UALR's 1986 NCAA appearance started from obscurity

Copyright 1986 Maddie's Daddy Productions

Chapter One: Obscurity
   Leaning back in his chair inside the tiny office of the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s Steelman Fieldhouse, one would never suspect this was the guy.

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.
  His face is a bit rounder and wrinkled. His hair has gone from blonde to gray. His skin isn’t quite as golden. He’s added some pounds -- who hasn’t?    But as soon as he starts to speak, something sounds familiar. Then he flashes his million-dollar smile and flashbacks to the spring of 1986 are hard to avoid.
   The swagger is still there. It’s also impossible to mistake.
   No doubt about it. This is Mike Newell.
   “I love to conquer things that have never been done before,” says Newell, now the men’s basketball coach at UAM, a NCAA Division II school located about two hours South of Little Rock.
   Newell’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much either. More than 20 years ago when he arrived at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he through about conquering things that have never been done before.
   And he took UALR, which locals slur “Yooler,” from a basketball program still in its infancy to the first big opening round upset since the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s Basketball Tournament expanded to 64 teams.
   Newell’s statement about conquering things is funny, mostly because he said the same thing when he arrived at UALR’s commuter campus.
   From the time of his arrival until what is still the biggest day in the history of the athletic program, he faced an uphill battle.
   Max Morgan, a former sports anchor at KTHV-TV Channel 11 in Little Rock during the 1980s who served as the play-by-play voice of the Trojans from the time of Newell’s arrival until his departure in 1990, says it didn’t matter how the team was playing, whether they were in trouble with the law or might have even been the best basketball tea playing in the state of Arkansas. They were never going to get the recognition they thought they deserved.
   “I just always through the UALR Trojans deserved their chance in the limelight. They’re playing just as hard as anyone else. You could just never get over the hump,” Morgan said. “It was like that old Bog Seger song ‘Against The Wind’. In that song it says, ‘We were young and strong and running against the wind.’ Even though they were successful, they were always running against the wind. You couldn’t get that state totally behind you, for whatever the reason.”
   Some of that might have been Newell’s fault. Well-liked isn’t one of the adjectives used to describe him unless you were either inside his camp or so far outside that you didn’t know the real Newell. He was either loved or disliked on one level or another by quite a few people associated with the University by the time he departed for the head coaching job at Lamar in 1990.
  He had burned most bridges and worn out all his welcomes. There was a chance he could have been fired at that time anyway, despite five-consecutive postseason appearances, including back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 1989 and 1990. That included academic troubles and legal troubles for players and financial troubles for the program.
   But from 1984 to 1988, he was still the golden child; still putting up a front that people hadn’t been able to break down. For a while, he had the media mesmerized and the fans loving every minute of it. He didn’t have his players fooled, but they didn’t have a choice. It was his way or the highway.
   Even today, the name Mike Newell sparks bad memories for many associated with the University. UALR barely recognizes Newell’s three NCAA and two NIT appearances in his six years as the Trojans’ head coach. Even thought hat makes up five of the six postseason appearances in school history.
Nineteen eighty-six was the most special because that is the year Cinderella found her slipper as the Trojans took down Notre Dame.
   “They still walk up to me or send me letters. They always say, ‘Coach, I’m so and so and I was a senior and I made the trip up there. It was great,” Newell said. “I can go anywhere in Arkansas. People can tell me what they were doing that night when we won that game. That’s amazing. It blows my mind. It’s one of those instances that will stick in your mind forever.”
   It didn’t initially stick across the country, getting very little notoriety, at least on that day. After all, March 14, 1986, produced another first-round upset of nearly-equal proportion.
   At 2:30 p.m. that afternoon in Syracuse, N.Y., 14th-seeded Cleveland State knocked off third seeded Indiana at the Carrier Dome. A national television audience watched the game, which served as the climax to John Feinstein’s fantastic book, A Season On the Brink, during which he followed Indiana Coach Bobby Knight throughout the entire 1985-1986 season. Anyone who read that book knows Indiana was fragile. What that book didn’t go into enough detail about was just how talented Cleveland State was.
Today these upsets are frequent. But they weren’t the norm in 1986. This was the second year since the NCAA Tournament field had been expanded to 64 teams. And the tournament’s highest seeds nearly always got through their first games.
   That would change that Friday night at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
   UALR, the champion of the upstart Trans-America Athletic Conference, was seeded 14th, and would face ninth-ranked Notre Dame, which entered as a No. 3 seed and on a big-time roll.
   ESPN had the television rights to the first round of the tournament, dictating the start times for the games it through would be the most interesting. They weren’t impressed with the match-up.
   CBS also had the rights to show one game beginning at 10:30 p.m. Central Time on Thursday and Friday. They weren’t impressed either. On that Friday, they chose the Southeastern Conference’s Auburn taking on the Pacific 10 Conference’s Arizona in a regional being played at Long Beach, California.
   If you didn’t live in Arkansas or parts of Indiana, Illinois or Michigan, you couldn’t watch it live. And the 9:40 p.m. Central start of the UALR-Notre Dame game meant most East Coast newspapers wouldn’t get much of a story in their Saturday morning editions.
   The score was there: Arkansas-Little Rock 90, Notre Dame 83.
   Those who picked Notre Dame for a long run in their office pools probably ripped their sheets to shreds as they found one huge upset listed among the 16 second-day scores. And an unknown, unheralded team started to become the talk of the country for a weekend.
   Two days later, UALR took North Carolina State to double overtime before bowing out of the tournament and the Trojans haven’t won another NCAA Tournament game since.
   But the five-year run sparked by that magical night in Minneapolis will likely never be duplicated. And UALR students and graduates felt pride for their Alma Mater for the first time -- at least when it came to athletics.
   “People used to call it the University of Arkansas Last Resort,” Newell said. “But from the time we beat Notre Dame till the time I left there, they took a back seat to no one. Not that they ever really had to. But unfortunately, that’s what athletics can do for you or to you. To me, that is a big accomplishment. To make that many people feel good about UALR.
   “Little Rock is a great city, a beautiful city. And UALR is a great school.”