Collen Could Be The Answer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Tom Collen is back in a familiar setting. Even if it's a setting he never imagined he'd return to.

Collen enters his first year as women's basketball coach at the University of Arkansas in the 2007-08 season. But for the former Lady'Backs assistant, a return to Fayetteville -- and the Southeastern Conference -- wasn't the original plan.

"No, I didn't dream there because I was born and raised in Big Ten territory," said Collen, a native of Lancaster, Ohio. "When I left Arkansas, I never dreamed of coming back to Arkansas. I just always assumed this program would be successful and there would never be a change. So the change came as a little surprise."

After four years of mediocrity under coach Susie Gardner which produced no NCAA Tournament bids, Arkansas called upon a familiar face to turn around the ship. That face was Collen, a 53-year old Midwesterner who had spent time as a Lady'Backs assistant under Gary Blair from 1993-97.

At first glance, Collen is very different from Blair, the former Arkansas coach who was very successful in his 10 years at the helm. With his Midwest accent and quick tongue, Collen is a far cry from Blair's slow Texas drawl.

But look closer. Because when you get to really know Collen, you'll discover it's his similarities to Blair which could make him an instant hit with the Lady'Backs -- and their fans.

"I think the thing that I've been most pleasantly surprised in and excited with in my return to Fayetteville," Collen said. "is that my affiliation with Gary Blair has helped.

"I think people remember me there as an assistant and if they don't, they remember Gary. And if I was there with Gary, then that helps."

What also helps is Collen's relationship with the current Lady'Backs. While he and his staff appear to be a big change from the previous regime, it's a change the Lady'Backs are now welcoming with open arms.

"I think coach Collen is a great fit for us because he's just a smart coach," Arkansas senior post Lauren Ervin said. "He can show us and we can tell from him that our defensive intensity in the past is just not up to par.

"So our whole defensive philosophy has changed and it's made us more intense. And if he has us playing great defense, that's just going to help create offense and that will be great for us."

Much like Blair, Collen seems to be a natural at warming up to the fans, willing to go out of his way to market the Lady'Backs. At the same time, he knows rebuilding Arkansas women's basketball -- which was picked by the conference media to finish ninth in the SEC -- won't happen overnight.

"I think if you look at where Arkansas has finished the last four years, (being picked ninth) is right on par," Collen said. "I do think there are some programs that are poised to make a move up and there are some programs that have taken hits."

Arkansas hopes to be one of those teams on the move up. And Collen appears to be the perfect fit to lead them there.

"I can't tell you how many people have come up to say supportive things and to say they're back on board," Collen said. "You know, for them to say they're back on board before we've stepped on the floor, that's a positive sign.

"Now we've got to take ownership in that and we've got to put a product on the floor that they truly like and believe in."

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