Despite Lawsuit Similarities, Mike Anderson Won’t Have Same Fortune at St. John’s His Mentor Had at Arkansas

Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson learned a lot from his mentor, Nolan Richardson. As much as Eric Musselman has made Arkansas basketball a national powerhouse in his current stint as Razorbacks basketball coach, it was Anderson who brought them out of complete mediocrity and returned the Hogs brand to the national conversation, even if it was on the outskirts. Anderson’s demeanor with the media was one of gentleness and carried a soft timbre, much the opposite of his old boss. 

Somewhere inside, though, burned a fire, one similar to Richardson’s. They love basketball, no doubt, and no one could claim they didn’t. They also took offense at the perception of being put-upon. The way Richardson bristled came to a head in remarks against the University of Arkansas and in his subsequent firing, after which he sued the school for racial discrimination and bias. So enraged was Richardson at former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles that he told ESPN’s Myron Medfcalf: “There was a time when I wouldn’t give [Broyles] the spit if he was dying. That anger. When you’ve got that kind of an anger in you, it takes away from living because you’re so angry.”

After Broyles fired Richardson in 2002, Anderson finished the final two games as Arkansas basketball coach before moving on to Alabama-Birmingham and starting his head coaching career.

Mike Anderson’s Lawsuit

In 2011, that career brought him back to Arkansas, where he took the Razorbacks to three NCAA Tournaments and two NITs in his nine seasons. It was the longest and most successful tenure since Richardson’s and is the fourth-best tenure in school history. He was let go in 2019 and then hooked up with St. John’s. In March, SJU fired him after four seasons with zero postseasons.

Anderson took umbrage. The school didn’t fire him, he says, because of his record but because they wanted to hire Rick Pitino, who led those great Kentucky teams of the ’90s against Richardson’s great Arkansas basketball teams. Ironically, in this replacement we have a man who never once had scandal sully his career being dismissed for a man whose scandals sent him from college basketball’s height at Kentucky and Louisville to the depths of the MAAC with Iona. At least, that’s what Anderson claims. So, Anderson began the process of suing St. John’s in March about 10 days after he was fired. The day the suit became public; Pitino’s hiring became official. 

On Thursday, Medcalf reported details about the lawsuit. Anderson is seeking more than $46 million in damages from the university, $11.4 of which equaled the remaining total on his contract. The rest is sought for punitive damages. For those who are not attorneys, punitive damages are not for pain-and-suffering or lost wages, so to speak. Punitive damages are specifically sought as punishment for an offense, regardless of the state of the suit’s author.

Likely, Anderson’s seeking of such damages had to do with St. John’s reasons for the firing, including a “failure to perform your duties and responsibilities in a manner that reflected positively on St. John’s University and “failure to appropriately supervise and communicate with your assistant coaches.” Anderson said at the time of the suit he vehemently disagreed with those reasons, which it can be inferred would hurt his ability to land future high level coaching jobs.

Incidentally – or perhaps, more likely, not – Richardson sued Arkansas for the remaining total on his deal plus punitive damages, as well. Twenty-one years later, Richardson’s $2 million sought in damages (the lawsuit was $8 million overall) pales in comparison to the more than $34 million Anderson is seeking. Anderson lived through Richardson’s ordeal, saw it up close, and learned from it.

Casting judgment as on the total amount Anderson seeks is folly. Such things are in the eye of the beholder. Of course, this is the internet in 2023. Everyone has an opinion and is convinced his or hers is the right one and everyone better get on board and any who don’t are morons. No such judgment will be made here. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, this particular author has fallen on Anderson’s side before. He also remains on that side.

Arkansas Basketball Legacies

Anderson won’t have the fortune at St. John’s that Richardson has had in Fayetteville. Not even close. Time heals wounds, certainly, and age yields deeper emotional maturity. Richardson forgave the university several years after a judge tossed his suit in 2004. He told Medcalf in 2015 that some of that was through perspective brought on the passing of his son, Nolan Richardson III, three years earlier, and some of it was simply the passing of time.

The nearby presence of his trusty lieutenant, Anderson, helped heal wounds too during Anderson’s stint as Head Hog. Richardson reconciled with Broyles before Broyles’ own death in 2017, and since then the court at Bud Walton Arena named after Richardson. He can occasionally be seen in attendance at Razorbacks games, even after Anderson’s departure.

But so much of the recent feel-good moments are due to the fond memories of yore. In the mid 1990s, Richardson won a national championship game and took the Hogs to another with Anderson as assistant coach. Razorbacks fans will likely tend to be on Anderson’s side in his suit against SJU, but Red Storm faithful sure enough won’t. He didn’t, in their eyes, do anything at all for them. 

Richardson never coached at the college level again. He parlayed his bilingual in El Paso, Texas into work as that national team coach for both Panama and Mexico. Then, an ill-fated stint in the WNBA with the short-lived Tulsa Shock was a mess as the team went 7-38 in one-and-a-half seasons in 2011 and 2012. After that age, at age 69, the greatest Arkansas basketball coach of all-time called it a career. 

Anderson’s job prospects may, too, be few and far between after this suit. At age 63, he’s just a touch older than Richardson was when he sued his former school. And like Richardson, Anderson’s results in his final years were less than satisfactory. Now, like his mentor, some of his legacy will be wrapped up in a lawsuit. 

Here’s to hoping that like Richardson, too, time will heal wounds and Anderson can retire into the sunset. 

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