There comes a day in the history of every coaching tenure that people look back on and say one of two things to themselves:
1. Wow! That was when things really turned.
2. I forgot that even happened.
The past couple of weeks fall perfectly into this situation for both Arkansas head football coach Sam Pittman and men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman. The next three weeks could very well determine the legacy of both men.
The first type of moment, No. 1 in the list, can be either a positive or a negative.
Three of the most legendary moments of this type came under former head football coach Lou Holtz and former men’s basketball coach Nolan Richardson, and provide excellent learning opportunities for any coach.
The 1978 Orange Bowl incident
Arkansas was slated to play No. 2 Oklahoma, a heavily-favored juggernaut led by infamous head coach Barry Switzer, in the Orange Bowl. The Sooners were originally picked to win rather easily over the Hogs, but when Holtz suspended running back Ben Cowins and wide receiver Donny Bobo, along with the team’s fullback following a serious dorm incident, the Razorbacks suddenly found themselves without 78% of their point production. This moved the betting lines from an 18-point Oklahoma win to a 24-point margin.
““We had a lot of great things happen that year and got a bid to the Orange Bowl,” Arkansas quarterback Ron Calcagni told reporter Berry Trammel a couple of decades later. “We were already the underdog, but Lou had the 'Do Right Rule,' and those guys didn't do right. I'll never forget when Holtz called me over the break and said, 'Cal, I had to suspend three of your teammates.'"
The players appealed the suspension, splitting the locker room. While then Arkansas attorney general Bill Clinton defended Holtz’s decision on behalf of the university in court, Holtz did all he could to inspire his team while also holding off a potential boycott of at least a dozen players.
"I'll never forget that conversation with Lou,” Calcagni said.” You talk about a motivator, he said, 'Cal, you and I are going to win this ballgame.' And he said, 'This is how we're going to do it.'
“You talk about a game plan that we had put together. Our coaches did a great job of preparing us. And talk about adversity. Some players had to step up. And boy did they step up."
Prior to the suspensions, Holtz had a plan that had worked so well in a scrimmage that he reportedly asked new athletics director Frank Broyles whether he thought they would be named national champs once they beat Oklahoma by 40.
Arkansas didn’t win by 40, but it was close. The short-handed Hogs blasted the Sooners 31-6, costing Oklahoma a national championship and vaulting Razorbacks to No. 3 in the nation in the final polls.
Nolan goes for a walk
In February of 1990, with less than a minute left to go in Austin against a Tom Penders coached Texas team that had recently adopted a running style to match No. 3 Arkansas, Nolan Richardson walked out.
Perhaps the most intimidating coach to ever roam the sidelines of a basketball court didn’t throw a chair or have to be held back by assistants in his response to a bit of perceived home cooking by the refs that day. He simply walked out.
Legendary point guard Lee Mayberry had been called for an intentional foul with 14 seconds remaining with Texas already up 84-83.
That was when it became too much for the fiery head coach. He sent a very public message to everyone as he headed to the locker room just before the Longhorns’ Lance Blanks hit a pair of free throws to make it 86-83.
Travis Mays then missed a free throw that would have iced the game, giving Mayberry a chance to exact revenge with a three to send it to overtime.
Having made his point and provided the emotional spark for his players, Richardson returned to the bench to coach the Hogs to an emphatic 103-96 overtime victory that eliminated the Longhorns from Southwest Conference championship contention while essentially crowning the Hogs champs on their rival’s floor in front of a sold out crowd.
''I felt like he was giving up his players, and giving up on the game,” Texas guard Benford Williams said after the game. “But what it did was really motivate them to play harder as a team.''
Arkansas center Oliver Miller agreed.
''When Coach does something like that, it pumps us up more,” Miller said.
The highlights were shown around the country. Stories were written from New York to Los Angeles about how Richardson handled the moment. All eyes were on the head coach, and, had he handled things differently, it could have been the beginning of the end for his tenure at Arkansas.
However, a few days later, Broyles wrote a five paragraph statement defending Richardson against the league. Had Richardson acted differently in the moment, it might have been a five paragraph statement explaining why Arkansas was no longer retaining his services instead.
Nolan takes criticism well
For those who followed the career of Richardson, the heading here might provide a bit of a chuckle, but in this infamous moment, it turned out to be true.
The No. 2 Hogs went into halftime with what might have been the only lead then No. 1 UNLV surrendered all year. However, the second half was a brutal display of physicality as the Running Rebels muscled their way past, over and through the much physically thinner Razorbacks.
