FAYETTEVILLE — Gary Blair coached in Bud Walton Arena for the first time in 10 years during Texas A&M’s 63-51 win against Arkansas on Sunday.
There wasn’t as much at stake as last year’s win against the Razorbacks during the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But the former Arkansas coach said still needed plenty of help from Texas A&M assistant coaches like Kelly Bond-White to get through the emotional homecoming.
“There was more pressure on me last year to hold serve at my house in the NCAA Tournament than the first time playing Arkansas in 10 years,” Blair said. “I was still a basket case in this game, but my assistants were giving me some good play calls and we would change it up a little.”
It worked for Blair. The coach still owns a house in Fayetteville, where his wife, Nan Smith-Blair, lives as she works in the nursing department at the University of Arkansas. Blair’s daughter, Paige, owns a boutique in Fayetteville and her husband is Farmington High School boys’ basketball coach Beau Thompson. His son, Matt, is working toward his Master’s Degree at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
Blair — who coached Arkansas from 1993-2003 — led the Razorbacks to five NCAA Tournament appearances. It included the only trip to the Final Four in 1998.
He has enjoyed even more success in 10 years at Texas A&M, leading the Aggies to seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances. It included the 2011 national title.
“It's tough,” Blair said. “You have family and friends, everyone in the audience and I have people stopping at my house afterward and I didn't want it to be a wake, I wanted it to be a celebration.
“Hey, just think, the best 20 years of my life have been at Fayetteville and College Station. You can't beat it. Two schools that understand what big-time athletics are all about. I have had the best of both worlds and I've enjoyed the heck out of it, but I was pretty nervous and I probably made some poor decisions."
Aggies use fastbreak points to maintain lead
Blair looked into the stands and saw Mike Anderson on Sunday.
It gave him the idea of pressing the Razorbacks.
“I was trying to imply to our kids that we have got to force turnovers and get into it, but your legs were gone and it might be because we had a three-hour workout (Saturday) morning,” Blair said. “I take the blame for that. I want to play that pressure defense and force turnovers and tonight, we didn't do it."
The Aggies did collect 10 fast break points in the second half to wrap up the win.
"Transition in the second-half was the best thing we did," Blair said. "In the first half, we had zero fast break points and then 10 in the second half. That was the difference in the ballgame, right there, because we struggled doing just about everything else."
Collen shows gratitude toward crowd
Arkansas coach Tom Collen grabbed a microphone after the loss and asked Razorbacks' fans to continue showing the kind of support they did Sunday.
Attendance was announced at 2,801. Blair’s return was a factor in the crowd size, but Collen believed the fans showed their support for more than that reason alone.
"With two or three minutes left in the game, it looked as though the outcome was pretty settled and I made my mind to address the crowd,” Collen said. “I thought they cheered really hard for us and we need them back. I think they were excited for the Texas A&M rivalry and for Coach Blair, but also moving into the polls."
After an 0-2 start in conference play, Collen said the Razorbacks are going to need the same support moving forward.
"For us to ascend in the SEC, we're not going to ascend on talent alone," Collen said. "The teams that have ascended to the top most recently like Kentucky and South Carolina, those are tough places to play. If we don't have a crowd like this, it makes it harder for us. We can't afford to lose those fans."