Commentary:

Change in coaches gives some fans a touch of guilt

By: Greg Harton
Published: Sunday, April 14, 2019
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman is introduced during an event Monday, April 8, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman is introduced during an event Monday, April 8, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

— I couldn’t resist getting out of the office last Monday and traveling the mile or so over to Bud Walton Arena as the University of Arkansas introduced a new basketball coach, Eric Musselman.

It wasn’t the first time I’d made the trek to join the Hog faithful in welcoming a new leader. Twelve years and three coaches ago, I made the same trip to see the great Frank Broyles introduce another head basketball coach.

That coach was Dana Altman.

Musselman has already lasted five days longer than that hire.

For those who get superstitious, yes, maybe I was tempting fate by showing up to another one of these pep rally/introductions. I considered that. But I had skipped Jonathan Pelphrey’s introduction, so my presence or lack thereof didn’t seem to have any noticeable effect on outcomes.

Last Monday, Musselman was enthusiastic. His family seemed entirely comfortable, or at least as comfortable as anyone not raised in Arkansas can be while raising their arms and shouting “woo pig, sooie!”

The spirit squads were there. The Razorback basketball players were there. Just by happenstance, I walked into the arena alongside Hog great Scotty Thurman, taking the opportunity to shake his hand. I felt for him, as Mike Anderson’s firing injected uncertainty about his future with the team. At the time I write this, I still don’t know whether Musselman has made any decisions about assistant coaches.

Coaching changes are tough because of the upheaval it creates for players, staff and fans, who invest a lot of time, money and energy into these teams. The head coaches I don’t worry too much about. They make millions. They’ll be fine.

My wife’s family has been season ticket holders with the Razorbacks for decades, so I jumped at the chance for a VIP pass to get good a good seat and drink some lemonade at a post-introduction meet-and-greet.

In speaking with several fans, I couldn’t help notice their response to Musselman was a little muted. It wasn’t due to any antipathy for the new coach, but by an emotional connection they continued to feel for Anderson.

In conversations moments after Musselman and his family were introduced, I asked several longtime Hog fans their thoughts about the Hogs’ basketball program and the new coach.

Each one had nothing bad to say about Musselman. Indeed, several thought he was a good hire. But they quickly added, without encouragement, how badly they felt for Anderson. It seemed they felt a little guilty pulling for the new guy when his opportunity came at the expense of their friend.

Despite what anyone may feel about wins and losses or NCAA tournament success, Anderson earned the respect of those who knew him directly because he built a basketball culture of values they appreciated. Those values included honesty, responsibility, hard work and even kindness.

The numbers, too, demonstrate that Anderson is statistically successful as a coach, so that made it hard for some people to reconcile his firing. Neither the numbers nor the culture of the program demanded someone’s head should roll.

I would have given Mike Anderson another year to see what his young players could do. But I understand Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek’s decision. There’s a world of difference between never having a losing season and establishing a winning program. When Yurachek conducted his end-of-season review with Anderson, it seems Anderson’s responses left Yurachek concerned about a lack of “a vision for our program moving forward.”

We all wish Anderson well. Still, cheering for the future success of the Razorback basketball program without him is nothing to feel guilty about. Indeed, I suspect Anderson himself wants nothing but the best outcome for the program, but especially for the young men he recruited to it.

That character reflects one key reason Hog fans who knew him didn’t want to see him go.

Discussion

Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.