Collen eyes return to national prominence for Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- When Tom Collen was an assistant coach at Arkansas during the mid-1990s, he left a year too early to experience the team's run to the women's Final Four.

Now he's back as the Lady Razorbacks' head coach -- and determined to help them reach those heights again.

"I have always felt that the University of Arkansas has the potential to perform at the national level," Collen said. "We proved that during my tenure here as the recruiting coordinator that resulted in an appearance at the Final Four."

Collen was introduced as the Lady Razorbacks' coach Friday, ending a four-year run at Louisville. He returns to Arkansas after serving as a Razorbacks assistant under Gary Blair from 1993-97. Susie Gardner, the most recent Arkansas coach, resigned earlier this month.

The Lady Razorbacks went to the NCAA Tournament only once during Collen's first stint on the staff, but they went to the Final Four the season after he left -- and his recruiting efforts clearly left an impression.

"His reputation as a recruiter is among the best in the country," said Bev Lewis, Arkansas' women's athletic director.

"He was an outstanding recruiter here at Arkansas as an assistant, and his success at two other universities recruiting as the head coach only enhanced that reputation."

After leaving Arkansas, Collen was head coach at Colorado State from 1997-2002, presiding over five straight 20-win seasons. He left Colorado State for Vanderbilt, but quit one day after being hired when the school questioned the educational background he listed on his resume.

That setback was temporary. Miami of Ohio had told Vanderbilt that Collen held only one master's degree in two subjects, but Miami later said Collen did indeed earn two graduate degrees, as he stated on a résumé.

By the time that discrepancy was resolved, Vandy and Colorado State both had new coaches, but Collen took over as Louisville's coach in 2003.

Collen has taken Louisville to the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons -- the Lady Razorbacks haven't been since Blair went from Arkansas to Texas A&M in 2003 and Gardner was hired.

Louisville went 27-8 this season and broke into the AP poll for the first time in November. The Cardinals lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament after being ranked in the Top 25 most of the season.

"One of the toughest decisions for me was to leave Louisville in the midst of the building process with the job unfinished," the 53-year-old Collen said. "It was especially difficult to leave [Louisville athletic director] Tom Jurich. He gave me my first head coaching opportunity at Colorado State, and he brought me to Louisville, as well."

Collen is 217-70 in nine seasons as a head coach. He was also an assistant at Utah and Purdue before his first stint at Arkansas.

Lewis is happy to have filled her coaching position quickly. Several major programs have had coaches leave recently, including LSU, Texas and Penn State.

"I was pleased just to be on the front end of the hiring process, and get out in front of some of the other schools that still have to hire," Lewis said.

Lewis said she talked to a few people about the position, but that Collen was the only candidate formally interviewed. He didn't become available until Louisville was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament.

"We just had to wait for him to finish up," Lewis said. "It was probably a week-and-a-half, two weeks ago that we decided he was our person -- we were going to wait and try to get him to commit to us after he got done playing."

Collen was in Arkansas this week interviewing for the vacancy.

Gardner resigned after Arkansas faltered down the stretch for the second straight season. Arkansas finished with 10 straight losses. The Lady Razorbacks ended the 2005-06 season with nine consecutive defeats.

Arkansas' 2006-07 season included a school-record 15-1 start, then a school-record losing streak at the end that dropped the team's overall mark to 18-13, with a 3-11 regular-season record in the tough Southeastern Conference.