In just three seasons under head coach Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball has tasted some of the success that had been absent from the program for almost three decades.
During the most successful stretch of Arkansas basketball’s history, a homegrown talent was the centerpiece and cornerstone of it.
That was Russellville native Corliss Williamson, aka “Big Nasty.”
Williamson helped lead Arkansas to a National Championship in 1994 and was one of the most dominant players in the country during his time with the Razorbacks.
Williamson was drafted 13th overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 1995 NBA Draft and carved out a solid 12-year career in the league. He won an NBA Championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004, making him the only Arkansas basketball player to win a national championship at both the college and professional level.
In 2005, at the twilight of Williamson’s playing career he returned to Sacramento, the team that drafted him, for his final two seasons.
His head coach for his final season in the NBA? Eric Musselman.
It seems poetic that the man who helped elevate the Arkansas basketball program to a different stratosphere in the 1990s would be playing for the man who is responsible for the program returning to a similar level of prominence 30 years later.
After retirement from the NBA, Williamson began his own coaching journey at Arkansas Baptist before taking the head coaching job at Central Arkansas in 2010. In 2013, he returned to Sacramento as an assistant coach and quickly became one of the most respected assistants in the NBA with stops in Orlando and Phoenix.
At the end of the 2019 NBA season, Williamson returned to his home state to be an assistant coach at Little Rock Christian Academy, where his middle son, Creed, attended up until earlier this year, and his youngest son, Corliss Jr. (CJ), is currently enrolled.
Best of Arkansas Sports had the honor of sitting down and catching up with the Arkansas basketball legend at Little Rock Christian before the upcoming season. He gave us his thoughts on being back in the state, coaching his sons, Arkansas basketball under Musselman and much more.
Coaching His Sons
BOAS: You’ve had various stops in the NBA and college ranks as a coach. How does it feel to be back in the state and coaching at the high school level?
Williamson: It feels great. Having the opportunity to come back home is refreshing after being on the road for so long. Having the opportunity to coach at the high school level has been a good experience.
After coaching college, junior college, professional basketball and AAU, to have the opportunity to put all that together and help these guys, who are getting ready to leave high school and some of them, hopefully, go on to play college basketball, it’s been fun to share my experiences and to try to help them.
As mentioned earlier, Corliss returned to the state as an assistant at Little Rock Christian. Creed Williamson, his middle son, attended the same school, and played for his father for the past three years.
In April, the senior power forward prospect decided to reclassify to the class of 2023 and deciding to attend Link Year Academy in Missouri.
Creed holds scholarship offers from Arkansas, St. John’s, Oral Roberts and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Corliss is currently coaching his youngest son Corliss Williamson Jr. (CJ), who is a junior point guard for Little Rock Christian. While he currently doesn’t hold any scholarship offers, it’s hard to believe there won’t be any interest generated from schools over the next two years.
BOAS: You’ve also been able to coach your sons, Creed and now CJ. How has that been for you, being their father and coach? Is it easy to balance that role?
Williamson: It’s been fun coaching my boys. I have an older son who’s 27 (Chasen*) and I had the opportunity to coach him, too. There’s a running joke in my family that he was the “guinea pig” and I found out ways I’m not supposed to coach him and all that stuff. But being able to coach his brothers, Creed and CJ, has been a blessing.
Especially coming from coaching in the NBA and missing a lot of games and missing a lot of practices and time with them on the court. To have these past three years to be with them every day, watch them grow, to help them and mentor them has been fun.
We’ve had our moments [laughs] where it’s been challenging, but overall, it’s been a great experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
BOAS: Being back as a coach at the high school level, do you have the itch to eventually go back to coaching in college or the NBA again? Are those goals you hope to achieve again?
Williamson: My main goal after I came back from Phoenix was to get both of my boys through high school, and then figure out what’s next. It’s hard to not go back, and over the last few years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to take jobs and go back, but I’m staying committed to finishing this process with my sons.
When this is over, I’m sure I’ll figure out whether it’s college or NBA or something else. I can’t be idle [laughs], I have to get back into it.
BOAS: Speaking of this process with Creed and CJ, I know Creed has already been offered by Arkansas over a year ago, but obviously recruiting eyes are on both. How is it seeing them go through this process? How different is it from when you went through it?
Williamson: The landscape of recruiting has changed a lot from when I came through. Now, you have the transfer portal, so if kids don’t sign early and they wait late, then you have to wait to find out what’s happening with the portal.
We’re trying to figure out how to navigate that, and there’s been some challenges. We’ve learned some lessons through it, but it’s also been a fun experience. I get to walk them through it, talk to them about it, what to look for and what questions to ask. It’s been fun. Challenging, but also an enjoyable process.
