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Passion for hoops leads ex-NBA player Williamson into unlikely job

CONWAY, Ark. -- They have trailed most of the way, but in the final 90 seconds there's suddenly a slim chance. Corliss Williamson stands a couple of feet from the opponent, a coiled bundle of potential energy. He wants more than anything to forcibly deny the inbound pass, to rip the basketball away and dunk it. Instead, he turns and shuffles in his sharp gray suit -- blue dress shirt, no tie -- a few steps back toward the home team's bench, and watches as visiting Stephen F. Austin escapes with an 11-point win.

It might be the hardest thing, Williamson will tell you, about his gig at the University of Central Arkansas. It's not necessarily the losing, though that's not easy (the mid-January loss to Stephen F. Austin was the Bears' sixth straight, and in his second season as head coach, they have lost 39 of 51 games). It's being unable to physically influence the game. Even at 38, five years removed from his last NBA game, it is apparent he still could play. But he is no longer "Big Nasty." He is "Coach." And the change of titles still startles him at times.

The first question he usually hears does not, though, because it is nearly always the same: Why? Why is the guy we know as Big Nasty -- two-time All-American at Arkansas, 12-year pro -- grinding at the lowest levels of Division I basketball, guiding a fledgling program's journey in a bus league?

Williamson does not need to coach. After retiring from the NBA in 2007, he could have lived comfortably from his investments. (You could argue, in fact, that he does, anyway; his $110,000 salary from Central Arkansas isn't peanuts, but it's certainly not big money.) There were other, less stressful careers he could have chosen than this path, with its long hours and long, hard road to ... well, no one's really sure yet where the program is headed, or when it might get there.

"I just love the game," Williamson said. "[The desire to coach] kind of grew over the years."

In the head coach's cramped, cluttered office beneath the stands at the Farris Center, Central Arkansas' arena, there are only a few mementos. A photograph from his rookie year with Sacramento, guarding Magic Johnson. A ball cap from his stint with the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons. A framed magazine cover -- not Sports Illustrated, but Little Rock FAMILY. And high on a shelf behind his desk, a basketball. It's covered with autographs of 9-year-olds from the first team Williamson coached, seven years ago, his oldest son's AAU team.

Williamson said he knew he wanted to coach, even before working with those boys. In his last few years in the NBA, as his playing time dwindled, Williamson gravitated toward the coaches. He studied X's and O's with Pete Carril, the former Princeton coach who was an assistant with the Kings. The goal was simply to learn the game from a different angle, and his initial thought was to remain in the NBA as a coach; he said there were opportunities. But as he coached his son's team, Williamson recognized how much time he had missed with him -- and when he retired to Little Rock, he didn't want to leave again. There's another noteworthy item in Williamson's office. Artwork, in purple crayon, produced by a younger son: "I LOVE DAD. I LOVE UCA BERS. WE ARE LOVE, CJ."

Maybe that helps answer why Williamson is coaching. Maybe it even explains why he's doing it at Central Arkansas -- "I always said I wanted to coach [NCAA] Division I basketball in the state of Arkansas," he said. "I never thought it would happen so soon." Few did. So the question -- why? -- needs to be asked of someone else, too.

Two years ago, as he searched for a coach to guide the program as it became a full member at the Division I level, Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague's initial thought was to hire a major-college assistant. He conducted several interviews at the Big 12's postseason tournament in Kansas City, Mo., and had a few others scheduled. When well-connected locals suggested he talk with Williamson, Teague was skeptical, with good reason. Former NBA players' forays into college coaching have not exactly been smashing successes -- locally, former Arkansas standout Sidney Moncrief lasted one season as head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock in the late 1990s. In some cases, it has seemed they didn't understand the demands going in, or at least they weren't willing to meet them.

Williamson had just completed his first season as the head coach at Arkansas Baptist College; he'd spent the two seasons before that as an assistant with the junior-college program in nearby Little Rock. Teague interviewed him twice. The first time, Williamson asked for game film of several Southland Conference opponents. When they met again, he had produced detailed scouting reports.

"I thought that was pretty smart," Teague said, and it was also unique among the candidates he interviewed. It also didn't hurt that when they met for the second interview, in downtown Little Rock, Williamson parked the car, got out and was approached, according to Teague, by "two elderly ladies" who swooned upon meeting him. Teague asked: "Wow, did you set that up?" -- and sure, a fundraising athletic director's heart was warmed. Williamson brought name recognition, probably with recruits, but certainly, Teague figured, with boosters.

"I didn't think I was gonna hire an NBA player," said Teague. "I'm so glad I did. It hasn't turned into significant wins yet, but we're on our way to successful."

Before pulling the trigger, Teague polled several other coaches on Williamson. Nolan Richardson said he touted his former star's work ethic -- "He's a workaholic," the former Arkansas coach said -- along with Williamson's humility and loyalty.

"A lot of guys who are good basketball players are not good basketball coaches because it came very easily for them," Richardson said. "Corliss is not that way. I really thought he would make a good coach."

Richardson, now retired in Fayetteville, Ark., made the short trip a few days ago to watch Williamson's team. After catching a game and a couple of practices, he came away impressed with the intensity and with Williamson's rapport with the players. "He's gonna be an excellent major-college basketball coach," Richardson said.

