Black History Month began Feb. 1, 2012, and will be celebrated through the end of the month, ending Feb. 29, 2012. The University of Arkansas Athletics Department begins its fourth year of recognizing the accomplishments of current and former Razorback student-athletes as well as other prominent students, faculty and staff with its web series on ArkansasRazorbacks.com. This year, the web series will feature stories of former Razorback student-athletes who have gone on to coaching positions in universities or colleges around the state and country. In addition, the series will recognize four Silas Hunt honorees.
Upon completing his eligibility as a student-athlete following the 2002 season, senior TJ Cleveland had a choice to make: attempt to live his childhood dream as a professional basketball player; or look for a job using his degree from the University of Arkansas. Both options were available for the guard who was known for his defense. However, after some soul searching, the Birmingham, Ala., native chose a third option. He followed former Arkansas Assistant Coach Mike Anderson to the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) where he took the job of video coordinator.
Moving back to Birmingham allowed Cleveland to stay in the game of basketball and return to his hometown where he was an all-state and all-metro player for Minor High School. It is also the place where, as a senior, he won MVP honors in the state basketball tournament.
In his four-year Arkansas career, Cleveland led the Razorbacks to a 76-50 overall record and made three trips to the NCAA Tournament. He led the team in steals three times, and to this day ranks fifth on Arkansas’ all-time list for steals. He also led the team in assists for two seasons and was Arkansas’ leader in three-point percentage as a sophomore. Cleveland was instrumental in Arkansas’ 2000 run at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, scoring 23 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, dishing 10 assists and making 11 steals. Against LSU, he picked pockets to the tune of seven steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
In four years at UAB, Cleveland served on Anderson’s staff as a video coordinator for three seasons before being promoted to assistant coach for the 2005-06 season. In one season of coaching the Blazers, he helped them advance to the NCAA Tournament, rank third in the nation in steals at 10.9 per game and lead Conference USA in assists, assist-turnover ratio, turnover margin and field goal percentage.
After the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Anderson accepted the head coaching position at the University of Missouri and brought the protégé with him to Columbia. It was with the Tigers that Cleveland’s name started to become associated as one of the top up-and-coming young coaches in college basketball. He has twice been featured at Nike’s Villa 7 Consortium and in five seasons at Missouri was an integral part in mentoring several student-athletes to in-season and post-season honors. His athletes have earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year as well as Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year accolades while several individuals and Missouri teams finished the basketball season among the national leaders in varying statistical categories including steals and assists.
In March of 2012, Cleveland was extended the opportunity to return to the Arkansas program that he helped build when Anderson was hired as head coach. It didn’t take long for Cleveland to accept the offer and in just a few months has worked tirelessly to change the direction, attitude and fortunes of the Razorbacks. The results are already showing as Arkansas is 17-8 heading into the final month of the regular season and several Razorback guards are flourishing under Cleveland’s mentorship. Freshman BJ Young is one of the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorers, sophomore Mardracus Wade has become one of the nation’s most accurate three-point shooters and junior Julysses Nobles continues to improve on his defense.
Working his way up the ranks, Cleveland’s persistence has paid dividends not just for himself and his family, but for Arkansas fans across the nation.