In March of 2009, former Arkansas head basketball coach Nolan Richardson returned to Bud Walton Arena for the first time since his contract was bought out to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of Arkansas’s first and only basketball national championship.
With an exhilarating crowd response and a Hogs win against Georgia, Richardson was for the first time in some time less of a polarizing figure and more of a hero. It was sweet retribution for a man that gave Arkansas its only hoops championship. On the other hand, something was still amiss, and it had less to do with Richardson’s legacy than Arkansas’s.
“This team that’s coming back on the floor, you’ve got to help them win basketball games!” Richardson said to the crowd that day.
Do you think for one second that Richardson needed the fans in 1994 when he took on Duke in the national championship game? There was a major philosophical difference in what Richardson said about current head coach John Pelphrey’s Arkansas team and what Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was saying about Richardson’s Hogs team in ’94.
“This game was not won or lost on one play or one missed shot,” said Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach, who acknowledged the fatigue his players displayed as soon as early as the end of the first half. “They just had a little more firepower.”
You can probably count on one hand the number of times Krzyzewski admitted to being out-hustled in the NCAA tournament in his lifetime. This is a 180 degree change in the span of just one decade. Programs do rise and fall, but great programs maintain greatness. Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Florida, Kentucky and the likes continue to put contenders on the floor every year – even with coaching turnover hitting some of those teams.
But Arkansas didn’t maintain the momentum of the Nolan era. An ugly divorce between the University and Richardson tarnished his legacy, but the torch he lit should have been carried on for other coaches to take. Instead, the flame has been going out since the Heath era. Now, it seems as if Arkansas basketball is as inconsistent as Arkansas weather.
To make matters worse – as Richardson put it, Pelphrey’s teams need a strong, loud and rowdy crowd to be motivated. That was in 2009 – and that day, the crowd was in it. But not for Pelphrey – for Nolan and his 1994 team.
What’s happening now is that Arkansas needs the fans to win and the fans won’t come until they win – and that’s not going to change under this coaching staff. It’s a catch 22 that spells the end of the John Pelphrey era sooner than we think, unless today’s press conference is any indicator.
“Sometimes a warrior just has to kind of lay down on the ground for a minute, just stay there for a second, and have a good bleed. And just bleed,” Pelphrey said.
As an outside observer, I’m not sure whether Pelphrey’s statement is about his team taking hits and keeping on going or about his own wounded pride.
To be honest, does it really matter anymore? Pelphrey’s teams have always showed some sort of resilience, a type of overachieving. The two main issues are that he expects the fans to overachieve as well, and that he’s in a downward spiral of overachieving on the court only when its time to bounce back.
Isn’t it time Arkansas stays ahead instead of falling behind? Pelphrey said today he has a plan, and he knows how to get there.
“I have no reservation about that whatsoever,” he said.
I do. A lot of fans do. And at this point, Pelphrey is too far behind to catch up. He still thinks fans are afraid of the direction the program is headed in:
“I think I can turn fear into faith pretty quickly.”
Pelphrey is in his fourth season coaching the team, and any plan to change this culture Hog fans have come to know since the Heath coaching staff has taken far too long. There is nothing “quick” about how things have played out so far – but without a doubt, John Pelphrey is a fighter. He knows how to get out of a corner – but has he finally turned the corner?
It’s hard to tell. But the culture and philosophy of Razorback basketball needs to change. Fans are not paying to see Pelphrey’s teams overachieve in games. They will pay to see them achieve something great, like Richardson did. And for what it’s worth, Pelphrey can do. But it won’t take fans, and it won’t take overachieving. It will take a continuance of the strong recruiting, an ability to coach a group of individuals into a team and most importantly, a fire like he showed in today’s press conference day in and day out.
Whether this is a false alarm or a new trend remains to be seen – but here’s to hoping Pelphrey enacts this plan now and saves his coaching legacy at Arkansas from dissolving like the expectations we had in the 1990’s.
(Quotes were from New York Times articles, NWAOnline and ArkansasSports360.com. All links go to the articles)