Jim's Notebook: Gary Blair's A&M Success Still Haunts Arkansas Women's Program

by Jim Harris  on Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011 3:09 pm  

This story is from the archives of ArkansasSports360.com.

Gary Blair understood fully in 2003, despite winning games at a regular clip and making Arkansas’ women’s basketball program competitive in the Southeastern Conference while graduating his players, that he wasn’t wanted anymore by his bosses in Fayetteville.

So, he found Texas A&M wanting for a winning coach and returned to his native Texas to take over the Lady Aggies’ program. Interestingly, Blair kept his home in Northwest Arkansas and commuted between College Station and Fayetteville.

Meanwhile, Arkansas chancellor John White, who had already joined Frank Broyles in running off the most successful men’s coach in the modern era in Nolan Richardson, sided with women’s athletic director Bev Lewis in refusing Blair a new contract. Instead, they reached over to Austin Peay to hire Susie Gardner, reportedly at the recommendation of legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summit, with whom Gardner had worked.

While celebrating Arkansas’ hiring of new men’s coach Mike Anderson the past few days and rekindling the excitement that’s been missing from Bud Walton Arena for nine years, you might have noticed that Gary Blair led Texas A&M to its first ever Women’s Final Four in an upset of Baylor.

Arkansas’s women’s program hasn’t had even a break-even season in SEC play since Blair left. This isn’t an indictment of current coach Tom Collen, who was an assistant for Blair before turning around the Colorado State and Louisville programs and then coming back to Fayetteville in April 2007.

No, it’s simply pointing out that by letting Blair get away, Arkansas’ administrators set their women’s basketball program back nearly a decade.

Blair, who arrived in 1993, took Arkansas to the Final Four in 1998 where the Lady ‘Backs (as they were called then) ran into SEC rival Tennessee in the national semifinal.

At A&M, Blair took over a program that had not had a winning season in seven years and was 10-18 overall and 3-11 in the Big 12 the previous season. It took him two years to turn the corner in Big 12 play, but when he did, Blair’s program has been among that league’s elite.

Tuesday, in shocking Kim Mulkey’s Baylor team that was expected to challenge UConn for the national title, Blair’s program is in the limelight.

Blair made the NCAA Tournament in his third year in College Station, advanced to the second round in year four, reached the Elite Eight in the fifth year and the Sweet 16 in year six. After being upset in the second-round last year, Blair has returned to the NCAA Final Four.

Arkansas can’t make the Final Four of the Women’s NIT these days.

Of course, as much as the men’s side has struggled in the past decade, it’s probably a blessing to the women that nobody seems to notice.

 

 

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