Leader Of a Family A lifetime of frustration prepared Nolan Richardson to guide champions - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
Publish date:

Leader Of a Family A lifetime of frustration prepared Nolan Richardson to guide champions

YVONNE RICHARDSON would have glowed on that Monday night. Sitting
in the stands next to her mother, Rose, she would have shaken a
pom-pom and glared at the refs and serenaded sophomore Scotty
Thurman's jumper with sooey upon sweet sooey. Yvonne would have been
23, a jewel in a setting equal parts her mother's devotion and her
father's determination. It's pointless to tell her dad she wasn't
there, because after a Razorback win he always says, ''Baby, we got
you another one.'' But if Yvonne had been at the Charlotte Coliseum
in more than spirit, if she hadn't died, a victim of leukemia, in
January 1987, perhaps Nolan Richardson wouldn't have become quite so
tempered. Perhaps he wouldn't have become exactly the man it took to
lead Arkansas to its first NCAA title.
Nothing is worth the price of one's daughter, of course. But Andy
Stoglin, Richardson's former assistant at Arkansas, once suggested
how much strength his good friend had drawn from adversity. ''I don't
know how he's gotten through these last couple of years,'' Stoglin
said six years ago, at the end of those bleak times when Yvonne was
dying and nothing Richardson did seemed to please the Fayetteville
faithful, ''except that everything in his life prepared him for
So Yvonne's death may have helped prepare Richardson for the next
phase of his life, for all that was to follow: the hostility of some
strident Arkansans who preferred their basketball slow and their
coaches white; the suspension of a few of his players in 1991 after
it was alleged that they had committed sexual improprieties in an
incident at a dorm; the crucible of the SEC, the league Richardson
considers to be the country's most athletic; his leading role in the
national controversy over race, sports, education and opportunity.
All this season, when the major-market agenda setters talked up
other leagues, other teams, other players, Richardson took offense.
''All the ratings and rankings and Sarazens and all that, they don't
mean anything,'' he said dismissively after the Hogs won the Midwest
Regional in Dallas. ''I've never seen a damn computer that can check
a guy's heart.'' He meant to say Sagarins, as in Jeff Sagarin, not
Sarazens, as in Gene Sarazen. It is Sagarin whose computer rankings
appear in USA Today. But there was no chance that this was a Freudian
slip. No way this man's mind was on golf.
Richardson invoked images of sledgehammers, broken-down doors,
rabid dogs, prairie fires and street fights to describe the M.O. of
this team. Several years back he tried to get people to call
Barnhill Arena ''the Slaughterhouse,'' which would presumably have
made the Razorbacks the Slaughterhouse Five. One gets the distinct
impression that he regrets that the name never caught on.
The 52-year-old Richardson stoked a kind of fury in the Razorbacks
this season. That fury served a purpose, and he is far too
intelligent not to have kept the embers smoldering until he smoked
out every last doubter by reaching his ultimate goal: a national
championship. As he saw things, the dissing of his team continued
through the Final Four. When tournament officials changed the time of
Arkansas's 45-minute shootaround on semifinal Saturday, word never
reached Richardson, so the Razorbacks showed up late and got in only
eight minutes of work before being kicked off the floor. Richardson
saw it as a slight; his team won that night.
Before the title game Richardson laid a T-shirt on the locker room
floor. On the shirt was printed a tournament bracket that showed
Michigan as having beaten Arkansas. (The Razorbacks defeated the
Wolverines 76-68 in the Midwest Regional final.) Just when you
thought Arkansas had been accorded its due, here was another slight
to help get it through.
In Charlotte, when he met the press, Richardson kept his razored
back up. ''I'm in the penthouse now, but if we lose Monday, I'm in
the outhouse,'' he said on Sunday after the Hogs had beaten Arizona
to gain a spot in the final. ''The headlines will be 'He can't win
the big one.' '' Responding to a reporter's query at a press
conference, he said, ''Did that answer your question? Because if it
didn't, baby, I've got some more.''
Commanding the stage, he was going to make every word count. Some
of his anger at the pundits spilled over into an interview with CBS's
Billy Packer, and Richardson bristled at a TV commentator who
suggested that Duke would win the title because it was a ''smarter''
team. Richardson, however, nodded his approval when Corliss
Williamson, examining that poisonous premise for a moment, said, ''If
there are two guys in a fight, and one is a big, strong guy, and the
other's a little, smart guy, who do you think is going to win?''
Growing up in El Paso, Richardson saw his mother die when he was
three. His father's death, hastened by drink, came nine years later,
but by then he and his sisters had been taken in by their grandmother
Rose Richardson, a woman full of grit and wisdom, which she would
dole out in homilies. ''Old Momma'' helped him negotiate the
emotional roadblocks of life in a segregated city. When Nolan wanted
to get on a bus and sit where he pleased or walk into a restaurant
and be served unconditionally or take a seat anywhere in a movie
theater, he would cross the Rio Grande to Juarez.
As a player at Texas Western (now UTEP) during the 1960s, Jim Crow
laws kept him from lodging and eating with his teammates on many road
trips. At the same time, though, he found that he enjoyed basketball
more and more with each passing season, even as his scoring fell from
22 points a game to 13 to nine. His coach, Don Haskins, had
challenged him to change from being a scorer into something else.
