Ex-players say get hire right, not fast

By: Bob Holt
Published: Sunday, April 7, 2019
Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard questions a call during the first half against Michigan State in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard questions a call during the first half against Michigan State in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jim Counce, a heart surgeon in Northwest Arkansas, hears plenty of questions from patients before and after they undergo operations.

The often-asked questions include:

• What are my risks associated with the surgery?

• How many days am I going to be in the hospital?

• When will I return to normal activities?

But there's one question practically every patient asks him that has nothing to do with heart surgery.

"They all want to know, 'Who is our new basketball coach going to be?' " Counce said. "That's the No. 1 question I get asked."

Counce was a senior forward on Arkansas' 1978 NCAA Tournament Final Four team and later a Razorbacks assistant coach before going to medical school, so its understandable patients want to ask him about the basketball program.

"I enjoy the fact that the patients are plugged in and that they care," Counce said. "The only thing that ever bothers me about anybody in the state would be the fact that they could potentially lose interest in the basketball team.

"As long as people care, that's the main thing. Who the new basketball coach is going to be generates as much interest as anything in the state of Arkansas. It just shows you the passion that the fans still have."

Counce can answer the questions about heart surgery much better than the ones pertaining to Arkansas' coaching search.

"I tell them all the same thing, that I have no inside information," Counce said. "I only know what I read in the newspaper."

Media outlets have been scrambling for any information on a tight-lipped search run by Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek.

When Yurachek fired Mike Anderson as the Razorbacks' coach March 26, he didn't hold a news conference to talk about making the change. Since then, Yurachek politely has declined questions about the search when seeing reporters.

Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson, who led the Cougars to a 33-4 record this season and their first NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance since 1984, was considered a leading choice for Arkansas because he and Yurachek previously worked together. Yurachek was Sampson's athletic director at Houston for three years, and the two remain friends.

When Yurachek was in Houston in early January to attend the wedding of a friend's daughter, Houston media outlets showed video of Yurachek and Sampson talking at a Cougars' practice.

The extent of contact among Sampson, his agent and Yurachek isn't known, but Sampson, 63, signed a six-year contract extension worth $3 million annually to remain at Houston. He had two years left on a contract that paid him $1.6 annually.

Sampson's agreement with Houston states his son, Kellen, is designated as the Cougar's coach-in-waiting to replace his father if a change is made over the next three seasons as part of a succession plan.

Other names linked to Arkansas in reports include Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, Nevada's Eric Musselman and Steve Alford, who earlier this season was fired as UCLA's coach.

Sources have indicated one reason for the delay nearly two weeks after Anderson was fired is because Arkansas officials want to talk with their No. 1 target -- Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard. Beard hasn't been available to have serious talks with another school because he led the Red Raiders to the Final Four, where they played Michigan State on Saturday.

"Beard's not saying 'no' to them," one source said of the possibility Beard at least will talk to Arkansas. "If he had, this wouldn't still be going on. I think he's telling them he's interested. But they'd better come with a big-time offer."

Counce said he's not concerned that Yurachek is working to hire a new coach without the help of a search firm or a committee.

"I think we should allow Hunter to do it in the way that he thinks he operates best," Counce said. "That's one of his most important functions as athletic director is to make sure that we have great coaches in place in all of our sports, but in particular in our major sports.

"He ought to have the freedom and license to conduct the search in whatever way he thinks he can best operate. He has more skin in the game than anybody."

Joe Kleine, a former All-American center at Arkansas who played 15 seasons in the NBA and now is co-owner of Corky's restaurant in Little Rock, said he doesn't see the pace of the search as an issue.

"Everybody wants the home-run hire, and we're all hoping for that," said Kleine, a former assistant coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "But we've had some hires in the past we've done quickly and in a hurry that haven't been good.

"If I'm in charge and I don't like what I've got on the table, then I need to reset the table. So I don't have a problem with them taking their time. I want them to get it right."

Anderson had a 169-102 record in eight seasons at Arkansas when he was fired, including 18-16 this season when the Razorbacks went 1-1 in the NIT.

The Razorbacks played in the NCAA Tournament three times under Anderson -- in 2015, 2017 and 2018 -- and didn't advance past the second round.

Three other SEC programs that fired their basketball coaches have made hires. Texas A&M hired Buzz Williams from Virginia Tech; Alabama hired Nate Oats from Buffalo; and Vanderbilt hired Jerry Stackhouse, an assistant with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.

Jimmy Dykes, an ESPN analyst and former Razorbacks walk-on player and UA women's coach, said he doesn't see the Arkansas job still being open as a reason for alarm. Of the three SEC hires, Dykes said, only Williams would have been a great fit for Arkansas.

"But we've all known since November that Buzz Williams was going to be the next coach at Texas A&M," Dykes said of the former Aggies assistant coach. "It's not like A&M beat out Arkansas to get him."

Dykes said it's good that Yurachek is taking a methodical approach to the search.

"Take your time and get it right," Dykes said. "They've got to get it right, because that Arkansas fan base has been through it in football, and basketball hasn't been what that fan base expects."

The hiring of Chad Morris as the Razorbacks' football coach was being finalized when Yurachek came to Arkansas in late 2017.

"This is Hunter's first big hire," Dykes said of the basketball search. "I'm sure he understands the magnitude of getting this one right, because a lot of people are going to form their opinion of him with this hire."

When Arkansas came into the SEC for the 1991-92 season, the Razorbacks beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena and won the conference's regular-season championship.

Arkansas continued to be at the top of the SEC the next three years, winning conference and national championships in 1994, then finishing second in the NCAA Tournament to UCLA in 1995

The Razorbacks made their last Sweet 16 appearance in 1996. They haven't won an SEC regular-season title since 1994, and their only SEC Tournament championship was in 2000.

"I'm sick and tired of going to the SEC Tournament and seeing the whole arena be blue," Counce said in reference to Kentucky's domination.

Arkansas has six NCAA Tournament appearances since 2001.

"Kentucky is No. 1 in the SEC, and we feel like we should be No. 2, but we're not there," Kleine said. "So when you hire a coach, you need to hire from that perspective."

Counce said he's concerned about results, not the perception of Arkansas' next coach.

"It really doesn't matter if he's a sexy hire," Counce said. "What really matters are his results. What really matters is, can he go out and get players? And then can he coach them up and win games?

"We can't win games without players. We've got to go and get players."

Sports on 04/07/2019

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