At Arkansas, some coaching with side of marriage

KURT VOIGT AP Sports Writer Published:

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- The pressure Tom Collen felt was very real.

It wasn't pressure from the outside that the Arkansas coach sensed. It was his own internal clock he heard ticking as he prepared for his fifth season as the coach of the Razorbacks.

His first four seasons at Arkansas had ended without a trip to the NCAA tournament, an unfamiliar feeling for a coach who had reached the tournament in seven of nine seasons at Colorado State and Louisville. When two assistants left after last season, Collen didn't have to look very far to find one of the replacements.

He went with the person he knew best -- his wife, Nicki.

The Collens had worked together previously at both of his previous head coaching stops before Nicki Collen left the court six years ago to concentrate on raising their three young children.

"First, the logical thing was for me to go back to Nicki because of her expertise and she brought a lot to the program," Collen said. "No. 2, I knew she had my back. I wasn't going to somebody I didn't know. I don't think I could have turned to a better person or a better coach at that moment in time in order to feel like 'We were going to get this done now.'"

With their children becoming more independent every day -- and with Tom Collen about to face his most critical season at Arkansas -- Nicki Collen returned to the bench with her husband last July. The former Purdue and Marquette standout as a player was put in charge of the Razorbacks' defense, and her impact was immediate.

Arkansas (23-8) improved from 86th to 10th nationally in scoring defense this season, down from 59.3 points per game to 52. The improved defense resulted in a series of firsts for the Razorbacks, from an eight-game winning streak in Southeastern Conference play to the school's first win at Tennessee.

It also resulted in a return to the NCAA tournament for the relieved Collens and No. 6 seed Arkansas, which faces Dayton (23-6) in the first round in College Station, Texas, on Saturday.

"It wasn't just the coaching staff feeling a sense of urgency," Tom Collen said. "It was this group of players who knew, 'This is it for me.' I think we all felt that and we all got in the boat and started rowing in the same direction. And these are the results."

The players were somewhat familiar with Nicki Collen, having heard her encouragement -- and criticism-- above nearly everyone else in the stands in Bud Walton Arena. What they didn't know were her qualifications as a coach. In addition to her playing career in college and professionally in Greece, Collen had spent time on the bench at Colorado State, Ball State and Louisville.

"All I could remember from before was coach Nicki was the one yelling at us in the stands like she's one of our parents, telling us what we're doing wrong," Arkansas senior Lyndsay Harris said.

She wasted little time in making herself known as more than just the "coach's wife." She made her expectations for effort and defense known to the senior-laden Razorbacks, and she was clear that she believed they were capable of taking the school to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.

More than anything, it was the players who made Collen comfortable with her return to coaching -- something she wasn't sure she would ever do after having twins Reese and Connor as well as youngest daughter, Logan.

"You always feel like people are saying, 'Oh, he's bringing his wife out of the stands after six years,'" she said. "You do kind of have that, but I don't think there's any question people knew I had played. It's not like I didn't have a resume, but you still want to be judged on who you are."

The Collens have faced difficult questions about their coaching relationship over the years, back to when they were dating at Colorado State. Tom Collen was forced at the time to fire Nicki Collen, though she returned to the bench a year later after they were married.

When Collen was hired at Arkansas, he made sure the school's administration was open to the idea of Nicki Collen returning to the bench at some point. Once an opening presented itself after last season, Collen talked with athletic director Jeff Long.

"I think he's probably very happy he made that decision after seeing the results and that we've had no issues," Tom Collen said.

Nicki Collen said she learned several things about herself during her six years away from coaching with her husband. Most important, she said, was learning to control her emotions at work and becoming better at acting like the other assistant coaches.

Still, the two have their moments.

"It's funny because it's like they're kids," Harris said. "It's like mom and dad coaching the team. Sometimes they have little arguments and you have awkward moments where you're like 'Um, I don't know if I should be here because mom and dad are fighting,' but it's cute."

Harris said Tom Collen has become more comfortable around the team since his wife's hiring, thanks in large part to Nicki Collen's outgoing personality. She said that's made it easier for the players to connect with their head coach.

One thing is for sure: Tom and Nicki Collen have found a way to balance both family and coaching, and this year's results speak for themselves.

"I would say it works pretty well," Tom Collen said.