Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Blair still beloved in Fayetteville
Gary Blair, pictured in this 2003 file photo, will return for a game at Bud Walton Arena on Sunday for the first time since leaving for Texas A&M.
FAYETTEVILLE Shortly after Texas A&M announced it would join the Southeastern Conference in 2011, Gary Blair and his family thought about his return to Arkansas.
The thoughts didn't revolve around rematch as much as reunion. While Blair has turned the Aggies into one of the premier programs in women's college basketball, his family has remained in Fayetteville, including his wife, Nan Smith-Blair, a University of Arkansas faculty member who last year stepped down as head of the school's nursing program.
"It's just one more game where he can come back and see some friends," Smith-Blair said. "He likes that, so that's a positive aspect of it.
"It allows us to come together; that's the main thing."
Blair, the former Arkansas coach who led the program to its only Final Four appearance, will coach his first game back at Bud Walton Arena on Sunday since his unexpected departure nearly a decade ago.
Likely personally and undoubtedly professionally, it will be a memorable day for Blair. Less than two years removed from winning the school's only national championship, it will be Texas A&M's first road conference game as a member of the SEC.
The game won't be Blair's first against his former team, though. The Aggies ended Arkansas' season a year ago, beating the Razorbacks on a last-second shot in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Like last season, both sides have tried to talk down the connection between the programs. Instead, they have talked up the game, which is once again an important one with Arkansas ranked No. 23 and Texas A&M No. 24.
"It's not so much about his history at Arkansas as it is now establishing a tradition between Arkansas and Texas A&M," said Razorbacks coach Tom Collen, a former Blair assistant. "This will be a couple of top 25 teams battling it out and proving their worth."
Be it because of the top 25 implications or Blair's return, a large crowd is expected in Fayetteville, where the former coach is still spoken of fondly. Matt Zimmerman, an assistant coach for the Razorbacks' men's basketball team, worked Blair's summer camps while a high school coach at Plainview in the 1990s.
"Coach Blair's camps were always so fun," Zimmerman said. "I learned a lot from him, working his camps and being around him. At night, he'd take us to eat. He's a great talker, great to listen to. He's a good man and a good coach."
Blair's path with Arkansas crosses seemingly everywhere. While on an exhibition trip to Italy last summer, Zimmerman and the rest of the Razorbacks ran into Blair and his team during a sightseeing trip.
"We were at all of the ruins where Julius Caesar's palace and all of that stuff was and then there's Texas A&M with Coach Blair," Zimmerman said. "It was like an old, friendly face you don't get to see and it was nice seeing him there."
Zimmerman is one of several with offices in Bud Walton Arena and ties close to the 67-year-old, who was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame last year. Mike Anderson, the head men's basketball coach, was an assistant coach at Arkansas when Blair arrived in 1993 and kept a close eye on his success.
"Gary did a great job with the program," Anderson said. "I thought his teams were always competitive. They got to the Final Four and he created some excitement for women's basketball. He's someone we got along with very, very well. He's a good man."
Blair is also a great coach, demonstrated by his impact on the two programs that will meet Sunday, of which he led both to unprecedented success.
"He's happy where he is and it's been a good change for him," Smith-Blair said. "He couldn't beat Arkansas as far as being one of the best places to work, but he loves A&M."