Editorial:

National champion was a time to behold

By: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2019
Duke's Grant Hill, left, and Cherokee Parks, right, try to contain Arkansas' Corliss Williamson during the first half of the NCAA championship game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, April 4, 1994. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
Duke's Grant Hill, left, and Cherokee Parks, right, try to contain Arkansas' Corliss Williamson during the first half of the NCAA championship game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, April 4, 1994. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

When Duke guard Grant Hill fumbled away the ball and Razorback Dwight Stewart scooped it up and passed it ahead to Clint McDaniel in the closings seconds of the 1994 NCAA National Championship basketball game, an entire state let out a joyous shout, followed by an extended and heartfelt Hog Call.

The final score that night in Charlotte, N.C., was the University of Arkansas 76, Duke 72. And everyone in the world, it seemed, became of Hog fan for at least one shining moment.

It was a jolt of euphoria for Arkansas fans, who had been waiting a long time to experience such a thrilling event. For the head coach, Nolan Richardson, it was affirmation for his unconventional style and a repudiation of those who unfairly dismissed his hard work, skill and leadership. For the Razorback players and their families, it was the realization of a dream born in hearts of little boys shooting baskets in driveways, gymnasiums, backyards and playgrounds back home.

The Razorbacks were No. 1, and it was not an opinion or a poll. It was a fact: After three weeks and 63 games of the NCAA basketball tournament, Arkansas was the only team left standing.

The victory took Northwest Arkansas by storm. Hundreds of fans showed up at Drake Field to welcome the conquering heroes home. Memorabilia stands popped up on street corners and in parking lots across the region. Stores couldn’t keep the national championship shirts in stock. Newspapers rolled our special sections. TV stations threw together special reports. Radio stations clambered for interviews with anyone they could find connected with the team. Mayors proclaimed. Judges reduced $100 fines to $76.72. Every marquee and business sign celebrated with a message of support, cheering on the Hogs.

The afterglow burned long and hot. The Razorbacks were the kings of the basketball world and for months the signs remained in plain sight. And better yet, the team’s two top players — Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman — announced they’d forego NBA draft for a year to try to make it two titles in a row (they fell one game short the next year, losing the UCLA in the championship game).

It was fun while it lasted. It’s difficult to imagine that it was all of 25 years ago.

Fans who remember and fans who have only heard the stories will get to revel in the memories of that 1994 championship season today when that great Razorback team will be honored during the Arkansas-Ole Miss game in Bud Walton Arena. Williamson, Thurman, McDaniel, Corey Beck, Stewart and the rest of the 1994 team will be recognized, as will Richardson, a Hall of Fame coach who perhaps still doesn’t get his due as one of the all-time greats.

Today’s celebration will be bittersweet, since the team hasn’t come close to those heights in the intervening years. First there was the competitive slide in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Then there was Richardson’s messy firing and the hard feelings (not to mention the lawsuit). Then there was 10 more years of on- and off-court struggles as the team only occasionally reached the post-season and never matched fan expectations.

Mike Anderson, Richardson’s top assistant coach during his years at Arkansas, returned as its head coach eight years later sporting a sparkling resume from stops at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri. His arrival in Fayetteville rekindled hopes of putting Arkansas back on the college basketball map. His tenure has been more successful than the last two coaches, but Razorback fans still long for the glory days of Final Fours and national prominence. With this year’s young, inexperienced team still looking for the right chemistry, the wait will be at least a little longer.

But that shouldn’t hinder the party today at Walton Arena. Fans should remember and celebrate 1994’s great accomplishment, and appreciate the hard work, dedication and talent it took for that team to win it all.

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