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Coaches: In black and white

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In cases involving employment discrimination, it is my job to prove that my client was treated less favorably than similarly situated white employees, when the person was either terminated or denied a promotion to a particular position. The law defines disparate treatment as when an employer treats some people less favorably than others because of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When one compares the treatment by the University of Arkansas of Houston Dale Nutt to that of Nolan Richardson, it is easy to conclude that these two coaches were treated differently, on account of their race.

According to Stanley Reed, chairman of the Board of Trustees for the University of Arkansas, the public had lost confidence in Coach Nutt's ability to lead the Razorbacks. It was widely reported in the newspapers, and on talk radio, that Coach Nutt had caused the Razorback nation to be divided. Gus Malzahn's departure, due in part to Coach Nutt's alleged mistreatment, as well as the departure of Mitch Mustain, Damien Williams and others, caused great discontent among the Razorback faithful. There were FOI requests flying, in addition to banners. It is no doubt that due to Coach Nutt's on-field and off-field activities, the majority of the people no longer wanted him. Nevertheless, Chairman Reed stated that the U of A did not want to fire Coach Nutt, because “it would look bad.”

During the press conference announcing Coach Nutt's resignation, Chancellor John White stated that the university wanted to remove the “golden handcuffs” from Coach Nutt. Chancellor White stated that due to Coach Nutt's great service to the university, White would encourage the Razorback Foundation to pay Coach Nutt money (over $3 million) that it really did not have to pay him, due to the fact that he was resigning. Coach Nutt apparently is walking away with close to $3.2 million, and he is free to take another coaching job (which he has), even in the SEC (which he did), without the risk of losing any money. When many fans were expressing their discontent with Coach Nutt, the university circled its wagons around the coach, standing firmly by his side. Chairman Reed stated, “It gets to the point of fairness and equity. We did not want to fire Houston Nutt. He had done a great job at the University of Arkansas… .” In Coach Nutt's 10 years at the U of A, he produced an overall record of 75-48 (61 percent) and a conference record of 42-40 (51 percent). Coach Nutt won one division championship and two co-division championships, but no overall SEC championship, and certainly no national championship.

Coach Nolan Richardson was terminated from the U of A when he made the following statement at a press conference following the Kentucky game: “If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow” — which, by the way, is exactly what the U of A did for Houston. Coach Richardson was terminated in part because the U of A said that his statement caused people to lose confidence and support for the basketball program, and would cause a negative impact on recruiting. Coach Richardson was not allowed to resign from the U of A, but instead was terminated. The “golden handcuffs” were not removed from Richardson, because if he got another coaching job, he would have been severely penalized from a monetary standpoint, unlike Nutt.

Comparing the conduct of Nutt versus Richardson, one can easily see that Nutt's conduct, both off the field and on the field, did more damage to the university and state, than the statement(s) attributable to Richardson. As a result of the controversy surrounding Nutt, players and a coach left, and highly touted recruits chose not to attend the U of A, yet White and Frank Broyles stood by their man. On the other hand, the U of A cannot point to a single player who left the basketball program or to one recruit who chose not to come to the U of A on account of Richardson's conduct.

Again, according to Reed, the university did not want to fire Nutt, because it would “look bad,” and it would not have been “fair or equitable.” However, Reed and the university did not have any problems firing an African-American coach who had an overall winning percentage of 70 percent; who won the overall SWC and SEC championships; who took a team to the NCAA Final Four three times out of six appearances; who won the school's only national championship in either basketball or football, and whose team was runner-up to the national champions the following year. When it came time to fire an African-American coach, the university did not concern itself with appearance, fairness or equity, proving that race of the coach makes a difference in how they are treated at the U of A.

Austin Porter is a Little Rock lawyer.

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