March 06, 2013
Before they turned out the lights at Barnhill Arena, Mike Anderson and Johnny Jones dueled in the old haunt’s next-to-last game on a chilly morning in March 1993.
LSU and Arkansas wound down their morning shoot-arounds, and the pregame rite: A pick-up tilt of two-on-two between pairs of opposing assistant coaches.
From the staff of Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson, Anderson, then 33, tabbed Nolan Richardson Jr. as his teammate. Jones, a 31-year old in his fifth season as a full-time assistant for Dale Brown, selected former colleague Jim Childers.
And witnesses abounded, too.
The first batch of a record 9,660 fans filed into Barnhill to grab seats in the building’s finale before the opening of the new $30 million Bud Walton Arena. At courtside, analyst Clark Kellog, who worked for ESPN at the time, prepped and could have offered commentary, too.
“He used to foul a lot when we played,” Jones said of Anderson on Tuesday before chuckling. “He was aggressive and played a lot like his teams do today.”
Two decades later, Jones and Anderson finally helm the programs dearest to them after decamping in the wake of their mentors’ exits, clawing to build midmajor programs and watching LSU (16-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) and Arkansas (17-10, 8-6), who meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, cycle through a combined four head coaches.
“There are some parallels,” Anderson said. “I will give you that.”
And their paths traversed largely the same terrain.
After 17 seasons, which included three Final Four trips, Richardson was fired in March 2001, during a 13-14 season, a week after a 13-point loss to Kentucky where Richardson famously uttered, “If they pay me my money, the can take my job tomorrow.”
In his mentor’s stead, Anderson, who spent 17 seasons as an assistant, led the Razorbacks to a season-finale victory over Vanderbilt, but Arkansas was bounced by Tennessee in the first-round of the SEC tournament.
Anderson interviewed for the job in late March 2002, but two days later, Kent State coach Stan Heath emerged as the frontrunner and the ultimate choice.
A week later, Anderson accepted the gig as UAB’s head coach, where he spent four seasons leading the Blazers to an 89-41 record and three NCAA tournament trips. In 2006, he moved on to Missouri, but his dream job became vacant in 2006 when Heath was fired.
That search focused on Billy Gillespie, John Calipari, and Dana Altman, who accepted the job to leave Creighton but backed out a day later. Ultimately, Arkansas hired South Alabama coach John Pelphrey.
It wasn’t until 2010, after Pelphrey’s firing, that Anderson was lured from Missouri by Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long, who replaced Frank Broyles — who fired Richardson and was named in a lawsuit — in 2008.
“It was a job I knew he had great desire for,” Jones said. “When that opportunity presented itself, I was glad to see him get it.”
As for Jones, his course back to Baton Rouge required stints in Memphis, Tuscaloosa and Denton before returning to Baton Rouge almost a year ago.
Seventeen seasons as an LSU assistant ended in 1997 when LSU coach Dale Brown retired after a string of four-consecutive losing seasons and controversy regarding the recruitment of Baton Rouge prep star Lester Earl.
Venturing away from LSU, though, and gleaning insights from other programs didn’t hold an immediate appeal upon first appraisal.
“Obviously, at the moment and on the inside, that’s not what you’re thinking,” Jones said.”
Jones landed at Memphis with coach Tic Price as an associate head coach and served as interim head coach for the 1999-2000 season after Price was fired after being accused of an inappropriate relationship with a female student. Next, Jones spen5 a lone season on the Alabama bench before North Texas tapped him in 2002 to take over its struggling program.
“I was able to take what I learned under Dale and other head coaches and implement them to what we do today,” Jones said.
Six seasons later, Jones got an interview at his alma mater after the firing of John Brady but saw the job go to Trent Johnson, who arrived from Stanford fresh off a Sweet 16 trip and three NCAA tournament appearances along with a successful track record at Nevada.
“There wasn’t anything you could argue with,” Jones said. “It was right, and I was very supportive of Trent. ... It was one of those deals where his résumé supported the hiring, and no one gave him anything. He’d actually worked for it.”
Yet Jones said he was “appreciative” of “getting to sit down and visit through the interview process.”
“They were sincere in terms of their approach and what they were looking for,” Jones said. “I knew if something were to happen down the road, that if it came back and I was doing what I was doing, there might be another opportunity out there.”
It arrived when Johnson left LSU in April to take over at TCU. One week later, Jones was hired after 11 seasons at North Texas.
As for the parallels, Anderson conceded some exist between him and Jones, with the lone difference being Jones’ ties to LSU as a player as opposed to Anderson following Richardson to Arkansas after playing for him at Tulsa.
“He went on and blazed his own trail. And now, all of a sudden, he is back to a place that he is familiar with,” Anderson said Monday. “You can come to that conclusion — and I guess you did. He and I have talked about that.”
And now, they duel again.
Granted, Jones is keen to let you know how the pick-up game turned out, too. “You don’t want to know the score.”