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Remembering Mike Anderson’s best moments at Arkansas

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Florida vs Arkansas Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Anderson is no longer Arkansas’ basketball coach.

The 59-year-old has spent 25 years of his life in Fayetteville and they’ve mostly been good ones. Think about it: he’s been on the bench for nearly all of Arkansas’ great basketball moments for the last 30 years, and there have been plenty of them.

In the end, though, there just weren’t enough great moments during the time he was in charge. Mild-mannered, he was the delayed successor to Nolan Richardson but never came close to matching his legacy. It was probably unfair to expect him to, but the seeming lack of Nolan’s fire and creativity always irked fans. As he exits, the 40 Minutes of Hell system finally goes into the history books with him, leaving the court for good in the very season its creator’s name will be written on the court.

It’s important to remember that Anderson’s leaving this program better than he found it. The nine years of Stan Heath and John Pelphrey were truly a lost decade. At one point it was so bad that Dana Altman accepted a job, came to Fayetteville, and then changed his dang mind within 24 hours. Mike Anderson had to put out a fire, and that’s exactly what he did. He compiled a 169-102 overall record, a 78-64 SEC record, and two NCAA Tournament game wins in three trips. Anderson dragged the Razorback basketball program up out of a valley, but he couldn’t quite get it up the mountain.

I remember the valley well. I was a freshman on The Hill during John Pelphrey’s final season in Fayetteville, 2010-2011. I still vividly remember walking out of Bud Walton Arena after a loss in the home finale, the quiet crowd of people listening to the PA system blare – I kid you not – “Misery” by Maroon 5. Sounded about right.

Mike Anderson was hired a couple weeks after that game. He was the obvious choice. He led UAB to a Sweet Sixteen and Mizzou to an Elite Eight. And coming to Fayetteville was coming home.

During my sophomore year – Anderson’s first – I was there for the 66-64 win over 20th-ranked Michigan in front a sold-out crowd. It was the first sign that Hogball was back. During my junior year, I was there as the Hogs buried 2nd-ranked Florida under an avalanche of three-pointers, leading 34-13 just 10 minutes into the game.

Then during my senior year came the greatest basketball game I’ve watched in person, a game that, for me, extended beyond sports.

Arkansas vs. Kentucky. I was sitting on press row, doing my job as an intern for Whole Hog Sports, the online division of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The site’s editor had told me that, pending approval from higher-ups, he wanted to offer me a full-time job as a multimedia journalist. As a last-semester college senior, the promise of a job offer was so exciting that I probably didn’t give it the thought it required, and I had already said I’d accept.

It wasn’t a pretty game – a combined 60 fouls were called – but with just seconds left, the Hogs led by three. As Kentucky had excellent three-point shooters, the conventional wisdom said that Arkansas should foul, as the Wildcats would only get two free throws.

Anderson, hardly the strategist, didn’t foul. And so James Young drilled a three-pointer with one second left to send the game to overtime and my career into a whole new direction.

Standing up as the arena fell into a stunned silence, I shouted, “ANDERSON, WHY DIDN’T YOU FOUL?! YOU JUST COST YOUR TEAM THE GAME!”

If you know anything about press row in an arena or a press box in a stadium, you know that the first rule is that you absolutely do not yell or openly cheer for a side. I had just broken the rule. My boss desperately tried to shush me. As I sat down, I made eye-contact with one of the ADG’s higher-ups, longtime sportswriter Clay Henry, who did not look amused.

You know how the game ends. Michael Qualls threw down a putback dunk at the buzzer to give Arkansas an 87-85 win in overtime. It was a coolest basketball moment I’ve ever witnessed in person.

A couple weeks after the game, my boss told me that the higher-ups had told him they couldn’t hire me because they didn’t want to hire a current college student. Although I guess I’ll never know for sure, given that they eventually hired a (different) college student for the job, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t true. I’m pretty sure they didn’t offer me the job because I violated the sacred rules of press row. And you know what? I’m happy it worked out that way. I have a ton of respect for Arkansas sportswriters, but I could never do their job. The long and odd hours are one thing, but honestly, I’m content with where my career ended up going, and I’d much rather yell at Mike Anderson for not fouling than have to be quiet about it and write an objective game recap.

So thank you, Mike Anderson, for not fouling. It helped change my career, and it gave us an awesome Razorback moment.

Anderson eventually led the Hogs to three NCAA Tournaments, winning two games. My last great memory of the Anderson era came in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. A friend and I drove over to Tulsa to watch some second-round action. We watched Kansas-Michigan State and then headed over to a suite in the BOK Center to watch the Hogs face North Carolina. Huddled around a TV, the suite full of fans, mostly Jayhawks, all pulled for the Razorbacks, who led for most of the second half before falling in the final minutes to the eventual national champions.

After the game, a Kansas fan told me, “You guys played hard. I didn’t realize you were that good.”

Despite the loss, it was a great memory. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough great memories.

This year, the Hogs fell to 18-16 and 8-10 in the SEC. It was just Anderson’s second losing SEC season in eight years with Arkansas, but it came at the wrong time. The Hogs had to watch Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn all reach the NCAA Tournament with coaches who have been at their schools for just a few seasons. A disproportionate number of Anderson’s wins in Fayetteville came against “bad” coaches who have since been fired: Mark Fox, Anthony Grant, Avery Johnson, Bryce Drew, Rick Ray, and Billy Kennedy. The SEC has re-committed to basketball, and the Hogs risked being left behind.

The next hire won’t be easy. It’s one thing to fire a coach that lost too much – Bret Bielema (nice guy) was an easy call. It’s another thing to fire a coach that didn’t quite win enough. When you fire a coach that won 55% of his conference games and didn’t get your program in NCAA trouble, you better hit a home run on the next one.

Anderson is all class. Beloved by his players, he helped them graduate and kept them out of trouble. He loves Arkansas and he loves Razorback fans. He’s 59 but he’s definitely got several more years of coaching in him if he wants. Wherever he goes, I’ll be rooting for him.

Thanks, Coach.