Nolan Richardson was on fire.
It was Friday night in Springfield, Mass. at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, an evening that was ostensibly about honoring former NBA greats Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond, as well as newly retired Commissioner David Stern.
Richardson apparently didn’t get the memo, because no sooner had he started his acceptance speech that it was clear he was going to steal the show.
With all the panache of a southern minister, Richardson delivered the most sprawling, the most off-the-cuff, the most touching, and by far the most entertaining speech of the night.
What he gave the audience was just a small taste of his magnetic personality as he moved acrobatically between humor and pathos, parable and stand-up comedy, nostalgia and heartbreak, righteous indignation and genuine graciousness.
Few coaches in NCAA history have been as charismatic and as polarizing a figure as Richardson. He was simultaneously revered and vilified, and his tumultuous tenure as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks was chronicled in the unflinching ESPN documentary 40 Minutes of Hell. It is a complex portrait of a man whose career was emblematic of the struggle for black coaches to break the color barrier in the Deep South during the late 70s and early 80s.
In his first season at the University of Tulsa, Richardson became the first black coach to win an NIT Championship. When he was hired by the University of Arkansas, he became the first black coach at a major university in the South. According to the Associated Press, when Richardson took over at Arkansas in 1985, Georgetown coach John Thompson had the distinction of being the only black coach to lead a team to the Final Four. In 1991, less than 10 percent of all NCAA Division 1 coaches were black.
Though Richardson was outspoken about the topic, his legacy, in many ways, transcended race. But it was a theme that would come back to haunt him in the twilight of his career.
Initially, Richardson was reluctant to accept the job in Arkansas because of the state’s sordid record of racial inequality. In particular, memories of the “Little Rock Nine” weighed heavily on his decision. In 1957, nine black students who attempted to integrate into the previously all-white Little Rock Central High were blocked from entering the school by the decree of Governor Orval Faubus, who infamously deployed the Arkansas National Guard (along with help from a mob of hostile protesters). President Eisenhower was eventually forced to send in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to escort the students safely inside the building.
Richardson eventually accepted the position – at the behest of his daughter Yvonne – and early on, it appeared not much had changed since the volatile days of the Jim Crow South. According to Richardson, he was pelted with racial slurs, hate mail, and even death threats.
He got off to a rocky start on the court as well: the Razorbacks won only 12 games during his first season at the helm. Just three years later, however, Richardson had transformed the program into a perennial contender. By 1990, they made their first Final Four appearance behind Oliver Miller, Lee Mayberry, and Todd Day but would lose to Duke. But over the next few years, the Razorbacks trumpeted the arrival of Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, versatile swingman Scotty Thurman, point guard Corey Beck, and three-point specialist Al Dillard.