We don't know about you, but after last night's debacle in Baton Rouge, we're ready to think about happier times in Hog basketball history. And today and tomorrow, we're going to do just that, courtesy of our two-part Q&A with former Razorback walk-on guard Reggie Merritt. A graduate of Little Rock Central, Merritt played for the Hogs from 1991 through 1996 (he redshirted as a true freshman) and was a member of some of the most memorable teams in the school's history, including the 1994 national champions and the 1995 national runner-up.
Reggie now works as a coordinator of the Little Rock School District's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the district's Dropout Prevention program. In today's installment, he discusses how he became a walk-on, his relationship with Coach Richardson and his high-school encounters with some of his future Razorback teammates. A dozen thanks to Reggie for his time.
Expats: Did you go to Fayetteville intending to walk on the basketball team?
Merritt: Actually, I didn’t. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t really recruited much. I heard from a couple of NAIA schools.
No, I initially went to the U of A to major in architecture. But I got on campus and started playing pick-up games in the HPER building, and I felt that when I got to college, I got a little better.
Guys just kind of encouraged me to walk on. My parents voiced their opinion about it and encouraged me to do it.
So I went to the tryouts with a friend from Jacksonville who was a pretty good ball player. I went out there with the attitude that I wasn’t going to get my hopes up about making it, that I was just going to have fun and play hard.
Coach Anderson and Notes [Nolan Richardson III] and Ernie Murry, who was a grad assistant at the time — they all supervised the tryouts. Fortunately for me, they saw something in me and gave me an opportunity.
Expats: Were you on the team after the tryouts, or did you have to prove yourself in practice before you were officially a member?
I showed up that Saturday morning and was just in awe. Just the year before, I’m watching these guys on TV, and many of them of course are much bigger than me. I was scrawny and still am. I was super skinny. Here I am, standing amongst giants: Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, guys that I had watched on TV.
I went to practice for about two weeks before I asked Coach Anderson if I was officially part of the team. I was just blessed that they kept me around.
Expats: You noted in your reunion dinner remarks that your time in Fayetteville encompassed three distinct eras in Razorback basketball. It’s been frequently noted how good the chemistry was on the national championship era team. How was it on the Day-Mayberry era team? And how about the year that you were a senior and Pat Bradley and Kareem Reid were freshmen?
Merritt: When I got there, Todd and Lee and Big O were all seniors. They embraced me. That’s something that I remember to this day. Here I am, a walk-on, and these guys really took me in.
I lived in the dorm with the regular students. During Christmas, the dorm was closed. But we had to stay on campus to practice. Todd Day and Clyde Fletcher were roommates, and they opened up their apartment to me. I stayed with them during the Christmas break.
The chemistry on that team was awesome. Those guys hung out. Those guys were very close. I think that translated to the success that we saw early in the 90s.
And of course, with Corey and Corliss and Scotty, the chemistry was the same way. It was like a family, a brotherhood. Guys hung out together. It wasn’t a situation where you go to practice and then go your separate ways.
With Pat and Kareem, that was a young group. John [Enskov] and I were the elder statesmen of that group. It was a different kind of chemistry. Having been a guy who had been through all of the battles, I felt like more of a mentor, almost like a grandfather in some respects.
But I felt like there was an obligation to pass on the attitude and the way of going about things. That group was cool.
Expats: What was Coach Richardson like to play for? Was he more of a players’ coach or was he someone that the players were scared to death of?
Merritt: You’re in awe of Coach Richardson because he’s Coach Richardson. He’s a big man, so I was literally looking up at him most times. His stature was intimidating.
He’s from the old school. I had had coaches that would get in your face and yell at you, so I was kind of used to that.
He had his system, and he believed in his system. All of us bought into it, and I think that’s why we were successful. I think guys really respected Coach Richardson, but there was a fear factor.
When we lost a game, the plane ride home would be quiet. That next day at practice, you could almost hear a pin drop because we knew what to expect after a loss.
Coach would come in, and we would get to business. We never wanted to lose a game because you never knew what coach might do or have us do – run, whatever.
But I think that everybody respected him and that everybody loved him. Just looking back, you appreciate more the things that you went through.
The lessons I took from that whole experience – I’m forever grateful to Coach Richardson for just giving me an opportunity. I wasn’t even supposed to be there.
There were guys way more talented than I was coming out of high school that could have easily walked on and been a part of that. It was definitely a blessing for me to be there at that particular time and to experience the whole atmosphere and winning a national championship. How many people can actually say that?
Expats: Do you stay in touch with Coach Richardson?
Merritt: I talk to Coach Richardson every blue moon. I last talked to him in May or so. It’s been a good while. I wanted to invite him down to my charity game, and I think at that time he was doing a golf tournament in El Paso.
I need to give him a call and congratulate him on his new position with the Tulsa WNBA team.
I saw Corliss a couple of weeks back. I’ve conversed with Scotty and Corey. I talked with Ray Biggers via Web chat. Many of us don’t talk on a regular basis, but it’s always good when we do, like at the reunion dinner. There is a great camaraderie among that group.
Expats: Speaking of some of your ex-teammates, at the reunion dinner in Fayetteville last spring, you told some pretty funny stories about how you had encountered several of your future teammates while playing high-school basketball. Could you tell our readers which ones you had come across before you arrived in Fayetteville?
Merritt: Well, of course I had heard about Corliss over the years, playing AAU ball and high school ball. His team, Russellville, put us out of the state tournament my senior year. We played them in the first round. If we had won our last regular-season game, we wouldn’t have had to play Corliss.
We played Pine Bluff each year, so I had played against Ken Biley. My [Central High] teammate Richard Scott and I hung out together, and I met Ken by going to Richard’s AAU practices. They were on the same AAU team.
With Corey and Dwight, their Memphis AAU team, which also had Penny Hardaway, came to Little Rock and played the Arkansas Wings AAU senior team, which had Ken Biley, Richard Scott and Alfred Warren. They were a year ahead of me. I wasn’t on that particular team.
The Memphis team put a stomping on those guys. Everybody was anticipating watching Hardaway, who at that time was the number one high-school player in the country, but I’ll never forget seeing Corey — at that time he had a little jheri curl.
And Dwight, I can remember Dwight coming out and people just kind of looking at him like, “Who is this kid?” And then we saw how he could play and handle the ball.
I played against Scotty in an AAU tournament. Even at that time, Scotty was talking trash. I remember him running up and down the court talking trash like he would normally do in a pick-up game.
There was a recruiting manual that listed the top 250 high school players in the country, and I remember reading it in high school. On that list was Clint McDaniel. He was in the top 15 or so. Corey was there. And most people forget this, but Elmer Martin was in, like, the top 10 in the country at that time. I remember reading about those guys and also Ray Biggers in that manual.
It’s just ironic how you can remember those guys like that and then just a couple of years later, you’re all on the same team playing together. You read about them. You saw them play. Never in a million years would you think that we would eventually all be together on a team that would be historic.
(Tomorrow: We ask Reggie his take on the issue that Razorback fans have debated for years: who would win a fight between Roosevelt Wallace and Corliss Williamson? And while you're waiting for Part 2, sign up to follow us on Facebook and Twitter.)