How John Thompson and Nolan Richardson broke through the championship color barrier

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Richardson-Thompson split
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John Thompson (R) became the first black coach to win an NCAA title 30 years ago. Ten years later, Nolan Richardson got one of his own.

During his third season at Georgetown, John Thompson looked up into the stands right before tipoff of a 1975 game in tiny McDonough Gym and saw a bedsheet unfurled with this written on it: "Thompson the n----- flop must go."

Nine years later, his Hoyas won the national title.

During his first year at Arkansas, in 1985-86, Nolan Richardson had a daughter stricken with leukemia and a team with a losing record. Someone added to the misery by issuing a bomb threat on his home.

Nine years later, his Razorbacks won the national title.

Epithets and threats would deter neither man.

Thirty years ago, John Thompson became the first African-American basketball coach to win a national championship. Twenty years ago, Nolan Richardson became the second. As we head into March Madness in a far different time, those are anniversaries worth remembering and respecting.

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Both men had to persevere through racial hatred that accompanied their early on-court struggles, but they were perfectly suited for that part of the job. They were too stubborn, too prideful and too tough to back down in the face of racism – if anything, it made them better. They were angry enough to fight back against doubters and detractors. They were defiant enough to play a brand of basketball that deviated from mainstream coaching doctrine – confrontational styles that thrived on intimidation and ferocity.

They had the sheer force of personality to break through institutional reticence – and in some cases outright resistance – and break up the white man's coaching club. And they didn't particularly care who they made uncomfortable along the way.

They weren't there to go along and get along. They weren't there to play nice. They were there to win.

"What you saw in those two guys is based on authenticity," said Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby, the former head coach at Harvard and a former director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "What you saw is what you got. They were proud black men. Our society has gotten more comfortable with that, but that's because of guys like John and Nolan. It's because of Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali … who weren't afraid to voice their opinion and live their lives a certain way. If some of those guys had what people consider a chip on their shoulder? Well, I can understand where it came from."

"I think they probably, as African-American coaches early on, saw things the current African-American coach doesn't see," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who had memorable battles with Thompson while he was at Providence and with Richardson while he was at Kentucky. "They were pioneers in the industry. They set the stage for a lot of other coaches to have a nice path."

* * * * * * * * * *

While discussing his own exploits, the pioneer was getting increasingly agitated.

John Thompson was in a car on the Jersey Turnpike, headed to New York City to watch Georgetown – coached by his son, John III – play in this week's Big East tournament. Big John had to be cajoled into returning calls for this story, and as the questions zeroed in on himself, his bristly nature surfaced.

"I'm glad, personally, we were able to win," he said. "African-Americans weren't getting a lot of opportunities, particularly at upper-level D-I schools. If one person could do it, it lets people like him believe they can do it. I had an awful lot of coaches come up to me and say, 'Thank you.'

"But I resent the notion that I was the first who was capable of it. That is a lie. To say I was the first one capable is an absolute lie. There were far better coaches than me who never got the chance to coach at that level."

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At that, Thompson was off and running about Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who won 828 games and an NCAA Division II national championship in 47 seasons at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black school. And his authoritarian, baritone voice hardened further when discussing John McLendon, who coached at four HBCUs before moving to Division II Cleveland State in 1966 – thus becoming the first black coach at a predominantly white university.

"Coach McLendon won the championships they allowed him to participate in," Thompson said.

After McLendon opened the door to a black man coaching at a "white" school in '66, Will Robinson became the first to do so at a Division I school, Illinois State, a year later. Thompson was among the next group of groundbreaking coaches.

A successful high-school coach in Washington, D.C., the 29-year-old Thompson was hired at Georgetown in 1972 – the same year George Raveling took over at Washington State and Fred Snowden at Arizona. But the Georgetown of that time was nothing like it would become – the Hoyas had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1943, were playing modest schedules and were coming off a 3-23 season. Of the very few Division I jobs available to black coaches, none was a garden spot.

Thompson immediately upgraded Georgetown to competitive, going 12-14 and 13-13 his first two seasons. But when a promising third season lurched out to an 8-8 start, fan dissatisfaction began to percolate. And on Feb. 5, 1975, before tipoff against Dickinson, the infamous banner made its appearance.

The Hoyas won the game 102-60, but Thompson went into his office and did not meet with the media afterward.

"People who do things like that are looking for attention," he said. "All it does is hurt your program. Why give attention to something like that?"

