FAYETTEVILLE — Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair has taken his team on the road in Southeastern Conference play for the first time this weekend.
But it’s not exactly a road trip for Blair, who was picked up by his wife at the team’s hotel Saturday afternoon, walked into his Fayetteville home for the first time since July and spent the night. It’s actually a homecoming for the former Arkansas coach.
“It’s always good to be home,” Blair said. “This will always be my home.”
Blair is back in Arkansas for the weekend and this trip carries plenty of significance on the court at 2 p.m. today. He’ll be back in Bud Walton Arena with another team for the first time since he and the Razorbacks parted ways nearly 10 years ago.
Blair and the 22nd-ranked Aggies (11-4) are trying to improve to 2-0 in their first season in the SEC, while No. 23 Arkansas (12-2) is hoping to avoid an 0-2 start after Thursday’s 50-47 loss at Auburn in the conference opener.
Working from the visiting bench is sure to be packed with plenty of emotion for Blair, who will face off against Arkansas and coach Tom Collen for the second straight season. Last year’s game between the programs — which the Aggies won 61-59 — had plenty of pressure surrounding it because it came in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in College Station, Texas.
But Blair admits this one will be much different because of his history here.
“I think it will even be more emotional than when I went back to Stephen F. Austin for the first time,” said Blair, who led the program from 1985-1993. “When I went back to Stephen F. for the first time, they had 6,000 people there and they were putting me into the hall of fame at halftime. I was a nervous wreck. … I was a little bit of a basket case. So hopefully, I learned my lesson a little bit there.”
There’s no doubt Blair will have plenty of support from the Arkansas fanbase before tipoff today. His impact on the Arkansas basketball program is undeniable.
Blair was the popular leader of the program from 1993-2003, going 198-120 during his tenure. The high point was a trip to the Final Four in 1998.
“He was fantastic here,” said Collen, who was an assistant on Blair’s staff for four seasons at Arkansas. “We worked real hard to try to build the program. And when I left, they kept going to another level. They went to the Final Four.
“So he’s one of the top coaches in the history of the women’s game. There’s not many coaches that have accomplished some of the things that he’s been able to do.”
Collen wasn’t part of the 1998 NCAA Tournament run after leaving for the head coaching job at Colorado State after the 1996-97 season. But Blair has long credited Collen for helping make it possible with his work in recruiting players to Arkansas.
It’s no surprise Blair and Collen have remained close and will exchange pleasantries before today’s game as they prepare to face off once again. Collen is sure the crowd will give the former coach a warm welcome as well. He said it’s fine — until tipoff.
“I would want and expect them to do that,” Collen said. “I would think they would cheer for him. Then I want them to immediately, when the tip goes up, just to sit back there behind his bench and start harassing him.”
But Blair said he wouldn’t expect anything less from Arkansas fans — many of which he calls friends — during his homecoming in Bud Walton Arena.
“I’m very anxious to see a lot of my friends,” Blair said. “A lot of the people that were staunch supporters and are still supporters of Arkansas. But when the clock starts, 50 people that were allowed tickets behind my bench, those are the ones that will be pulling for us. If you’re a true Arkansan you’ll be pulling for the Razorbacks.”