Nolan Richardson, A Gentleman Basketball Pioneer – Pt. 1
[I have to thank Rashad Mobley. He was the originator of ‘Hey, Nolan Richardson is coming to town,’ idea, which so happened to be the same night President Obama decided to head down the street to the Verizon Center for a Washington Mystics game against the Tulsa Shock. Rashad tackled the evening in the midst of the President and let me cover Coach Richardson, who was kind enough to speak with me for a considerable amount of time after the game. Thus, part one of my piece is below, and part two will follow.]
Nolan Richardson coached his final game as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks on February 27, 2002, an 89-83 loss to Mississippi State on the Bulldogs’ home court. It was a night where 35 points on an efficient 10-18 FGs (7-12 3PT) from Arkansas’ Jannero Pargo couldn’t overcome the efforts of Mississippi State’s Mario Austin and Derrick Zimmerman. In my days working with the men’s basketball team in Starkville, Mississippi, I witnessed Richardson solemnly walk off the court that night and knew it would be the last game he coached for the Razorbacks. It was the end of an era. Flash-forward to almost eight and a half years later …
Now Richardson is much grayer. He’s more calculated and comfortable than my memories of watching him patrol the Southeastern Conference sidelines. But he still has the zest, backed by the experience of a ring he wears representing each of the JUCO, NIT & NCAA national championships he has won as a coach (he’s still the only one to do so). In the coach’s box of the WNBA, the 68-year old clearly gets joy from instruction and spry interactions with the referees, on top of relishing his foray into women’s basketball. I should know, I was afforded the opportunity to sit on press row, mere feet from Richardson as his Tulsa Shock were in the District of Columbia to take on the Washington Mystics on the first Sunday of August, with President Barack Obama in attendance no less.
Richardson said he was excited to see the surprise appearance of President Obama, which was chronicled by my colleague Rashad Mobley, and proud to see the President supporting women’s professional basketball, but the coach said he’s been there before, at least four times. Past President Bill Clinton attended countless Arkansas games and cheered himself to the cover of Sports Illustrated when both he was in his political prime and Richardson was at his coaching apex. ‘Woooo, Pig, Sooey!’ was the Razorback chant all the way to the 1994 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.
At every stop along the way, Richardson has had to surpass racial discrimination, and has served as a pioneering figure for blacks in college basketball and beyond. The Basketball Hall of Famer really needs no further introduction, but I’ll try anyway.
You might know about Richardson’s rise in Texas and Oklahoma, playing under the late Don Haskins at Texas Western (now UTEP), but leaving in 1964 before the famed ‘Glory Road’ championship in 1966. As a coach, Richardson won a National Junior College Championship at West Texas Junior College in 1980 and an NIT Championship at the University of Tulsa in 1981, leaving an imprint on the surrounding city where he also has family.
Most of what you know about Richardson comes from his time in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The “40 Minutes of Hell,” battles with Duke and a title over the Blue Devils in 1994. Richardson took the Razorbacks to 13 NCAA tournaments and two NITs in his 17 years as head coach; three Final Fours and six Sweet Sixteens in seven years from 1990-96. He was legendary, until one famous meltdown, after which, he simply became a legend.
Prior to that winter mid-week evening when I saw Richardson coach his last collegiate game, his Razorbacks lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, dropping their record to 13-13. Arkansas fans were growing impatient and frustrated, raising the stress level surrounding the program, which was compounded by a reportedly cold relationship between Richardson and the school’s athletic director, Frank Broyles. The coach outburst to the media with indictments of racism, upon the school’s administration and the city of Fayetteville (certain members of the local media often approached Richardson, and the manner in which he ran his team, with unfair, racist criticism).
In his tirade, Richardson also revealed that the university wanted to buy out the six years remaining on a 7-year, $7 million contract. The school also made public concerns about his low graduation rates, which, with today’s APR (academic progress rate) measurement in college athletics, would have become a more glaring issue for Richardson. Today, the Arkansas men’s basketball program struggles with its APR.
Unjust or not, Richardson knew Arkansas wanted to get rid of him and refused to neither resign, nor go quietly. He soon-after apologized for his comments, but the school already had its finger on the trigger. The coach didn’t make it back from Starkville for senior night in Fayetteville before he was fired. Assistant coach Mike Anderson (currently the head coach at Missouri) took over as interim head coach and needless to say, Arkansas missed the post-season for the first time since Richardson’s first year at the helm, ending a 15-year run.
Bitterness ensued between the two sides, mostly Broyles and Richardson, in a racially charged lawsuit which was eventually dismissed by a judge in 2004. Richardson didn’t return to a game on Arkansas’ campus until March 2009 when he was honored in celebration of the 15-year anniversary of the 1994 championship team.
After the firing, Richardson did basketball-related consulting work, clinics, television and radio … anything to keep him close to the game, and paid. A couple schools called, Oregon State and UTEP, his alma mater, but concerns arose over his pending civil suit against Arkansas, and from Richardson, the timing of payments on a $3 million firing settlement with Arkansas ending if he took another college job. Aided by the Spanish he learned from his days growing up in El Segundo, El Paso, Texas, Richardson served a couple stints as head coach of Panama’s national team and one leading Mexico’s national team in 2007. Arkansas State called in 2008, but for whatever reason, nothing developed.
In October 2009 Richardson was coaxed out of retirement to aid in acquiring and transitioning the WNBA’s Detroit Shock to Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city where he has roots and connections. Richardson said he owed it to his family and those who backed him when he coached at the University of Tulsa from 1980 to 1985. In his first season leading the Golden Hurricanes they won the ’81 NIT championship. Richardson guided the school to three NCAA Tournaments during his tenure; Tulsa only had one NCAA appearance (1955) prior to his arrival.
“I wasn’t sure I could transpose myself over to the female game because I’d never coached women before. But because of the love of the game, I decided I’d take my chances and see if I can’t build a program, a WNBA squad in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Richardson told me after his Shock lost to the Mystics 87-62.
The transition is still a work in progress. Tulsa currently stands at a league-worst 5-28 heading into their last game of the season at home against the Chicago Sky on Saturday.
“Expansion? I think we’re below an expansion team,” the first year coach said. And he would be pretty much right. When the Shock moved from Detroit to Tulsa, they lost several of their players, and trades have caused even more turnover. Richardson said that only four players who were in training camp still remain with the team.
“On every team there’s at least three players who have a chance of being all-star. We don’t have those kind of players on our team yet. But we’ve got to take what we’ve got and hopefully make them into all stars.”