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Inside Nolan

Nolan Richardson reflects on the view from the top.

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Nolan Richardson image
  • Spencer Trey
  • COMPLEX EMOTIONS: For Richardson, a national championship does not erase decades of racial injustice.

The National Championship, coach of the year, critical praise — yes, 1994 has been a tough year for Nolan Richardson.

The head coach of the Razorback basketball team has tossed and turned through the long, dark night of the soul, moving to a state that resented him when his first team came up a loser, losing his daughter to leukemia, glowering as players, not he, got credit for the success of his teams. Well it's morning now, and the bad dreams are gone, but a fog still hangs over Richardson's mood.

Conventional thinking has it that NCAA champions go to Disney World, not mumble about respect. What more could a man want?

The answer, suggested in interviews with Nolan and his closest friends, is that he doesn't want anything for himself. He wants to rock the system. And so the occasional friction with fans who are merely satisfied with a winning basketball team.

Bear with Richardson, because now that he has a national platform, his lectures about racism, respect and opportunity are likely just beginning, not coming to an end. More than ever, it seems, fans are likely to learn that Richardson comes in more than one flavor.

"I think there are those who say he's our coach, and that ought to be the end of it," said Richardson, nestled in a leather couch before a November practice. "But I hope that I came here to be more than a basketball coach. I honestly feel that when I leave this world the Good Man up there isn't going to ask how many games I won. But he might ask I've loved my fellow man." And Richardson's way of proving that he cares is to see that fellow black coaches and players won't have to battle watered-down versions of the Jim Crow laws that kept him sleeping in the same hotel with the white players on his high school baseball team.

"People wonder because we won the national championship, does that mean everything is OK now?" says Richardson. "I think people think winning to me is the ultimate. You ought to be so happy, they say. It ain't that way with me. I've always believed I was going to win — doesn't my record say that about me? — so when I do prove that it can happen, am I going to jump all over the world? No. I'm as good as my last game, I know that. Within myself, I can enjoy winning a championship. But I'm not going to go crazy. There's other things that need to be accomplished."

Andy Stoglin, head basketball coach at Jackson (Mississippi) State University, friend and former Richardson assistant, sees this emotional restraint as a defense against getting too close to Arkansas and its people, in case his fortunes tum for the worse.

"Nolan loves Arkansas," Stoglin said. "He's bought land there, and is planning to retire there. But professionally, he feels that he has to have that hard shell, because it hurts more when you trust people and you get crossed.

"I remember once during his third year at Tulsa, after he won the NIT, people turned on him because he only won 17 games. Richardson is a very sensitive person that cares about people. He's just been beaten in the ground so long that he doesn't trust anybody.

"People need to know that he's been bruised," Stoglin says. "He's had to tum another cheek so many times that he is due some respect.They still disrespected him, in my opinion, the year before the championship, when he had one of his best coaching years but he could not get the coach of the year award, even in the conference...I was down for a month, and I know he was too."

Just Give Them a Chance

In his quest for equity, Richardson has attacked the NCAA's upwardly creeping educational standards for athletes, and its attempts to reduce the number of athletic scholarships handed out by schools. He loathes NCAA labels like "Prop. 48" — you might as well call a kid stupid, he says — and believes these changes will have a devastating effect on black college athletes.

I tell him that his attitude disturbs some Arkansans, who say that college is for learning and that any student who can't cut the mustard in high school shouldn't be taking away an opportunity from a better student just because he can play ball.

"That's bullshit what you just said," says Richardson, leaping from his sofa. He stands there, staring at me, as if I had just whistled him for a technical. He begins to pace the room, waving his arms in the air.

"Talk about people speaking with forked tongues. People talk about education, but 20,000 people show up at basketball games, and 90,000 go to football games. They are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

"If you want education, let' s do it." But, he says, don't base an athlete's ability to cope in college on an ACT score, or his high school grade-point average — let them prove themselves on campus, where it counts.

In Richardson's ideal compromise, young athletes with low or marginal academic credentials would study through their freshman year of college without so much as touching a ball. If they meet scholastic standards in that first year on campus, they would be allowed to play when they become sophomores.

"This way, you have given them the opportunity." Besides, he says, college athletics offer a special opportunity for transforming youngsters. "It's hard work, and it's all about attitude," says Richardson, "and how many classrooms have guys, black and white, jumping up and high-fiving, hugging and kissing. It shows you what life could be like."

Fluid Intelligence

By now, most people who know anything about basketball have given up the notion that Richardson is a poor coach. But the hallmarks of his coaching style remain hard to see with the untrained eye.

"I can't put my style on paper," says Richardson. "Mine is through intuition and feeling. You got to keep where that break point is. You got to know when the 'mo' is on your side." Richardson's is the invisible art. Asking him to explain it is like asking an archer how he hit a moving target, but people ask anyway because they need to label.

"The guys are ripping and running, and everything looks chaotic," he says. "My style is different because I let my kids make more decisions." This style did not come easy, as for years on the bench, Richardson constantly told himself to pull back, rein in the team. "My style of basketball is the hardest to coach," he said. "I call it freedom."

