For a good while, they were kings of the Southwest Conference.
The Arkansas Razorbacks and Houston Cougars—if these basketball programs were unshaven old men holding court in a bar, you may want to guard your ears. They could be talked off from the sharing of long-ago exploits.
It’s the late 1970s and Arkansas wears the crown. Little Rock Hall’s Sidney Moncrief joins Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph to form the famed “triplets.” They are bad to the bone, these three athlete extraordinaires. Moncrief regularly sends rims to the ER with his crazy hops; Sports Illustrated takes notice. A cover photo follows, then a 1978 Final Four appearance and after a while Arkansas fans expect greatness forever and ever more, amen.
It’s the early 1980s, and Houston is taking the crown. A sportswriter sees a 6-10 Nigerian who’s able to protect the rim a with a cat-like quickness honed by soccer goalie training. This cat’s years away from acquiring a name-starting “H” or a dream shake fadeaway, but Akeem Olajuwon has plenty at the moment. Namely, Cougars’ swingman Clyde Drexler, another All-American talent who attacks the rim like a taller Moncrief. The sportswriter dubs Olajuwon and Drexler as the core of “Phi Slama Jama,” a group which initiated a three-season keg stand of success leaving some Houston diehards dizzy to this day—three consecutive Final Fours, including two straight finals appearances.
Arkansas wins three of the teams’ eight meetings in this 1982-1984 era. In 1984, Arkansas plays Houston three times in five games. Each time, both teams rank no lower than 12th nationally.
Arkansas next owns the SWC in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by which point Houston had descended into mediocrity. Arkansas left the conference in 1991 (it would fold five years later) but the Razorbacks had built enough momentum to eventually emerge as national champion in 1994. Houston never recaptured the glory of previous eras.
Arkansas, too, would tail off in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s, its tale, quite frankly, gets ugly: Nolan Richardson fired, a race discrimination lawsuit, Stan Heath, Dana Altman, John Pelphrey.
Recent years have depressed both programs’ fans, but check out the former champs now and you won’t exactly find them slumped over at their bar stools, softly prattling about bygone times.
Instead, both sides are optimistic that new golden days are just around the corner—no kidding this time. Which isn’t to say those last times were supposed to be jokes. After Heath’s lukewarm head coaching tenure, Arkansas hired Pelphrey. He was all fire and brim, and best yet had SEC bonafides as a Kentucky player during Arkansas glory years. Ol’ reddie was supposed to understand Arkansas fans and their high expectations, but after that first season it never really clicked—not with the fans, the media or his own players.
In the late 1990s, Houston had their own fling with a would-be savior—Clyde Drexler himself. But, as often happens, star players don’t make great coaches and Drexler quit after two seasons and a 7-25 record.
A decade later, Houston hired James Dickey, who’d been an Arkansas assistant coach in the early 1980s, to right the ship. Dickey, like Pelphrey,
had battled against the program which would hire him during its best years. Dickey, a Boone County native and University of Central Arkansas graduate, had seen Phi Slama Jama up close and personal.
And now he’s banking on the descendant of an original Jama member (a Jamonite?) to help lead Houston back to prominence. Houston’s redshirt freshman Joseph Young is the son of Michael Young, who fraternized with Olajuwon, Drexler and forward Mike Thibodeaux. The father is now Houston’s director of operations. His 6-3 son, a prolific outside shooter, had to sit out a year after reneging on a letter of intent he’d signed with Providence as a high schooler. For Cougar fans, both men symbolize bridges from a better past to a better future.
It’s a feeling thousands of Hog fans at Verizon Arena will share on Friday night when they embrace Mike Anderson as their prodigal prince turned king. The 51-year-old spent nine seasons wandering the desert after Richardson’s exodus, four in Alabama and five in Missouri. Just enough time for fans to realize what went down during his 17 years as Arkansas assistant was something really, truly special. Rare is the coach who can instill a champion’s dedication, discipline and desire like Sutton or Richardson.
The lessons start with perseverance, and setbacks since early summer have already given these Razorbacks ample opportunity to learn. Hog signee Aaron Ross, of Little Rock Parkview, was supposed to be part of a new version of the triplets with Arkansas natives Rashad Madden and Hunter Mickelson, both freshmen. But Ross didn’t academically qualify to join the team and enrolled into a Wisconsin prep school. Also, three players transferred: veteran point guard Jeff Peterson, three-point marksman Rotnei Clarke and power forward Glenn Bryant.
This makes Arkansas smaller and less experienced than most of its best foes. The Hogs’ lack of depth means Anderson can’t keep the defensive heat turned up on his helter-skelter style of play as long as could with his deeper Mizzou teams (although 10 Hogs did play at least 10 minutes in Wednesday night’s 91-68 win over Summit League champ Oakland).
Houston, also very young and eager to push the tempo, is an almost ideal early opponent.
Young, along with Darian Thibodeaux (not a Jamonite) and Johnathan Simmons, are its primary perimeter threats. Sophomore Alandise Harris, a four-time all-conference player at Little Rock Central, will work the wing. “He can score outside, inside, post up, come off screens, read defenses” and make the correct passes in transition, says Central head coach Oliver Fitzpatrick.
It could be a somewhat bittersweet homecoming for Harris, who wanted to be a Razorback and thought he had an Arkansas scholarship waiting. But Harris qualified late for college, and discovered there was no scholarship after all. Houston’s coaches, among them UALR graduate (and former Trojan assistant) Daniyel Robinson, were quick to welcome Harris.
And while Harris still has sisters, aunts and uncles in Little Rock, he will not see his mother Alberta, who died unexpectedly a month into last season. Years ago, Alberta Harris had told Fitzpatrick she wanted her son “to behave himself and to graduate. We set about trying to make those things a reality for her and I think [Alandise] has done a good job of it.”
Look for Harris to matchup against Rashad Madden and Rickey Scott.
For whichever side that wins, recent trends will be bucked. Houston finished 12-18 last season, but won only two of 13 road games. Arkansas, 18-13 last season, has had a tough time winning against quality competition at Verizon Arena, formerly known as Alltel Arena. Arkansas has beaten four teams since 1999 at the arena, with Rice the only borderline major conference foe in that bunch. Meanwhile, it has lost to the likes of Oklahoma State, Illinois, Baylor, Texas Tech and—gasp!—Appalachian State in North Little Rock’s not-so-friendly confines.
On Friday night, however, Arkansas’ new era begins in earnest. As its first major conference competition, Houston serves as the Hogs’ best barometer yet. A win over such an opponent at Verizon Arena bodes well for Anderson.
This game serves as a homecoming for people in both programs. That warrants some celebration, sure, but—honestly—how much excitement can an Arkie or Texan soul spare for basketball in November when both sides’ football teams are ranked in the Top 10?
Soon enough, this night becomes just a blip on an early season slog of a schedule.
Years from now, though, when Arkansas or Houston—or both—are kings again, some may look back on this game as a turning point, when the constant rehashing of old exploits gave way to the start of a fresh story, with new heroes.
Evin Demirel is a North Little Rock-based journalist who blogs about basketball at thesportsseeer.com. He has found blogging about that sport in Arkansas when the Razorbacks football team is nationally ranked No. 6 to be not dissimilar from singing karaoke at home.
This article was originally published in Sync Magazine.