In light of yesterday's ESPN's column by Alan Grant titled "Nolan Deserved Better," J.R. and Henry
, our blogging sports columnists here at Little Rocking ask a pertinent question:
Did Nolan Deserve Better?
With very little fanfare last week, what might have been the lon
gest termination in the history of college basketball came to an end when the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision finding that former University of Arkansas Basketball Coach Nolan Richardson was not a fired because of his race or in violation of his First Amendment rights. While avenues of appeal are still available, it appears that Richardson’s hope for a legal victory against his former employer are over.
It really shouldn’t have ended this way. When Nolan came to Arkansas, he was already a success, having coached his junior college team to a national championship, and then guiding Tulsa to NCAA appearances and an NIT championship. After a losing record his first year, Nolan took Arkansas basketball quickly to a level never before seen. His first Final Four came in 1990, just his fourth year, and he won a national championship in 1994. In doing so, he made Arkansas basketball a name nationally.
Not only did Nolan’s teams win, they won with style and attitude. They were fun to watch: 40 minutes of Hell. Telling off Billy Packer. Corey Beck in the middle of Rupp Arena waving his hands to the silent blue-blood crowd. Yeah, Arkansas basketball was truly an event back then.
So what happened? And did Nolan deserve to be fired?
Unfortunately, yes. Any follower of Arkansas basketball could see that Nolan gave up on the program in the late 1990s. His recruiting, once perhaps his strong suit, was abysmal, and he stopped trying to make it better. The program was very simply in steady decline. It was sad to come to the realization that this championship caliber coach who had given us so many memories and so much pride, had become nothing more than the yesterday’s news leader of an also-ran team.
Toward the end, when Nolan talked, it hurt. It was reminiscent of your favorite ball player who retired two years too late. Or a boxer who fought one too many fights. It’s always like that when your heroes turn out to be human. Nolan didn’t want to quit, even though it was clear he no longer wanted the job.
But what may be the saddest thing of all in the Nolan Richardson saga, is that his premature burnout was aided and abetted by an athletic department that played favorites then and continues to do so now. Nolan was right when he said this: “Because 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.”
In 16 years, Richardson won a national championship, went to three final fours, won five outright conference titles, four conference tournament titles, made the NCAA tournament 12 times, and had only two losing seasons, his first and his last. Even though the program was not as successful his last eight years, Nolan’s teams still made the NCAA tournament in six of those years. Arkansas was ranked in the final Top 25 in 11 of Nolan’s 16 years. He created and presided over a national program at Arkansas.
Meanwhile, Arkansas head football coach Houston Nutt, who captured lightning in a bottle in 1998 in his first season, after succeeding Danny Ford, and seems to still be living off the glory, is entering his ninth year at the helm of his program. In that time, Nutt has won no national titles, captured no SEC titles, participated in no BCS bowls, has led his team to only two Top 25 finishes in eight years, and has an overall losing conference record. He last two teams finished 5-6 and 4-7. After his most recent losing season, Nutt was rewarded with another contract extension.
Nolan said the obvious disparity in treatment was due to race. We don’t want to believe that. We want to believe that it was simply because Nolan had a big ego and spoke his mind -- traits shared by his athletic director boss. The two men clearly didn’t get along, and when you talk bad about your boss in a public way it’s usually firing time.
But things continue to happen on the Hill that make us wonder. This past football season, after Nutt’s Arkansas team lost by 53 points to USC and to Vanderbilt at home in back-to-back weeks, Broyles made a public stand for his coach. “Houston’s the man for the job,” Broyles said on Sept. 20, 2005. “There isn’t any doubt in my mind.”
Compare that to this past basketball season when Arkansas had just lost in the second round of the SEC tournament and Broyles was asked by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Scott Cain to comment on a story he was writing about the steady improvement displayed by Coach Stan Heath’s basketball program. According to the article published March 9, “Athletic Director Frank Broyles declined to comment for this story because his policy is to wait until after the season to talk publicly about his evaluation of a program, win or lose.”
Either that policy started after the 2005 football season, or it just doesn’t apply to Houston Nutt.
After the 2005 basketball season, another improved season for Heath, Broyles sent Heath a questionnaire and suggestions concerning the program. No similar questionnaire has ever been given Nutt, at least not one that's been reported.
Also after the 2005 season, Broyles publicly announced that he had suggested to Heath that he make staff changes and that a more experienced coach be brought in.
But after Nutt’s second losing season in a row, Broyles sang a different tune regarding his input on staff changes. “I don't go into meetings,” Broyles said. “I've never been on the practice field. That's his call. He's with them every day. If there needs to be [changes], he will [make changes]. He's in discussions with his staff right now.”
We’re not naïve enough to think that Broyles didn’t suggest staff changes to Houston Nutt. But we also know that the way he’s publicly treating Nutt and Heath is very clearly different.
There’s no way to know the motive behind the disparity in treatment. But it exists, and for the good of the program, the university, the fans, and the state, it needs to change.
J.R. and Henry write a sports column that appears on this blog twice a week.