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Farewell, Mr. Anderson 

BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
Any epitaph on someone’s coaching tenure is customary rife with negativity. This coach disgraced the program by falling off a motorcycle, lying about the circumstances, and hiring a young blond with no conceivable credentials as his “aide.” Another coach had a tantrum in a postgame tirade on the back end of a season that went down the tubes, precipitating his dismissal. Other coaches get chucked to the curb for not being worth their exorbitant salaries, their personality disorders, their unethical acts and the like.

Mike Anderson’s eight-year run as Arkansas basketball head coach gives him a nice, round, reasonably well-performed quarter-century with the basketball program. He spent the first 17 seasons as Nolan Richardson’s lead assistant and was always admired by the fan base here, much of which clamored for him to be Richardson’s replacement when the turmoil surrounding the championship-winning coach’s exit was so pronounced and ugly. When the opportunity arose for then-athletic director Jeff Long to properly jettison the abject disaster that was John Pelphrey, the largely unpopular Long made it a priority to remove Anderson from Missouri’s clutches and “bring him home.” In March 2011, it all felt so right, so natural.

Anderson proved immediately that he could get the program back on reasonably solid footing. He salvaged a ballyhooed recruiting class that Pelphrey had managed to assemble, and under Anderson’s watch, a number of players flourished. Rashad Madden started to do some good things in the backcourt and down low, Bobby Portis’ two-year contributions were immense. Moses Kingsley eventually took big steps forward as a junior, and as recently as this season, guys like Daniel Gafford and Isaiah Joe blossomed in encouraging ways. But regardless of whether the Hogs were hitting the low-water mark of 16-16 in 2015-16 or cresting the 20-win mark easily in the three NCAA tournament seasons that couched that lone .500 season, there was always something missing.

Let’s be clear: I have mocked Anderson in this very space for trying to energize the fans and emulate his mentor with the “pray for the damn bear” rhetoric he employed at his introductory press conference. It reminded me, oddly, of the way Houston Nutt came onto the scene in late 1997, taking over a woeful football program, and started blathering about “national championships under construction” or building fences around the state’s borders (Trumpesque talk from a sort of Trumpesque buffoon as it turns out!) to secure in-state talent that had been lacking on one hand and commonly bailing out of state on the other. The parallels between the departed basketball coach and the onetime football coach don’t end there.

One of the common complaints about Arkansas coaches, seemingly irrespective of sport, follows along this strain: “They don’t make any adjustments!” And that was a common lament for those watching Nutt helm the Hog football program for a decade, when winnable games would get lost due to an ill-advised bit of in-game planning. Anderson ran into the same demons as frequently his teams would manage to let an opportunity at winning a crucial game go by the proverbial boards. Arkansas was better than an 18-16 NIT team this year despite all the purported inexperience — this team lost a chunk of games that, had it won even half of those, Anderson would likely still be employed.

But the troubles would remain regardless, right? Duke was this year’s supposed titan, and the Blue Devils didn’t make the Final Four. In games against Central Florida and Virginia Tech, the most abundantly talented group of players in the country almost succumbed but for some unlucky bounces. That luck can only sustain you so far, and the Devils lost Sunday against Michigan State when the Spartans drilled a big late three to take the lead and Duke mismanaged its final possessions. And there you have Arkansas’s same conundrum on a larger scale: The Hogs may have not been a championship contender this year, but there was sufficient talent on this squad, objectively speaking, that it should have excelled at times when it faltered.

Anderson was always, without question, honorable and approachable. He had a sterling personal reputation here and this dismissal does nothing to change that. He never represented the program with anything other than humility, dignity,and genuine pride. But as when Kramer was fired from an office job that he never really had on “Seinfeld,” that forces the boss to address the elephant in the room with a “that’s what makes this so difficult” comment. It’s damned difficult to fire the nice guys in the business, and Anderson, ubiquitously, holds that distinction.

But he, nor his staff, did quite enough. Yes, the program is in better shape than when Pelphrey left it a smoldering crater of undisciplined dross, and as a result of Anderson’s efforts, that makes this job hopefully attractive to some of the top-flight candidates whose names have been bandied about by members of the media and the message-board proletariat that thinks they’ve got this riddle solved already. If it’s Kelvin Sampson or Mick Cronin or Chris Beard or Lord knows who else, Hog fans have a clear idea that they want a big-time coach.

If Arkansas is able to secure a banner hire, thank Anderson for that. He was far from perfect, but he did good enough things here to make a job that had lost so much luster a little less tarnished, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for that if nothing else.
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