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.
In 1994, the Razorbacks would exact their revenge on Duke in the National Championship game and win their first and only NCAA Title. They would return to the Title game the following year but lose to UCLA. Those two transcendent seasons would be the pinnacle of Razorback basketball and cement Richardson’s status as one of the most innovative and successful coaches in college basketball during the 90s.
The Razorbacks averaged an astounding 27 wins per season over the course of that decade, and of the 22 years that he coached Division 1 NCAA basketball, his teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament 16 times.
He was loud, verbose, and unapologetic; he wore garish ties; and his style didn’t sit well with a lot of folks in Arkansas. His own point guard, Beck, called him “probably the meanest guy I’d ever seen,” but in the same breath also refers to him as a father figure. Williamson described him in similar terms: “Every family’s gotta have a strong father figure, and that’s what he was.” This is the paradox of Nolan Richardson.
“He was like a cowboy from West Texas, breaking wild horses,” President Bill Clinton said of Richardson.
And he got results.
Defensively, Richardson engineered a swarming, unforgiving full-court trap that would give opposing teams nightmares and become the identity of Razorback basketball in the 1990s.
“Defense is strictly a no-cowards game,” Richardson says in the opening sequence of the documentary. “We’re gonna be on you, 40 minutes, 94 feet, constantly.”
The documentary goes on to call it a “beautiful system of anger, a fury fueled by pride.” Whatever you want to call it, it put the Razorbacks on the map.
Issues of race and segregation loomed large over Richardson during his formidable years in El Paso, Texas during the 1950s. As a player at Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso), Richardson was banned from playing in certain games.
But a new coach, future Hall of Famer Don Haskins, who for the first time in NCAA Tournament history famously started five black players in the 1966 National Championship game against the University of Kentucky, would be instrumental to Richardson’s career. Haskins’ story is documented in the autobiography Glory Road, which was later made into a movie by the same name.
For many years, Richardson worked his way up the coaching ranks from the junior high level, to high school, and eventually to the junior college level, where in 1980 his undefeated team (37-0) won a National Junior College Championship. To this day, Richardson is still the only coach to win a junior college, NIT, and NCAA championship.
But as his career was winding down after the turn of the millennium, his legacy became more complicated.
Accusations of racism – whether real or imagined – were at the core of Richardson’s infamous meltdown during a press conference following a loss to rival Kentucky in February of 2002.
“When I look at all of you people in this room, I see no one look like me, talk like me, or act like me,” Richardson said to a room full of reporters. “Do not call me ever on my phone, none of you, at my home, ever again… I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on. I know that. You know it. And people of my color know that… My great great grandfather came over on the ship. Not Nolan Richardson. I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit differently.”
Richardson would be fired by the end of the week.
He had alleged, on multiple occasions, that he was held to a different standard than Razorback football Coach Houston Nutt (who is white), but regardless, it’s difficult to reconcile these alleged mistreatments with the fact that Richardson was afforded so much autonomy over the course of his time at Arkansas.
In the documentary, University Chancellor John A. White speculated that Richardson had grown weary of the Sisyphean task of remaining competitive at the NCAA level. It was a sentiment that was echoed by chairman of the search committee Tommy Boyer at the time.
“Nolan has not been happy the last couple of years,” Boyer said. “It appeared to me that he seemed to be burned out and had lost some interest. You tend to lose interest in some things when you get older.”
It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when the accusations he levied against University officials, namely Athletic Director Frank Broyles, were vaguely spelled out at best.
As Richardson himself said, “Perception, remember, is the key to anything.”
The closest he came to publicly detailing these perceived offenses was during an HBO Real Sports interview with Bryant Gumbel in 2002, during which Richardson discusses a letter Broyles sent to him criticizing his performance as coach. The main issue seemed to be the poor timing of the memo, which Richardson said he received while his daughter Yvonne was battling leukemia.
“How could you write me a letter telling me all of the things that he expected of me when I’m tending to my kid?” Richardson said. “I’m struggling with my daughter, and there I was being degraded? And (Broyles) knew when I took the job that she was sick. And that just angered me so much. And the only reason he changed a little bit is because we were beginning to win.”
Yvonne passed away in 1987 at the age of 15, just two years after her initial diagnosis.
In 2002, Richardson filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the university that was eventually dismissed. The three university officials named in the suit were University President B. Alan Sugg, Chancellor John A. White, and Athletic Director Frank Broyles.
Since a contract buyout was part of his termination, Richardson was paid $500,000 annually for the next six years.
But the controversy didn’t stop there. A 2001 NCAA study found that between 1990 and 1994, 36 of the 323 Division I universities had a zero percent graduation rate for black basketball players. The University of Arkansas was among those schools. Richardson attempted to deflect the criticism at the time, but it is a dark spot on his resume that haunts his legacy to this day.
“I think the responsibility doesn’t necessarily rely all on the coach. Are you telling me that you can send me your kid who doesn’t want to go to school, but you brought him up here, and that it’s my responsibility to make him like it when you [failed to do so in high school]?
I think it’s the total responsibility of the coach to make everything possible. For example – mandatory study hall, we do that. Academic advisor – we got that. Tutors – we have that. You know, Old Granny would say you can take the mule to the water but he don’t have to drink.”
As a kid growing up in Arkansas, you live and breathe the Razorbacks, and Razorback hoops had a tremendous influence on the psyche of young basketball players and fans during the 1990s. “40 Minutes of Hell” wasn’t so much a strategy as it was a mindset or an attitude. High school and junior high teams across the state were replicating the full-court trap from the opening buzzer, and coaches in every town were mimicking Richardson’s trademark flair and fiery passion on the sidelines.
Richardson has more than earned his rightful place in the pantheon of all-time great college coaches, and above all, he should be remembered as by far the most successful coach in Arkansas basketball history.
The rest are just footnotes.
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