Does well-traveled Eric Musselman have the right formula at Arkansas?

After putting Nevada on the national map, Eric Musselman faces an even steeper challenge at Arkansas. Courtesy of Arkansas athletics

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- "The Twins won again?"

It's just past 6 a.m. on an offseason Tuesday. There are only two other people in the basketball weight room, but new Arkansas Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman -- speaking from the treadmill in one corner of the room -- is already in midday form.

He's shuffling through newspapers and printed-out pages during his workout, tossing them on the floor when he's finished reading. On this morning, Musselman is intrigued by a story about first-year Twins manager Rocco Baldelli. Baldelli has the Twins atop the American League Central -- and he's doing it in a unique way. He gives his players more off-days. There was a "nap room" added to Target Field. He makes batting practice optional.

Musselman is riveted, and he isn't even a Twins fan.

"Any time a new coach is hired in a sport, I read all his press conference stuff," Musselman said. "I love to read what a coach's philosophy is. ... I'll type in Google search, 'coach's name, motivation, new hire' and then look at the articles."

Sometimes web research is superseded by a more direct approach.

When his son Matthew graduated Monte Vista (California) High School back in May, Eric spotted Jon Gruden, who was attending the same ceremony for his son Jayson. Musselman sidled up to Gruden, mid-ceremony.

"They're calling out names, and my brother had already been called," remembers Musselman's oldest son, Michael, now the director of basketball recruiting at Arkansas. "But my dad had to run up to [Gruden] and pick his brain. Total disregard for the situation going on, but he sees a great coach and he has to go pick his brain and learn what he can, even if it's a two-minute conversation."

Musselman, hired away from Nevada in the spring, is seeking any edge he can gather in what is arguably his biggest career challenge to date. The 54-year-old finds himself trying to revive the fortunes of an Arkansas program that has won just three NCAA tournament games in the past 20 years. That quest will come within a league, the SEC, that now houses six coaches with Final Four experience, names like Calipari, Howland and Pearl.

It's been suggested that it could take him some time, but long reclamation projects are not Musselman's M.O. In his only previous collegiate head-coaching position, Musselman remade a Nevada team that was 9-22 when he took over, turning it into an NCAA tournament entry by season two of a four-year stint. Previous to his time in Reno, there were nine jobs in a 16-year period spread across the college assistant ranks, the NBA and the G League. No tenure lasted longer than two seasons.

Notice a trend?

"He's never been a guy that loved to stay at one place for a long amount of time when it gets monotonous," Michael Musselman concedes. "And I think here it's a little bit different, just because of the level of everything and the history. Even when you look out the window, you see the national championship, the Final Fours and the Elite Eights, and you know you can succeed at the highest level for a long time here ... I think you can have long-term success at a program like this."

In addition to the tradition and the quality of the destination, maybe it's the money that will ensure Musselman becomes a fixture in Fayetteville. His five-year deal is worth $2.5 million per year, not including various bonuses. He made $1 million per year at Nevada. With those greater resources, of course, comes risk for both sides.

Musselman's predecessor, Mike Anderson, never had a losing record in eight years and took the program to the NCAA tournament three times between 2015 and 2018. He was fired after an NIT season in 2019 and is now at St. John's. Before that, John Pelphrey (now the head coach at Tennessee Tech) lasted just four years before getting ousted with a 69-59 record.

Musselman knows he needs to figure this job out quickly but insists that doing so won't happen with an eye toward greener pastures.

"There's really no next step at Arkansas," he says. "You're at a Power 5 in a great city with a great athletic director, with incredible facilities. This is as good a job as you can have."

Perhaps the biggest adjustment Musselman will have to make to sustain long-term success at Arkansas is to his recruiting philosophy.

Musselman famously fortified his roster at Nevada via the transfer market. His entire starting five last season was made up of transfers, led by Caleb and Cody Martin, who arrived from NC State, and Jordan Caroline, who started his career at Southern Illinois. In his first few months in Fayetteville, it was more of the same; Arkansas has added five transfers since Musselman took over in early April.

Musselman's position: Securing transfers represents a necessary quick fix at a place that demands a winner.

"If I don't get a transfer, I [only] wasted two weeks," Musselman told his assistant coaches at a June staff meeting, contrasting the approach with the time it takes to build relationships with high school players.

In fact, Musselman's program has become such a destination for transfers that he even lured a strayed ex-Razorback back to Fayetteville.

Jimmy Whitt played 32 games at Arkansas as a freshman in 2015-16, starting in 10 and averaging 6.1 points per game. Whitt subsequently transferred to SMU in pursuit of a bigger role, starting 63 games over the past two seasons for the Mustangs. But after missing the NCAA tournament in the past two years in Dallas, Whitt, now a graduate transfer candidate, was looking to pursue his next-level dreams in a higher-profile setting. In spite of any ill feelings left over from his previous time in Fayetteville, Whitt was enticed by what Musselman, a former NBA head coach with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, was offering.

