For Arkansas fans, Mike Anderson and Duke will be forever linked through the 1994 NCAA National Championship game. On one side, Anderson helped Nolan Richardson coach Arkansas to the biggest win in Razorback basketball history. On the other side, Duke guard Jeff Capel scored 14 points, turned the ball over six times in the face of hellish pressure by Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel while dishing out four assists.
Turns out Capel’s last assist, however, came more than 25 years later.
That’s because Jeff Capel tipped St. John’s Athletic Director Mike Cragg off to Mike Anderson, opening Cragg’s mind to the possibility of bringing the former Hogs coach to New York City.
The Back Story
Earlier in April, Cragg whiffed on his top two targets for the St. John’s coaching vacancy—coaches Porter Moser (a former UALR head coach) and Bobby Hurley. Cragg was especially keen on Hurley, the former Duke player, since Cragg had spent 30 years as a Duke athletic administrator and oversaw its rise as a national power.
His network of Dukies knew he was on the lookout for a new coach. So Capel, now head coach at Pittsburgh, reached out to Cragg. “I knew what we needed and I had to find [someone] who matched that,” Cragg said. “I got a text on Wednesday morning from Coach Capel and it said, ‘Have you thought about Mike Anderson?’ I said I’ve actually looked into it and I said, ‘Tell me more.’”
“Instead of texting, I just picked up the phone and he told me about Coach Anderson. “I’ve always thought he was a really good coach,” said Capel, who coached against Anderson while at VCU and Oklahoma, in a story that published this week on ESPN.com. “If you look at UAB, what he did there, if you look at Missouri, what he did there — taking over a mess in both situations. … In all these situations, fit is very important. And I thought Mike Cragg and Mike Anderson would be a good fit for each other.”
Cragg told Capel to see call if Anderson was interested. Turns out he was, although he wasn’t expecting to coach in 2019-2010.
After Anderson was fired at Arkansas,, “I thought it would be a time of reflection, a time to catch my breath. I’d been going at it 37 straight years.” he told CBS’ Jon Rothstein in June.
While Capel was talking to Anderson, Cragg called Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski said, ‘Wow. If you can get him, that’d be amazing….That would be a home run.'”
But will it really be a home run?
That’s what Arkansas fans expected the Mike Anderson era would bring to the basketball program and instead they got a few singles and a double.
Anderson will run the same style at St. John’s that he did at Arkansas. Early in his head coaching career, his spin on “40 Minutes of Hell” proved successful.
As ESPN’s Jeff Borzello notes, “Anderson ranked in the top 55 nationally in adjusted tempo in each of his first 13 seasons as a head coach, including 10 seasons in the top 25. Simultaneously, he ranked in the top 20 nationally in defensive turnover percentage in 11 of his first 13 seasons — including two seasons at No. 1.”
But both of those numbers came down significantly in his final four seasons with the Razorbacks, when Anderson’s teams tended to be more offensively prolific but more often lagged on defense. Still, he’s ready to recapture some of that old magic at St. John’s.
“We can bring a style of play that people in New York can appreciate,” Anderson said. “Blue-collar, getting after it, play with toughness, play with pace. A lot of coaches will say, ‘We’ll play fast.’ Well, we play fast. And it’s entertaining basketball. Kids can relate to it.”
Many Hog fans will roll their eyes at that.
That’s because almost all coaches in modern basketball can relate to playing fast and with pace. And more than relating to playing fast, most big-time teen talents want to relate to a coach who can get them into the NBA. That’s a big reason Arkansas ended up hiring Eric Musselman, the first former NBA head (or assistant) coach in Razorback history.
Some Razorback fans will also nod knowingly at the answer to the question of what Anderson’s expectations are for 2019-2020 at St. John’s: “We’re gonna be in the hunt for something,” he told Jon Rothstein. “I don’t know what, but we’re gonna be in the hunt when it’s all said and done.”
To Mike Anderson’s credit, he’s already hit the ground running hard on the recruiting trail. He’s hired assistants who know New York City and the Northeast well and seems to be showing a lot more energy in recruiting than he did the last couple years at Arkansas. Some of that may simply be a response to a faster way of life.
