It was Mike who called Pookie that morning before school and asked him if “he was ready to be a Razorback”? Jonathon didn’t realize that Mike was actually offering him a scholarship and replied, “I’m not sure what you mean”.
Once Mike repeated and explained himself, Jonathan accepted on that same call. No long recruiting process. No pitting one school against another. No working the system for freebies or Nike’s or anything else. He wanted to play for Mike and Nolan, but even more, he wanted to be a Razorback.
Mike and Nolan flew down to South Arkansas to watch Pookie play on a Thursday night and were so kind. All the kids at the Parkers Chapel gym came up to Nolan for autographs and he signed every one. Every. Single. One. He talked to every kid as if they were the only ones in the gym. Mr. John Gross, principal at the school and their former basketball coach, walked up to where we were sitting and asked if he’d like to give them some clearance because he knew they were there to watch Pookie. I remember Coach Richardson saying, “Oh, no sir. Let 'em all come. We (he and Mike) know that if there ever stop wanting to see you, that’s when you’re in trouble”.
We drove to the South Arkansas airport; Coach Richardson and my, then 6 year-old son, Landon in the back and Coach Anderson riding shotgun. I remember Coach Anderson asking Landon what did he like most about school. Landon said, “recess and lunch”. It was at that moment that I found myself in the middle of a 10 minute conversation between a Hall of Fame Coach, a future Arkansas head coach and a six year old about the virtues of “chicken rings”, how they were the very best offering in the Smackover Elementary Cafeteria and how Coaches Anderson and Richardson could make a fortune up against AQ Chicken if they would open a Chicken Ring Restaurant! I remember the innocence of my son asking Coach Anderson on the drive, “Coach, I’m tired. Can I take my shoes off?” and how I lived in fear for the rest of the drive because I knew the next step would be for him to lay his head in Coach Richardson’s lap and go to sleep.
I woke the next morning to read the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and a writer, who shall not be named, wrote a scathing article about Richardson’s incoming recruits; how Modica wouldn’t amount to much (although he was a national Top 100 recruit), how Iguadala would probably only be there for a year or two and how the rest were marginal academically and might not make it at all. That started the end. Nolan was incensed. Not only did he feel personally challenged but now the writing was demeaning his boys before they were even on campus. You see, once you were one of Mike’s and Nolan’s, you were ALWAYS one. The entire world found out how angry he was and he was fired three days later.
Jonathan never played for Mike and Nolan although he would talk to Nolan from time to time. Nolan knew how to move young men. He may not have given much care to having his name mentioned with the great X’s and O strategists…but he knew people. He knew how to win and how to get the most from someone. From time to time, he kept Jonathan going in times that may have been difficult. He’d call him “Super Pookie”.
After a tough couple of years with a new coach (who didn’t recruit Jonathan) there was a concern that maybe, it had all been too much. The new coach didn’t really know now to move young men; who you needed to yell at and challenge and who you simply needed to say, “son, I need this bucket, can I count on you?”. It was hard on everyone. I once reached out to Mike about a transfer, thinking that, maybe Jonathan deserved at least one year of basketball to be able to smile again, and yes, when you’re 20 years old that’s important.
Mike was “straight by the book”. He asked, “Are you sure it won’t work out there? Yes, I’d love to have him in my system. There’s a way that these things are done, with respect and I will not talk to him until I’ve had a chance to talk to his current coach. You have to do things the right way.” That’s who Mike is to me. He gave up a possible 20 point scorer in his run and gun system at UAB because of his respect for the University and for “doing things the right way.”
Jonathan decided that it was best to stay at the UA. He was actually baited into leaving and challenged to quit and wouldn’t do it. He stayed. You see, Jonathan was a Razorback. It’s different for boys from Arkansas who grow up wanting to play there. When things got really difficult, ironically, it was Coach Richardson’s former boss, Frank Broyles, who had the understanding of the situation and, after learning that he had the support of Coach Broyles, Jonathan never worried again with personal challenges from others who didn’t know how to move people.
Coach Broyles was among the supporters who helped Jonathan complete his Masters degree and PhD on The Hill…and it was Mike who made the initial call. We’re grateful for all who played a role in his success.
A year ago, I had the chance to meet Marcheita Anderson; Mrs. Mike Anderson. I was able to tell her the story of Mike offering Jonathon that scholarship, that he was the last player Mike and Nolan recruited before Nolan was fired. I told her how Pookie had completed his doctorate and (at that time) was working in administration at Google; a far cry from the oil patch town where he grew up. I said “thank you”. We cried.
Good Lord, Mike didn’t die today and I know that I’m writing with more drama than necessary. There is loss today. I’m sure the AD will try to hire another good coach and maybe even a good man. That’s how this works. Maybe Mike will open a Chicken Ring restaurant and corner the market. Maybe he’ll show up on another bench soon. Mike’s a good man…I think he’s a good coach and he knows people and my family and I are better because of him.