By Otis Kirk
Arkansas is still searching for Mike Anderson’s replacement as head basketball coach. The obvious target of the search is Houston’s Kelvin Sampson.
Sampson led the Cougars to a Sweet 16 finish this season where they lost a narrow decision to Kentucky 62-58 in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City on Friday night. Sampson has ties to Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who was Sampson’s boss at Houston before leaving for the Razorbacks.
Board of regents chairman Tilman Fertitta has been quoted saying Houston has an offer of $3 million per season for the next six years. Arkansas was paying Anderson $2.55 million. There is little doubt Arkansas is willing to top the $3 million per season for Sampson.
As with most coaching searches, there’s always the possibility of a coach using interest from another school as leverage to get a raise from his current school. That may be the case with Sampson though some close to the situation as early as this past Thursday considered Sampson basically a done deal with the Hogs. Another source close to Arkansas has indicated he feels Sampson will get a raise and stay put much like Gus Malzahn did at Auburn when sought by Arkansas.
The sources said that Yurachek had his man when he fired Anderson. And it was Yurachek’s decision to fire Anderson. He had the backing of the majority of the Board of Trustees either to keep Anderson or fire him according to the sources.
One source even ventured to imply that even had the Hogs won the NIT Anderson still would have been fired. Arkansas lost in the second round to Indiana so that part of the theory will never be known.
It would seem the longer the job at Arkansas stays vacant the less likely Sampson is coming. He was courted by the Orlando Magic last season before opting to remain at Houston. But Sampson has said that he would meet with Houston before doing anything else.
While there’s several reasons Sampson would want to stay at Houston there’s also just as many or more why he would come to Arkansas. Yes, Houston’s basketball program is in better shape right now than the one at Arkansas. But Arkansas is in a Power 5 Conference and Houston has been a steppingstone for coaches being sought by bigger schools.
Kevin Sumlin left for Texas A&M and Tom Herman left for Texas. As illiustrated by Chris Beard at Texas Tech this season and various other coaches it shouldn’t take that long to rebuild a basketball program. Beard’s team last year lost players to the NBA and to graduation and one year later they are in the Final Four. With grad transfers now so impactful in college sports, a strong crop of high school prospects in 2020 and other factors it shouldn’t take the new coach at Arkansas that long to get the program back on the right track.
Mike Neighbors took over a troubled program with the women and in his second season had them on the verge of going to the NCAA Tournament. Sources in Houston indicate that Sampson, who has two years remaining on his contract, was somewhat disappointed the Cougars hadn’t negotiated a new contract prevously. Not sure if that is what Sampson meant in this quote to the Houston Chronicle’s Joseph Duarte on Thursday, but it could probably be taken that way.
“Now is not the time for me to be doing any of that,” Sampson, 63, said. “We had a whole year to do that. That’s the first thing I do hopefully next week. I’m going to talk to Houston before I do anything.”
The clock is ticking on Sampson and Arkansas. If not Sampson, then Arkansas has a few other places it could possibly turn.