Applause needed for trailblazer Richardson

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Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel

America loves a pioneer, especially the ones with bulldog attitudes who break down elitist barriers.

Well, actually, America loves these people in the movies. That's where their message can be perfectly framed, when their flaws can be ignored or explained and where soaring music can lift us along in agreement that the end justified the means.

There are no movies about Nolan Richardson. So this undeniable pioneer of a college basketball coach remains overlooked, nitpicked and misunderstood. It's why Richardson went through a nine-year hoops exile in America, his unemployment ending when he coached the WNBA's Tulsa Shock last weekend.

There is a new book, though, "Forty Minutes of Hell: the Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson" by Rus Bradburd, that brilliantly details the coach's improbable rise from El Paso poverty to national championship coaching glory at the University of Arkansas in 1994, and then his contentious, controversial dismissal in 2002.

For much of his tenure, he was the only African-American head coach at a major school in the South. His breakup with Arkansas is so cloaked in racial disagreements that bringing it up still isn't advised in polite company. And that's always been the thing with Richardson – and with any pioneer, really. The details cloud the destination. It can take physical space and a different life perspective to see the greater good. Time, in this case nearly a decade, helps too.

"Nolan Richardson's history is like a lot of history; it's what do we have to remember and what are we allowed to forget?" said Bradburd, a longtime college basketball assistant turned author and professor at New Mexico State.

"Some of it isn't comfortable."

Here's what can't be argued: When hiring a black coach in college basketball was both rare and regional, Nolan Richardson came barreling along and changed so much. He had watched great men such as Clarence "Big House" Gaines win at Winston-Salem State and never get a chance at the big time. Richardson chose a different path.

It was the trailblazing one. It was direct, in-your-face and hugely successful. It was also, of course, uncomfortable for some. He and college hoops were never the same because of it.

"If you want to know Nolan Richardson's impact, you can't just look at what happened in basketball," Bradburd said. "You have to look at what's happened in the hiring practices of college football.

"Football never had its Nolan Richardson. It's still waiting."

After a loss in 2001, a frustrated Richardson declared "if they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take my job tomorrow."

Nolan Richardson holds the NCAA trophy after Arkansas beat Duke in 1994.
(Getty Images)

Hog heaven

Nolan Richardson reached the mountaintop in the 1990s as coach of Arkansas. A look at his seasons from his first Final Four to 2002.

Season

W

L

Postseason finish

1989-1990

30

5

Final Four

1990-1991

34

4

Elite Eight

1991-1992

26

8

Round 2

1992-1993

22

9

Sweet 16

1993-1994

31

3

National champion

1994-1995

32

7

National champion runner-up

1995-1996

20

13

Sweet 16

1996-1997

18

14

NIT Final Four

1997-1998

24

9

Round 2

1998-1999

23

11

Round 2

1999-2000

19

15

Round 1

2000-2001

20

11

Round 1

2001-2002

14

15

--

Arkansas did just that. The university was strangely eager to relieve a man who led the program to 13 NCAA tournaments in 17 seasons, including three Final Fours and a national title. It never bothered to call him in and ask if he was OK or what he meant. The decision was made. Richardson responded with a lawsuit and a civil rights attorney, and even as he got paid "my money" ($3 million), he kept lobbing verbal grenades.

The subsequent details both helped and hurt his arguments. There were admissions of racial jokes and phrases being told by both athletic director Frank Broyles and members of the school's board of trustees. Double standards with football were revealed. Distrust was everywhere.

There was no denying that Richardson could be difficult too, though. He lacked tact and, for one stretch of his career, had a very low graduation rate.

Step back from the extremes and it's more complicated. Consider that while UA may not have fostered the most progressive of cultures, it was the only school in the South willing to hire a black coach in the first place. And while Richardson was tough, he did manage great success in Fayetteville for 15 years.

The Richardson then and the one that paced the sideline Saturday night in Tulsa are in different places. Nolan is 68, looks 48 and is so charged up by this new challenge that he's acting like he's 28. A sellout crowd of nearly 8,000 showed up for the opener, an 80-74 loss to Minnesota.

This isn't an angry, defiant Richardson. It's a new day for everyone.

"It's great being on the floor again," Richardson said. "It's a blessing. I'm just thankful I have the opportunity again."

Although he disagrees, given his druthers Richardson would probably prefer to be coaching a men's college team. There's no denying his ability.

Richardson was a star player at Texas Western in the early 1960s and became a successful high school coach at El Paso's Bowie High. He took a dramatic gamble on little Western Texas Junior College, which he promptly took to a junior college national title. He parlayed that into a spot at the University of Tulsa, which in five years he led to three NCAAs and an NIT title. Arkansas hired him in 1985.

The entire time he fought his way up. He won big, played an aggressive style of defense and spoke out about the plight of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, mostly African-Americans. He led protests about admissions standards. He used his bully pulpit at the Final Four to shift attention away from games and to social issues.