BOAS: Are you more hands on or hands off with these kinds of things?
Williamson: Oh, I’m hands on. I’ll watch film with them and tell them certain things I think they need to work on. They’re both unique in their own way on how they play and the positions they play (Creed is a forward and CJ is a point guard).
Sometimes I work them out together and CJ may have to work on some things that Creed does and vice versa. My goal is to teach them the game the right way, and the right way to do things on and off the court.
I try to get them to where their skill level is high and then whatever happens after that, it’s on them. That comes from the effort, hard work and being aggressive on the court. But I just try to give them a solid foundation to improve on from there.
Williamson Talks In-State Talent
BOAS: Shifting gears, I know you are close with Bobby Portis. You both were highly touted prospects from central Arkansas who went on to the U of A. How special is that relationship and have you had a close relationship with any other young guys from the state of Arkansas like Daniel Gafford, Jaylin Williams, Moses Moody and others?
Williamson: Yeah, my relationship with him (Bobby Portis) is really special. The type of relationship I have with Bobby, I haven’t really had with anyone else. Mostly because I’ve been gone (from the state).
I’ve watched a lot of those kids grow up. Like, when I first retired from the NBA, I remember Moses and Creed (his son) going to Montessori school together and things like that. Just being able to watch them grow and develop. It’s been fun for me because it’s almost like I still have a relationship with them because I’ve known them all since they were young. Just watching them flourish, it fills you with pride seeing guys from the state really representing.
BOAS: The state of Arkansas has always been able to produce high-level basketball talent, but recently it seems to be on another level. Some of that comes from the previously mentioned guys, but also younger guys like Kel’el Ware and Nick Smith Jr., who’s the highest ranked recruit to go to play at Arkansas since yourself. What do you think about the talent level in the state now compared to when you were coming up?
Williamson: When I was coming up, every now and then there’d be one player that would come out and be a really highly touted recruit. Then, years would pass and there would be another one.
Now, it’s like people know that there are basketball players in the state of Arkansas. There were great players when I played, but now people are starting to take notice of the guys here in Arkansas. A lot of that has to do with parents having more of a focus on skills and development for their kids at an early age, and they understand what it takes to get their kids in that position to be special. The kids are putting in the work, but you’ve got to also give credit to the trainers in the state and the AAU programs here. They’re being put in a position where they can really develop.
Watching Nick play, you can tell he’s a special talent. Not just skill-wise, but also his mentality. I think that’s what separates him from some of the other guys in the state, his mentality. He has the same mentality as a guy like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or even kind of like I had growing up. That “I’m gonna go out and make it happen” kind of attitude.
It’s been fun to watch him play. I didn’t like coaching against him [laughs].
BOAS: What was that like trying to coach against him?
Williamson: Man, it was tough to try to game plan for him. You really can’t. You can try to double-team and trap him, but he’s such a special talent, not just skill-wise like I said but mentally. He understands the game at a high level, so whatever you throw at him, he’s going to make an adjustment and figure it out.
Thoughts on Eric Musselman
BOAS: Switching gears a little bit again, have you been able to keep up with Arkansas basketball recently? Since Musselman took over as head coach?
Williamson: Yeah, it’s been from afar because my focus has been coaching in the NBA and now here at Little Rock Christian and coaching my boys… Wednesdays and Saturdays I’ll have the TV on watching them play. So, I’m aware of what Coach Musselman is doing. He’s done a great job of turning the program around. The excitement around our program is at an all-time high, in the state and nationally.
People are taking notice of what’s going on, on the hill now. I’m very happy and excited about what’s going on, I think he’s done a great job.
BOAS: Have you gotten a chance to meet with Musselman or talk to him much recently? What’s that relationship like? I know your paths might have crossed in the NBA, as y’all both were well-traveled in the league.
Williamson: Musselman was actually my last coach in the NBA. My last year in Sacramento, he was the head coach there. So, I had the opportunity to meet him then and really get to know him.
Then, when I went into coaching at Central Arkansas, he would reach out and send me articles and email me things about coaching to help me out.
He’s always a person that will reach out. I’ve relied on some of the things he’s sent me through the years. And I’ve closely followed his path in coaching, just watching him go from the NBA to being an assistant in college to a head coach and now at Arkansas.
So, we’ve had opportunities to talk, and I’ll send him a text message every now and then after big wins and things of that nature. But, like I said, I’ve been busy and he’s been busy there (laughs).
BOAS: Have you been able to watch enough to see how much he’s changed or grown as a coach over the years since you first met him?
Williamson: I’ve definitely seen growth. When I was in the NBA and he was coaching, we always thought he had a college coach’s mentality and how he approached it. So, to now see him take this path to becoming a college coach, we can see that this is his niche, and this is what he’s really good at.
