A look back: Heartbreak turns to hope as it spawns UALR's 1986 NCAA Tournament run

Copyright 2006 Maddie's Daddy Productions
Chapter III: Hope
   I’m always one of these half-full guys as opposed to half empty,” Newell said.

2011 marks the 25th
anniversary of UALR's
upset of Notre Dame in
the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Coach Mike Newell is being
inducted into the UALR
Athletics Hall of Fame on
January 29. BTH takes a look
back at 1986 with Jeffrey
Slatton's book, written in 2006.
    That’s what made Newell the perfect candidate to replace Kestenbaum. UALR needed a shot in the arm and the city of Little Rock needed a punch in the stomach.
   But it almost never happened.
   During the 1982-1983 season, UALR’s history as a Division I basketball program was only four-years-old.
   Kestenbaum had UALR on the verge of greatness as the Trojans won the TAAC regular season championship after finishing with a 21-5 record. That earned the Trojans the right to play the semifinals and finals of the conference tournament at home at Barton Coliseum and they advanced to the final against Georgia Southern.
   A capacity crowd, enticed by free tickets, packed Barton Coliseum on March 9, 1983, hoping to witness history.
With the score tied 65-65 with 16 seconds remaining, freshman Myron Jackson stood at the free-throw line. He made the first but missed the second as UALR took a 66-65 lead.
   With time nearly out and UALR’s Vaughn Williams and Dexter Young blocking his path to the basket, Georgia Southern’s Eric Hightower pushed off his defenders and let go a fade-away shot near the end line.
   The buzzer sounded just as it left his hand. It silenced the crowd as it went in, giving Gerogia Southern a 67-66 victory and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
   “There we are on the bench, and I’m thinking that we’re going to the NCAA. Then they run down the court, and the ball goes in the basket,” Kestenbaum said. “All of a sudden, it’s like someone hit me right in the stomach.”
   Jackson watched closely as Georgia Southern’s players cut down the nets and prepared to enter the NCAA Tournament.
   “When Hightower hit that shot and knocked us out, that’s a big memory,” Jackson said.
   If Hightower misses, UALR goes to the NCAA Tournament right there. Kestenbaum is probably never fired and might still be coaching the Trojans today.
   But that miss set in motion a series of events.
   UALR finished the 1983-1984 season with a 14-15 record, it’s first losing record as a Division I school. Kestenbaum’s job still appeared to be safe until Malfouz suddenly resigned. Pretty much the entire process was done in secret, but the school took the opportunity to make a change and went looking for what it considered to be a big-time candidate -- one who could serve as both the head coach and director of athletics.
   Newell quickly surged to the top of the list.
   He was 33 and the assistant head coach to Billy Tubbs at the University of Oklahoma. He was blonde, good looking, charismatic and brash.
   UALR player Pete Myers would later describe Newell as somebody who would run over you with hiscar if he had the chance to win.
   He had a little head coaching experience, once taking over for Tubbs after an automobile accident sidelined the longtime Sooners’ coach. That year he led the Sooners into the NCAA Tournament.
   Technically, the coaching search took three weeks. On April 2, 1984, UALR vice-chancellor for university advancement Les Wyatt made the most important decision in the school’s athletic history to that point, hiring Newell. UALR would never be the same.
   He was nothing if he wasn’t enthusiastic. He promised UALR would be first class and said the Trojans would play a major schedule from “coast-to-coast.”
   And he promised UALR would take a back seat to no one, including the Arkansas Razorbacks.
   He basically said everything those who were anti-Razorback (or anti-Nolan Richardson) wanted to hear. He even appealed to some Razorback fans, which thought he would make a nice candidate for their job in Fayetteville.
   Newell was raised in Perryville, Indiana, a town of about 500 people located between Bloomington, Terre Haute and Fort Wayne. He described his mom and dad as “real quiet and shy.”
   Newell was just the opposite.
   “I don’t know why I’m so outgoing, because I grew up in a family that’s really introverted,” Newell said. “My mom and dad don’t know how I got this way. I guess it’s just God-given.”
   His idea of a big date in his hometown was to go to the local theater to see a movie, and then head back to his house to shoot hoops in his driveway while his date rebounded.
   Newell, who is a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, originally signed with Saint Louis University. He eventually ended up at Sam Houston State, where he spent the final two years of his college basketball careeer.
   He was the first in his family to graduate from college. Had he not made it, it’s probable he would have been working for the local General Motors plant.
   All of those experiences made him the person he turned out to be.
   When he was hired at UALR, his wife wasn’t so sure.
   “She literally cried when we left OU,” Newell said. “I felt like Little Rock was a good-sized metropolitan area. It would be tough, but we could build something really good. And we did.”
   But upon arriving in Little Rock, there was much to do. Much more than even Newell suspected.
   The team lacked talent. There wasn’t a suitable place to play. Players didn’t graduate. There wasn’t much local interest in the program.
   “(The administration) told me they wanted to have an athletic department that was running in the black after five years,” Newell said. “But they also said they wanted a program of student-athletes that were graduating, not only in basketball but all sports. And also that the other sports are competing and representing the university in a quality and class manner. Now you think about that. That’s a hell of a lot to accomplish for a program that has been a piece of crap all those years.”
   Newell made this promise.
   “We’ll play an exciting brand of basketball. It might not be very good yet, but at least you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
   UALR had less than 500 season-ticket holders and Newell knew he needed more support. Early on, he met with UALR boosters Bob Connor and Ted Bailey.
   “They gave me a list of 100 movers and shakers in the community that we wanted to get involved. Bob would call and say our new basketball coach is going to call and all I ask of you is that you meet with him for 10 or 15 minutes. That’s what I did. I met with every one of them,” Newell said.
   And he spoke to anyone who would listen.
   “I guarantee there have been days where I spoke four times. I speak at breakfast, lunch, at an after-lunchy-type deal, and then a late-evening banquet. Not just once. I mean several times,” Newell said. “I’ve been all over the city selling UALR. Not only basketball but also our total athletic program out there. I love to do it. I think we have a good product to sell. I’m proud to represent it. I’m proud of the university. I’m proud of the administration.”

Tomorrow: UALR finds a house to call home