We hear a lot of emotions running around the city today with the official news of coach Chris Beard’s departure. Sure, we hoped that he would stick around for one more year with a fully assembled team, but we all knew the departure was eventually inevitable.
Think about this for a moment though, isn’t it nice to finally attract coaches that other teams want to the Little Rock program?
Yes replacing coaches every year or two is no fun, but long-term success at attracting future up and coming coaches can dramatically raise the profile of a program. Look no further than Arkansas State’s football program. They sustained winning throughout a period of successful coaches leaving to take over top-tier programs. Finally the program became a place where, now, 3rd year coach Blake Anderson is growing an impressive team.
Beard taking the UNLV job may be the best thing to ever happen to the Trojan program. Here is a story.
Under a (relatively) new head coach with a fiery personality, the Trojans had one of their most successful seasons in history and reached the NCAA tournament. In David vs Goliath style the team pulled off an improbable victory over a highly nationally ranked team to win in the first round before ultimately falling in the second round of the tournament.
Immediately top programs around the country looking for a new coach started reaching out. Finally a historic powerhouse team, that unfortunately was in the middle of a program downtown, made an offer for the Little Rock coach to come and help them return to greatness.
The year was 1986, and the coach was Mike Newell. Newell debated on accepting the offer from Marquette after an NCAA tournament win over Notre Dame. Ultimately Newell decided to profess his love for Little Rock and stay the coach of the Trojans, shocking many in the college world.
The decision started a trend of Little Rock becoming a place for mediocre coaches to become more mediocre, and former great coaches to ride out under the radar until retirement.
Who knew what would have happened to Newell if he went to Marquette. Bob Dukiet, their second choice for the job was a complete flop. The Golden Eagles would move on to have a series of successful coaches after him. More importantly it changed Little Rock from a place a young coach could find success and use it as a stepping stone to a bigger job, to become one that frequently caused a coach to trip and fall on the ground.
Newell continued as the UALR head coach for four more years before his abrasive personality and the administration couldn’t mix any more. From there the school hired Jim Platt, who was an assistant at Purdue. Platt did little more remarkable than bring Derek Fisher to the university. Platt was fired and finished out his career bouncing around as an assistant at various mid major schools.
Then the team found Wimp Sanderson. Sanderson had a storied career at Alabama that ended in scandal. Sanderson, a native of Alabama, chose nearby UALR to finish out his career as quietly as possible. Sanderson never achieved anywhere close to the level of success as he did at Alabama, declining each year with the Trojans.
To attempt to rebuild and grow popularity of the program after years of being under the radar, the university hired University of Arkansas Legend Sidney Moncrief. Moncrief went a disastrous 4-24 season before being fired, which led the way to Porter Moser. While able to dig out from the ditch that Moncrief left the team in, Moser was never able to take the Trojans to the next level. After leaving the school he has held a couple of coaching jobs, and hovered around the .400 mark in winning percentage. In a bit of irony his two head coaching positions were bookends for an assistant job under Rick Majerus at Saint Louis. Majerus was the coach Marquette was originally looking to replace with Mike Newell.
Since the program was neither bad nor good, the university figured prolonged mediocrity may finally pay off and promoted Moser’s assistant Steve Shields. Shields continued with the tradition of around .600 winning percentage, which is just good enough to not get fired for 12 years. By virtue of being the coach the longest and not being as bad as Moncrief, Shields was the winningest head coach (by victories) in program history before his decline over the past few years and eventual firing this time last year. Shields spent this past season as an assistant for the University of Missouri.
In each of the head coaching vacancies, Little Rock was a place where a coach either left for a similar level job or worse. When trying to sell a low mid-major program to a potential head coach the last thing someone looking to build their career wants to see is that sort of track record.
It was no doubt a hard sell when new athletic director Chasse Conque set out to sell a vision of building something for the future to Chris Beard, who wholeheartedly believed he could be successful at the next level. Now when Conque is going to pitch to potential candidates he can show how Little Rock can be a step toward something greater. At this point in the Little Rock program the last thing you want is for the school to become a destination school. The wrong type of coaches are looking for that type of destination.
What Little Rock has is a team full of seniors that can play and win on a remarkable level. For a new head coach looking to build a career the sky’s the limit. A year or two at Little Rock could take them there.