Column: "The Sports Trail": Lunch with Bob reveals choice for new Hog coach

Thursday, March 14, 2002

by David McNeal

Who will be the next basketball coach at the University of Arkansas?

Are you sitting on the edge of your seat? Is your heart beating faster? Here's what I found out from one long-time fan while eating lunch last week.

Yes, I was rejoicing that Bob had once again opened the doors to my favorite barbeque place in Eureka Springs and was propped up at the counter with a fistful of sandwich.

The sacred smoke was boiling from the two chimneys, and platter after platter, heaped with smoked meats, cole slaw, french fries, and nachos passed by me as the waitresses hustled to fill up hungry patrons.

"I know who we need for our next basketball coach," Bob said as he parked across the counter from me. I opened my mouth to reply, but Bob just thought I was going for another bite of sandwich and rolled right on.

"Rick Pitino. He didn't really want to go to Louisville when he left New York, but he had to go somewhere," Bob said. "And if we hire him, he'll be back in the SEC. He loved the SEC."

I chewed on that, and some smoked pork, shoveled in a mouthful of slaw, and started to answer.

"Yeah, our fans always cheered for him when he brought Kentucky into Bud Walton Arena, so they already like him," Bob said before I could clear my latest bite, so I just went on eating.

"And the guy can recruit. People are griping about recruiting at the UofA. He would bring in the big names, the good players."

One of the girls grabbed my glass as she hustled past and returned it seconds later, filled to the brim with frothy Coke. I tipped it up just as Bob got his second wind.

"Now, if he's worried about being in little old Fayetteville, why, the new regional airport has two flights a day, direct to New York," Bob said as more and more of my platter emerged from beneath the pile of food.

"He could hop a flight anytime he wants to go to the Big Apple and would be there within two hours," Bob said, grabbing breath like a fat man on a leaky lifeboat.

"He's got horses, doesn't he?" Bob asked, and I nodded, rather than miss a chance for another bite. "Well, he can take them to Oaklawn Park, right here in Arkansas."

While I was trying to juggle Oaklawn Park with the Kentucky Derby and get that line of thought squared away, Bob hit the punch line.

"Besides, if we hire Rick, we can all start wearing Italian clothes and shoes again."

I looked to see if he was joking. He wasn't, any more than the menu that calls a giant platter of food a "sampler."

"Uh, well, do you think we can afford him?" I asked innocently as I snagged a few crumbs off a mostly bare plate.

"Sure," Bob said. "He's made so much money that the $1 million Arkansas pays will just be spending money."

All of which just goes to show what the expectations are for a new coach at Arkansas ---- and it isn't Mike Anderson.

He's a great guy, but has had many interviews for head coaching jobs that were never offered, or taken. He may have been waiting for Nolan Richardson to retire, assured by the Boss Hog that the job was his.

Only problem is, Nolan doesn't hire. The university does. And I hope they go after the best head coach they can afford.

Even more importantly, I hope Coach Richardson doesn't play the race card one more time, via a lawsuit against the university, in an effort to get "his guy" the job.

If Mike Anderson is the best after all the applicants have been checked out, that's great. But what you'll get is more Nolan, although in a more sophisticated, educated, and classy package.

It's clear the folks that pay the way, the fans, want a change. I know. As I passed through the doors, Bob leaned around the cash register, looked me right in the eye, and said, "Rick Pitino. He's our guy."

Thanks for the column, Bob.

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