Richardson poured himself into defense, into punishing an unjust
world with a kind of vigilantism. ''From 6 ft. 10 in. to 5 ft. 5 in.,
I got into stopping people,'' he says. ''It got to the point where I
didn't want to shoot anymore.''
What we see in him today isn't bitterness. Watching Yvonne die
must have convinced him that bitterness is a spendthrift's luxury --
just wasted, pointless emotion. It is, rather, a grave and righteous
anger that flashes forth from time to time: when he suggests that if
Eddie Sutton had accomplished at Arkansas what he has, there would be
statues of that coach built around the state; when he refers to
coaches like Indiana's Bob Knight and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as ''the
great white hopes''; and when he says, as he did on the eve of this
season, ''When I was playing running basketball, it was called
niggerball. When ((Kentucky coach)) Rick ((Pitino)) did it, it was
called up-tempo. If I lose, I can't coach. If I win, it's because my
athletes are better.''
Yet Richardson is far from a racial separatist. The border town in
which he grew up was a kaleidoscope of blacks and Bubbas, of Native
Americans and Hispanics. The shotgun house in which Old Momma raised
him sat in a Mexican neighborhood, and by the time he went off to
elementary school, he spoke Spanish better than English. In his first
coaching job, at El Paso's Bowie High, Richardson enjoyed success
with a team of Mexican-Americans, none of them taller than 5 ft. 11
in.. He's effusive in his gratitude for white patrons who helped him
up the coaching ranks, from Bowie High to Western Texas Junior
College to Tulsa to Arkansas. He thanked many of them by name in the
early-morning hours after becoming the only coach to have won
national junior college, NIT and NCAA titles, and his
acknowledgments helped make his campaign on behalf of opportunities
for poor young blacks ring sincere.
In an unconcealed dig at Sutton, who had said he would ''crawl all
the way to Kentucky'' to take the coaching job there upon leaving
Arkansas in 1985, Richardson said several weeks ago that he would get
down on all fours if that's what it took to coach the Razorbacks. But
as he staggered through his first two seasons in Fayetteville -- as
Yvonne was slipping away from him, Richardson went 31-30 using
players left over from his walk-it-up predecessor -- the daggers came
out. He hasn't forgotten the boosters and columnists who made his
life more miserable than it already was. Of them he says, ''They
barbecued me every day until they ran out of sauce.''
However, he couldn't very well pity himself as he watched what
Yvonne went through: the chemotherapy, the bone-marrow transplants,
the time the doctors broke off one of her ribs to get at a fungus in
a lung. Perhaps that's why Richardson has been able to forge
something positive of his anger. His is a system in which players
with a similar sense of aggrievement and something to prove thrive
(other than Williamson, Darnell Robinson and Lee Wilson, none of the
Razorbacks was a high school All-America).
''Nobody wanted Corey Beck,'' Richardson says of the point guard
who, more than any other player he has coached, reminds Nolan of
Nolan. Thurman was way back in the triple digits on those lists
ranking the finest high school seniors, and Thurman still chafes when
he hears that city kids are tougher than those from backwaters like
his hometown of Ruston, La. Dwight Stewart weighed more than 300
pounds and looked like a cartoon character when he came to
Fayetteville in the fall of 1991; now Richardson gives him license to
do virtually anything on the floor. Junior Clint McDaniel made
precisely the same transformation, from scorer to defender, that
Richardson made 30 years ago at Texas Western. Junior Alex Dillard, a
high school dropout and burger flipper who earned a spot on the
Razorbacks at age 25, is a poster child for the opportunities his
coach so often talks up. Even the team's lone white player, junior
Davor Rimac, relates to his coach's invocations of the rutted road.
''It must have hurt him a lot,'' says Rimac, a Croat, of life under
Jim Crow. ''It's like if someone tells me I can't stay with the team
because I'm not American.''
Having so many talented contributors in Chapel Hill baffled North
Carolina coach Dean Smith this season. Smith might have learned a
thing or two from watching Richardson. Again and again, at coaching
clinics and press conferences, Richardson is asked how he gets his
players to play so hard and how he keeps so many gifted young men so
evidently happy. ''I do not coach like anybody,'' he says. ''I do not
think like anybody. I make my teams like I want 'em to look. And I
want 'em to look so chaotic that I can't tell anyone what the keys
For a while Richardson called the frenzy ''40 minutes of hell.''
But when he added two of the most gifted inside players in the
country, Williamson and Robinson, Richardson began parceling out
those infernal moments more judiciously, preferring by the end of
this season a half-court game that showcased the marvelous skills of
the pair. That's coaching. ''You don't coach X's and O's,''
Richardson likes to say. ''You coach people.''
The Sagarin season is over (and the Razorbacks are finally No. 1
in his ranking). It's Sarazen season. Richardson golfs the way he
coaches basketball -- at double time. ''I can shoot a 63 anytime I
want,'' he once said. ''By the time I get to 63, I put my clubs in
the car and go home. I'm impatient.''
That's not true, of course. Richardson is not impatient. In fact,
given the length of the road that led to that first Monday night in
April, he may be the most patient man on the planet. ''I came here
late,'' he says. He does not need to add that all that waiting -- he
was 44 when he arrived in Fayetteville -- gives a man a lot of time
to stew.
It will be hard, when we think of this man's greatest win, not to
think of his greatest loss.