at the end of the season with five straight wins and reached the SEC Tournament final, then promptly got blown out by Florida, landed one of the last spots in the NCAA Tournament in spite of national protests about their selection, and got routed by Southern Cal. And thousands of Hog fans, like the eight or so I watched that last game with, had a “yep, we saw this coming” response.

When the passion is ebbing in the majority of the fan base, it’s definitely time for a change.

One other “last thing” about Heath. A look back over his five years shows he was obviously in over his head in building his program. It took until his fifth season to come up with even a sporadic-playing point guard to run the show. You build your program first with guards, and Heath wasn’t left any by Nolan Richardson and took a flyer on a couple of late spring signees in 2002, one of whom eventually transferred. He then went to building his team focused on a several wing people, centers (two of which never showed up, one being drafted by the NBA, the other never qualifying), a project center in Steven Hill, and either tall lanky forwards needing muscle or muscular forwards needing some spring in their legs. While the mix this year was obviously more talented than past seasons, the personalities didn’t blend well. The best and most determined player was a lightly recruited yet talented freshman.

So, while I ache for Stan Heath personally, having found him to be a nice, personable guy at Razorback Club meetings, I try to offset that by remembering that he built his program in the wrong way, and then handled his players like an assistant coach might. When you excuse a disgruntled player’s walking off the court as “That’s just D [Darian Townes] being D,” then there’s a problem at the top.

Heath will make a nice assistant in the NBA if he tries that route.

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