Former Missouri coach Mike Anderson has spent the past three offseasons in a constant will-he-or-won't-he limbo. Those days have officially come to a close.
On Wednesday, Anderson took what for him will almost certainly be the job-to-end-all-job offers: men's basketball coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. For Anderson, the new job represents the culmination of a coaching lifetime. For Arkansas, it represents the hiring hybrid every once-storied program seeks to emulate: a return to glories past and a step into a new future.
Anderson was the right-hand man to legendary Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson. It might be hard for fans to remember now -- I'm a relatively younger guy, and I barely recall that group of Hogs that won the 1994 national title -- but under Richardson, Arkansas was one of the premier hoops programs in the country. From 1988 to '95, Richardson won 200 games, and made three Final Fours and two national title appearances. He punctuated that success with the 1993-94 national championship team that irrevocably entered Richardson's frantic, pressing style -- famously dubbed "40 Minutes of Hell" -- into the college hoops lexicon.
Anderson was there from the beginning. He played for Richardson at Tulsa, and when he graduated in 1982, Richardson was quick to offer him a job as a volunteer assistant. Richardson took the Arkansas job that same year, and Anderson followed him, where he remained on Richardson's staff as an assistant coach for 17 seasons.
In 2002, the duo's run ended on a sour note, and that's an understatement for the ages. Richardson told the media that he was subject to racial hostility at the school, even from then-athletic director Frank Boyles. Richardson sued, and things got incredibly ugly. The interim coach during that falling-out was, you guessed it, Mike Anderson.
The program hasn't been the same since. The Razorbacks went 151-128 in five mostly mediocre seasons under Stan Heath and four more mostly mediocre seasons under John Pelphrey. Attendance at Bud Walton Arena, which opened the same season Richardson's Razorbacks won the national title and once boasted some of the largest and loudest crowds in college hoops, has declined sharply in every season since.
In that time, Anderson's coaching star only rose. He turned UAB into an exciting C-USA force. He resurrected Missouri from the Quin Snyder mess. He made the Tigers a paragon of his mentor's up-tempo system and, if not one of the nation's elite programs, certainly something resembling it, taking Mizzou all the way to the Elite Eight in 2009.
The timing has worked out perfectly for both sides. The only obstacle could have been the school's acrimonious relationship with Anderson's mentor. But new Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long has paid homage to Richardson and his successful teams, which culminated with the former coach's emotional return to Fayetteville during a ceremony last year to honor the national title team. Long has embraced the past in much the same way Tom Crean did at Indiana (even if Bob Knight won't budge), so that obstacle now has been removed. You get the feeling, with relations now improved, that the mentor Richardson gave a nod of approval to his longtime pupil.
So now Anderson gets to return to the school where he spent his first 17 years as a coach, not to mention the city where he planted his flag and raised his family in his first year after college. He also gets the built-in advantage of Pelphrey's 2011 recruiting class, which ranks among the best in the nation.
Arkansas gets to add one of college coaching's annual hot names, move on from its lost decade under Heath and Pelphrey, harken the glories of the not-so-distant past, and give Razorback fans reason to pack The House Nolan Built anew.
The only uncertainty left comes in the wake of Anderson's departure from Missouri. Mizzou fans might not be surprised by the departure. After all, Anderson has flirted with other schools, including Oregon last summer and Georgia the year before that, for much of his tenure in Columbia. But as Andy Katz reported Wednesday night, Missouri fully expected to keep its coach this week, and now athletic director Mike Alden must seek out a coach who can keep -- and perhaps expand upon -- the momentum Anderson built in recent seasons.
Finding that candidate won't be easy, especially because Missouri will compete with Georgia Tech, Tennessee, NC State and Oklahoma (among others) for the services of the hottest coaching names in the country. Those names include VCU's Shaka Smart, Richmond's Chris Mooney, Butler's Brad Stevens and Marquette's Buzz Williams.
The Tigers will also no doubt consider Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin, who nearly got the long-dormant Bears to the NCAA tournament this season. Whether any of those coaches will be interested in the Missouri job is up for debate. Whether that job is a better one than Arkansas (or the remaining openings) is as well.
But Arkansas and Anderson don't have to worry about that. Frankly, Hog fans couldn't ask for a much better fit. If anyone in the country knows how to win in Fayetteville, it's Anderson. If anyone knows how to bridge the glories of the past with hope for the future, it's Anderson. And for Anderson, well, he gets to go home.
What could be better than that?