New coach must sell players, fans on UA

By: Nate Allen
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair (left) and Arkansas coach Tom Collen talk prior to a Jan. 6, 2013 game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair (left) and Arkansas coach Tom Collen talk prior to a Jan. 6, 2013 game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas history is not the long suit of those controlling the University of Arkansas’ athletic department they consolidated upon consummating a corporate takeover in 2008.

However, in his quest for a new women’s basketball coach for the team formerly known as the Lady ’Backs, Athletic Director Jeff Long would be well served to research the personalities that put the Lady ’Backs on the map.

Those coaches who recruited fans as avidly as they recruited players made the Lady ’Backs recognized in their own right in Arkansas even as Hall of Famers Eddie Sutton and then Nolan Richardson coached the men.

Those who could not inspire fans to identify with their teams played to empty houses and tenures ended before they had planned.

Tom Collen was fired last week after seven years coaching Arkansas’ women’s team, which was struggling before he took over and has ever since with no identity once the Lady ’Backs name was lost in the merger with the men.

Collen’s predecessor, Mercer University Coach Susie Gardner, lasted four forlorn seasons coaching the Lady ’Backs.

Both remain respected by their coaching peers for their X’s and O’s, but they lacked the ingratiating charisma that their three predecessors - Matilda Willis, John Sutherland and Gary Blair - brought to bring fans to Lady ’Backs games.

The games have been mostly sparsely attended since Blair’s contract in 2003 wasn’t extended and he bolted to Texas A&M, where he still coaches and has won a national championship.

Willis and Sutherland were promoted to head coach during the 1980s and turned the Lady ’Backs into a Southwest Conference force that fans increasingly followed in part because of their enthusiastic public presence.

Blair promoted the Lady ’Backs like P.T. Barnum promoted the circus. He personally took the Lady ’Back program everywhere from elementary schools to Dickson Street to Bella Vista retirement gatherings and central Arkansas, too.

Blair’s ballyhoo covered a less than ordinary 54-75 SEC record, which wasn’t overwhelmingly better than Collen’s 40-68 SEC record. But Blair’s teams usually advanced to the postseason, which included the program’s lone Final Four and drew the biggest crowd for a women’s game at Walton Arena when his Lady ’Backs won a WNIT championship there.

Collen assisted Blair at Arkansas from 1993-1997. He recruited the gist of Blair’s 1998 Final Four team before moving on to be a nationally successful head coach at Colorado State and Louisville.

As Arkansas’ head coach he landed a nationally acclaimed recruiting class in 2013-2014, headed by Jessica Jackson of Jacksonville, a forward who was named second-team All-SEC and to the All-SEC Freshman first team.

Collen probably deserved another shot next year because of that class and with assists machine Calli Berna of Fayetteville returning as a senior. But with Collen now 60, the program two years removed from its lone NCAA Tournament appearance under him, and with the way the team faded to a tired 6-10 after a 13-0 nonconference start, Long felt cause to change the dynamics.

For it to be a truly dynamic change, he’ll need to hire a dynamo as eager to promote the program as he or she will be to coach it.

Sports, Pages 20 on 03/15/2014