I mean, he could probably still be a really good NBA coach, but the knowledge he had from coaching in the NBA and CBA, his dad was a coach, growing up as a basketball kid, you can tell he knows the game. He’s got his system and he’s got it down pat now.
Expectations for Arkansas Basketball
BOAS: How do you think this excitement and buzz compares to when you guys were there in the ‘90s? Obviously, there haven’t been championships like back then, but there’s similar buzz.
Williamson: Coach Richardson had a great run. Three Final Fours, Sweet Sixteens and all of that. To have Coach Musselman and back-to-back Elite Eights the past two years, that’s shifted everyone’s expectations. Not just in the state, but around the nation, Arkansas is a relevant program.
They’re back in the Top 10, and in the mix for making it to the Final Four and competing for national championships, and I’m proud. I’m very proud of our program. I’ve always been proud, even when we were losing, but what Coach Musselman has done now has gotten people to take notice around the nation.
BOAS: Now that he’s got his system in place here at Arkansas, expectations are very high again. You dealt with similar high expectations when you were playing there, any advice for Musselman and the team?
Williamson: I’d give the same advice that we got: Don’t listen to the noise. People are always going to have their high expectations, like if you lose a game, the world’s going to end in their mind.
So, the guys on that coaching staff and in that locker room, you just have to keep grinding and keep working every single day. Success will take care of itself at the end of the day. They have the talent, they have the coaching, they have the facilities, so if they go to work every day then it’s going to show.
I have complete faith in Musselman and what he’s doing at Arkansas. I got faith in the guys that he has in his program, he’s got some winners.
BOAS: Arkansas arguably has its most highly-touted recruiting class in history this season. Who do you think is the most pro-ready prospect of the group?
Williamson: Right now, I would say Nick. I think it’s Nick, then Anthony Black, and Jordan Walsh. You never know though, a lot can change with the summer, season starts and then you get into SEC play, a lot can change. But I think right now it’s probably Nick.
BOAS: Do you have any prediction for what this Arkansas team can accomplish this season?
Williamson: You just never know. One thing that’s going to be a factor, but hopefully won’t be as much of a factor in the second half of the season, is youth. There’s going to be some growing pains, some growing up they’ll have to do and figure things out early on. But I think by the time the second half of the season comes around and in the SEC, they should be well-seasoned and understand what it’s going to take. Which is usually about the time Muss’ teams start to put it all together (laughs).
But as for me, I don’t have high expectations for them because I don’t want to be like “it’s Elite Eight or it’s a bad season.” I want to see this team grow. I’m anxious to see how they grow and watch the team from the time the season starts to the last game. That’s what I like to see is how much they can grow together.
BOAS: Speaking of winners, you’ve won at the two highest levels of basketball. In college at Arkansas and in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. In those two experiences, what is the most valuable lesson you learned?
Williamson: Keep that main goal, that main objective in mind because the season is like a roller coaster ride. You’re going to have your ups and downs, but you’ve got to keep focus on that main goal.
That main goal, how do you get there? Teamwork. If you look at our Arkansas team or the team I played on in Detroit that won a championship, we were a TEAM. Everyone knew their role; everyone knew what they were supposed to do and what they were supposed to bring to the table in games and in practice. Just keep that main goal and how you get there in mind and you’ll be fine.
BOAS: By the way, that 2004 Pistons team is one of my favorite teams of all-time. Easily one of the most underrated teams of all-time, too, that people don’t seem to talk about a lot.
Williamson: We feel the same way [laughs], we feel the same way.
*Small world alert: In college, BoAS founder Evin Demirel worked as a playground supervisor at the same Fayetteville elementary school Chasen attended and used to play kickball with the younger Williamson.
On the Arkansas Basketball’s First Exhibition Game
The Hogs continue preseason with an exhibition game vs Rogers State on Monday night.
In a recent press conference, Eric Musselman said one of the main things he wants to see is improved defense from four earlier scrimmages in Europe and a red-white game last week. “The truth of the matter is we play on Monday and then we play again on Saturday, two exhibition games in less than a week, and then we have three home games and then we go to Hawaii,” he added. “I think there’s going to be a lot of eye-opening experiences for a lot of players out of the gate.”
“After Monday we’ll be able to break down more film for them and I think the more film you have from live competition, it’s a little bit easier to teach off of our own video. I think when you watch practice video, it is what it is. But when you go against somebody else, it’s a little bit more eye-catching.”
“We still have a ways to get better, but last year against a Division II team, [we were] really lucky to win. I thought Max Pendery did a great job with his team. They were well-prepared coming in here and that was a very, very close game last year. So we obviously grew a lot from that game until the end of the season. But our team wanted to grow, too, last year. I think that was a big part of us getting better buy-in….”
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