But shock waves reverberated across campus and around the city, and the next day his players held a news conference. Freshman Felix Yeoman, who had played for Thompson in high school, held up the banner for reporters to see.

"The sign was a personal affront to every man on this team—white and black," Yeoman told the media.

But it also became a rallying point. That marked the moment when Georgetown basketball took off.

The Hoyas won nine of their next 10 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament. They played in the NIT or NCAAs every year thereafter under Thompson.

Still, the gap between very good and great was not closed until 1981, when Patrick Ewing arrived as the most celebrated recruit in the country. The Georgetown program took off – reaching three Final Fours and winning that '84 national title – while becoming a cultural lightning rod in the process.

Thompson is a learned and articulate man who is passionate about giving educational opportunities to the underprivileged. But that side of him often was submerged beneath a simmering surliness.

Already as secretive as he was combative, Thompson's protectiveness of Ewing – a withdrawn kid from Jamaica by way of Boston – helped earn the program the "Hoya Paranoia" tag. With the 6-foot-10 coach glowering from the sidelines, white towel scarcely concealing the huge chip on his shoulder, the virtually all-black Hoyas became antiheroes to many. Thompson made enemies in the media and on the court, where the Hoyas developed a physical, defense-obsessed style that was widely labeled thuggish – elbows were always up, and fists occasionally were cocked as well.

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After enforcer Michael Graham – whose shaved head was considered highly intimidating 30 years ago – took a swing at a Syracuse player during the '84 Big East tournament, the backlash over the Hoyas' style boiled over. And race inevitably became part of the debate.

Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick chalked up the Graham swing as "the inevitable result of the preposterous paramilitary atmosphere surrounding the team … and fostered by the insecurities and philosophies of Thompson. … Thompson has long wielded his race like a baseball bat. When The Boston Globe's Michael Madden wrote that Georgetown basketball was 'sick, paranoid and petty, pompous and arrogant,' Thompson replied that 'Black people have spent their entire lives trying to justify their actions to biased minds. I won't spend one more second.'"

But while one segment of American society wrung its hands over the Hoyas, another one opened its arms in embrace. Georgetown became arguably the first American sports program with street cred.

Just as hip-hop's influence was exploding, here came the rise of basketball shoes and jerseys as fashion wear. The Hoyas were outfitted with trend-setting looks by Nike, and the talented and tough athletes wearing the gear became urban fashion plates. With a strong and principled African-American leader in Thompson, Georgetown became the It Program in black culture. Ewing was followed by a succession of superstar recruits: Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, Othella Harrington.

"I was a kid in the '80s," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, "but I remember the notion that if you were a high-level player from a family that really valued a black identity, going to play for John Thompson was the thing to do."

But it wasn't just the players who were inspired by what Big John was doing at the elite Jesuit school in D.C. It was an entire generation of young black coaches rooting for the Hoyas, too.

Roby was one of them, a young assistant coach who attended the 1984 Final Four in Seattle. Nothing against Phi Slama Jama Houston, a tremendously talented and exciting team in its own right, but he was rooting for Thompson and Georgetown that night.

"That was big," Roby recalled. "I can remember a lot of us younger black assistants were really excited for each other and for what it represented. It sent a powerful message about what can be accomplished if people are given an opportunity. It was a seminal moment."

* * * * * * * * * *

The day before his team played Duke for the 1994 national championship, Nolan Richardson's voice boomed angrily from the podium in the Charlotte Coliseum.

"I got here late," he snarled, and the Arkansas coach was not talking about that day's schedule.

He was talking about a career arc that wound through high school and junior college before finally reaching Tulsa University, and from there the move to Arkansas. He was talking about the twisted path to success a black man walked in the South in the 1950s and '60s.

"I wasn't born with a silver spoon," Richardson thundered. "I coached in high school for 13 years, junior high, junior college, major college. I paid all my dues, every one of them."

In a setting where coaches traditionally transmit self-effacing messages of gratitude for being on the cusp of a career highlight, Richardson struck a very different tone. Many media members in attendance were puzzled and put off by the perceived bitterness.

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But for Richardson, this was just the continuation of an every-day battle to prove himself, over and over, to those who did not want to accept his proof. The jobs he didn't get, the respect he was not accorded, the indignities great and small – they were never forgotten, roiling around inside just beneath the surface. In a "This Is Your Life" setting like the Final Four, of course they were going to come spilling out.

"I was not a rich boy who hadn't made a dime but his daddy has," Richardson said recently, thinking back to that Sunday in Charlotte 20 years ago. "I had to outrun the guy in front of me, outwork the guy in front of me. Those were the things that motivated me."