At one point, UNLV star Larry Johnson, a 6-6, 250 lbs. forward, ran over to Richardson and yelled “You need to get you some men!”
Richardson could have blown up and caused a scene. While the Hogs battled back, it was a highly frustrating day without all the right ingredients for a meltdown.
Not long after, Arkansas star guard Todd Day, who was also 6-6, took a swing at Johnson in a scuffle before the two were ejected. Richardson could easily see his scrappy team had fight, but in seeing Day laughably try to swing on a man with 70 more pounds of muscle, Richardson realized Johnson was right.
He set out on a quest to find players as big, nasty and unshakable as Johnson and his teammates. In this case the search became quite literal.
Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson matched future Michigan and NBA star Chris Webber shot for shot in an AAU championship game where both scored nearly 40 points each in a display of head-to-head brutality.
He then destroyed the field at the King Cotton Classic, earning the MVP in a battle with future NBA Hall of Famer Jason Kidd where Williamson rejected what would have been the winning fast break lay-up about six rows up into the seats at the Pine Bluff Convention Center on national TV.
With “Big Nasty” at the forward, a bulldog in Corey Beck, an ice cold killer in Scotty Thurman, and a cast full of larger, more physical players who could handle Richardson’s frantic philosophy, the coach took a potential negative and used it to eventually usurp UNLV as college basketball’s king.
What can Pittman learn
In these three situations, it could have gone poorly. The reaction could have been wrong and a series of little things that just keep adding up could have led down the Bret Beliema path of slow death by self inflicted wounds, or the Bobby Petrino method of self-beheading by way of sheer stupidity.
Pittman has the potential to continue to ride the high of his success this year to even greater heights. However, images of Beliema keep popping up when fans talk about what’s going on with the program.
When Pittman hired Sexton, fans took offense. Had he hired anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have registered. However, Sexton’s name brought up memories of Houston Nutt being shopped around to squeeze extra money, and Pittman wanting to get paid off the success of a single season has had fans singing the ballad of Bielema’s failed contract extension on repeat for the past couple of weeks as a warning.
Throw in an arrest for stupidity by a key player right before a bowl game and the association with Pittman’s past boss becomes too eerily reminiscent. Beliema’s downfall hit full speed with tight end Jeremy Sprinkle’s shoplifting incident that did nothing to help Arkansas avoid blowing a lead against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.
Pittman needs to do all he can to seize the moment and get a win over Penn State. Things aren’t terrible right now. These are minor issues, and a win will cure all. It always does.
However, a blowout loss would be one more drip that would need to be stopped before too many add up over a 1-2 year period. Pittman needs to land these past couple of weeks squarely in category No. 2 and make fans forget anything ever happened.
What can Musselman learn
Musselman finds himself in a little more volatile situation. This is because he’s a volatile man.
As his wife has indicated, Musselman doesn’t handle losing well. Calling out players in the media and physically going after refs isn’t the best look.
Things feel a bit unstable at the moment, and the coach will need to dial things back a bit to get things back on track.
Musselman is the closest thing Arkansas has had to Richardson since. He runs hard, focused practices. He demands greatness. He can explode at any moment. He says whatever is on his mind.
The difference is, and Musselman will get this with time, is Richardson knew how to explode.
It was always about the team. Richardson absorbed the bullets for what happened on and off the court.
Looking back, it wasn’t always easy, and it definitely wasn’t always fair, but Nolan took took them willingly and garnered fierce loyalty in the process.
Behind the scenes, he and his wife built a family among the players and it was easy to see on the court even in the worst of seasons.
The Hogs aren’t a family right now. They’re a group of individuals with no chemistry. For Musselman to put the events of the last couple of weeks into the No. 2 category, he’s going to have to not only make a family out of orphans, which is no easy task.
He’s going to have to learn when he can gain more by simply walking way. Sometimes it’s the quiet actions that have the most impact.
There’s a great class coming in that can be special. But, if Musselman is going to make Arkansas fans forget the events of the last two weeks, he needs to recognize the need for a change in approach so he can make this season special first.
Nolan needed a 6-6, 250 man-beast to help him realize he needed to make a change. Perhaps a 6-10, 215 lbs. former player from Hofstra helped Musselman have the epiphany that will lead him to make that magical adjustment that leads the Razorbacks to the pinnacle one more time.