By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The University of Arkansas has hired Nevada’s Eric Musselman as new men’s head basketball coach with a formal introduction expected to come during a press conference on Monday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, according to sources.
Musselman, 54, will become Arkansas’s fifth men’s head basketball coach since the Hogs joined the Southeastern Conference in 1991-92, following in the footsteps of Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson, Stan Heath, John Pelphrey, and Mike Anderson. Musselman replaces Anderson, who after eight seasons was relieved of his head coaching duties by Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek on Tuesday, March 26.
Details regarding Musselman’s deal with Arkansas have yet to be released. Nevada reportedly paid him $1 million annually — the highest paying job in the Mountain West Conference — and Musselman’s buyout is reportedly $1 million plus any bonus / incentive pay he received for the 2018-19 season.
According to sources, Arkansas athletic department officials met with Musselman late Monday night in Nevada before both parties resumed negotiations while Musselman was in Minneapolis later in the week for the Final Four. Sources also confirmed that Arkansas was in talks with Houston’s Kelvin Sampson and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall.
Arkansas becomes the first head coaching opportunity at a high-major NCAA Division 1 program for Musselman, who in four seasons at his only college head coaching stop led mid-major Nevada to a 110-34 overall record (76.4%), an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 (2017-18), three NCAA tournament berths (2-3 record, ’17-19), and three MWC titles (’17-19). His 30-year coaching career includes NBA head coaching stints at Golden State (2002-04) and Sacramento (’06-07) as well as numerous assistant coaching jobs in both the NBA and college ranks dating back to 1990.
“I think it’s a good hire,” Hogs great, Olympic gold medalist, NBA champion, and former Little Rock Trojans assistant coach Joe Kleine said of the Musselman hire. “He’s coached at a lot of levels, has a lot of experience, and he’s had a lot of success. Nothing he’s going to see will surprise him.”
One of Musselman’s long-time coaching buddies believes Arkansas is getting one of the top coaches in the game.
“He loves to coach, it’s in his blood,” said former NBA assistant coach Scott Adubato, who coached with and against Musselman for decades including when the two worked together as assistants for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies for two seasons (2004-2006). “He loves the game. He knows how to motivate, and he knows how to win.
“He’s a workhorse, excellent with Xs and Os, just has a great feel and a different style. Very organized and super competitive. He’s tough, and I can tell you I don’t think anybody’s going to outcoach him.”
It remains to be determined which, if any, assistant coaches from Nevada will follow Musselman to Arkansas. The trio of Anthony Ruta, Gus Argenal, and Brandon Dunson were on Musselman’s most-recent staff. And Musselman’s son, Michael Musselman, was a graduate assistant for the Wolf Pack.
Musselman’s final season at Nevada ended on March 21 when the Wolf Pack lost to Florida, 70-61, in the first round of the West Region of the NCAA tournament. Nevada had seven seniors and finished with a 29-4 overall record, 15-3 for first place in the MWC, and a final Associated Press Top 25 poll-ranking of No. 20. The Wolf Pack were ranked 25th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 34th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com college basketball ratings.
Musselman’s best finish at Nevada was his third season in Reno, Nev., in ’17-18 when he led the 7th-seeded Wolf Pack to the NCAAT Sweet 16 after double-digit-deficit comeback wins over 10th-seeded Texas and 2nd-seeded Cincinnati. That team finished 29-8 overall — the most wins in single season in school history, which would be matched in ’18-19 — and its 15-3 league record was good for first place in the MWC as Musselman was named the conference’s Coach of the Year. In his second season at Nevada in ’16-17, Mussleman guided his squad to 28-7 overall and 14-4 for first place in the MWC as well as winning the MWC tournament title before losing in the first round of the NCAAT. His first year with the Wolf Pack in ’15-16 he led the team to a 24-14 overall record, 10-8 for a fourth-place tie in the MWC, and a postseason College Basketball Invitational (BCI) tournament championship.
