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MONTICELLO — It tends to be forgotten now, after his later great success at Fayetteville, but Nolan Richardson got off to a slow start as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Around 1985-86, while Arkansas’s favorite basketball team struggled, the state’s other two Division I programs flourished under bright young coaches. A story circulated among UALR fans and Arkansas State fans that Richardson, the highest-paid and most renowned basketball coach in Arkansas, was only the third best — behind UALR’s Mike Newell and Arkansas State’s Nelson Catalina.
Newell, the only one of the three still coaching (though at a lower level), says today that he never heard that comparison. But he doesn’t flinch from it. Lack of confidence has never been a problem for Newell. He coached at UALR six years, and he says that in four of those years, UALR had the best basketball team in the state. The exceptions were his first year, Eddie Sutton’s last as Razorback coach, when Sutton had Joe Kleine, and Newell’s last year, 1990, when Richardson took the Razorbacks to the Final Four, and jokes about his coaching ceased.
The Newell era at UALR was something completely different for the institution’s basketball program — attendance increased, advertising and promotion increased, fund-raising increased (led by Newell), coverage by the local media increased, and enthusiastic fans began to think of UALR as a big-time basketball school, or on the brink of becoming one, for the first time. A UALR supporter who says he was much more of a supporter when Newell was there recalls that “in those days, you could see somebody on the street wearing a UALR jersey or a UALR cap. That had never happened before.” Or since.
Most importantly, the Trojans won under Newell. He took them to the NCAA tournament three times and the NIT twice. He beat Notre Dame in the 1986 NCAA Tournament, a monumental upset. People still talk to him about that game, Newell says. (Just a few weeks ago, an ESPN announcer chaffed ESPN analyst Digger Phelps about the game. Phelps was Notre Dame’s coach at the time.) And, he notes, UALR was playing most of its home games in Barton Coliseum, an unfashionable old arena that Newell never showed recruits before they signed. “God knows what I could have done if I’d had Alltel [the new arena where UALR now plays].”
“They’ve [UALR] never even come close to the success we had in that six-year period,” Newell says. “Not in attendance or anything.” UALR has not been to the NCAA tournament in the 15 years since Newell left, and has been to the NIT only once.
But if things haven’t gone as well for UALR since Newell moved on, they haven’t gone swimmingly for Newell, either. Fifteen years later, Newell is not where most would have expected him to be — leading a successful Division I program — but instead is coaching at a Division II school, the University of Arkansas at Monticello, enrollment 2,600. UAM has a high-schoolish gym, draws about 1,000 fans for its games (although that’s picking up), and is grateful that the Pine Bluff Commercial regularly covers the Boll Weevils.
This is actually Newell’s fourth year at UAM, but the Gulf South Conference doesn’t get a great deal of media attention, and many Arkansas sports fans didn’t realize he was back in the state until last November, when UAM defeated ASU in an exhibition game on ASU’s home court. Division I schools that schedule Division II teams do so with the expectation of winning, even exhibition games.
A lot of people called him with congratulations after the ASU game, Newell says, including old foe Catalina, who was fired by ASU in 1995 and is now in the securities business in Jonesboro.
(As for Nolan Richardson, the “third best” coach in Arkansas took the Razorbacks to three Final Fours and a national championship before his head exploded. After a series of embarrassing public rants, he was fired by UA in 2002, sued the university over the firing, and lost. He still lives in Fayetteville.)
Although he’d told the UAM chancellor who hired him that he intended to win a Division II national championship in five years, Newell had losing records his first three years in Monticello. This year, the Boll Weevils are winning, near the top of the Western Division of the GSC, and ranked among the top Division II teams of the South Region. It’s the first time a UAM team has been ranked, Newell says. He keeps track of things like that.
“The UAM job is difficult,” Newell said. “The conference is good. Our facility is not impressive. We probably have the smallest budget for basketball in the conference. We’re the only school in the conference without a full-time assistant coach. All three of my assistants are student assistants. And UAM has a bad history in basketball. It hasn’t won often.
“But I knew all that coming in. Every job I’ve ever taken has been a building or rebuilding type thing. I had confidence in my recruiting skills and coaching ability. I knew we’d get the job done. But I didn’t think it would take three years.”