“When I got the job, I was here for a month before I went back to Arkansas,” Anderson told ESPN. “Man, the pace was unbelievable. I went back there and it was like things were in slow motion.”
In the next couple years, Anderson will have a lot of talent coming to a St. John’s team that won 21 games last season. He has a verbal commit from JUCO All-American Vince Cole and, from the 2020 class, the Red Storm will get Bronx natives four-star point guard Posh Alexander and shooting guard Dylan Wusu.
Anderson is also starting to win recruiting battles — indirectly, for now — with Musselman. Anderson got a verbal commit from his old recruiting stomping ground, Mississippi, in JUCO star Isaih Moore. Moore, a 6’10” will ‘o wisp with a 7’6″ wingspan, chose St. John’s over Arkansas, LSU, Alabama, Tulsa, and Mississippi State among others. Those other programs were trying to get him on campus for a visit, but Moore pulled the trigger before any visits, according to the New York Post.
“I really like Coach Anderson,” Moore said in a phone interview. “I’m able to play in the Big East on the big stage at Madison Square Garden. You can’t beat that.”
Since Anderson is still loved in Arkansas — 99% of fans love him as a person, they just wanted to see him win more — it’s a safe bet St. John’s will be the most popular out-of-state college team among Hog fans this season.
It will be fascinating to see how well Anderson’s system will work in NYC. Will he take the Big East by (red) Storm? In his folksy way, Anderson jokes that’s unlikely, at least at first:
“It’s a process. It just doesn’t happen overnight. We’ll go through some phases,” Anderson told ESPN. “It may be more like 25 minutes of hell, 15 minutes of what the hell are we doing? But it’ll eventually get better and better.”
The below, which gives background into Anderson’s hiring and the concerns around it, was published on April 20, 2019:
Mike Krzyzewski and Mike Anderson were on opposing sidelines at least three times during Anderson’s career.
Apparently, Krzyzewski had kept up with Anderson and still thought highly of him all these years later, though there is some irony here: One of the reasons Anderson was let go was because he couldn’t get Arkansas back to the level where it was regularly out-recruiting and beating the likes of Duke.
Then again, St. John’s wasn’t going to get any coach who’s making regular trips to the Sweet 16. Still, Anderson’s lack of ties and familiarity with New York—he referred to the Brooklyn Nets as the New Jersey Nets in his presser—leave many basketball insiders and major college coaches scratching their heads over this decision.
“St. John’s decision to bring aboard Anderson has baffled multiple coaches, recruiting experts and industry sources I’ve spoken with,” CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander wrote. “‘I know and like Mike very well,’ a coach at a power program told Norlander. ‘It’s going to be a hell of an adjustment for him.’”
“That’s more or less the chorus around college basketball regarding this hire: good guy, good coach, difficult fit.”
Jeff Goodman, a longtime college basketball analyst who currently works for The Stadium, has been especially critical of Mike Anderson. He tabbed the hire as the worst in college basketball in 2019:
“It’s not quite at the level of last year’s — which went to Cal State Northridge hiring Mark Gottfried — but it’s the ultimate head-scratcher. St. John’s, after missing on Bobby Hurley and Porter Moser, met with New York native Paul Hewitt (who went to a national championship game at Georgia Tech), Yale’s James Jones and also Alabama native Mike Anderson.They wound up hiring Anderson, who has coached in Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma over the past 37 seasons.
Anderson has no New York ties and was fired at Arkansas — which was the perfect job for him — after three NCAA tourneys in eight seasons and failing to get past the first weekend. His two NCAA tourney wins came against Wofford and Seton Hall. This one just seems to be a bad fit on every level.”–Crotchety ol’ Jeff Goodman
Mike Anderson Jr. pointed out that his father and Jeff Goodman have had a long-running beef: “A long time ago, Coach A chewed into Jeff Goodman’s ass real good,” Anderson Jr. Tweeted. “Jeff has had a tiff with him ever since. These guys are clowns.”
Mike Anderson Sr. isn’t flinching in the face of the criticism. He has big plans for St. John’s basketball. “My goal as a head coach is to win a championship,” he told the Red Storm faithful.