The outrunning and outworking began in earnest at Bowie High School in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where Richardson was the first black coach. He had a team of Mexican-Americans who were all shorter than 6 feet, so he instilled a frenzied style of play that would take advantage of the few physical gifts they had.

"They ran you and ran you and ran you," he said. "I took the toughness of Mr. [Henry] Iba's defense with the little kids at Bowie and played with three-quarter-court pressure. They would bite you, scratch you. It was no picnic playing the Bowie Bears."

The kids called themselves "Las Rabias" – Spanish for rabies. They played like a pack of rabid dogs. It was the precursor of what would famously be called "40 Minutes of Hell."

Richardson won big at Bowie High, and at every subsequent stop. He went 37-0 and won a junior-college national championship. He won the NIT at Tulsa, when winning the NIT was a far bigger deal. And then he got the job at Arkansas, after Eddie Sutton left for Kentucky.

Sutton was popular, having taken the Razorbacks to the Final Four in 1978 and developed a consistent winner with a deliberate, half-court style. Richardson and his frantic tempo were far less proven, having never won an NCAA tournament game – and having pigmentation was problematic to some.

"The first three years, they didn't want me there," Richardson said. "The president wanted me, but the rest of them didn't. I took the abuse."

Compounding the stress exponentially was the leukemia attacking his 13-year-old daughter, Yvonne. She would die at age 15.

"It was horrible," Richardson said, pain evident in his voice even now. "I took a sick girl with leukemia to Arkansas. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have done it. I was so trying to do the right thing for her, and I had a bad team. Nothing has ever been harder.

"I go back to those days and I just cringe. I ask my wife, 'How did we do it?' She says, 'I don't know.' "

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Some of the fans were wonderfully supportive. But not all of them. There was the bomb threat, and plenty of other hatred to deal with.

"I think about it today and I get pissed off," Richardson said. "I get angry."

In 2014, that late-1980s anger remains readily accessible. The old coach acknowledges it as both virtue and vice.

"I am who I am," he said. "Sometimes it helps and sometimes it may be the thing that destroys you. I have to live with that."

It helped get Arkansas to the 1990 Final Four, the year when Richardson fully won over the fan base. And it helped the Razorbacks move from the Southwest Conference into the SEC with roaring momentum, ready to challenge Kentucky's age-old dominance in the league.

The Richardson-Pitino rivalry was immediate and compelling, a matchup of swaggering styles and deep talent pools. From 1992-95, this was probably as good as basketball has ever been in the bedrock football conference.

Of course, Richardson had rabbit ears for the different terminology used to describe two comparable running, pressing styles.

"When I do it, it's street ball," Richardson said at the time. "When Rick does it, it's up-tempo."

By 1994, Arkansas' confrontational defensive style was overpowering by any name. That team, led by power forward Corliss Williamson, blazed through the regular season with just two losses. An upset loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament did not dampen expectations for the NCAAs, where there was pressure for Richardson to take the Hogs all the way.

They handled the pressure, right up to that title-game matchup with Duke. The glamour boys who had won it all in 1991 and '92, and their exalted coach, Mike Krzyzewski, were the ideal opponent.

"That was wonderful," Richardson said. "I remember how everyone, the ESPN analysts, were saying the smarter team would win. I was saying, 'Hey, we're not that damn dumb.'

"But Duke's smart, Krzyzewski writes books. I'm an outlaw. But I'm here, and you're going to have to put up with that.

"When you beat those guys, that's the one they'll talk about. You win at Ole Miss, it doesn't mean [expletive]."

Arkansas won against Duke – playing a smart, clutch game to pull out the 76-72 victory. Ten years after John Thompson broke the championship color barrier, Nolan Richardson made sure it stayed busted.

Four years after that, Tubby Smith became the third – and last – black coach to win a title. He did it at a blueblood, Kentucky, after having been an assistant at the school previously. And he did it without the angry edge of Richardson and Thompson.

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Since then, two other black coaches have taken a team to the title game – Mike Davis and Indiana in 2002, Paul Hewitt and Georgia Tech in '04. But neither cut down the nets.

So it's been awhile, and the edges have softened on the most prominent black coaches in the game. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe not. And maybe it's because of the cutting edge necessary for John Thompson and Nolan Richardson to blaze the trail for those who came after.

"You need to have a certain type of makeup," said Roby, "to go where no one has gone before."

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