At 53, Newell is heavier than he was 15 years ago — isn’t everybody? — and his once bright-blond hair is darker. He wore a suit and tie at UALR games, but he was dressed more casually for a Jan. 13 game against Delta State from Cleveland, Miss. At UAM, it would be easy to overdress, you figure. (For a time, UALR drew an unusually well-dressed crowd during the Newell era. That was when the games were played at the Statehouse Convention Center. Businessmen-fans would have dinner downtown with their wives, then come to the games, Newell said. He said that Gene Bartow, then the University of Alabama at Birmingham coach, told him, “I never saw so many fur coats at a basketball game.”)
One of Newell’s players is his son, Nate, a 6’4” guard who played high school basketball here in Monticello. Another is Billy McDaniel, a 6’7” forward from Texas who was a small-college all-American last year — the first in UAM history, according to Newell. Johnathan Holland, from Los Angeles, is 6’11” and bulky. Not many Division II teams have centers his size.
Newell gets players from all over the country. Counting his son, only five of the 13 on the roster are from Arkansas. That’s not because UAM has a large recruiting budget — it doesn’t — but because “after you’ve been in coaching for 30 years, you’ve formed a lot of relationships.” High school and AAU coaches send him players, he said.
UAM defeats Delta State, a fellow member of the Western Division of the GSC, fairly easily. Much of the credit belongs to Nate Newell. He hits 10 three-point shots, tying the UAM single-game record for three-pointers. By the second half, UAM fans are leaping to their feet, hands in the air, every time he shoots. They are seldom disappointed. He scores 41 points in all, breaking a Newell family record. Mike Newell says the next day that he’s kidded Nate about never matching Mike’s 54 points in a high school game. But Mike’s high for a college game was only 34.
Heredity has something to do with Nate’s shooting skills, but not everything. “Nate has been coming to my summer camp since he was 4. Eight hours a day, June through August, he’s played basketball.” The 20-year-old sophomore has a 24-year-old sister, Vanicka, a six-footer who was a good basketball player herself. But, her father says, “Come summer, she wanted to do other things — go to the beach, or go shopping.”
The recently married Vanicka lives in Shreveport, where the whole Newell family lived before Mike and Nate came to Monticello. Newell’s wife is still there too, teaching school so she can become vested in the retirement plan.
Newell was a high school basketball star in Indiana, where high school basketball is serious business. He played college basketball at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. After holding various high school and college coaching jobs, Newell was an assistant at the University of Oklahoma when UALR hired him. He left UALR six years later to coach at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. At that point, he was still on his way up.
Things fell apart at Lamar, and Newell is fairly vague about the reasons why. It’s not something he enjoys talking about.
“I got caught up in a political struggle,” he says. “When Ann Richards was elected governor, the whole board of trustees changed, the president changed. Commitments that had been made by the prior administration were not kept — things like more money for the basketball program.” Also, he says, Lamar had given him a contract it couldn’t really afford. “And they were planning to go to a lower-level conference. That’s not why I went there.”
Newell left Lamar, resigning under pressure, with a sour taste in his mouth about college athletics, and a three-year record of 42-44, well below his UALR standard. He was out of college coaching for awhile. He did some scouting for NBA teams, coached a minor-league pro team at Shreveport, then got back into college coaching at a two-year institution, Southern University-Shreveport, where he stayed four years and, he says, compiled the first winning season in the school’s history.
“I’m a lifer,” he says. “I could coach church ball. I love the teaching. I love the recruiting.”
But still there’s that edge to Newell that signals he’d really rather do something besides coach church ball. Or community-college ball, either. Or Division II. On the one hand, he says he got back into four-year-college coaching because he wanted to coach his son. He says he was a finalist for the head coaching job at the University of North Texas — which would have put him in the same conference as UALR — before he got the UAM job. On the other hand, he says:
“If we take care of business here, my goal is to get back in Division I. The fire is still in my belly to get a team in the Final Four in Division I.”
Big talk, considering, but Newell says he’s been accused of talking too big, and being too brash, before, and it hasn’t stopped him.
“I’m a believer that if you don’t set high goals, nobody will follow you. At Little Rock, when I told people we wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament, they didn’t even know we could go to the NCAA Tournament. No matter how lofty the goal is, I’m not afraid to say it.”