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Why I like Mike (Anderson that is)

Mike Anderson wasn’t hired to heal a whole state.

But less than a week after he was named the new head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas, don’t you get the sense that he has done just that?

The quotes from Nolan Richardson’s bizarre news conference of Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, remain seared on our brains.

— “I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on. I know that. You know it. And people of my color know that. And that angers me.”

— “When I look at all of you people in this room, I see no one who looks like me, talks like me or acts like me. Now why don’t you recruit? Why don’t the editors recruit like I’m recruiting?”

— “Do not call me ever on my phone, none of you, at my home ever again. Those lines are no longer open for communications with me.”

— “Ol’ granny told me, ‘Nobody runs you anywhere, Nolan.’ I know that. See, my great-great-grandfather came over here on the ship. I didn’t, and I don’t think you understand what I’m saying.”

Sports Illustrated would describe that Monday news conference as a “bewildering self-immolation.”

In his 2010 book “Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson,” Rus Bradburd writes: “How was it possible that this pioneering coach, winner of the national championship, whose style of play had altered the way college basketball was played, was going to be most remembered for a press conference?”

It indeed was a bizarre period in our state’s history.

And, make no mistake, there was history being made. To understand Arkansas is to understand how deeply ingrained Razorback sports are in our culture. It’s about more than football and basketball. It’s about a state’s pride, its inherent inferiority complex, its passion, its priorities.

“I could not avert my eyes from the train wreck Nolan Richardson’s career had become, and I read as much as possible about his fantastic fall,” Bradburd writes. “Nearly every piece said that Richardson had brought on his own firing. The coaches I talked to — the white ones, anyway — wanted to know what a guy making that kind of money had to complain about.

“Richardson seemed unable to move beyond 1968, determined to fight a war most Americans believed had ended long ago. To understand Richardson’s mindset, I knew I’d have to seriously examine the two most influential people in his professional career. Both of these men were icons in the world of college athletics, but they couldn’t have been more different.

“One, Don Haskins, was Richardson’s own basketball coach, who accidentally began the avalanche that was the desegregation of college basketball teams. The other, Frank Broyles, was Richardson’s boss at the University of Arkansas.”

Richardson was fired on March 1, 2002.

A whole state seemed to choose sides.

There was the Frank Broyles camp.

There was the Nolan Richardson camp.

Listening to sports talk radio, the calls often broke along racial lines.

“Instead of a rousing debate about whether the struggling Razorbacks need a new coach after 17 years, too many of us got dragged into an argument over Nolan Richardson’s skin color — just the way he wanted,” an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial stated at the time.

As the battle played out, no one heard much from Mike Anderson. Sure, Anderson served as the interim coach for two games after Richardson was fired. Yet his voice never entered the debate.

Though liked by those in both the Broyles camp and the Richardson camp, Anderson had no realistic opportunity to replace his mentor.

After all, he had been Richardson’s assistant at Arkansas for 17 years. The wound was raw, and people assumed Broyles would dictate a clean break with the Richardson era.

That’s just what happened.

Stan Heath was the hot young coach that year, and he was hired at Arkansas.

Thus began the Razorbacks’ nine years of wandering in the college basketball wilderness (it only seems like 40).

I’ll resist the temptation to get carried away with the analogy by painting Mike Anderson as Moses, leading Arkansas to the basketball promised land.

It’s yet to be seen how Anderson will do as the head Hog.

Long before his first team takes the floor, however, it’s evident that he has won a huge victory. Just his mere arrival has closed a wound that had festered far too long in our small state.

It became evident that something special was happening as I read the various Facebook posts the day of Anderson’s hiring.

It became even more evident during the combination news conference/pep rally Saturday morning at Bud Walton Arena.

That event almost had the air of a religious service at times. Grown men and women had tears in their eyes that gray March morning.

Outsiders might consider it strange, but they don’t understand how important Razorback sports are to our sense of self in Arkansas. That might be a good thing or a very bad thing depending on your perspective, but it’s the way things are here.

The head football coach and the head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas are every bit as important as the governor. I worked in the governor’s office for a decade, and I know that to be true.

A message is sent whenever a new coach is hired.

With the hiring of Mike Anderson, the University of Arkansas sent this message: Those events of 2002 are truly in the past. We’ve grown up. We may not have forgotten, but we’ve forgiven.

We’ll celebrate the good days of the Richardson era — and there were many — while letting go of the hurt.

We’ll look to the future as another African-American coach — a man who was not born in Arkansas but considers this home — hopefully returns us to the upper echelon of college basketball.

Bradburd ends his book this way: “Other coaches of color of his era had terrific teams, but what distinguishes Nolan Richardson is the nature of his trailblazing career, as the first black coach to go into the old Confederacy — and the embers of racism — and have astonishing success. Richardson — outspoken, passionate and righteous — is the most important African-American coach America has known.

“Despite his garden full of statues of children at play, he could not freeze time. Memory, though. Memory endures because Nolan Richardson, as relentless as 40 minutes of hell’s full-court pressure, won’t let us forget. He has begun to fulfill his former chancellor’s request to be happy, even if he’s still an outsider, on the wrong side of the fence at the university where he won the championship. The basketball court where he finally returned belongs to him — although you won’t find his name on it. Regardless, Richardson’s shadow and history remind, admonish and exhort Arkansas.”

Mike Anderson has come home.

Now, Nolan Richardson can feel at home again in Bud Walton Arena, cheering on his beloved Razorbacks.

We have Frank Broyles Field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

That’s as it should be.

Let’s also have the Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena.

We’re a big enough state and a big enough people to celebrate the accomplishments of each of these Arkansas sports titans — Broyles and Richardson.

You see, their differences are not our differences.

The azaleas and dogwoods are starting to bloom. As Easter approaches, there’s a hint of redemption in the Ozarks air.

Thanks, Mike. Welcome home.

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