He has a lot of believers in his camp. There’s Chris Mullin, the man Anderson is replacing, for one. “He’s a great selection… He’s got a great track record, I got friends that know him,” Mullin told the Associated Press. “Some of my friends who played at Arkansas know him well. He’s a class guy, great fit. He’ll do a good job.”
There’s also DeMarre Carroll, Anderson’s nephew and a member of the Brooklyn Nets. Anderson coached Carroll at Missouri, where he experienced his deepest NCAA Tournament run (Elite Eight) as a head coach. “I talked to him [Friday] and he told me this kind of lit a fire under him like when he went back to UAB,” Carroll told the New York Post. “He’s ready for the new opportunity. He’s ready for a lot of people saying he isn’t going to be able to recruit here, he’s not going to be able to make this team successful.”
Carroll added: “I feel like it’s a great opportunity for him, because he’s one of those grit, grind type of people. So New York is a grit, grind type of city. I feel like he’ll fit in good. Coming from where he came from.”
But before setting the table for championships, Anderson has to clean some dirty dishes. He needs to shape up St. John’s image and national reputation after so much recent losing. Here’s what major St. John’s booster Mike Repole recently had to say about the program:
This is not a New York laughingstock anymore,” Repole fumed. “We are now a national embarrassment. If you thought Chris Mullin’s 1-17 year [2015-16 in the Big East] was bad, next year’s going to be 0-18. We may not suit up next year. Maybe take a pass.’’ He added, with no little amount of flair: “Forget about basketball. At the end of the day, this sport is the front porch of your house. We have a pretty ugly front porch right now. The inside of the house probably looks like crap.”
Arkansas fans will recall that’s sort of what the inside of Arkansas basketball’s house looked like in 2011 after the tenure of “Just-lay-down-and-have-a-long-bleed” John Pelphrey. Anderson cleaned up the house, and built a foundation that new coach Eric Musselman has a real shot at taking to the next level with enough new talent and size.
Only once we see how high the Hogs rise in the coming years will the full story of Anderson’s legacy at Arkansas be written.
Mike Anderson on Taking “40 Minute of Hell” Hawgball to the Mecca of basketball:
“When you come to Madison Square Garden, when you come to Carnessecca Arena, you are going to see a team that is going to be really entertaining. They are going to guard, they are going to defend, they are going to be one of the top assist teams in the country, and they are going to be one of the top turnover teams in the country. They will be one of the best scoring teams and field goal teams. It’s going to be a team that has depth, these guys are going to get the chance to showcase their God given ability.”
On winning big:
“I know how to win, that’s not bragging, I just know how to win. The good lord brought these guys here and they have a package in them but my job as a coach is to get it out of them. This coach here will look out for their best interest.”
A quote that doesn’t promise immediate results and will make 73% of all Hog fans roll their eyes :
“I am ready to go to work. I am ready to roll my sleeves up and get this thing to where it is one of the better programs. I want to build a program, I don’t want a two-year wonder, and I want to build a program the right way. When you do it the right way it spans over time and continues to attract.”
On taking that family atmosphere and Southern hospitality up to the Big City:
“I am big on families, my players are my family. This coach cares about them. I always tell their parents, you send me a young boy and I am going to send you back a man who is going to be a productive citizen. It has nothing to do with basketball, basketball will take care of itself. That is something they enjoy doing. They will be at my house and my wife, she will fix food for them because that’s what family does. Family breaks bread together. I will look out for their best interest. I will push them to be the best they can be. You can’t win on the floor until you get it right off the floor.”
UPDATE: After the hire, former Iona assistant coach and Big East insider Vin Parise spoke to CBS New York about Anderson’s track record: “This guy is known as somebody who’s gotten the most out his teams, the most out of his programs. There’s times they weren’t picked to make the NCAA Tournament, they made it. There’s years where they were were supposed to be really down, he made it and stretched it to the to the NIT.”