The timing of the hire is advantageous for both Musselman and Arkansas as the Razorbacks effectively spent only two weeks without a head coach in place. Musselman comes to Fayetteville with only one Arkansas team member from the 2018-19 roster having announced plans to transfer — freshman guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson put his name in the “transfer portal” shortly after Anderson’s removal and has since announced plans to continue his playing career at Tulsa. Musselman can quickly turn his attention to re-recruiting remaining Arkansas players while hitting the recruting trail to shore up a spring 2019 class for the 2019-20 season. Equally important is the opportunity for Musselman to proactively hit the ground running with the 2019 grassroots basketball season tipping off in the next couple of weeks in what will be a spring and summer that promises to give a lot of exposure to a deep and talented in-state crop of 2020 prospects.
One aspect of Musselman’s uniqueness as a recruiter is his track record of coveting transfers that bring veteran experience and leadership qualities, which he has often compared to being the equivalent to landing “free agents” at the NBA level (see the linked youtube video below detailing Musselman’s philosophy on signing transfers).
“I think (Arkansas) hired a very good coach,” said Arkansas Joe Johnson Hawks chairman Bill Ingram, whose grassroots program in recent years had players such as Daryl Macon, Trey Thompson, Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills, Ethan Henderson, and Justice Hill sign on with the Hoop Hogs. “I think we can now move on and support him. He’s got a lot of good characterisitics that recruits love.
“It’s obvious he knows how to recruit, landing a McDonald’s All American (Jordan Brown) at Nevada and his success with transfers. He’s coached in the NBA, and that’s very appealing to kids. And he’s had good success at the college level, so there’s a lot that lines up with what you look for in a hire.”
Musselman’s resume is long with a myriad of stops at the professional, international, and college coaching ranks. Prior to his four-year run at Nevada, Musselman spent three years as a college assistant coach — two at Arizona State in the Pac-12 (2012-14) and one at LSU in the SEC (’14-15). But Musselman’s career has mostly been defined by the NBA and other professional-league positions, reaching a pinnacle with the afore-mentioned head-coaching jobs at Golden State (where he was runner-up for NBA Coach of the Year following the ’02-03 season) and Sacramento.
While at the helm in Sacramento (2006-07), Musselman coached former Razorbacks great and current Phoenix Suns assistant coach Corliss Williamson, who at the time was in his second stint playing for the Kings organization that drafted him in 1995.
Musselman’s NBA assistant coaching experience includes Minnesota (1990-91, when he joined his father and then-Timberwolves head coach Bill Musselman), Orlando (1998-2000), Atlanta (2000-2002), and the afore-mentioned stop at Memphis. Musselman also had coaching experience in the Continental Basketball Association (head coach of the Rapid City Thrillers in 1989-90 at age 23, then again from 1991-1997), in FIBA international play (China in 2009, United States in 2010, Dominican Republic from 2010-11, and Venezuela from 2011-13), the United States Basketball League (Florida Sharks from 1995-96 where he had a combined 53-3 record while winning back-to-back USBL championships), and the NBA Developmental League (Reno Bighorns from 2011-12 and the Los Andeles D-Fenders from 2012-13).
Musselman’s won-loss records at the pro levels were 108-138 in the NBA, 270-122 in the CBA, 53-3 in the USBL, and 77-30 in the NBA D-League where he was named Coach of the Year following his 2012 season with the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
“Eric’s pedigree in basketball going back to his father is extremely strong,” said USA Today college sports columnist Dan Wolken. “He had a weatlh of pro experience — some good, some bad — before he made it to the college game. The job he did at Nevada showed that he has a knack for quick turnarounds, and he was able to recruit at a level above what is typical for Nevada.
“He’s certainly one of the best available coaches at the mid-major level, and given his SEC experience as an LSU assistant coach I can understand why Arkansas would go in this direction.”
Musselman inherits a storied Arkansas program that has been unable to regain the luster of a 25-year span (1977-2001) that under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson and Eddie Sutton saw the Razorbacks win a national title (1994), finish as national runner-up (1995), appear in four Final Fours (1978, 1990, 1994, and 1995), reach six Elite Eights (1978, 1979, 1990, 1991, 1994, and 1995), compete in 10 Sweet 16s, make 22 NCAAT appearances, and win multiple conference and conference-tournament titles.
It was an era that established Arkansas as arguably one of the top 10 programs all-time in college basketball. Since then, the Razorbacks have made only 6 NCAAT appearances in the last 18 years — never advancing beyond the NCAAT Round of 32 and never winning a conference or conference-tournament championship.