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Arkansas’ Musselman learns from sports leaders

by Bob Holt | January 26, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE — Eric Musselman has a vivid memory from nearly 50 years ago of his father, Bill Musselman, meeting with pro football legend Paul Brown.

The meeting took place at the kitchen table of the Musselman’s home in San Diego shortly after Bill Musselman had been hired as coach of the ABA’s Sails for the 1975-76 basketball season.

Brown, who rose to fame as coach of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, lived in nearby La Jolla, Calif., and was preparing for the 1975 football season — his last as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Eric Musselman was 10 years old and had moved with his family from Minneapolis, where his father had been coach at the University of Minnesota.

“My dad had never coached pro basketball,” said Musselman, who is now 58 and in his fourth season as the University of Arkansas coach. “So he invited Paul Brown to come over to our house to talk about coaching pro players.

“I remember them meeting for what seemed like two hours. The entire time they were talking about that first team meeting my dad was getting ready to have with the Sails, and how pro players are going to read you in their first team meeting and decide if they want to buy in.

“Their talk was focused on the preparation you needed to have for that meeting, the message that you were going to send, the delivery of how you were going to put your message out there.”

Bill Musselman became friends with Billy Martin — a Major League manager with the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers — as well as Ballard Smith, president of the San Diego Padres.

Eric Musselman said that when his father was at the University of Minnesota, he also talked frequently with Bud Grant — coach of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings — and Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. hockey team to an Olympic gold medal in 1980 and coached the Golden Gophers as well as NHL teams.

“That was one of the things I saw my dad do that was a little bit unique, to meet with football and hockey coaches and be friends with a Major League manager and executive,” Musselman said. “What I learned from watching him is that you can learn from everybody.”

Musselman, who followed his father as an NBA and college coach, also has made a habit of meeting with coaches and executives in other sports.

During the offseason Musselman visited with numerous Major League managers, including the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker; the Los Angeles Angels’ Phil Nevin and his predecessor, Joe Madden; the Cleveland Guardians Terry “Tito” Francona; and the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Matheny.

NFL coaches Musselman has met with include the Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid, the Dallas Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy; the Los Angeles Chargers’ Brandon Staley; the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh; and Matt Rhule of the Carolina Panthers, who is now Nebraska’s coach.

When the Razorbacks played in the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., last season, Musselman met with Bills Coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane.

“Whenever I met one of the managers and coaches, I would go back and write down what my first impression was and what I would think if I was a player,” Musselman said.

Baker, 73, led the Astros to the World Series title last season.

“The one guy that was just incredible from a connecting standpoint and putting someone at ease was Dusty Baker,” Musselman said. 

“I was blown away by his cool factor of how he related to his players.”

Nevin and Musselman became friends several years ago when both were in Reno, Nev. Nevin was manager of the Reno Aces — the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate — and Musselman was Nevada’s coach.

“Our conversations always gravitated toward leadership, managing a locker room, dealing with certain situations with players,” Nevin said. “We talked in-game strategy and schematics.

“I cherish my friendship with Eric and love spending time with him.”

The Guardians had the youngest roster in the Major Leagues last season and started 19-24, but rallied to win the America League Central Division title with a 92-70 record and beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs before losing to the Yankees 3 games to 2.

“Tito was unbelievable,” Musselman said. “It was great for us to hear about how you deal with such a young team. It was, ‘You’ve got to coach them every day, you’ve got to teach them every day. You can’t take anything for granted on what they might know or not know.’

“Then you saw how the Guardians’ season unfolded and they had such a strong finish.”

Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said he’s not surprised by Musselman’s interest in meeting with leaders in other sports.

“I think what Eric has is an unquenchable thirst to learn and to grow as a coach,” Yurachek said. “He believes that those professional coaches and managers and administrators that he’s connecting with can help teach him something new.

“He can pull a nugget or two or three from each of them to make him a better coach and make him a better leader of our men’s basketball program. And I bet those coaches and managers and administrators probably feel the same about Eric, that they can learn things from him as well because of the success he’s had.”

Musselman and his son, Michael, the Razorbacks’ director of operations, visited with Staley and Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco.

“I wanted to find out analytically the way the Chargers go about things,” Eric Musselman said. “We were with [Staley] for close to two hours. Finally he had to go because his daughter had a swim meet.

“We could have stayed in there all night. It was fabulous. He was asking us questions, and we were asking him questions. Just could not believe how nice and engaging and willing to share he was.”

Rhule invited Musselman to attend the Panthers’ retreat for coaches and front office personnel before training camp started.

“The retreat was on a lake about an hour outside of Charlotte,” Musselman said. “I got to get up and speak and sit in their meetings and listen.”

When the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup last season, Musselman and his staff spent time watching video of their game one victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“For us, we love studying how connected they are as a team,” Musselman wrote in an email to The Denver Post. “To play that fast and sub the way they do, they have to be connected. The players on the ice are connected and the bench is into the game to know when it’s their time to sub.

“We talk to our team all the time about staying connected. We also talk about staying ready on the bench for when your opportunity comes.

“Offensively, we studied pace of play and how relentlessly fast they play. The constant pressure the Avalanche puts on the defense would be much like our team pushing the ball and not wanting to play in half-court sets, but to play opportunity transition offense.”

Nevin has attended Arkansas games in Walton Arena and watched practices.

“I’m not a basketball guy, and don’t pretend to be, but I’ve certainly learned a lot from being around Eric and watching him coach,” Nevin said. “Being at his practices and seeing the things he teaches and believes in, and then seeing how those translate to a game is really intriguing to me.

“You can see how much he cares about his players, and how his players respond to him. You can tell they love playing for him. He coaches them hard, but he coaches them as if they all were his sons.”

Nevin and Adam Engroff, another Musselman friend and a scout for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, sat next to each other at Arkansas’ opener this season against North Dakota State.

When the Dolphins spent a week in California in December because they played back-to-back road games against the San Francisco 49ers and Chargers, Nevin — who lives in San Diego — visited a practice at Engroff’s invitation that Miami held at UCLA.

“I mentioned how intrigued I was by [Dolphins] Coach [Mike] McDaniel, watching his press conferences, reading about him,” Nevin said. “Adam said, ‘If you want to come out to a practice, let me know.’

“So I had a really wonderful day watching the Dolphins practice and meeting with Mike McDaniel and their general manager, Chris Grier.

“You learn about how different organizations are run and how practices are run. You see how players respond to coaches.

“I’m not ever going to miss an opportunity to get better.”

Neither is Musselman.


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