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The Altman era begins 

If the basketball coaching search debacle has demonstrated anything, it’s that Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles needs to go. There’s no point in waiting until December.

There’s no new structure to unveil or ground to break. Broyles’ work at Arkansas was done years ago when the renovations to Razorback Stadium were complete, and he should have been ushered out then, with a tickertape parade along Razorback Road. But by letting him linger, the University of Arkansas administration has allowed the Razorback athletic department to disintegrate into a national laughingstock. As ESPN’s Jay Bilas noted last week in the middle of the search, “It doesn’t appear that Frank Broyles knows what he’s doing.”

Instead of hiring a professional search firm to help, Broyles flew all over the country trying to complete the Herculean task of finding a replacement, dragging Jimmy Dykes, the Shiloh High School athletic director and ESPN color commentator, along with him. But the task might not have been so Herculean if Broyles had been smarter about this process.

Even before firing Stan Heath, Broyles had decided he wanted Billy Gillispie of Texas A&M, and apparently didn’t mind sharing that with everyone who would listen. In-state radio talking heads inflamed passions against Heath by talking about Gillispie and Kansas’ Bill Self. An excited fan base ignored promises made to Heath that an NCAA Tournament bid would save his job, because they had been assured that Gillispie was coming.

Now, Gillispie’s an afterthought, after deftly parlaying his flirtations with Broyles into a fat new $1.6 million contact. Spurned by his first choice, Broyles began flailing after Self, USC’s Tim Floyd, and Memphis’ John Calipari. But after publicly courting Gillispie, it’s no surprise that those proven coaches (far more proven than Gillispie) said “no thanks” to the opportunity to be Arkansas’s second choice.

Enter Creighton’s Dana Altman, a 13-year veteran of the Missouri Valley Conference, where he is regarded as a good coach, but a subpar recruiter. And his ability to relate to recruits will be tested early, because the biggest issue facing him will be whether he can convince SEC freshman of the year Patrick Beverley, and others, to stay. That should give an early indication of how Altman will fill the seven scholarships open in 2008. Sadly, in 13 seasons at Creighton, Altman’s recruited only two players who played in the NBA — not an impressive track record.

Overall, Altman’s record is nothing to get excited about. In 17 years as a head coach, Altman has led seven teams to the Big Dance, never advancing past the second round. In 2002-2003, when Altman had his best team, the Blue Jays lost in the first round to Central Michigan.

At nearly 49 years old, Altman’s not exactly an up-and-comer. From 1990-1994, he coached at Kansas State, where his teams went 68-54 (.557) with one NCAA Tournament berth and a first-round loss. Kansas State did not renew Altman’s contract at the end of his fourth year.

Compare that with Stan Heath’s record over the past four seasons: 73-52 (.584) with two NCAA Tournament berths. It’s hard to argue that Altman’s record in a major conference makes him more qualified than Heath. And there is little doubt that Broyles never would have gained the support to fire Heath if Altman was advanced as the alternative.

The last time Arkansas ventured down the Creighton path was in 1974, when Broyles hired Eddie Sutton. At the time, Arkansas was a third-tier basketball program and hiring a coach from Creighton was about as good as could be expected. But that was 23 years, four Final Fours, one national championship and Bud Walton Arena ago. Dipping back into that well to hire a guy who already failed at the major-conference level isn’t going inspire the masses. Making matters worse, Altman enters with two strikes against him in many fans’ eyes because he isn’t what was publicly promised.

During his tenure, Broyles has deservedly received accolades for building Arkansas’s athletic programs. But the last 10 years have been replete with bad coaching decisions in the profit programs, and have left a permanent stain on Broyles’ legacy. The Altman hire may turn out well, but getting your sixth choice from a small school makes you wonder if Broyles really still sees Arkansas’s program as third-tier.

J.R. and Henry are a couple of Little Rock-based sports nuts who blog their sports column regularly on Little Rocking, the Times entertainment blog.

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