It's interesting comparing Arkansas basketball to that of Utah, because both are very comparable in tradition. Arkansas has made the Final Four 6 times, Utah 4. Both have won the NCAA and NIT Tournaments once, have finished in the top-25 around the same amount of times (Utah 19 times, Arkansas 16), and both were two of the most dominant teams in the 1990s. Yet beyond tradition, Utah and Arkansas share a few more things in common as well.
In 2002 Nolan Richardson, the most successful coach in Razorback history, was essentially run of town on bad terms. The legend was replaced by Stan Heath, a fairly unknown mid-major coach. In the end, his undoing was following a legend and last month got his walking papers. That should sound familiar to many Utah fans, as we went through something similar to this. Rick Majerus, the most successful coach in Utah history, didn't leave on the best of terms and his successor couldn't even come close to living up to the Majerus' legacy. And like Heath, Ray Giacoletti saw his contract terminated early last month, putting two of the most successful programs in college basketball history in the same boat; both looking for a new head coach.
Arkansas aimed high, contacting Memphis' John Calipari, Kansas' Bill Self and Texas A&M's Billy Gillispie. After getting turned down by all of those coaches, the Razorbacks settled on Creighton's Dana Altman. That lasted for 24 hours, as Altman quickly reneged and decided to return to Creighton, leaving Arkansas coachless once again. Well now it appears they've found their guy, though who knows, he might pull an Altman and return back to his old employer.
Arkansas is expected to announce John Pelphrey as the school's next coach today. Pelphrey is currently the coach at South Alabama, where he's had minimal success. I don't know if this hire will turn out to be a good one, but I can't help but laugh at where their program stands right now when compared to what Utah went through the past month. I mean all Utah fans were told during the coaching search that the job was not big time and that Hill would never get his top choice. And I guess technically that's true, since Hill's top choice was Larry Krystkowiak. He turned the Utes down to coach the Milwaukee Bucks and I don't know many college basketball teams that would win out when going head-to-head with an NBA team. Hell even Kentucky lost their coach to the NBA back in the 1990s.
The fact that John Pelphrey was at least Arkansas' sixth choice and Utah got their top man shortly after losing out on Krystkowiak speaks volumes. Here's a program in the SEC that had to go all the way down to the Sun Belt for their next head coach, a coach that's only had two winning seasons in his career. What's that say about their basketball program and what's it say about Utah's?
Jim Boylen was Hill's 2nd choice. Yeah he contacted Mike Montgomery early on, but I think it was clear Hill wanted a younger coach to take over the program and probably knew before hand that Monty would turn Utah down. He did -- though Utah never offered, just gauged his interest -- and they went on to Larry K. After Larry K took the Bucks job, Boylen seemed to be the candidate the media and Hill focused in on and a few weeks ago he was named Utah's head coach. This is in stark contrast to where Utah stood in 2004, where they were turned down by Mark Few, Trent Johnson and a few other unknown candidates before Hill settled on Giacoletti. This time Utah didn't settle, but it appears Arkansas has.
I don't know if Utah will have more success than Arkansas over the next few years, but I do know the job seems far more superior than the Arkansas one. Which is surprising, since they are a Power Conference team with a history equal to that of Utah. I would have thought that playing in the SEC would have given them the leg up when it came to picking a coach. Instead they were exposed as a program with a nice history, yet not enough power and prestige to entice a top-notch coach to their program. And because of that, they're now poaching a coach from the Sun Belt Conference. From South Alabama to Arkansas, that's an even bigger leap than from Eastern Washington to Utah.