Who Made the Call On Anderson?

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On the day he was fired at Arkansas it’s almost haunting to go back eight years to the day that Mike Anderson was hired and see the hope and promise that filled Bud Walton Arena when John Pelphrey’s successor was announced. Fans, former players under Nolan Richardson and even Frank Broyles himself seemed estatic that uptempo basketball was coming back to Fayetteville. The style of play had a different name: “The Fastest 40” instead of “40 minutes of hell,” but it was the best possible news. Surely Arkansas Razorback basketball was back. It almost seemed to be written in the stars.

Looking back, ultimately, Mike was a victim of those expectations. He won (169-102) but he didn’t win enough. He never had a losing season but his teams never made it past the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. 

Depending on who Arkansas comes up with this could end up looking like a smart, bottom line decision or a real mistake. Anderson was as nice a guy as you could find. He was popular with the students. He graduated his players and with a couple of rare exceptions they stayed out of trouble. Several of his players went on Twitter immediately after they learned the news from him and reacted angrily, dispelling the notion that there were going to be mass transfers if he wasn’t fired.

If, as Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek stressed in his news release, Anderson was fired because, “we have not sustained a consistent level of success against the most competitive teams in the nation,”  then that’s the AD’s call. It’s what he gets paid to do.

However, there has been a persistent rumor that certain boosters wanted Anderson gone as far back as early January and were putting the pressure on Arkansas’ second year AD to get rid of Anderson or be prepared to lose his own job.

Hopefully that is not true.

In my 43 years of covering Razorback athletics boosters have rarely gotten involved in the firing of coaches. Frank Broyles did what he was going to do and no booster or group of boosters was going to tell him what to do. Some say it was his support of Houston Nutt in 2007 that led to Broyles ouster as AD. The boosters and the admistration at the school got Bobby Petrino out of that decision but also John L. Smith and Bret Bielema. Not a good plan in the long run. 

Broyles successor, Jeff Long, was equally resistent to pressure from boosters and he was reportedly fired after 10 years on the job because boosters believed that they could get Gus Malzahn as head football coach but not if Long remained as AD. The plan didn’t work because Malzahn simply used the booster’s hefty offer to get himself a cushy new contract at Auburn. 

So pardon me for hoping that boosters did not make the call to fire Mike. If they, did watch out. Boosters always seeem to think they can go out and hire a hot new coach. Sometimes that hot new coach goes somewhere else. (remember Billy Clyde Gillispie) Sometimes it’s a good thing the hot new coach went somewhere else. (Gillispie)

In my experience boosters don’t know jack.

At age 70 I’m still working because this job is never dull. I’m really interested in seeing how this situation plays out over the next few years. If you follow the current FBI investigation into bribes and payoffs in college basketball it’s not a stretch to envision some big changes coming in the SEC. Auburn is winning big but Auburn has also had a former assistant coach pead guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery. LSU head coach Will Wade is currently suspended after an FBI wiretap allegedly caught him making reference to attempts to pay an athlete to sign with LSU.

Amid this backdrop Anderson’s reputation is not only clean but squeaky clean. As one of his assistants once told me, “He won’t violate rules that aren’t even rules.” Nolan Richardson tells me that Anderson is weighing his options about remaning in coaching. Mike’s almost 60, Richardson’s age when he was fired at Arkansas. Anderson hasn’t gone through the turmoil in his career that Nolan did. He may well find it in him to coach for several more years. 

Anderson was highly successful at the other two schools where he coached before taking the Arkansas job. He would not be the first coach to learn a hard lesson about “coming home.” One of his former assistants told me several years ago that Mike’s staff tried to warn him that leaving Missouri was a mistake. “Home is not what you think it is,” the coach stressed. “Coaching is a business and home’s got nothing to do with it.” 

Mike released a classy video hours after he was fired. There was no bitterness and no indication that he regretted his decision to come back home. But that experiment is over now. Mike Anderson and Arkansas will now move down different paths.

I, for one, will closely watch where those two paths lead.

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