He talked about hiring biases and constantly challenged the subtle stereotypes of the mostly white media. "When I was playing running basketball it was called 'n-----ball,' " Richardson once told Sports Illustrated. "When Rick [Pitino] did it, it was called 'uptempo.' "

No matter what he said, he almost never apologized.

You blaze a trail with fire, after all.

He forced other universities to consider broadening their hiring pool for the best reason of all – he was beating them on the court. At Texas Western, Richardson played college ball for Don Haskins, although he graduated prior to the famed 1966 NCAA title team that helped desegregate the game in the South. He understood the lesson of "Glory Road," though – nothing opens doors in college athletics like the fear of losing.

The perception was that Richardson got the best recruits because he could relate to them. In truth, only one of his players ever made an NBA All-Star game (Joe Johnson, once). He was a great motivator and coach also. "If I lose, I can't coach," he once said. "If I win, it's because my athletes are better."

Regardless, in the minds of many athletic directors he had turned his skin color into a competitive advantage. Due to his location in the rural South, Richardson may have opened more coaching doors than even the success of John Thompson at Georgetown.

Despite that, after Richardson was fired, he said only two schools ever called about a job – his alma mater UTEP and Oregon State. Both were preliminary discussions and the timing and money (he'd have to give up his UA pay) didn't work.

If Richardson had shut up, it's difficult to imagine he'd have become radioactive. College basketball has given second and third chances to coaches who have committed major NCAA violations, had Final Fours vacated, physically assaulted players and been caught with multiple DUIs.

Yet it wouldn't touch Nolan Richardson.

Richardson, who speaks fluent Spanish, did serve stints as the coach of the national teams of Panama and Mexico. College hoops moved on, though, and not necessarily for the better. Since firing Richardson, Arkansas has hired three coaches, won just a single NCAA tournament game and is coming off consecutive losing seasons.

The most common complaint about Richardson has always been why he didn't just quiet down. It'd be fair if it wasn't so naïve. Richardson never would've won a title at Arkansas if he played nice and waited his turn. College administrators never got around to "Big House" Gaines or Eddie Robinson. To forget that is to forget everything.

A trailblazer is a trailblazer. It's their personality. You don't climb out of El Paso's Segundo Barrio all the way up an NCAA championship ladder by caring about the exclusionary establishment's rules. The good comes with the uncomfortable.

Among his peers, his impact hasn't been forgotten. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, the star-studded USA team played a game against Mexico, which was coached by Richardson.

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski told his predominantly African-American players the story of Nolan and what he meant to the history of basketball. He encouraged them to find a pregame moment to go shake hands and "thank Coach Richardson for paving the way for you to be where you are today."

Every one of them – from Kobe to LeBron to Dwyane Wade – did.

"I understand Nolan Richardson and some of the barriers he had to overcome," said Krzyzewski, whose Duke team lost to UA in the 1994 title game.

"And he overcame them in magnificent style."

Richardson's regret is that by successfully freezing him out, the establishment conveyed to coaches that they shouldn't question authority, shouldn't fight back, shouldn't speak their minds.

"It's a hell of a message to send," he said.

Other than that, Richardson swears he wouldn't change a thing, at least nothing major.

"I think not [getting a college job] disappointed my family," he said. "My kids, they just saw guys getting jobs that didn't match what I had done. Me, I never paid any attention. I knew [how it worked]."

When you kick down a door, there's always going to be someone there complaining you just committed vandalism.

The key is not caring.

Richardson was running a charity golf tournament in El Paso in 2009 when his phone rang. Tulsa was about to get a WNBA franchise from Detroit and the new owners wanted to know if Nolan wanted to coach it.

"I told them no," he said. "It had never crossed my mind."

The franchise was persistent, though. When Richardson returned to the farm that he and his wife still have outside of Fayetteville, team officials convinced him to come over and see the new arena. When he got there, they had his name in lights, a full-on recruiting pitch.

So that's how Richardson wound up coaching women's professional basketball. He swears he hasn't changed much. The WNBA even plays four 10-minute quarters, so his "40 Minutes of Hell" defense is back. He's looked to get a 10-woman rotation of fast, tireless athletes. He even brought in former Olympic track champion Marion Jones.

He says the challenge has reinvigorated him. He's been laughing a lot. Some of his children live in Tulsa and he's getting extra time with them and the grandkids. He still has a lot of old friends in the area. Arkansas has even invited Richardson back to campus. It helped that Broyles, his chief nemesis, finally retired.

"Nolan is happier now than he has been in years," Bradburd said.

He's still got the swagger. Some friends in El Paso bought him a ring that features three diamonds for his three championships (junior college, NIT and NCAA). He says he's going to get it remodeled when he captures the WNBA title.

"I didn't just come here to play," he told his team at the Shock's first practice. "I came here to win."

His way, of course. It's the only way the old trailblazer knows.