By J.R. and Henry
It’s been a dark decade for the two major moneymaking sports at the University of Arkansas. The football team is, well, the football team. Everyone knows that story. And the basketball team has amassed a whopping one NCAA tournament win in the last eight years. A team that was once the undisputed second best program in the Southeastern Conference to Kentucky (and in several years superior to the Wildcats) has fallen to a level that makes it basically indistinguishable from the other schools in the football-crazy SEC West, where basketball is a merely a diversion until spring football practice kicks back up.
A little more than halfway through this eight-year period, Arkansas fired the coach who won the school its only national title in basketball, and hired an unproven newcomer to coaching with one year’s experience at Kent State. Admittedly, when Stan Heath was hired in 2002, few expressed concerns that he wasn’t qualified. He was intelligent, had played a key role in building Michigan State’s 2000 national title team as the chief recruiter for Tom Izzo, and had just taken Kent State to the Elite Eight. At his first press conference, Heath talked about stressing rebounding, discipline and graduating players, all qualities Nolan Richardson’s teams were often criticized for lacking. He was in many ways the anti-Nolan to a fan base that had grown weary of Nolan’s in-your-face opinions and diminishing returns.
However, after five years of the Stan Heath era, with no SEC titles, no divisional titles and no NCAA wins, many Arkansas fans have lost patience and are demanding a change. Attendance at games continues to slide, season-ticket sales are declining, and at a school that seems to put increased donations and attendance above athletic success (see Houston Nutt), Heath’s failure to fill seats could be his ultimate undoing.
But due to the continued missteps of the university’s athletic administration, firing Heath now may not be possible. Why? Because the administration effectively set the bar at making the NCAA Tournament this season. Following Arkansas’s home loss to Tennessee, word leaked that Heath would be fired if he didn’t get to the Big Dance. Sure, at the time, few thought that possible, but it happened.
And that’s why you don’t leak that information. You either fire Heath after the Tennessee game, or you keep quiet about any future plans until after the season. Really, this shouldn’t be difficult to understand.
And it gets even more complicated because if Heath is retained, he has seven scholarships to fill next year. You can bet that every school Arkansas recruits against will bring up the fact that Heath was a miracle run away from being fired. In basketball, with most of the players signing in November, Heath won’t be able to point to a successful 2007-2008 year even if the Razorbacks were to have one.
So those running the athletic administration have boxed themselves into a corner, and they have no one to blame but themselves. With a losing 7-9 regular season conference record, and a horrible first-round effort in a 77-60 loss to the University of Southern California, a convincing case could be made that a fresh start is necessary and required. However, since the bar was set at an NCAA Tournament bid, to go back on it now would likely do more harm to the program than keeping Heath for another year. It’s doubtful any big-time coach would come to Arkansas given that situation, and choosing another unproven mid-major coach isn’t a step up from Heath.
But if Heath is retained, please don’t make this “three-year guarantee” to him that we’ve been hearing about in effort to fill those seven scholarships with top talent. Surely the administration has learned its lesson, after handing out a two-year pass to Houston Nutt that has resulted in that program becoming a nationally renowned soap opera. But with this group in charge of athletics on the Hill, nothing surprises us anymore.
J.R. and Henry are a couple of bloggers and sports nuts from Little Rock who post their sports column on the Times’ Little Rocking entertainment blog. Catch them in front of TV set near you this weekend with eyes glued to the NCAA Tournament.