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.
ARKANSAS SPORTS HALL OF FAME:
Hog calls and Hall calls
Blair’s relentless drive put UA on SEC level
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair walks the sideline during a Jan. 6, 2013 game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Gary Blair is running out of Halls of Fame.
When Blair, Texas A&M’s women’s basketball coach, becomes a member the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Friday night, it will mark his sixth induction ceremony.
Blair, 68, has been inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2013), the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (2011), the Southland Conference Hall of Fame (2009), the Stephen F. Austin Athletics Hall of Fame (2008) and the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame (2002).
Gary Blair At a Glance
AGE 68 (born Aug. 10, 1945)
POSITION Texas A&M women’s basketball coach
COLLEGE Texas Tech
FAMILY Wife, Nan; daughter, Paige and son-in-law Beau Thompson, the head boys basketball coach at Farmington High School; and son, Matt. Grandchildren Logan and Lola.
NOTEWORTHY Is 666-270 in 29 seasons as a college head coach, including 198-120 in 10 seasons at Arkansas in 1994-2003.... Led Arkansas to the 1998 Final Four, five NCAA Tournament appearances and the 1999 WNIT title. ... Led Texas A&M to the 2011 NCAA championship. ... Has 19 NCAA Tournament appearances at Stephen F. Austin, Arkansas and Texas A&M. ... Led Dallas South Oak Cliff High School to a 239-18 record.
CAREER HEAD COACHING RECORD 905-288 (.759)
Texas A&M 2003-present Coach 258-107
Arkansas 1993-2003 Coach 198-120
Stephen F. Austin 1985-1993 Coach 210-43
Louisiana Tech 1980-1985 Assistant 159-10
Dallas South Oak Cliff HS 1973-1980 Coach 239-18
“It’s nice that people don’t wait until you’re dead to recognize you,” Blair said with a laugh. “I gave Arkansas 10 of my best years I had in me, and I’m very appreciative to be honored this way. Thank you, Arkansas.
“I’ll be forever grateful to all the players and assistant coaches we had at Arkansas, and the high school coaches that produced great players we could recruit.”
Blair coached Arkansas to a 198-120 record from the 1993-1994 through the 2002-2003 seasons with five NCAA Tournament appearances - including the 1998 Final Four - and the 1999 WNIT championship.
The Lady Razorbacks - as the women’s teams were then known - struggled to make the transition from the Southwest Conference to the SEC. They went a combined 24-28 overall and 7-15 in the SEC in the 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 seasons.
Blair was hired from Stephen F. Austin - where he had 210-43 record in eight seasons with six NCAA Tournament appearances - to replace John Sutherland.
Arkansas had opened its first season in the SEC by losing to Blair’s Lady Jacks 83-57.
“The program at Arkansas didn’t need to be rebuilt so much as it needed to be restocked with players that could compete in the SEC,” Blair said. “I think they had a good nucleus, but those players would have competed better at that time in the Southwest Conference.”
Blair had a recruiting strategy of signing players from Arkansas and bordering states Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri, then going into northern states such as Indiana, where the Lady Razorbacks landed point guards Christy Smith and Amy Wright.
“The kids from Big Ten country would do anything to get out of the snow,” Blair said. “In 10 years, I never signed a player from another SEC state. It was just too hard to go in there and waste your time to finish third, fourth or fifth on a kid.
“We worked so doggone hard to move that program up to be a Final Four team and then a Top 25 team consistently near the end of my tenure. I’m proud of that.”
Arkansas was 18-11 and a No. 9 seed going into the 1998 NCAA Tournament,where the Lady Razorbacks opened with a 78-70 victory over Hawaii in Palo Alto, Calif. Top-seeded Stanford then was upset by Harvard in the first round, and Arkansas beat the Crimson 82-64 to advance to the West Regional semifinals in Oakland, Calif.
The Lady Razorbacks beat Kansas 79-63 and Duke 86-58 to advance to the Final Four in Kansas City, where No. 1-ranked Tennessee ended Arkansas’ run with an 86-58 victory.
“We were on the road for 13 straight days out there on the West Coast to get to the Final Four,” Blair said. “I dubbed us ‘Good Morning America’s Team’ because all of our games were over so late.”
On the eve of Blair’s induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, his 17thranked Aggies will play the Razorbacks tonight in College Station.
“It is ironic that we’re playing Arkansas,” Blair said. “But that’s just the way the schedule falls.”
Arkansas Coach Tom Collen was Blair’s assistant at Arkansas from 1993-1997.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin Gary’s night at the Hall of Fame, and I think being inducted is a special moment for him regardless of what happens in our game,” Collen said. “But I would love to pin that loss on him.”
Blair has a 666-270 overall record in 29 seasons as a college head coach, including 258-107 in 11 seasons at Texas A&M, where he won the 2011 national championship.
“The guy just has a passion to coach the game of basketball, and to teach it, and to be successful and try to win every game,” Collen said. “That’s something he had from the first day that I ever met him.
“He’s starting to get up there age-wise, and people out there make fun of it all the time. When do you think Gary’s going to retire? I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I think the guy just loves what he does too much to step aside.”
Blair has signed a contract extension with Texas A&M through the 2017-18 season. He is making $1 million per year after beginning his coaching career at Dallas South Oak Cliff High School in 1973 with an annual salary of $7,000.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world that coaching worked out for me,” Blair said. “I’m not smart enough to do anything else.”
Blair joined the Marines after he graduated from high school. He then used the G.I. Bill to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas Tech. He won his first game as a college head coach after turning 40.
“I’m proud to say that maybe I’m a late bloomer,” Blair said. “But if I’m still blooming, why give it up?”
Whenever Blair retires, he plans to return to Fayetteville, where his wife, Nan, has continued to live. She is an associate professor at Arkansas and director of the nursing school.
“I’ll look forward to being in the stands at Arkansas games,” Blair said. “I’ll be pulling for Tom.”
Blair had one year left on his contract at Arkansas after Texas beat the Lady Razorbacks in the second round of the 1993 NCAA Tournament. When Arkansas wouldn’t extend his contract, Blair accepted a five-year offer from Texas A&M for $350,000 annually, about twice his Arkansas salary.
“I loved my time at Arkansas, and now I love being at Texas A&M,” Blair said. “I was flabbergasted when I found out I was going into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, but I think that just proves that if you treat people right, and you do things the right way, that good things will eventually come your way.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 02/27/2014