When Eric Musselman was hired as the next head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2019, most thought he was a good hire. Less than two years later, he has surpassed almost everyone’s expectations.
Eric Musselman was always going to be a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the basketball program. Those who thought that Mike Anderson did not get worked up enough during games knew that Musselman would bring more intensity. You wanted more yelling and screaming? You’ve got it.
Musselman is quick to dish out praise to players and just as quick to sit them. He gets in referees’ faces and is not afraid to pick up technical fouls. After wins, he goes over to the student section and fires them up. After losses, he looks physically pained at press conferences. Muss wears his passion on his sleeve and sometimes off it. Mike Anderson became known for removing his jacket during games; Muss rips his shirt off.
In just his second year, Musselman already has crafted a team in his image. He has taken a collection of graduate transfers and true freshmen and has assimilated them into one of the country’s most selfless teams. This isn’t one that is defined by just one or two guys like in the past. Although Moses Moody and Justin Smith are clearly the two best players on the squad, the talk after the game is almost always on who else stepped up.
In a year when college basketball’s bluebloods are struggling with team chemistry to the point that some have even begun questioning the one-and-done rule, Musselman has been able to do what coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari have not.
For an eight-game stretch from January to February, the Hogs had seven different players lead the team in scoring. Seven different players also have led the team in assists in games this year, and six have collected the most rebounds on a given night. While most teams would want to have a go-to guy, Arkansas has several.
Everybody keeps improving too. There are no longer “good” or “bad” players, just those who contribute one night and others who are waiting for their turn. The team puts effort into everything they do and lacks any obvious weaknesses.
Arkansas fans have been waiting for a coach like this. Ever since Nolan Richardson was fired controversially in 2002, the Hogs have been wandering in the desert.
Under Nolan, Arkansas went to 13 tournaments, advanced to three Final Fours, and won one championship. Since then, they have toiled in mediocrity having won only three tournament games, and of course, they still have not made a Sweet 16 since 1996. Sure, the SEC is much more competitive than it used to be, but this should be a team that makes the Big Dance regularly and gets to the second weekend every few years or so.
Could Razorback nation finally have a savior to deliver the program back to the promised land? Perhaps a Mussiah?
Since Frank Broyles, the athletic director at the time, and Nolan Richardson had their falling out almost 20 years ago, Arkansas has been trying to get back. Amends were made, and Richardson was quickly welcomed back at the Bud. His former right-hand assistant, Mike Anderson, became the coach and helped bring stability to the program.
Anderson put together a good run for several years, but eventually, the need to move on became apparent. The path was paved for a new coach from Nevada to take the next step. The timing was perfect as the basketball court finally was named after Richardson just before Musselman’s first game as head coach.
For Eric Musselman, basketball is life. He gets up early and works out for two hours every morning at the practice facility which he treats as an opportunity to prepare his notes for the day. While on the treadmill, he highlights and scribbles in the margins of pages set in front of him.
Hunter Yurachek immediately could sense Musselman’s passion the first time he spoke to him saying, “I knew I had the right guy when I offered the job to Musselman over the phone and my ear started shaking because he was so excited.” As soon as Yurachek called, Musselman began watching tape on the Razorbacks.
Like those of his breed, Musselman savors preparation. He obsesses over it. He has claimed to stay up in the middle of the night because he is watching game film. When teams had to postpone or cancel their games against the Razorbacks, Muss seems less disappointed that the game won’t be played but rather his scouting reports would have to be shelved.
He quickly turned his attention to who he can take on next. When Tulsa cancelled, he found a replacement, and when Texas A&M postponed twice, he refused to rest even though he admitted his team could use it. Before the first scheduled meeting with the Aggies, Musselman said in an interview with 103.7 The Buzz that Desi Sills could not even lift his arm above his head at the time due to a shoulder injury. Still, he wanted to play someone, anyone.
For Eric, his tireless drive was instilled by his father Bill Musselman who died at the age of 59 in 2000. Bill was considered to be the ultimate “coaches’ coach” whose journey across the basketball landscape became semi-legendary and who Eric tries to live up to his legacy.
Both men shared more than just the same strong jawline. Bill got his first college head coaching job at 25 at a small university in Ohio. He emphasized tenacious defense, and his 1968-69 team held opponents to an NCAA record low 33.9 points per game. Just a few years later, he took over at Minnesota where he immediately led the Gophers to a Big Ten championship in his first season. Some of the players during his tenure included Dave Winfield (yes, the baseball player), Flip Saunders, and Mychal Thompson.
Afterward, he would spend the next few decades bouncing between the ABA, CBA, and NBA. In total, he held 13 head coaching jobs in 35 years.
