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Q&A: Ricky Norton, Part 3

Fans who followed Razorback basketball during the early 1980s no doubt recall Ricky Norton's zone-busting jumper and ice-water veins at the free-throw line. Norton played for Eddie Sutton's Hogs from 1980 to 1984 and was a starter for most of his final two seasons. During his time in Fayetteville, Arkansas won two SWC regular-season championships and one SWC tournament championship. The Hogs also made it to the NCAA Tournament every year of Norton's career and advanced to the Sweet 16 in both 1981 and 1983. Now living in his native Okalona, Norton is the transportation manager for Pharmacy Care of Arkansas.

In the third installment of our Q&A (here are parts 1 and 2), Ricky discusses the challenge of fitting into Eddie Sutton's offensive system, the joys of beating No. 1 North Carolina in 1984 and the heartbreak of losing to Virginia in the NCAA Tournament a few weeks later.

Photo courtesy of 1983-84 Razorback basketball media guide

Expats: Your speciality was outside shooting, and Coach Sutton was more known for a style of offense that was focused on throwing it inside to the big guy for a high-percentage shot. Was playing in that style frustrating at all?

Norton: Coach - I love him to death. He's always been a father-figure kind of a guy. I still stay in touch with him. Not long ago, they honored him and [assistant coaches Pat] Foster and [Gene] Keady.

When we saw each other, he looked at me and said, "Man, when you were in college you played around 180 pounds. Now, you're looking like a power forward!" I said, "Ah, Coach, you got jokes now, huh?" I said, "I thought if I looked like a power forward, I'd get the basketball!" So we kind of laughed.

The first couple of years, the adjustment was kind of difficult. But I understood that, hey, if I'm going to be a part of this basketball team and this program, then I'm going to have to do it Coach Sutton's way, not Ricky's way. There were times that I wanted to challenge Coach and say, "Look, man. I'm a shooter."

We would always have a scrimmage there in Barnhill on Homecoming morning, and several thousand people would show up. I remember playing in that scrimmage my freshman year. I came down, and after the first pass, I shoot about a 28-footer. I started backpedaling back down the court, and it hit nothing but net.

A whistle blows - (impersonates sound of whistle) - and it's Coach Sutton. "What the hell are you doing? We don't need that shot on the first pass. We can get that shot anytime we want! You may have shot that at Okalona but you're sure as hell not going to shoot that up here! I've only had one guy that can hit that shot 50 percent of the time, and that was Marvin Delph. Get him out of the game!"

So, I walked over to the sidelines, and [assistant coach Bill] Brown walks over, and he's trying to console me. He pats me and says, "You're going to be alright, bud. We can get that shot anytime. We don't need that shot on the first pass."

I just looked at Coach Brown [and said], "Coach, I'm fine. But you go tell Coach Sutton he's got two players that can hit that shot 50 percent of the time. Let me shoot it."

It was challenging at times. But I understood that his system was to either get it to the big guards Robertson and Walker or dump that thing inside to Hastings or Kleine or whoever the big guy was, because we wanted a high-percentage shot.

Now, if the team was going to sag in and play zone around them, then I knew my opportunities were going to come. But I had to be ready, and I had to show Coach that I had the confidence to hit that shot in order to take that shot.

By my junior and senior years, I was really comfortable. Nothing fazed me. I shot the ball with great confidence. Those last two years were great years.

Expats: What was a more exciting game for you to be a part of: the game where U.S. Reed hit the halfcourt shot to beat Louisville, or the one in 1984 when you guys beat North Carolina?

Norton: I'm going to say the North Carolina game. The U.S. Reed shot - I was a freshman. I didn't even break a sweat other than just warming up. But that was a great shot, and a shot that I'll always remember. But for the North Carolina game, I was a starter.

And I remember Dirt Winston - who played with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a linebacker, and he played college at the University of Arkansas - he was standing there when we were coming out of the locker room. He was firing us up, telling us that North Carolina had come out a while ago and that they were laughing and carrying on, like this was going to be a scrimmage game or something.

Of course, we had played SMU the night before, and we got stuck in Dallas. They had tornadoes and storms, so we couldn't fly out. We all got up the next morning, had a pre-game meal and a scouting report in Coach Sutton's suite, and boarded the plane.

When we got into the Pine Bluff Convention Center, we went straight into the locker room and had a quick chalk talk, scouting report and - boom - we had to go out and warm up, because it was like a 12:35 game.

Now you look back and you think about that game and you go, "Wow - Perkins, Daugherty, Jordan, Robertson, Kleine. That's some pretty good company you're playing with there."

Beating a power like Carolina out of the ACC, it was gratifying, and it gave our program some more credibility. It let the country know that Arkansas basketball is here, and it's going to be here for a while.

Expats: On the flip side of that question, which was the harder loss for you - the Sweet 16 game in ‘83 against Louisville when you guys were way ahead and they pulled it out, or the following year against Virginia, the final game of your career?

Norton: That is a difficult question. ESPN Classic showed that Louisville game about a week ago. I recorded it and watched it. Having a big 16-point lead - we felt like we were playing good basketball and that we were good enough to go on and beat Kentucky [in the Regional Final] to go to the Final Four.

At the same time, - if we had beaten Virginia, we actually thought we would have had a smooth sailing into the Final Four because Virginia walked into the Final Four after they beat us.

Probably the Virginia loss because that was the last time I wore a Razorback uniform. When the final game is over and you walk into that locker room and you start taking off your jersey, you realize that the Hog calling, the camaraderie of being with your teammates, going to practice, traveling - all that has come to an end.

I knew that, hey, I'm not going to be with these guys anymore. This is it. And that certainly was a sad moment for me. It was really sad. I'm going to say the Virginia game in 1984 was the one that hurt the most.

(In Part 4, Ricky names the best player that he played with in Fayetteville and the most talented one. Spoiler alert: It isn't the same person. And before you read the next installment, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't yet done so.)