Charles Ripley, the athletic director at Arkansas Baptist and a longtime, well-respected fixture in the local basketball community, also gave a glowing review. "He's got coaching in his blood," Ripley said. "He was very knowledgeable about the game but he was always trying to learn something. He didn't think he knew it all." Ripley liked Williamson's ability to relate to and teach players who didn't have his talent. And he said the experience at Arkansas Baptist was important.

Central Arkansas buses to about half its road games in the Southland Conference. It's a huge step down from the chartered jets Williamson experienced in the NBA -- and for that matter, from his college days at Arkansas. But it's a giant step up from Arkansas Baptist, where the Buffaloes traveled everywhere in a 15-passenger van -- usually driven by Williamson. (Once, he was pulled over and cited for having expired tags.) His first few games as an assistant coach, Williamson drove his own car. But he quickly recognized the need for full immersion. "I've got to get into this like everyone else," Williamson said he told himself. "If I'm gonna really learn from this experience and grow and appreciate it, I've got to get behind the wheel."

He's brought the same attitude a few miles up Interstate 40. In comparison to Arkansas Baptist, Central Arkansas is chock-full of resources. "It's a step up," Williamson said, "but it's not like you jump in where you're in over your head. This is a great opportunity for me to learn and grow."

Nationally, if basketball fans know Central Arkansas, it's probably as the answer to a trivia question: What NBA great was an equipment manager at an NAIA school, then grew several inches and blossomed into a star? The answer is plastered all over the Farris Center. A large banner at one end of the arena has a photograph of Scottie Pippen and the message: "NAMED ONE OF THE 50 GREATEST NBA PLAYERS OF ALL TIME."

High in each of the arena's four corners are more posters of Pippen. It's easy to understand why the program's link to greatness is so prominently displayed; it's harder to discern why, high on a stage behind one basket, a giant inflatable castle with a slide sits unused but ready for action. And it's worth noting the arena, capacity 6,000, is typically about one-third filled; during games, large curtains cover the empty upper portions of the stands.

The goal is to raise those curtains. And to raise the profile of the institution, which is in part why Central Arkansas decided several years ago to make the move from NCAA Division II to Division I. The football team made the playoffs in its second season at the FCS level. The women's basketball team is atop the Southland standings. The goal for the men's team?

"We want to be the best we can on our level," said Teague, which means exciting basketball that puts fans in the seats, wins conference championships and makes NCAA tournament appearances. Those are Williamson's goals, too. He talks bigger, saying he'd like to build the program into a mid-major power like Gonzaga or Butler.

The first challenge might be to convince people -- starting with recruits -- that the Bears are playing Division I hoops. When Williamson recruits, even in Arkansas, he is routinely asked if Central Arkansas is still NAIA, or NCAA Division II. And although his name retains tremendous drawing power in the state, it's not so much with teenagers as their parents and coaches. He has taken to showing off his championship rings -- the national title he won at Arkansas, the NBA championship with the Pistons -- on recruiting visits, a tangible way to earn credibility. He lets the players handle them, and he tells them he's not finished, that he wants to earn more.

Lofty stuff, sure. And athletic director and coach say it's a long way off. They both preach patience, and say they're committed for the long haul.

Central Arkansas employs an interesting mixture of styles. Williamson likes the pressure defenses and fast pace he played at Arkansas under Richardson, and also the precise Princeton offense he learned from Carril. "It may not even be the right mix," he said. "It might be oil and water." He's still learning, you know. Experimenting. And hopefully, growing. So far, many games have been 40 minutes of hell -- and not in a good way.

On this night in mid-January, like so many others in the last two seasons, the Bears are outmanned. Stephen F. Austin is a middling Southland team, but the Lumberjacks are bigger, stronger and more athletic. The best player in the gym is watching it all wishing he could do more. "When you see something you know you could fix ... you wish you could be out there," Williamson said. "To me, that's the hardest. I can't fix it that way, by myself. I can't go fix it."

Did we say Williamson watched as Central Arkansas lost? That's not quite right. He did his best to fix it. He instructed. He encouraged. He yelled. Sometimes he scowled -- and when he did, it was easy to see the competitive streak that made him a force in his college days, leading Arkansas to a national championship, and in the NBA, when he lasted a dozen years as an undersized forward. Williamson was a journeyman, and he knows it. "I wasn't the most skilled guy," he said. "I didn't have the crossover and the three-point jump shots. I had to really work." He looks at coaching the same way: "I'm gonna have to work at it."

The record doesn't reflect it, but Williamson said he's seen a world of improvement from his first year to this one. Others echo the assessment.

"When he got there, they didn't have zero," Richardson said. "It's a slow build. You give him another year under his belt and some recruits?"

"They're making strides," said Ripley, the Arkansas Baptist coach. "It's tough, but they're getting it built up. That changeover to Division I ain't easy."

What comes next? More losses, almost certainly. After a 94-63 setback Wednesday night at Texas State, the Bears had lost six in a row -- their second six-game losing streak of the season. They're 7-15 overall, 2-8 in Southland play. Clearly there's a long road ahead.

Big Nasty -- sorry, it's Coach -- seems ready for the bus ride.

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