'More shirt off is good for us': Inside Arkansas coach Eric Musselman's shirtless celebrations
LAS VEGAS — The basketball world first became aware of Eric Musselman’s proclivity for baring his chest in moments of celebration in March of 2018. Though it wasn’t the first time it had happened while he was coaching at Nevada, beating Cincinnati to make the Sweet 16 seemed like an appropriate time to rip off his shirt as he walked into a locker room where players were waiting to empty water bottles on him.
Five years and several public displays of partial nudity later, Musselman’s players at Arkansas now understand what it means. When the clothes come off, they’ve done something pretty special.
“I always say a happy Muss is a happy us,” said senior forward Kamani Johnson. “More shirt off is good for us.”
And so it was last Saturday when Arkansas upset No. 1 seed Kansas, 72-71, giving the Razorbacks a chance to face No. 4 seed UConn here in a West regional semifinal on Thursday.
Shortly after the game ended, Musselman ran toward a section of Arkansas fans, jumped on one of the media tables and lifted both arms in the air. Then, in one quick motion, he reached down to pull off the polo shirt he was wearing and waved it in the air like he was at a rave.
Eric Musselman showing off his... MUSCLES @RazorbackMBB pic.twitter.com/P2D7yYioOF
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 18, 2023
When players got back to the locker room, it was already all over social media.
“A lot of us saw it in person,” Arkansas freshman Jordan Walsh said. “We were laughing about it. I saw him do it last year, so I feel like it was an achievement we hit this year. It was the first time he did it and I'm super happy it was with us.”
Musselman can’t quite explain why it happens in those big moments but acknowledges that it’s now a thing attached to his reputation. And it doesn't hurt that Musselman, at age 58, is still in pretty good shape so he’s not shy about showing off a little.
“I guess my emotions got the best of me,” he said Wednesday. “My wife’s not always happy about that. But it's not something that we plan on doing all the time. It’s just kind of — emotions run through you. And I guess you get to a certain age and you kind of do it just because.”
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Musselman’s presentation may not evoke images of the traditional college basketball coach in a $2,000 suit, but he must be doing something right. If Arkansas beats UConn, the Razorbacks will make the Elite Eight for a third consecutive year — something that’s never happened in the history of the program.
Though Musselman’s basketball acumen is unquestioned given his long NBA background and growing up around his father, longtime NBA and college coach Bill Musselman, there’s something about his willingness to go over the edge at times that gets the best out of his players.
“His energy is unmatched,” said Ricky Council IV, who made a series of big shots down the stretch against Kansas. "He’s a one-of-a-kind coach and it really comes from him just wanting to win the game. His prep is amazing. He’s really locked in. He tries to correct the simplest things. This time of year, he’s really locked in and trying to give us every piece of information he can to help us win games and that’s why I feel like his teams always succeed in March.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to put your finger on why it works, especially in the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas, after all, struggled with consistency all season and was the 10th seed in the SEC Tournament. But Musselman seems able to strike a balance between searing intensity and comedy that pays dividends this time of year.
“He’s crazy if you haven’t met him,” Johnson said. “What you see on TV, that’s him for sure, shirt off jumping around. He’s like that at 8 in the morning when he's on the treadmill. That’s just Muss. High energy.”
But it does take something special to get Musselman to actually do the shirtless celebration. It started at Nevada when the Wolf Pack won the CBI tournament his first year there, continued with the Sweet 16 bid and was resuscitated in 2022 when the Razorbacks knocked off then-No. 1 ranked Auburn.
Of course, it begs the question: What will he do — or what piece of clothing might he remove — if Arkansas makes the Final Four?
"I think the shirt’s enough,” Walsh said. “I hope the shirt is enough.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Arkansas coach Eric Musselman celebrates without his shirt on