This newspaper’s coverage of what was once the Lady Razorback Basketball Club was rewarding for a number of reasons.
First, the boss cared. Melinda Gassaway, then executive editor of her hometown newspaper, was an avid sports fan with a keen interest in women’s basketball. If she redid it, she could be a sportswriter, and a good one. Thanks again Melinda for letting me read your sports article first and while we didn’t always agree, your points of view were well received. (And as far as movies go, you’re right about To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s first and greatest novel, which featured an Atticus Finch movie for centuries written by Academy Award winner Gregory Peck.)
Melinda’s presence has opened doors for Lady Razorback insiders such as former athletic director Bev Lewis (and Harley’s husband) and a number of UA coaches and assistants. Dear ex Amber Nicholas (Shiri) lives on campus just like the Boston Mountains. Conversations with another former UA player, Karen Jones, have always been helpful.
Ah, coaches, from Matilda Willis to John Sutherland and finally Gary Blair.
Blair, who had just moved from Stephen F. Austin in 1993, gave my wife Sue and me a tour of the brand new Walton Arena. Gary’s farewell message stayed with me 30 years later: referring to the late Pat Summitt in Tennessee, he said, “We should fill our big house like her.”
Arkansas may never make it to women’s basketball, but a Tuesday night crowd of 14,161 at Walton Arena (a tournament record) gave the Lady Backs their second WNIT crown in 1999. Melinda covered the final in Amarillo, Texas when Arkansas won their first such title. I covered second on the electric evening as UA women’s basketball produced outside of the NCAA. Blair was heading to the NCAA Women’s Final Four in California, so she told everyone, “I’ll be playing Thursday morning at Pebble Beach.”
Arkansas advanced to the Final Four in 1998 under Blair, receiving a giant boost when underdog Hawaii stunned the top seeds to host Stanford in the first round of the Western Regional. At home, Arkansas played so many games late at night that Blair named his company “Good Morning Team America”.
It’s hard to imagine any of Blair’s successors as witty.
Blair left for Texas A&M after the 2003 season in Arkansas. The Aggies showed more interest (financially too) in the then-unseen program than Coach Lady’Back seemed to hear from his superiors. The reproaches that I remember from the Blair days came after the unexpected A&M NCAA championship. “How could we let such a coach go?”
Shameka Kriston was the 2004 SEC Women’s Player of the Year, a former Hot Springs High star turned WNBA player who grew up from a lanky eighth grader who played at Lake Hamilton. This prize came under the supervision of Susie Gardner as Blair’s first successor. A sweet lady but outclassed in the SEC, although she played for Andy Landers in Georgia, Susie was thrown ashore when Lewis, still playing as a woman when Arkansas had separate sports programs for men and women, didn’t find any extra money. to contain the WNIT Game in Fayetteville.
The state of Arkansas, seeing a chance to interrogate Frank Broyles, invested and gave Gardner’s team a major beating at Jonesboro. “Half the people were there to cheer for ASU,” said former colleague Dudley Dawson, who covered the game, “and the other half to roast Coach Broyles.”
About a year later, after a meeting of the Rotary Club in the city center, I told Lewis about what I called an oversight of the highest degree. “You’re losing the state of Arkansas in recruiting,” I said to Bev, who wasn’t easily offended, smiling through my diatribe.
Tom Collen, Blair’s former assistant, later replaced Gardner but failed to bring back the sideline magic that distinguished his past Colorado State and Louisville teams. By then, the Arkansas sports departments were under the same roof with Jeff Long at the head. Long, whose Razorback career set in motion forces (after his sacking) into Chad Morris’ nightmarish two years in football, fired Collen in March 2014. ) and couldn’t think of a more unusual choice than former Razorback (male) player and coach Jimmy Dykes. Then and now, Jimmy, who is good at basketball, looks better behind the ESPN microphone.
One of Dykes’ first moves was to follow up on a promise to recruit Conway’s player. Four years later at Mississippi State, the same player wore down first-team Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors, who tap-danced around the player’s departure from UA in a post-game press release like Gregory Hines at his best. This marks the last time I covered the team, named here by the Artists formerly known as the Lady Razorbacks, after losing their gender designation (didn’t hurt the Tennessee Lady Vols as far as I can see).
Coaching in their home state, the Neighbors had their greatest success with Oklahoma high school student Chelsea Dungey in a season that saw Arkansas beat Baylor (then-coach Kim Mulkey) and Connecticut (Jeno Oriemma). As always, Arkansas (which Tennessee thrashed in the 1998 Final Four in Kansas City) failed to build on their successes, ending the season with a loss to the Wright State.
The current Artists lost on the road to No. 1 South Carolina by a score of 92–46, even if defending national champions Don Staley can do it with many teams. Especially when, as in the case of Razorbacks Sunday, Team B is down 76-17 on rebounds.
This should do wonders for Walton Arena attendance. Next in line are home games with Alabama on Thursday and Ole Miss on Sunday: there are good places, I must say. Neighbors may ask people in the crowd for tips on rebounding.