Vast armies of Razorback fans would disagree that Anderson maximized the abilities of his most talented teams. For instance, his Bobby Portis-Micahel Qualls led SEC runner-up didn’t get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Nor did last year’s Daryl Macon-Jaylen Barford-Daniel Gafford squad. They feel he didn’t make enough good halftime adjustments and didn’t adapt his “40 Minutes of Hell”-based style enough from its mid 1990s to modern basketball.
Here’s how writers from the SB Nation blog Arkansas Fight put it:
“The biggest criticism is that [Anderson’s teams] can be out-schemed.
It’s pretty evident that his teams do very little to tailor a strategy to their opponent. They just go out and play ball. That puts a pretty hard cap on how many games they can win, especially at a school where expectations are high and every opponent takes them seriously.
In fact, the rumor here in Fayetteville is that Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek didn’t plan to fire Anderson, but decided to after an end-of-season meeting when Anderson seemed completely unprepared for questions about the program’s future.”
Parise, though, believes Anderson’s style will work well in the Big East. “I think it’s more effective, because kids like to play up and down. Kids like to play free-flowing. What we just saw in March with Tony Bennett and Virginia is not typical… I’m interested to see the defensive side of the ball and how this translates into Big East play.”
He dives into more on why St. John’s hasn’t been able to sustain success since the 1990s, why the Johnnies couldn’t sign Iona’s current head coach Tim Cluess and how lack of ties to New York City could affect recruiting below:
“In every Power 5 league across the country, there are guys being successful in regions where they did not grow up in, where they did not originally have ties. At the end of the day, can you coach, can you develop talent, can you sign high-ranked recruiting classes, can you develop NBA players and can you win ball games? For Mike Cragg and the Johnnies, Mike Anderson checked those boxes.”
“Now let’s see if it happens.”
Official St. John’s Press Release (In Which Arkansas’ Recent 2nd or 3rd Place Finishes in the SEC Are Praised to the High Heavens)
Anderson, who brings to Queens a career head coaching record of 369-200 (.649), has never had a losing season while at the helm of a college basketball program. In his 17 years as a head coach, he has led his teams to 12 postseason appearances, including nine trips to the Big Dance. His squads have advanced on six of those occasions, including a pair of Sweet 16 berths and a run to the Elite Eight in 2009. Most notably, he is one of only four current Division I coaches with at least 15 years of experience who has never endured a sub .500 campaign. His impeccable company in that respect includes Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and Mark Few.
“My family and I are extremely excited to join the St. John’s University community,” said Anderson. “This basketball program is rooted with such great tradition and it has a history built by legendary coaches, so this is a humbling experience. I look forward to mentoring the young men who will represent St. John’s proudly on the court, in the classroom and in our community.
“I would like to thank President Gempesaw, Mike Cragg and Joe Oliva for affording me this tremendous opportunity.”
Anderson spent the past eight seasons at Arkansas, where he led the Razorbacks to five postseason appearances and won 22 or more games four times in his final six seasons. During his tenure in Fayetteville, Anderson logged a 169-102 (.624) record with a high-water mark of 27 victories, 13 of which came in SEC play, during the 2014-15 campaign. That season, the Razorbacks finished second in SEC regular season play behind a Kentucky team that wrapped up at 38-1. Over the past five seasons, the only SEC team with more overall or conference wins was Kentucky.
This past season, Anderson took a team that had lost more than 80 percent of its scoring and led it to the second round of the NIT. Only three players returned from the previous year’s squad.
“Coach Anderson is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball and there is no doubt in my mind that he is the perfect fit to lead our program,” said Director of Athletics Mike Cragg. “He has built programs and has sustained success throughout his career. We are confident that his extensive coaching experience, recruiting acumen and skill development program will elevate St. John’s basketball to new heights. Coach Anderson has a relentless work ethic and he is focused on establishing a championship level program here in New York City.”
During his tenure at Arkansas, Anderson mentored 11 All-SEC selections, including 2015 Associated Press Second Team All-American Bobby Portis, the 22nd pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. This past season, sophomore Daniel Gafford was a unanimous First Team All-SEC selection before declaring for the 2019 NBA Draft.
Read more about issues with Anderson’s style of play, his plan for recruiting New York and the likely candidates for assistant coaches here: