Commentary

That's head coach Corliss Williamson

Former Razorback great is a first-time head coach leading a Division I newcomer

Originally Published: September 14, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

A warning to players at Central Arkansas as you prepare for practice next month: If you don't understand what your coach is talking about, he's going to show you.

And you may not like it.

"Oh, I'll get out there on the court when we officially start," Corliss Williamson said. "If they can't do it, I'll jump right in and do it for them."

That's Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson, fellas.

Don't say we didn't warn you.

Of course when he jumps in to help out, the 36-year-old Williamson might also be the best player on the Central Arkansas practice floor. Which is exactly what he's aiming to change.

[+] EnlargeCorliss Williamson
AP Photo/Russell PowellCorliss Williamson's first head-coaching job doesn't require his family to leave their home state.

Williamson has come to this state school that sits a mere 40 minutes from his Russellville hometown with eyes wide open, but eyes also filled with dreams. Once best known as the answer to a hoops trivia question -- then-NAIA Central Arkansas is the alma mater of Scottie Pippen -- Williamson has plans to put the Bears on the basketball map.

The school this year completes its four-year transition to Division I and will be eligible for the postseason, competing in the Southland Conference.

"This school has the potential to really make an impression at the Division I level," Williamson said. "There's a lot going on, a lot of positives and a lot of hype for our team. My job is to create the culture."

It will take some doing. The Bears have gone 43-76 since beginning the transition to Division I.

After 12 successful years in the NBA, Williamson could have settled in for an easier path.

Doors were bound to open for the hometown hero who led the beloved Razorbacks to the national championship in 1994. Business opportunities, jobs or at least easier basketball gigs.

But Williamson wasn't looking for handouts after he hung up his high tops in 2007. Instead, he took a position as an assistant at Arkansas Baptist, which competes at the junior college, then moved up to head coach there and waited for the right job to come along.

Surprisingly that was Central Arkansas, a team coming off a 9-21 record.

"When I first got into coaching, I said if I ever did get a Division I job, I didn't want to have to leave the state of Arkansas," Williamson said. "I'm an Arkansan, through and through. Someone asked me the other day, What's my hobby? I couldn't think of anything but basketball, so to be able to coach and stay in it at home is a great feeling."

Central Arkansas administrators are no dummies. Williamson's name is bound to open doors, getting the school into the homes of recruits who might otherwise turn up their noses, and making news for a program trying to gain a footing in the crowded college basketball landscape.

When I first got into coaching, I said if I ever did get a Division I job, I didn't want to have to leave the state of Arkansas. I'm an Arkansan, through and through.

-- UCA coach Corliss Williamson

Williamson already has inked his first class of four players.

But the university has landed on more than a good PR stunt, say those who knew Williamson well. They have found a coach who can teach the game as well as he played it and who, thanks to some lean years at Arkansas Baptist, has developed a good handle on patience.

"When he played for me, he understood the game so well," Williamson's mentor and former head coach, Nolan Richardson said. "Seeing the floor is so important in the game of basketball. Guys with that good vision make excellent coaches and Corliss has that vision."

Williamson's vision includes a system that will be giddily familiar to people in Arkansas. He plans to bring his own version of Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" to UCA, a style he believes resonates with players who appreciate the fast tempo and open style of basketball.

Or it will resonate with them after they get done hating Williamson. Before the joy comes the pain and Williamson has called on the tips and torture tactics he's culled from various NBA trainers to devise a preseason-conditioning regimen that will have his players in shape come November -- whether they like it or not.

"For me it will be very easy to sell," Williamson said. "Either you play defense or you sit down."

If that my-way-or-the-highway sounds cruelly familiar, there's a reason. Richardson's footprints will be all over Central Arkansas. Williamson still calls his old coach regularly and admits with pride that he will steal liberally from both Richardson's playbook and demeanor.

Flattered as he might be by that, Richardson offered a caveat to Williamson's plans when the two spoke.

"It's really important that he defines who he wants to be and decides what he thinks is important," Richardson said. "If you believe it, you can sell it, so it's important that he develops his own style and personality. You can't emulate a person who coached you entirely. I'm a gambler in the game. He might not have those instincts to take those chances. He has to be himself."

Williamson couldn't agree more. He intends to be himself.

His big ole nasty self.

"I know they'll play me harder than anybody if I get on the court," Williamson said. "That's OK. I can handle it."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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