Heath Classy To The End

FAYETTEVILLE--A lot can happen in 90 minutes. At around 1:40 p.m. Monday, ESPN Radio reported, through Andy Katz, that Stan Heath had been fired as Arkansas' basketball coach.

I called Morning News reporter Ryan Malashock, who had already gotten the story confirmed before Katz did. Four reporters were walking around in circles outside Bud Walton Arena, each with a cell phone to his ear. Soon, UA assistant coach Dan Hipsher emerged from the building, also talking on a cell phone. He put a yellow legal pad on the ground in order to write something on it. Informed of Katz's report, Hipsher nodded and then just shook his head grimly. He shook a reporter's hand and drove away. Next, new Arkansas women's basketball coach Tom Collen walked out of Walton Arena alongside Tim Eatman, who has been an assistant under Collen at Louisville the past three seasons. Eatman has applied for the women's head coaching job at Louisville, but said if he doesn't get it he would love to assist Collen at Arkansas. Collen, noticing a quickly growing media presence at Walton Arena on Monday afternoon, looked around and said, "Wow." He knew the media hadn't gathered for him, as he had just heard the Heath news. Collen could have told them that the city of Louisville was abuzz with rumors that Kentucky wanted to hire Cardinals coach Rick Pitino as its men's basketball coach again. But Pitino was already busy denying those rumors Monday. Sometime after 2 p.m., the UA confirmed Heath's firing. In a statement, UA athletic director Frank Broyles said the decision to make a coaching change had been difficult because of his respect for Heath, whose professionalism and integrity Broyles cited. However, Broyles said, new leadership was needed to "return Razorback basketball to national prominence." At about 2:40 p.m, Heath drove his red Tahoe up to his assigned parking space outside Walton Arena and told a knot of reporters he would return to talk with them in a few minutes. "This was not a press conference," UA assistant sports information director Robby Edwards said later. Edwards explained he did not know about it until just beforehand. It was simply a courtesy by Heath, who remained classy to the end. "Obviously, it's a disappointing day," Heath told about 10 of us near the loading dock outside Walton Arena, around 3 p.m. He said he went into Monday's meeting with Broyles leaning toward the feeling he would continue as Arkansas' coach. Heath said he left Arkansas' program in better shape than he found it in 2002 ("I didn't leave you a whole lot, did I?" Nolan Richardson had said to Heath), and that the new UA coach would inherit a good team. Politely, Heath challenged the notion that ticket sales had declined last season. He said the actual home attendance had increased from 14,900 to 16,700 on average last year. Although his name has been linked to South Florida, Heath said he had not been looking for a job. Asked if he was comfortable with his financial settlement, Heath demurred, said he wasn't good at that sort of thing and that's why he had an agent and an attorney. So, 24 days after Lady Razorbacks coach Susie Gardner resigned with a winning percentage of .542, Heath departed with his winning percentage of .536, albeit with two NCAA Tournament appearances and an average of 20.3 wins the past three seasons. Still, in those same three seasons, his regular-season SEC record was 23-25. Arkansas has sent a message that it expects better, demands better. "I knew the expectations here, knew it was a hard environment," Heath said. "I'll be OK. I'm more concerned with my staff and the players." Yes, he said, his dismissal could have been handled a little better, but sometimes people (in power) change their minds. Upon leaving, at 3:10 p.m., Heath shook hands with us and said, "Good luck. It was good working with you guys." The feeling was mutual.

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