The most successful Arkansas basketball coaches all had direct lines to some of the greatest coaches in the college game. Eddie Sutton first learned the craft as an Oklahoma State player and assistant coach under Henry Iba, who won two national championships and two Gold Medals as head coach of U.S. Olympic teams.
Iba also coached Don Haskins, who went on to coach Nolan Richardson at what was then called Texas Western, now UTEP. With mostly African-American players, Haskins led that program to a national championship in 1966 over an all-white Kentucky team. Richardson has long credited Haskins as a very influential mentor.
And Mike Anderson, of course, did his thing for decades as an assistant to Nolan Richardson.
If Eric Musselman ends up as a great Razorback coach, this nice, direct lineage from Iba through Anderson will be broken. Unlike his predecessors, there is no single, primary figure in Muss’s coaching tree. Eric Musselman’ background is much more varied, with multiple influences from all levels of the game.
For sure, his father Bill Musselman ranks highly among his mentors. Bill Musselman, while at the helm of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was the first NBA head coach under whom his son served.
In the following years, Eric Musselman learned the pro and college coaching craft from the likes of Doc Rivers, Mike Fratello, Lon Kruger and Herb Sendak.
His most accomplished mentor, however, was the legendary Chuck Daly. Daly, head coach of the original Dream Team, is on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest coaches, college or NBA. At the college level, Daly coached Penn to a 125–38 record and recruited all the starters of the Quakers squad that would make the 1979 Final Four.
Chuck Daly is best known, however, as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, where he orchestrated the “Bad Boys”-led defense that frustrated Michael Jordan through the late 1980s, going on to win two championships.
A decade after that run, Daly finished his career as the head coach of Orlando. There, for one season, Eric Musselman worked for him as an assistant. Musselman appreciated what Daly did for him.
For one, there were the free meals Daly treated his staff to in restaurants across the U.S. But, more importantly, Musselman learned lessons from Daly that have shaped him as a pro and college coach to this day. Musselman used them to turn Nevada into a mid-major power.
“He was a basketball genius, but more so, he was a people genius,” Musselman said of Daly on a podcast with longtime NBA coach, Brendan Suhr.
“With the players, I’ve never seen such a master of being a player’s coach — where the players loved playing for him, but also being a disciplinarian and having his team execute late in games.”
In the interview, Musselman broke down exactly how he tries to be a “player’s coach” in the Daly mold. For instance, he plays only man-to-man defense, and not zone, because it “helps prepare the guys for the next level, and it’s also what I’m most familiar and comfortable with teaching.”
Eric Musselman makes a point of recruiting savvy players to lean on for insight during the flow of the game. On the court, “they can see more than your assistant coaches, because they’re being defended by the actions. And they see open holes in the opposing team’s defense, so I think it’s always important to try to get as much player feedback as possible — especially from your players who have high basketball IQ.”
This collaboration plays out in game prep, too. “Even on pick-and-roll situations, if we’re playing a dynamic point guard, I’ll tell the team ‘Hey, here’s Plan A, here’s Plan B, do you guys have a Plan C?’ We might hard hedge or trap as Plan A, Plan B might be a switch, and then I’ll ask the guys ‘Do you guys have a third thought process that we want to work on this week leading up to the game?’”
Player-first philosophies aren’t foreign to Arkansas basketball fans. Both Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson coached variants of an “organized chaos” that depended on high-IQ players making the right reads, at the right times, on offense and especially on defense. They put a lot of power into the hands of their players to choose when and how to trap, hedge and jump lanes for steals.
By the end of the Anderson era, though, it seemed he gave too much freedom and provided too little instruction. The Musselman era doesn’t represent so much a swing in the opposite direction as a tightening up — more hands-on instruction based on observation and analytics.
If he pulls off a Razorback renaissance, Razorback fans will have the late Chuck Daly to thank in part.
Eric Musselman spoke for nearly 50 minutes with Brendan Suhr. Suhr is no ordinary podcaster. He coached alongside Musselman in Orlando, and had also been an assistant under Daly in Detroit. More recently, he coached Ben Simmons as an assistant at LSU.
I highly recommend listening to their deep dive of an interview.
To learn more about Nolan Richardson and other great Razorbacks (and almost Razorbacks like Detroit Piston All-Star Eddie Miles), check out my book “African-American Athletes of Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories.”