Bill Musselman was also a showman. He would play the Globetrotters’ “Sweet Georgia Brown” at games and have the players do ballhandling tricks to impress the crowd. Eric has said, “It was a lot of music and dance moves like we see now. The whole thing was choreographed.” He added, “They must have worked on their warm-up routine for about an hour-and-a-half (at practice).” Eric considered his father to be his best friend.
Bill became somewhat famous for saying that “Defeat is worse than death, because you have to live with defeat.” He often slept only three to five hours a night and would watch game film until he drifted off to sleep.
One of his former players, the current coach of the Washington Wizards, Scott Brooks, has said, “Bill was as competitive a person as you could imagine.” Perhaps it is no surprise that the time Arkansas appeared to not play with enough effort in their loss to LSU earlier this year, Eric used weighted vests during their next practice- a throwback to Bill’s regiments in the 60s.
At 23, Eric Musselman got his first head coaching job. He was the youngest coach in CBA history and the fastest to win 100 games. He went on to become an assistant on a couple of NBA teams before quickly becoming the head coach of Golden State in 2002.
“The one kind of regret that I have is that my dad wasn’t living when I became the coach of the Golden State Warriors,” Musselman told HawgSports.com. “It was about 15 minutes before the press conference and I broke down crying.”
Leading the Warriors to 38 wins, he was voted as runner-up coach of the year after his first season. He was one of the hottest young names in basketball when he took over the Sacramento Kings in 2006.
Unfortunately, the Kings finished with a 33-49 record, and Musselman was fired at the end of the season. “That was the one time I felt as a coach I failed,” said Musselman in Sports Illustrated. The relationship between the coach and management had turned sour by the time he was let go. In addition, he was going through some personal issues including a divorce with his first wife at the time while his children lived with their mother. As a result of his experience, Musselman left professional coaching for three years.
He once told an assistant coach, “I would never hire someone who hadn’t been fired because I know that you respect your job so much more. When you’ve had weeks, years, months, without coaching… I’ve been fired twice, and it humbles you to no end.”
Since Sacramento, Musselman has never been back to the NBA. He decided to change his career path by going into the college game.
On January 20, Arkansas trailed Auburn at halftime 43-31. Musselman’s philosophy of position-less basketball that he said wanted to be like Golden State was directionless basketball instead. The team looked lost and played without confidence. The multiple options at Musselman’s disposal went from being a blessing to a curse. Four out of five losses to start 2021 including a 31-point blowout to Alabama had many fans wondering if it was time to hit the panic button.
However, Muss has proved to be great at making “halftime adjustments.” Less than a week before, he had his infamous closed-door practice that he claimed, “over the course of the season, they’re going to remember.” Hustle and tenacity always have been the answer. Musselman decided to dial up the defensive pressure by double-teaming the Tigers’ star Sharife Cooper in the second half which proved to be the turning point, and the Razorbacks have never looked back since then.
Heading into their final regular season game, the Hogs are the hottest team in the country. Surfing on a 10-game conference win streak and ranked No. 12 in the country, Arkansas is not only a lock for the NCAA tournament but is expected to win games in it. Currently, the Razorbacks are projected to be a three seed according to bracketologists, and if they keep winning and capture an SEC tournament title, they could end up as a two seed.
On Friday, Eric Musselman was named as a semifinalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year. Speculation now is turning to how long he might choose to stay.
Rest assured, Hunter Yurachek probably is restructuring his contract as we speak. Musselman has proved that he can win at Arkansas. Certainly, he can bring in the talent. He has mentioned multiple times how impressed he is with the facilities, and the advantage it provides with recruiting.
Meanwhile, he also has a young daughter in school and a younger son who is off to college. Now might be the time to put down some roots.
However, with his success, would he ever consider going back to the NBA? Perhaps that ship might have sailed, or maybe he just might not be interested anymore.
For a reinvented and reinvigorated Musselman, he finally might have carved out a place for himself where he can apply the principles he learned in the pros to a game that is able to match his energy. Previously, he has described his recruiting philosophy as identifying transfers as “free agents” and incoming freshmen as “draft picks.” Besides, can you imagine how a locker room of grizzled NBA veterans would respond to Musselman’s admittedly cheesy pregame speeches?
Then again, with all his energy comes a restlessness. Bill Musselman did not jump around because he was always fired. It is in Eric’s DNA.
That said, let us not get ahead of ourselves for Arkansas still has everything to play for left in front of them. The only thing that is certain is that the Muss Bus is rolling, and the time to get on is now. Because for Eric Musselman, it has always been all gas and no brakes.