Eric Musselman Brian Chilson

As to be expected, the fallout of a second straight underwhelming season at the helm of Arkansas basketball has left Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman in a prone position after four solid years of well-nurtured goodwill. And the ensuing gospel again took a foothold from there: Social media turned things more awkward, embarrassing and frustrating.

Musselman’s sideline demeanor has left a lot to be desired for some folks’ tastes. As for myself, I don’t mind him getting after SEC official/game-to-game tyrant Doug Shows religiously and repeatedly for making every single game entirely about himself and butchering countless calls in the process.

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I’m also not totally turned off by Musselman’s in-game strategy, but there is a legitimate gripe about his personnel and timeout management. That complaint crescendos after the team hits the floor and goes weirdly flat at the worst times.

The vibe got so bad the last three months of the just-concluded 2023-24 season that Musselman now finds himself at a career crossroads. The guy who captured everyone’s attention and most folks’ admiration for his unabashed, shirtless Hog revelry now looks like a prime candidate to take over the University of Southern California job.

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Why would he NOT leave? If the shine has worn off here in little ol’ Arkansas, and this coach has love for the West Coast, then the decision on that alone would seem routine.

Except that’s hardly it. Musselman doesn’t shy away from criticism, and he definitely still has the support of most Razorback fans. But this choice would unequivocally be about money, and that’s a no-brainer as to which university, state, fan base and culture is wealthier and stronger.

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And there’s the really dirty reality that Hog Nation is starting to begrudgingly accept. This program has a litany of well-heeled advocates and supporters, but somehow, there’s apparently a lack of NIL money to go around, and other programs are taking full advantage.

Some of the returning prospects for Musselman and women’s head coach Mike Neighbors have already bolted for the next pasture, greener or not (Layden Blocker, Keyon Menifield, Saylor Poffenbarger and Taliah Scott among them). Neighbors’ last two squads have fallen short of expectations, too, but he would appear to be a safe bet for a return in 2024-25. Welcome to free agency.

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Musselman’s potential departure would put all the focus right back on athletic director Hunter Yurachek. And there’s another matter altogether: What in the ever-loving hell was he thinking with that podcast interview on Monday, in which he more or less owned up to Musselman not being under contract and dialed back a “Muss Bus” video he posted last week seemingly without Musselman’s knowledge?

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Arkansas has mostly done a remarkable job of athletics promotion through social media. But when there is a toe-stubbing, it seems to be significant. We won’t likely know whether Musselman or his agent started fishing for new jobs first, or whether Yurachek’s flimsy posturing preceded the coach’s overtures. And honestly, who cares? This is a brutal environment in which to coach and marshal a multimillion-dollar athletic program. Salary and prestige be damned — I wouldn’t want that sort of pressure, and certainly not if my boss acted so flippantly about my worth.

Musselman definitely doesn’t seem to mind pressure, though, and I honestly thought that’s why he would welcome the chance to reverse the team’s sagging fortunes. He might still embrace that, rebuff the advances of USC and others, and fight like hell to build it all back up.

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Consider me a firm skeptic now.

If the Southern Cal opening is there for the taking, he’d be an absolute fool to turn it down unless he or his agent can generate leverage from it. Then there’s going to be catcalls around the state about why “we” just extended a coach or boosted his pay after two down years? (Let’s be clear: 2022-23 wasn’t great either, with a sub-.500 SEC record that led to a middling tourney seed.) Just as I wouldn’t blame Muss for leaving an exceedingly hostile environment for a stabler and more fiscally sound one, I wouldn’t blame our fan base for getting downright pissed off if all the coffers are emptied for the wealthy professionals in charge at the expense of recruitment.

Stick with watching baseball, softball, track and field, and all the other spring sports that are thriving. Winter isn’t coming, but it sure as hell doesn’t appear ready to leave anytime soon.

 

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