"I didn't know if I wanted to leave," Whitt says. "As a grad, you owe yourself the opportunity. Coach Muss reached out to me, [I] came [to Arkansas] on an unofficial visit. I had a chance to talk to him, sit down with him, look at his philosophy. Guys in the NBA, his background with transfers, watch how they were successful."

"The biggest thing is he knows guys want to get to that next level. He runs everything like it's the next level. Gives you the freedom but demands you work hard. That's what I needed for my last year, to hold me accountable. I like that, I really like that."

While scouring the transfer market is almost an inevitability in college basketball in 2019, Musselman and his staff predict that the program will not be as transfer-heavy moving forward.

"Here we have the resources with the practice facilities, with Bud Walton Arena, with our offices, now it's taking it to the point where we're able to recruit with anybody in the entire country and win those recruiting battles," says Anthony Ruta, the team's director of basketball operations. "It's something that, over time, we'll start to see."

One plus is that the state of Arkansas consistently produces top-tier talent -- and players from the state often want to stay home for college. In the classes of 2017 and 2018, there were three ESPN 100 players from the state. All three ended up playing for the Razorbacks. In fact, the last ESPN 100 prospect to leave the state for college was Malik Monk, who chose Kentucky over Arkansas.

There are four ESPN 100 prospects from Arkansas in the 2020 class, and although one (Davonte Davis) has already committed to Oklahoma State, the other three are all on Arkansas' board. Musselman knows that Arkansas' most successful periods have come when it had in-state products on the roster, and he's hoping to continue that trend.

"When you look at Ron Brewer Sr., he's from here. Sidney Moncrief, Corliss Williamson. There's been so many really good players that have played here from the state," he says. "It's been proven over the course of time. You start studying when Memphis built [a nationally relevant program], they won with Arkansas kids. We want to get involved, we want to get high school coaches and AAU coaches to come to our practices and develop relationships.

"In this state, the Razorbacks are it. It doesn't matter if you're on the border of Texas or the border of Tennessee ... . In the borders of this state, [Arkansas' programs are considered] the pro baseball, it's the pro basketball, it's the pro football. That's it."

Don't expect Musselman to suddenly abandon transfers, though.

"We can recruit nationally. We are going to recruit high school guys," Musselman said. "[But] I still think the transfers, there's still less of a risk."

Musselman won 110 games in four seasons at Nevada and was consistently mentioned in connection to available power-conference jobs, but he never seemed all that close to leaving until this spring.

He withdrew from the California job search in 2017. Alabama showed interest after firing Avery Johnson, sources told ESPN, but the Crimson Tide ultimately hired Nate Oats. Then, early in Final Four week, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek reached out to gauge Musselman's interest and the two met in person that Tuesday.

"The more [I was] talking to Hunter, the more excited I got, I really liked the process of how they did things," Musselman says. "I felt I was always in the loop. I felt wanted ... I felt like I was dealing with a real pro, an athletic director that was very similar to an NBA GM. He's one of the first and only athletic directors that automatically resonated with me."

There was another aspect of the Arkansas job that made an impression on Musselman, and that dated back to his days growing up in California. Growing up as the son of a former NBA head coach, Bill Musselman, Eric was basketball-obsessed early on. He says the three college teams he followed most in the late '70s and early '80s were UCLA, UNLV ... and Arkansas. Those were the T-shirts he was buying, the players like Razorbacks legend Moncrief he was emulating while shooting around by himself in the gym.

Still, leaving Nevada wasn't an easy decision for Musselman. He and his wife, former ESPN reporter Danyelle Sargent, were active in the Reno community. Musselman knew he was building something special with the Wolf Pack. But he saw the ceiling coming. The other factor in Musselman's decision to move on: his youngest son, Matthew, was graduating from high school. With Matthew set to attend the University of San Diego (also Eric's alma mater), he knew an era was ending.

"This year was a good moving point for him," Michael Musselman added. "It was time to expand, time to see what my dad could do at a higher level. It was just a move that was great for our whole family, and there was not a lot of convincing that had to be done."

So Musselman accepted the job and headed east to Fayetteville, sight unseen. He hopes Arkansas is a little more of a permanent home than his past stops. The work he's put in since accepting the position in April -- to include voracious reading and research sessions conducted on a treadmill not long after sunup -- suggest Musselman's drive and attention to detail have very much made it to Fayetteville intact.

"He's just a basketball junkie," Ruta says. "He doesn't have any hobbies, he doesn't golf. His hobbies are learning and reading and basketball. ... He's always looking for ways to get better, always looking for ways to improve."