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UA basketball staff find collective voice

by Bob Holt | July 1, 2022 at 2:18 a.m.
Arkansas men’s basketball Coach Eric Musselman (right) makes a point of taking input from all of his assistants, including Keith Smart, a former NBA head coach who played for Musselman in the CBA with the Rapid City Thrillers and Florida Beachdogs. Musselman calls his staff meetings a “think tank.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- When the University of Arkansas men's basketball staff holds its daily meetings, there's a lot of talking back and forth.

From everyone.

That's the way Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman wants it.

Musselman has the final word on what happens in the program, of course. But before making any decision that affects the Razorbacks, Musselman wants to hear from his assistant coaches and support staff.

That's nine people with assistant coaches Keith Smart, Gus Argenal and Anthony Ruta and a support staff of Michael Musselman (director of basketball operations), Riley Hall (director of internal operations), Todd Lee (director of scouting, assistant to the head coach), Ronnie Brewer (recruiting coordinator), Matt Lopez (assistant to the head coach) and Blake Werthington (assistant director recruiting and scouting).

"Every day when I come in, I gather everybody up together -- they're people of all ages -- and we just have a think tank," Musselman said a few weeks ago when he spoke at a Walton Family Foundation teamwork seminar in Bentonville. "We just throw ideas around.

"Some of them are, 'Hey, how can we be creative on social media today? Tomorrow? Next week?'

" 'Hey, how can we be creative with the drills that we're going to give our players in practice? What can we do different? What's new?' "

Graduate assistants have a voice, too.

"The other day Muss stopped practice and he was telling the GAs they've got to talk more to our players," said Lee, South Dakota's coach the previous four seasons and Musselman's assistant with the CBA's Rapid City (S.D.) Thrillers from 1992-94. "If you're around a player, Muss wants you talking to them, and he wants the players talking as well.

"It's loud in our practices, but it's good. There's a lot of energy."

Smart, a former NBA head coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, played for Musselman in the CBA with the Thrillers and Florida Beachdogs. He also was an assistant coach for Golden State when Musselman was the Warriors' coach.

"Having played for Muss and then having worked for him, he's always wanted you to bring your thoughts to the table," Smart said. "He wants to have as much information as he can get from everyone.

"He might use that information right then, he might use it later on. He might not use it at all.

"Muss has always been that guy who says, 'Give me the information, let me process it and then I'll make a determination how I'm going to use it.'

"But he wants as much information as he can get from everyone."

Musselman has a 183-62 record in seven seasons as a college coach at Nevada and Arkansas. He has led the Razorbacks to a 73-28 record in three seasons with back-to-back NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearances.

"That's how teams win, when everyone's pulling in the same direction," Smart said of Musselman's interactions with his staff. "It sets the tone for how we want to play, how we want to operate."

Musselman coached in the NBA, CBA and G-League for 25 years before his first college job as an assistant at Arizona State, so he naturally brings a professional approach to Arkansas.

"We might assign studies, where one coach is going to study one of the [NBA] playoff series and tape both offensive and defensive concepts," Musselman said. "Then we throw all these ideas on a board and we go, 'How can we go teach this to our players? Or teach it to each other on staff?' "

Brewer, an All-SEC guard for the Razorbacks and a first-round draft pick by the Utah Jazz in 2006, played eight seasons in the NBA with six different teams. He's going into his second season on Arkansas' staff.

"I think with a lot of college coaches across the country, and in the NBA, it's more of a dictatorship," Brewer said. "Everybody doesn't get a voice.

"I think that's what makes Coach Muss one of the top-tier elite coaches in the industry, because he listens and he adapts. He's adaptable to the times.

"He knows that he might not have all the answers, he might not have all the ideas. So that's why he bounces every idea that he has off of multiple people, and then he listens to everyone in the room.

"That's why he's thriving as a coach. That's why you see him thriving on social media and Twitter.

"Everyone bounces ideas off Coach Muss, whether it's about practice or different sets that we're running. Defensive schemes or stuff on social media. Or T-shirt ideas."

Hall, a student manager at Arkansas from 2013-16, and a graduate assistant and video coordinator under Coach Mike Anderson, was kept on staff by Musselman.

"Probably 99% of the places you work when you're younger, you're not going to have a voice," Hall said. "But Coach Muss gives us a way to express our thoughts, and it's a way for us to learn and grow.

"We can say what we're thinking, and Coach Muss can say, 'Hey that's a good idea.' Or, 'Hey, this is why we don't do it that way anymore.'

"It brings Coach Muss a younger view, too. It's a good way to keep ideas moving forward."

Over the previous two seasons Earl Boykins, Mike Ekanem and Hays Myers, who were support staff members at Arkansas, became assistant coaches. Boykins is an assistant at Texas-El Paso, Ekanem at Sam Houston State and Myers at Sacramento State.

Jon Blake, an Arkansas graduate who was the Razorbacks' assistant for basketball administration last year, is now at Georgia Tech as the assistant director of football operations.

"Coach Muss helps people develop in their careers," Brewer said. "He gets it."

Musselman said he wants to be sure to create a work environment in which everyone feels comfortable expressing opinions and offering suggestions.

"I think you've got to respect everybody," Musselman said. "Everybody's got incredible ideas. You've got to give them a voice, and then you've got to listen to them.

"You can't have somebody speak in a staff meeting and say, 'Well, I have more experience than that person.' Or, 'I'm older than that person.' Or, 'I'm smarter than that person.'

"Because everybody's got some gift that God has blessed them with. Some people might not be real book smart, but if you stuck them in a foreign country, and you told them they had no money, but they had to figure out how to get back here in 24 hours, some of the book smart people, they'd never get back here.

"Some of the street smart people would find out how to get back here quicker than anybody. So I think you need to have great respect for everybody you're working with, and just listen, because it's incredible how many people can give you great ideas."

Musselman and his father, the late Bill Musselman, became the first father-and-son combination to both be NBA head coaches.

"My dad was my best friend, my idol and I looked up to him," Musselman said. "From a really young age -- probably fourth or fifth grade -- I knew I wanted to coach."

Musselman played four seasons as a backup point guard at the University of San Diego.

"I knew that I was not going to be a player beyond college, so realistic expectations were tempered by my dad," Musselman said. "He told me right away where my ceiling was as a player, which I didn't want to hear at the time, but I'm glad I did.

"I spent my entire four years of college thinking of how to become a coach and how to become a leader."

As much basketball as Musselman learned from his father, who was an NBA head coach with the Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves, that isn't who taught him to have a vocal staff.

Musselman said that when he was an assistant for his father with the expansion Timberwolves along with Tom Thibodeau -- now head coach of the New York Knicks -- Bill Musselman was the only person talking during practices.

"Tom Thibodeau and I didn't say anything when we were my dad's assistants," Musselman said last week. "We stood on the sideline. He ran the entire practice and we didn't say a word.

"I asked Tommy, 'What are we doing?' And he goes, 'Just stand on the side. Hold the ball underneath your arm and don't say a word. Let your dad do it all.' "

Musselman said he learned to let his staff members express their opinions openly from Chuck Daly, who led the Detroit Pistons to two NBA titles as coach.

Daly finished his career as coach of the Orlando Magic, and Musselman was one of his assistant coaches.

"Chuck didn't like to talk much in practice," Musselman said. "He liked the assistants to have a loud voice, an active voice in practice."

Unlike Daly, Musselman does plenty of talking in practice, but he listens to his staff as well.

"We all see things, and we all look at a game or look at practice or look at a player and see something different," Smart said. "So we all can share that in our meetings.

"We sit down and Muss shares things with us, and then we share things with him, and we put a plan together."

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