Think of it in terms of chess. If a player dominated national competition with something called the "Australian Gambit" or the "Sicilian Defense" he would be revered, imitated and called a master strategist. If another player played without strategy, attacking with abandon, confusing with a changing barrage of tactics and defense, and still managed to dominate play, he would be misunderstood, envied and then, maybe, reluctantly called a genius.

Stoglin first saw the gift in action when Richardson coached in the national junior college tournament and the two of them were preparing for new jobs in Tulsa.

"One night Nolan's team was behind, and he went down the bench and brought in a kid who turned the game around. It happened again and again, three nights in a row, but with different players each night, and each of them turned the game around. Later, I asked him how he knew who to bring in. He said: 'It's the way they look. I can see it int heir eyes — I want the guy who wants to be in the game.'

"It's his genius."

The Expectations Game

As Richardson found one way after another to win in the NCAA tournament last year, he knew he was creating a monster. Many Razorback fans will be disappointed with anything less than a second title, with one championship under the belt and core of the team returning.

Apparently, that doesn't bother the coach. "They aren't really asking us to do anything that we don't want to do," he says. "I've never shied away from this. You have to knock me off."

But fans should remember, he says, that the real goal is to be in position to win another championship, by having a solid season and earning a top seed to the tournament. After that, anything can happen.

Meanwhile, Richardson admits that repeats and three-peats in the college realm are not the only goals in his life.

"The only job I have left after this one is a professional job," he says. At frst he wasn't sure if he wanted to chance it — the NBA is strewn with the bodies of successful college coaches — but his aggravation with racial equity issues in college athletics has forced him to reconsider.

"With all the new rules, maybe it's best that I think about a change," he says. Some people, former Richardson players included, have suggested that his go-go style would not work in the grueling NBA, where players tend to pace themselves. Richardson disagrees. "I think my style would work because I play 10 or 11 players," he says. His current contract with the University of Arkansas expires in the year 2001, but contracts have been broken before.

"I appreciate the fact that they have the faith and the trust in me, and I'm not really thinking right now of an NBA movement," he says. But there it is nonetheless.

A Kinder, Gentler Nolan

Somewhere, lost in the tumult and occasional anger of the nine seasons Richardson has coached in Arkansas, is the humanitarian image he earned at Tulsa.

Ed Beshara Sr., a Tulsa clothier who became like a father to Richardson and remains one of his closest friends, says he is still the best loved coach in Tulsa history. "He is a delightful man," Beshara said. "He has so much good in him. When he came to Tulsa, he did everything for the community. He went to churches, he went to high schools. One guy here at the Tulsa Tribune wrote bad about him, and he was fired two days later."

"I know a lot of people got down on him for the way he talked at the tournament, but they've got to know Nolan Richardson...all he was thinking about was he didn't want the young black people to come up through their life like he did."

Although Richardson' s charity has quietly continued in Fayetteville, his public image has, on occasion been more reminiscent of Oscar the Grouch than Santa Claus.

The final game of the NCAA tournament against Duke proved something about Richardson's heart. In the quintessential big moment for a college basketball coach, standing toe-to-toe with one of the finest college basketball coaches in America, Richardson inserted Ken Biley, a senior player who had only enjoyed limiting playing time throughout his career, into the starting lineup.

He did it purely because it would mean so much to Biley and his family, and because Biley had persevered for four years. "For the rest of his life," Richardson says," he can always look back and say, 'let me tell you something kids, you grandaddy started in the national championship game.'"

A little emotional, Richardson leans over and drives home his point. "Don't ever forget that I'm in this business to create opportunity."

Nolan on:

Arkansas fans: "It seems to me that they are very happy, and that's very important to me. The people of this state have been very good to me. There is no question that I fell in love with this state. This is my 10th year, and we are more Arkansan than anything else now."

Talented players: "I didn't have the players that they think I had. My system made it work. When I look at the guys we recruited, players who weren't highly sought like Corey Beck, Oliver Miller and Dwight Stewart, I think the credit should be given to the coaching staff."

Democrat-Gazette columnists John Robert Starr and Wally Hall: "Anytime you have a columnist writing about an individual, there are a lot of people who don't know that's not gospel. A lot of us believe everything we read, instead of considering the source. That's the power of the pen. I really don't have anything to say to them. Their job is to sell newspapers, whether it's true or not. When I first came here I read everything, and I would come to work angry every day, so we stopped the newspapers."

The improvement of his teams: "It's the same thing I've been doing, and the piece fell in the right places. Shots went in, kids made the right moves."

Sportsmanship: "At the Georgetown game (in the NCAA tournament) I was so disappointed when their kid and McDaniel got in that fight. McDaniel, he got up kicking, scratching, biting, but where he came from that's all he knows to do. He said the guy insulted his manhood. That wasn't about his manhood. To me, that was the worst example of sportsmanship on the part of both individuals I have ever seen."

Walking out of the Texas game: "I was so angry then that I could have gotten us a technical and lost the game. Lee Mayberry got an intentional foul, and he may be the nicest kid in America. I'm way more mellow now. I think I had only one technical all last year. Maybe two.

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