Some coaching changes come with an introductory period, both for the team and the community-at-large with the new man in charge. Little Rock Trojans basketball and the city need no introduction to new head coach Wes Flanigan.
The Flanigan name carries weight in the Arkansas state capital. Al Flanigan is a Hall of Famer at Southern Arkansas University and a fixture in the Little Rock high school basketball scene as head coach at Parkview High — prep home for some of the biggest basketball names to come from the Natural State.
Parkview produced Duane Washington, Derek Fisher and Al’s son, Wes, a star at Auburn whose post-playing career led him back home to Little Rock.
“I’ve been working to get to this point for a long time,” Flanigan said of being named Little Rock’s head coach this spring. “I’ve worked for some great coaches, and I definitely think I’m ready.”
One of the great coaches Flanigan has spent time learning from is his father.
“I’m a defensive-minded coach: I always have been, I get that from my dad,” Flanigan said.
“I woke up every morning next to a guy who was all about doing the right things, was a man of integrity. I learned how to persevere. I learned mental toughness. A lot of what people will see from me as a head coach stems from him.”
Stems is an important qualifier describing Flanigan’s basketball tree taking root in Little Rock. Before coming back to his hometown last season in an assistant’s role with Chris Beard, akin to a position he held there from 2004 through 2008, Flanigan worked alongside others who helped shape his philosophy.
“I’ve also had the opportunity to work for a Steve Shields, a [Bubba] Skelton at Northwest Mississippi Community College, a Doc Sadler at Nebraska, Mike Davis at UAB, and Ricky Ray at Mississippi State. Going through this business, being in it 17 years now, you learn and pick up a few things from everybody you coached and even played for — Cliff Ellis, who’s one of the all-time winningest coaches in college basketball.”
Ellis, Flanigan’s coach at Auburn, now heads Coastal Carolina, a regular NCAA Tournament participant in his tenure with appearances in 2014 and 2015. The Chanticleers gave Virginia and Wisconsin tough games in the opening rounds of those Tournaments, but didn’t complete the upset — something Little Rock accomplished last March against Purdue.
The Trojans capped their Sun Belt championship season with a thrilling overtime win, one which Beard parlayed into the head coaching job at UNLV — and later Texas Tech, in one of the offseason’s more unusual developments.
Flanigan inherits a program with plenty of buzz, and some lofty expectations to meet as result.
“We won 30 games last year. Now, we’ve got to feed the monster we created,” he said. “Not that we’ve been bad in the past — we’ve had some pretty good teams, but now our name is out there nationally. We’ve got to seize the moment and take advantage of it.”
UALR’s already made inroads in the attempt to enlarge its presence on the local scene. Flanigan credited athletic director Chasse Conque’s “unbelievable job,” which included rebranding the university’s athletic teams as the Little Rock Trojans, a simple yet meaningful deviation from the Arkansas-Little Rock moniker, which Flanigan says establishes them as “Little Rock’s team.”
Located in the center of the state, the capital is roughly 130 miles from Arkansas State’s Jonesboro campus, and almost 300 miles east of the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville location. With more than 190,000 residents, however, it’s the state’s most populous city.
Capitalizing on the program’s place within the community is one step. Another, Flanigan said, is “sustaining the level of success” enjoyed a season ago.
The Trojans lose guard Josh Hagins, an all-around playmaker whose biggest performance came on the biggest stage. He scored 31 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out six assists in the win over Purdue.
Little Rock returns guard Marcus Johnson Jr., however, as well as wingman Jalen Jackson. There’s enough talent and experience back for the Trojans to again contend for the Sun Belt Conference crown.
Another NCAA Tournament appearance would make for a gleaming addition to the Flanigan family’s Little Rock basketball legacy.