Cleveland has unfinished business
FAYETTEVILLE - T.J. Cleveland remembers Arkansas' glory days.
During a six-year span from 1990-95, no college basketball progam won more games or went to more Final Fours than the Razorbacks.
But Cleveland, a former point guard at the school, experienced those years from the sidelines. He is the nephew of Mike Anderson, Arkansas' long-time assistant who returned as the school's head coach in March.
The Razorbacks were just 72-52 during his playing career. Cleveland was a senior in 2002 when Nolan Richardson was fired as the school's coach and Arkansas missed the postseason.
Now back as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Cleveland is confident he will help revive Arkansas into a nationally-relevant program.
"We had some ups and downs when I was here playing so I have a chip on my shoulder," Cleveland said. "I feel there is some unfinished business to take care of.
"I have a degree from here. This is family and this is home. You want it to be successful and nothing but successful in all aspects; from your guys graduating and becoming successful people, to winning championships. That's what it's all about."
Cleveland is the first former Arkansas player to become a full-time assistant coach at the school since Jim Counce did so in the early 1980s under Eddie Sutton.
Cleveland's degree in communication hangs on the wall behind his corner office desk in Bud Walton Arena and he's surrounded by other Razorback paraphernalia.
Arkansas' entire coaching staff, many of whom had previous ties to the Razorbacks, came from Missouri in April. It was an opportunity most felt was a once in a lifetime.
"It was kind of hard, but by the same token, my wife is from here, I went to school here, I've got a lot of friends here, a lot of memories," Cleveland said. "So I was ready to jump at the opportunity when it came open.
"It wasn't me who had to make the decision, of course - it was Coach Anderson. He wrestled with the decision to come back because of what we had coming back at Missouri. We really still consider those kids our family. Once you play for Coach Anderson, you're in that family forever. We changed schools and changed jerseys, but those kids over there, we love them to death."
The loyalty is evident in Anderson retaining his staff for the sixth consecutive year. Cleveland has been with Anderson since being hired a video coordinator at UAB in 2002.
It's cliche, but those within the program insist it's family.
"It's really hard to put your finger on it," said Dave England, Arkansas' trainer for nearly three decades. "I think the family atmosphere now is the familiarity we have with all the old players and everybody else. Coach Richardson was that way. Everyone seemed like family and he kind of preached that. It just seems to take on a life of its own under Coach Anderson.
"It's like the gang is back together."
While his office has familiar surroundings, Cleveland hasn't spent much time there. The price tags still dangling from the trays on his desk are proof he hit the ground running early on his new position.
His task is to find new family members. Once a scrappy defender at Arkansas, Cleveland is one of the top young assistants in the cut-throat recruiting world.
His success comes from his ability to stay relevant. In order to relate with teenage boys, he has to stay up on pop culture. His latest albums include Lil Wayne, Drake, J. Cole and Young Jeezy.
"Riding in the car with my wife sometimes, that's my excuse to listening to some of the music," Cleveland said. "I tell her I've got to listen to it for work.
"I have to find a way to get down on their level and talk to them even though I'm getting older and the kids are staying the same age. I'm not too far removed to where I can relate to them. You've got to understand the slang, the way they dress, the latest shoes coming out, the latest fashions - all those things that once you get older, you kind of move on and those things don't worry you as much anymore."
While maybe not as important, Cleveland admits to thinking ahead to what he'll wear his first night as an assistant coach in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks host Texas A&M Commerce Friday in an exhibition.
"I've just been trying to stack up on a lot of red ties because I had a lot of gold and black ties," Cleveland said. "It won't be like Coach Anderson, though. I'm off the rack; he's straight tailor-made."
Cleveland is also active in social media. His Twitter account, @TJ_Cleveland, has more than 1,400 followers and he was instrumental in getting Anderson set up on the site earlier this year.
Anderson gained more than 2,000 followers on the first day.
"It was very hard sell," Cleveland said. "Part of my job is recruiting, so I had to kind of persuade him and sell him on why he should do it, the benefits of it, the pros and cons. Coach Anderson, when you present him with something, he's going to ask 25 questions before he OKs it. I was ready for 25 questions.
"That's something to stay on their level. Personally, I'm more low key and try to stay away from social media because I don't want to slip up and say the wrong thing. I don't tweet a lot, but I do keep up with a lot of kids and a lot of different things in the basketball world."
It's a basketball world that has changed drastically since Arkansas was one of its main players.
"Back in the early '90s, those who are now parents were younger and remember Lee Mayberry, Scotty Thurman, Corliss Williamson," Cleveland said. "They know what the program is all about. Sometimes we have to depend on the parents to kind of tell them about that tradiiton."
While not at Arkansas, Cleveland has been part of a staff with a similar tradition. For him, merging the two will create the best of both worlds.
"We don't know anything but winning," Cleveland said. "How much we'll win? I don't know. I know our guys are going to go out and play hard, and be in good shape. They'll leave it on the line every day and the fans are going to be happy with the effort, happy with how our guys conduct themselves on the court and off the court.
"We're happy to be here to get the program back. We know we have a lot of work ahead of us but we feel we have a support system here to get it back where it needs to be. This program is not that far off at all from getting back to where it needs to be."
Position: Assistant Basketball Coach, Arkansas
Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.
Alma Mater: University of Arkansas, 2002
Notable: Cleveland is the nephew of Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson.
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