The Last Word
Eric Musselman’s loving embrace of Arkansas basketball — its tradition, significance to the well-being of the state’s collective psyche and perhaps more importantly, its further potential — has me thinking back to the early Eddie Sutton days on the Hill.
Just as Sutton did when Frank Broyles lured him from Creighton to Fayetteville in 1974, Musselman recognized Arkansas for the Land of Opportunity it is.
As these words are typed, the Hogs find themselves on a similar trajectory to last year’s Elite Eight run.
Broyles, one of college football’s legendary skippers, used to remind his players that folks would remember what a team did in November. February seemingly has become Musselman’s November. And the past two Februarys have reminded Hog fans of what once was and what could be.
Sutton, of course, had to start from the sawdust-covered Barnhill Fieldhouse ground floor and work up. He inherited a program that not only wasn’t winning but was an afterthought. Arkansas did possess some basketball pedigree, of course, having regularly competed for conference titles through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s under the greats. Francis Schmidt and Glen Rose. But outside of Kentucky and North Carolina, basketball took a distinct backseat to football in the South, and in 1974, it just wasn’t on Razorback fans’ collective radar.
Until, of course, Broyles determined it would be.
Sutton’s masterful build of the Arkansas program into a national player awoke a sleeping giant and made Hog fans care about basketball just as passionately as they did about football. (For all the invaluable positive publicity generated by the historically raucous Bud Walton Arena crowds of February, not to mention Musselman’s ability to stoke a fire of this kind, the gold standard for old guys like me remains the Barnhill of the Sutton era.)
Nolan Richardson’s infusion of helter-skelter, put-me-in-a-fight-with-a-bear-you-better-be-worried-about-the-bear bionics propelled “Hawgball” into an actual monster and certified the need for a 19,000-seat palace. Arkansas basketball was, if ever so briefly, residing with the blue bloods, the ’90s being to it what the ’60s were to Razorback football.
Lulled into hibernation by a combination of factors, the program was massaged back into a semblance of relevance under Richardson protégé Mike Anderson. Unfortunately for him, the game’s evolution since the heyday of the ’90s neutralized the Nolanesque system he employed.
Musselman, however, sure seems to deliver the best of both Razorback basketball worlds — Eddie and Nolan. There is a lot of each in Muss.
March Madness, once an annual spring rite in Arkansas, is back; it sure looks like it’s here to stay. Not residing on the bubble and wondering IF the Hogs will make the dance but speculating about seeds and matchups — that’s a part of the program’s pedigree. It sure seems to have returned.
Musselman will be a candidate — real or perceived — for other high-profile jobs likely for as long as he’s in Fayetteville. But I think he’s found what he’s looking for here. Will he retire to the beach in San Diego one day? Sure. But his stated goal is to win a national championship in the college game, and he doesn’t need to leave Northwest Arkansas to do so. Could he be the one to guide the program to the game’s highest echelon and keep it there?
Nolan elevated the program from Sutton’s foundation to a brief but glorious stay at the Grand Blueblood Hotel. Finally, the program seems back on track for another visit. It feels like the late ’70s and early ’80s when the Hogs seemingly bolstered their national profile each season. Another generation of fans won’t have to content itself with dads, uncles and papaws regaling it with tales of Triplets, MayDay and Big Nasty; of US Reed’s half-court buzzer beater, Balentine’s Jordan beater, Nolan’s late exit and glorious return at the Drum in Austin.
The Muss Bus is on approach to the ol’ Grand Blueblood, and the valets can be heard whispering, “They’re back.”