Arkansas doesn’t award a Nobel Peace Prize, but if it did, this year’s winner should be Jeff Long. He’s the director of athletics at the University of Arkansas—the guy who brought basketball coach Mike Anderson back.
The school has a stunning record of sports prowess, but a complicated history of race relations.
The University of Arkansas has had a strange pattern of advancing—and blocking—racial progress over the years. For example, the school was the first in the Old South to admit black students without threat of litigation, yet was also the last college in its own state to allow black athletes to compete.
And Arkansas was the last school in the old Southwest Conference (along with the University of Texas) to desegregate.
For the last 50 years, the university’s stagnation and progress can be linked to Frank Broyles—the iconic football coach and athletics director who began his association with the school in the late 1950s. Broyles was the most visible coach in the state during his incredible tenure—and he won big.
But his inability to find a qualified black player for his Razorback football team in the 1960s was mind-boggling. While great black players from the state were starring at Big 10 schools and going on to the NFL, Broyles' team was all white until 1970.
SMU signed future NFL star Jerry LeVias in 1965, but things moved slowly in Fayetteville. The Arkansas Razorbacks football team, it should be noted, had its best years during the segregated 1960s.
In 1965, a naive athlete named Darrell Brown set out to be the first black Razorback football player for Broyles. Brown displayed incredible courage and resilience before he quit his quest, but it was not the dehumanizing treatment by teammates and coaches that stalled him. He got injured after a year and a half of serving as a human tackling dummy.
Brown had a more important mission than football, though.
He graduated, went on to UA’s law school and became a successful trial lawyer. A 12-person jury must have seemed like a day at the beach to Darrell Brown. Imagine his role as a Razorback practice player: fielding kickoffs alone, and trying to evade tacklers, one-against-11.
But Broyles, like many coaches, was a shrewd businessman. He only had to look at the NFL’s All-Pro teams to realize that many of the best players were black.
Beginning in the 1970s, Broyles reversed the trend of injustice, and soon enough he suited up more black players on his Southwest Conference team than any of his competitors.
Broyles retired early from coaching to become the University of Arkansas’ Athletics Director. In 1985, Broyles made a gutsy hire: He lured Nolan Richardson from the University of Tulsa.
Richardson was the first black coach in the SWC, and in 1994 became the first black coach in the old Confederacy to win an NCAA title. Richardson led his teams to two other Final Fours as well.
Broyles couldn’t have found a better coach—black or white—but he also couldn’t have found a more outspoken critic of racism and hypocrisy.
Still, that should have ended it: a black leader, a championship team? It didn’t, partly because of the What-Have-You-Done-For-Me-Lately mentality of sports fans and college administrators.
Richardson’s teams weren’t as successful at the end of the 1990s. The pressure of winning and working for Broyles—who was notorious for meddling with all his coaches—finally got the best of Richardson. The black coach blew up at a press conference in 2002, challenging the school to buy him out.
Taking on Frank Broyles—who had the money and power to terminate Richardson—was reckless. But Richardson’s firing a few weeks later divided the state—again, it seemed—along racial lines. Richardson sued the school, charging it with wrongful termination and racism.
Since that time, the dumping of Richardson has been an open wound in the state. The fact that the Razorback basketball team seemed to get a little worse each year didn’t help the healing.
When Broyles fired Richardson, he had the chance to hire a highly regarded assistant named Mike Anderson. But Anderson was on Richardson’s staff and practically a son to the old coach. Anderson was passed over for the job, and he went on to Alabama-Birmingham.
Anderson’s success there—and his adaptation of Richardson’s “Forty Minutes of Hell”—was proof that Broyles had made a mistake.
Instead of Mike Anderson, Broyles had hired a black coach named Stan Heath—a move that fit in with the university’s legal defense strategy. Heath qualified for the NCAA tournament his last two seasons and got fired anyway—just after Richardson’s lawsuit for racism was decided. (Richardson lost that court case, but U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson’s summary is far more revealing than the result.)
Even firing Heath turned out to be a bad move: He left with a better record than his white successor, John Pelphrey.
But Frank Broyles retired on Dec. 31, 2007. His replacement was Jeff Long, who had no connection to Broyles or Richardson. With attendance at Bud Walton Arena getting thinner each year, Nolan Nostalgia was creeping into the state.
While Arkansas floundered on the court, just to the north, Mike Anderson had taken over at Missouri. His Tigers were, well, rollin’. The Razorback faithful couldn’t help noticing. When Pelphrey got terminated this spring, bringing back Anderson seemed natural; a “no brainer” in a place where that phrase can have more than one meaning.
Still, not every AD would have hired Mike Anderson. Long did. The move got huge publicity, as well as support from both Richardson loyalists and Broyles supporters.
Anderson, for his part, is fiercely loyal to Richardson—both philosophically and personally—but also very different from his old boss. While tweaking “Forty Minutes of Hell” into his own “Fastest Forty Minutes in Basketball,” Anderson is soft-spoken, contemplative and quick to laugh.
Of course, his age and Richardson’s trailblazing made things better for Anderson as well as a new generation of black coaches. (If you want to understand Nolan Richardson’s impact, don’t look at college basketball. Look at college football, whose pathetic percentages of black head coaches make it clear: Football is still waiting for its Nolan Richardson.)
People involved with the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s will tell you about the slow nature of change; the long arc of justice. That seems to be the right view for understanding Mike Anderson’s return to Arkansas.
It’s not a cure-all, but it was the right thing for the state of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas, the black population, the white population, Razorback fans and, yes, even Nolan Richardson, whose career was a bridge for coaches of color.
Was it the right move for Mike Anderson?
Maybe. The glow and good feeling may wear off the first time he loses a close game. But Anderson’s life, like that of his mentor, has now transcended basketball.
Bringing Mike Anderson back doesn’t solve the challenges faced by black people in Arkansas, any more than Barack Obama’s election did. But while Jeff Long hasn’t done what, say, Nolan Richardson or Darrell Brown did, his decision was important, gutsy and smart.