A few weeks ago, we asked for your help in tracking down former walk-on Eugene Nash, one of our all-time favorite Razorbacks. We're happy to report that, thanks to the subsequent tips, we were able to do so. Today, Nash lives in Fayetteville and is a national account manager for Tyson Foods, for which he has worked for 25 years.
A native of Tyronza, he played for the Hogs from 1978 to 1982 and despite (or, at least in part, because of) his infrequent playing time, he captured the hearts of Razorback fans like few players before or after. The waning moments of blowout wins were inevitably accompanied by booming crowd chants of "Eu-GENE! Eu-GENE!" When Coach Eddie Sutton would put Nash in the game, the crowd would go nuts.
We spoke last week with Nash, and he spun many a good yarn about his time on the Hill. Below is the first installment of a two-part Q&A, in which Eugene discusses how he became a Razorback, how Sidney Moncrief inspired him to stay on the team, why Coach Sutton resembled the Godfather, and, of course, his famous dunk and the resulting t-shirts.
Coming out of high school, did you have any scholarship offers from other schools?
I had a scholarship offer to go and play at Arkansas State, which is around my hometown. From there, I had some smaller offers like Arkansas Tech and Arkansas-Monticello, but my mindset was that I wasn't thinking NBA or anything like that. I wanted to go to the University of Arkansas and have employers in job interviews see that on my resume, but I still wanted to pursue my dream of playing college basketball.
Before leaving for Fayetteville, I sent a letter to the coaching staff saying I wanted to come out for the basketball team. They sent a letter back saying they'd never taken any walk-ons, but said I could stop by the basketball office and have a tryout.
Tell us about the tryouts.
The first day, there were about 100 guys who showed up. They put us through different drills, ran us really, really hard, and split us up into different teams and let us play. On the second day, about half of those guys didn't come back. A few of them probably figured, "What the heck, this isn't what I want to do."
It’s tough when you try to walk-on. The tryouts were like an all-star game. Everybody was trying to show off their skills; people shot the ball as soon as they crossed half-court. At the time, I was a pretty good jumper for a 6’1" kid so I could block shots and rebound. I figured I’d defend and rebound and let them see how well I could perform without shooting the basketball.
On the second day they split us into groups and had us play. There was a guy who showed up the second day. At first I thought, "He’s going to make the team, and he hasn’t even gone through the full tryout." But, it turns out that it was Jimmy Counce’s cousin. He had no interest in trying out for the team, but [then-Assistant] Coach [Pat] Foster brought him out to help distribute the ball evenly so we could all shoot.
When we finished, Coach Foster picked five of us and said for us to join the team on the first day of practice. We hadn't made the team yet, but they wanted to see how we'd compete with the real players.
I had actually already met the team: Before the tryouts, I would go to the track and run, and that happened to be the same time the basketball team was running. [Then-Assistant] Coach [Bob] Cleveland said I could run with the team so that I wouldn't be in their way and they wouldn't be in my way, and that's how we met. He didn't even know that I was going to try out for the basketball team at that time. He could have told me to get lost, but he didn't do that.
So, we practiced with the team for about a week, and after each day another guy would be let go. Finally I was the last one there, and Coach Cleveland came over and said they'd never kept a walk-on before, and they liked the way I played but that Coach Sutton probably was going to cut me.
I went in the next day thinking it was my last time, and that it had been fun. I went into that practice thinking that if it was going to be my last day of organized basketball, I should make it a good one. I was jumping around, blocking shots like crazy.
I was blocking everyone's shots – Moncrief’s, everybody. At one point, Coach Sutton yelled, "Eugene! Don't you know that's called goaltending!" That’s the first time I knew he knew my name.
Finally at the end of practice Coach Sutton walked over to where I was shooting free throws and I was getting nervous - tearing up a little bit. He started catching my free throws and throwing the ball back to me. At one point, he said "So, what number would you want to wear?" That’s when I knew I had made it, and the rest of the team gave a big cheer and ran over and congratulated me.
You probably knew it wouldn’t take long for us to ask about your famous dunk during your junior year, which spawned the classic "Eugene, Eugene, The Dunking Machine" t-shirts. What are your memories of it?
It was a huge adrenaline rush. We were playing Southwest Missouri State, which by then was coached by Coach Cleveland. I still remember jumping out in the passing lane like Coach Sutton always said to, and I got the basketball.
The dunk could have been a lot better but Coach Sutton said I jumped from just inside the free throw line — he thought I was going to miss it. It wasn't as good of a dunk as I'd like, but it was fortunate that it went down.
I couldn't believe that people went to the extremes of printing up the shirts. I never met the person who made them. It was exciting to see that and to be a part of the Razorbacks and to feel good about being part of an outstanding basketball team.
Outside of the dunk, what's another particularly memorable on-court moment for you?
Actually, it was during practice my freshman year. We came back after Christmas break, and everybody was having a tough time making things happen. Coach Sutton kept saying, "Your timing is off. Don’t worry, it will come back."
Everybody else's rhythm started to come back but mine, and I started to feel bad, like I couldn't compete. I was standing over on the sidelines feeling bad about myself, and just as I was thinking about turning and going, I saw Sidney Moncrief bend down next to me. He said, "Man, I'm having a rough day. I can't get my timing down but I'm not going to let it get to me." He was only out for a few minutes to say those words. Usually, Sidney never checked himself out of practice - he never wanted to leave the court.
I don't know if he saw it in my face, but because of him I decided to stay and tough it out. After that, I never even thought about quitting the team. I thought, if Sidney Moncrief cares about me, then I'm staying out there!
When I meet young players, I always hope that I can say things like that to them to keep them driving forward.
One of the nicer Razorback basketball stories is how Scott Hastings, one of the all-time Arkansas greats, gave up his spot in the starting lineup so that you could start your (and his) final home game. Did you have any idea beforehand that he was going to do that?
That was a last-second surprise. There were six seniors, so one of us wouldn’t get the start. I don't know how it happened, but Scott felt like it was important to relinquish his spot and let me start. Coach Sutton honored that and let me start. I don't know how many minutes I played, but it seemed like a lot. Coach Sutton let me stay out there - later he said I wasn't making any mistakes so there was no reason to take me out!
Lots of walk-ons have come and gone, but none have captured the fans' hearts the way you did. Why do you think the fans embraced you so?
My first year, I lived among the general student population, not in the athletic dorm. Later Coach Sutton said I needed to be around the other players, and so I moved into the athletic dorm, but that first year I lived with the students and had an opportunity to mingle with them.
I think they were the ones who started the chants because they knew me and knew that I could play. They'd seen me play, they'd seen me in practice, they'd seen me playing around the dorms. I think that's how it started, and maybe that's how I became a fan favorite. I don't know how it was for the other walk-ons, but that's how it was for me.
What was Coach Sutton like to play for? He always seemed pretty intimidating on the sidelines. Is that how he came across to you?
He was like the Godfather. You're not going to get to talk to the Godfather, even as a player. You had to go through the assistant coaches. The times you got to know him were in practice when he didn't know you were around and the assistants would ask him a question you'd brought up and he'd answer it.
If you asked him directly, he'd tell you to talk to the assistants, and they'd communicate with him. I guess he felt that if he gave us anything directly, we'd think he was being easy and wouldn't respond when he needed us to do something tough.
At the end of the year, you'd meet with Coach Sutton and evaluate the year. That was an opportunity to get to know him.