Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Blair still at home when in Arkansas
Gary Blair is pictured during the 2011 NCAA Tournament final against Notre Dame. Blair coached Texas A&M to its only national championship win.
FAYETTEVILLE There isn’t much Gary Blair hasn’t done in 40 years as a women’s basketball coach, but Saturday night marked a first.
“First time I didn’t stay with my team at the hotel the night before a road game,” Blair said. “I stayed at my house this time.”
Blair is the coach at No. 24 Texas A&M, which plays its first SEC road game against No. 23 Arkansas at 2 p.m. today at Walton Arena. The game also is a homecoming for Blair, who coached Arkansas for 10 seasons (1993-2003) and still has a house in Fayetteville, where his wife, Nan Smith-Blair, lives. She has continued to be an associate professor at the UA and director of the nursing school.
“The one thing that Arkansas did - and I compliment them on it - is they were smart enough to keep the best Blair, OK?” Gary Blair said. “Nan has done more for the nursing program than I did for Arkansas women’s basketball, so give the administration at Arkansas credit.”
Blair had a 198-120 record at Arkansas with five NCAA Tournament appearances - including a trip to the Final Four in 1998 - and the 1999 WNIT championship. His last three Razorbacks teams played in the NCAA Tournament, but he left for Texas A&M for a long-term contract.
After Arkansas lost to Texas in the second round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament in Cincinnati, Blair said he had one year left on a contract that paid him about $175,000 annually. Texas A&M then offered him a five-year contract at $350,000 per season.
“Obviously, Gary needs to do what’s best for him,” Bev Lewis, Arkansas’ women’s athletic director at the time and now an executive associate athletic director, said after the Texas game.
When Arkansas didn’t offer a contract extension, Blair moved on to Texas A&M, which he has led to a 223-94 record, seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and the 2011 national championship.
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Blair said he sensed that after 10 seasons at Arkansas, Lewis and John White - the UA chancellor at the time but not when Blair was hired - wanted a coaching change.
“John White wanted his own person in there,” Blair said. “It’s just part of the business. It was a no-brainer financially for me to go to A&M, but the main thing was the job security. If your bosses at Arkansas aren’t going to give you that, you’ve got to leave.”
Blair, who makes $800,000 annually at Texas A&M, said he initially had bitter feelings about not being offered a contract extension by Arkansas.
“Then you understand, it doesn’t matter what you want,” he said. “If the administration wants something different, that’s the way it’s going to be. I’ve got no bitterness at all today towards Arkansas. I’ve got tremendous feelings about the program. Time heals wounds.
“I’ll be retired up in Fayetteville someday, and I’ll be a regular at every Arkansas event that I can go to and I’ll remember the 10 great years I had there.”
Tom Collen, in his sixth year as Arkansas’ coach, was an assistant during Blair’s first four seasons.
“Gary was fantastic here,” Collen said. “He’s one of the top coaches in the history of the women’s game.”
Collen said he expects Arkansas fans to give Blair a warm greeting today during introductions.
“Then when the tip goes up, I want them immediately to sit behind his bench and start harassing him,” Collen said
Blair said he hopes he goes to the visiting team bench instead of the home bench when he comes onto the court.
“I’m hoping that crowd will come out like they used to in the old days, and support Arkansas first, and support a top 25 match up,” Blair said. “Hopefully, there also will be a little bit of support for the old gray-haired Coach Blair.”
Last season Collen led Arkansas to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 and lost at Texas A&M 61-59 in a second-round game.
“Tom’s doing one hell of a job at Arkansas,” Blair said. “He’s the perfect fit there.”
Blair, 67, said he feels comfortable at Texas A&M, too. He has a contract extension through the 2014-2015 season.
“I’ve still got a lot of energy left in me, so hopefully they’ll want to extend my contract again,” Blair said. “If my health is good, and my family is good, and it’s working out, then stop what you’re doing ?”
No. 23 Arkansas women vs. No. 24 Texas A&M
WHEN 2 p.m. today WHERE Walton Arena, Fayetteville RECORDS Arkansas 12-2, 0-1 SEC;
Texas A&M 11-4, 1-0 SEC SERIES Arkansas leads 20-3 RADIO KABZ-FM, 103.7, Little Rock;
KQSM-FM, 92.1, Fayetteville; KFPWAM, 1230, Fort Smith; KURM-AM, 790, Rogers TELEVISION Fox Sports Net
Sports, Pages 19 on 01/06/2013