For the longest, Nolan Richardson's critics conceded only that he could recruit and motivate. It took the 1992-93 season for all but the most virulent diehards to burn the final bridge and say, "Yeah, that's coaching, all right."
A small, inexperienced, overachieving University of Arkansas basketball team, not seriously considered national caliber when the season started, fought to the NCAA round of 16 before losing narrowly to eventual national champion North Carolina.
This was not Richardson's strongest team, but in many ways it was his most important. It sends the coach and the program into a new 18,000- seat arena at an all-time peak of popularity and interest.
"If the next few years get any better, I can't stand it," Richardson said. "But I do expect things to keep getting better all the time."
As one of the pioneer black head coaches in this region, and as a fast-pace exponent flopping initially in a state educated to a different approach, Richardson was second-guessed to an unprecedented extent — until last winter.
"Some things are unfair, and I've been through all that, but you expect fans to have high expectations," he said. "The worst thing would be if they didn't care."
Most of a recent interview concerned the circumstances that led him from Tulsa University into the blaze of Arkansas expectations eight years ago.
The NCAA tournament pairings are announced in annual Sunday afternoon TV rituals. On that Sunday in 1985, Richardson's Tulsa team was matched with the coach's alma mater, Texas-El Paso. The next day, the Richardsons heard a diagnosis of leukemia for their teen-aged daughter Yvonne. "She'd been tired all the time — no energy — for several weeks," Richardson said. "We thought it was probably 'mono.' I wasn't really with the team, getting ready for the tournament. [UTEP shot 55 free throws and won.] And that was our situation at the time we heard that Eddie Sutton was leaving Arkansas for Kentucky. I assumed [Arkansas] would go after another coach who played the Sutton style, the Iba style. It never crossed my mind they'd be interested in me."
Sure enough, UA athletic director Frank Broyles first checked out Bob Donewald, then of Illinois State, who coached the patient, disciplined system.
"Bob and Nolan had pretty much dominated the Missouri Valley Conference between them for a few years," said Tulsa World sports editor Bill Conners. "Like, one would win the round robin and the other the conference tournament and so forth. They had some classic -games with each other. Good basketball, contrasting styles."
Conners, in 1974, had helped steer Broyles to Sutton, then a rising young coach at Creighton University. The day after Sutton resigned in '85, Broyles called Conners in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Conners, was covering spring training baseball.
"Frank seemed very interested in Donewald, and he also talked about Nolan," Conners said Monday. "Tulsa basketball was better under Nolan than it had been before or has been since, but I had the impression Arkansas was looking for a coach to continue Eddie's system at that point."
In the next week so, Donewald and a few other real or rumored candidates faded and Broyles was talking in earnest to Richardson. And Nolan's first inclination was to tum it down.
"We were very happy at Tulsa," he said. "I felt like we had built something up and had it going good. When I got there, the TV program was $3,000, for example. Yvonne and Rose talked me into going to Arkansas. They said, 'you've got to,' and they were right. It was that kind of a career opportunity."
He inherited 13 players recruited by Sutton. The prevailing view was that he was taking over a fine young squad ready to go on winning at the accustomed Arkansas rate. Opposing coaches knew better. One of them, speaking off the record a few days after Richardson was hired, noted that departing seniors Joe Kleine and Charles Balentine "happen to be the two guys who scored all their points."
The anonymous coach also compared the Arkansas players to "people trained for the Navy who all of a sudden find themselves in the infantry."
"For the most part, they were good kids and good athletic kids," Richardson says of his first Arkansas team, which went 12-16. "We couldn't make it fit together that year, couldn't get anything going. I was a guy who hated to answer the phone, and one day I got the call I didn't want. The doctor told me Yvonne was out of remission."
Richardson's daughter died in January of 1987, in the middle of his second Arkansas season. Assistant coach Andy Stoglin often had to conduct practice, and sometimes take over for a game during the terminal weeks of Yvonne's illness. Did Richardson ever consider asking for a leave of absence?
"Coach Broyles raised that possibility with me through a third party, but Yvonne talked me out of it. I think she understood that it was better for me to be with the team and be forced to try to think about basketball some of the time than to sit in the hospital all the time and go crazy."
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
The 1986-87 Hogs finished 19-14, but Texas Tech knocked them out of the Southwest Conference tournament as the first order of business in Reunion Arena, and several thousand Arkansas fans were stuck in Dallas with nothing much to do that weekend except tell each other that Nolan would probably be canned by Sunday night.
Instead, Sunday night brought an NIT bid, the booby prize of post-season basketball, and the opponent would be Arkansas State, a would-be rival that UA athletic policy-makers had shunned for decades.
After appearing hopelessly beaten in mid-game, Arkansas rallied and won 67-64 in overtime at Fayetteville. Most Arkansans are convinced that Richardson's job was on the line that night against ASU. The coach was informed otherwise in advance.
"I got a call early that afternoon that [UA president] Ray Thornton, [chancellor] Dan Ferritor and Broyles wanted to come over and visit with me a few minutes," Richardson said recently. "Thornton did most of the talking. He told me straight-out that I'd still be the Razorback coach after the Arkansas State game, no matter if we won or lost. I really appreciated that at the time and still do, but to tell you the truth, I hadn't been worrying about losing my job."
In the summer of 1989, coming off his first Southwest Conference championship with Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller about to be sophomores, Richardson was courted for an Ohio State vacancy. The alarm that spread among Arkansas fans surprised and touched Nolan and his wife, and was a definite factor in their decision to stay. The Razorbacks went to the NCAA Final Four the next spring and the rest is history — at any rate, part of history still in the making.
The rest of it will be waged in Bud Walton Arena, a palace that Nolan's teams made necessary and Walton's money made feasible, sometimes called the Bud Bowl.
"Don't call it that," Richardson said. "Call it Bud's place. Bud Bowl is a beer thing on TV."
"When your first two teams were struggling," an interviewer said to him two weeks ago, "I kept looking back at your junior college records [including a national championship] and your Tulsa records, and wondered what was going on."
"I looked back a few times myself," Richardson said, "and asked the same thing."