Little Rock’s Chris Beard and Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood’s stock rose in the NCAA basketball tournament and they became the hot commodities most observers expected.
Before the final tip of the tournament, both have new jobs, Underwood at Oklahoma State, Beard now to UNLV.
Underwood, whose teams have dominated the Southland Conference for three years, had been on the radar for awhile. Beard is considered a rising star whose apex was eventually going to rise past Little Rock.
This was sudden — as many moves are when the coaching carousel starts spinning. UALR officials were hoping they had Beard, whose Trojans came out of nowhere for a 30-win season, pulled a 12-5 upset in the tourney and reached the second round, for at least another season.
But this year developed into a perfect storm: A coach with the right message, the right mindset, a new method of branding, players who developed a bond and just the right chemistry plus a little bit of luck along the way.
While some Trojan fans are shocked at the quick turnaround, most were holding their collective breath wondering which suitor would show up with how big of pockets.
Athletic officials at struggling programs traditionally make changes after conference tournaments, then scan the landscape for who might be available and doable.
You can’t blame Beard, who does not have Arkansas roots, for making a move that will possibly triple his salary and go to a program with a more recognizable name and more resources. It’s a fact of life that folks who distinguish themselves in smaller markets in an industry are sought by those in bigger markets. It’s business. Everyone wants to discover and latch onto a rising star.
UNLV hasn’t been prominent among basketball powers for a couple of decades but it still has the reputation and a brand name. It’s a popular destination city with sparkle and glamor with patrons who will latch onto a successful show. And what Beard did to enhance and build the Little Rock program in a year — faster than anyone imagined — caught officials’ attention in Vegas. They knew that they could come at Beard with probably an offer he couldn’t refuse even though he might now have been the first option.
That’s the dilemma with most mid-major programs, which don’t have the donor base, resources and television exposure as the major conferences. Most mid-majors are training grounds and stepping-stones. Every mid-major program wants a coach who can lead it to record success, gain the NCAA tourney and its nice TV revenue and maybe put the school more prominently on the map with an upset or two. The downside is that the more success a mid-major program has, the better chance that a school from a power conference and big pockets will go after its coaching.
With few exceptions — Gonzaga the main one — successful mid-major coaches have a longevity expectancy at their schools comparable to an armadillo on along the interstate.
In his short tenure at Little Rock, Beard left the program in better shape and a higher level.
He elevated the fan base and greatly increased the ownership of the team by Little Rock folks and took branding to a new level with the help of the administration and athletic director Chasse Conque. He prompted unprecedented media coverage for the Trojans.
As Conque begins the search for a new coach, he will do so with a more recognizable name and a greater level of respect. More importantly, a new coach can get a glimpse of the possibilities in Little Rock.
Fans will inevitably will first point to its most famous basketball alumnus Derek Fisher, who has roots in Little Rock and may not need a big salary. But Fisher, who was recently dismissed after a "wrong fit" run as coach of the New York Knicks, may still want to prove himself in pro basketball.
Wes Flanigan, another former Parkview player who served as one of Beard’s assistants, will have some support.
Little Rock has proven itself as worthy of a nationwide search to see what might be out there.
Little Rock officials are energized by a possible glimpse into the future. Arkansas State may have already gotten a rising star in new coach Grant McCasland from Baylor. At UCA, Russ Pennell is steadily building a program to his specifications that seems on the verge of reaping great rewards in a year or two.
Bottom line. The dynamics of college basketball are changing in the state and what happened at Little Rock may just be the tip of the iceberg.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)