The title evokes one of basketball's most unforgettable styles: the scrambling M.O. of the Arkansas teams that reached NCAA title games in 1994 and '95. This energetic biography, however, speaks less to the on-court hell created by Nolan Richardson, who patented the approach, than to the one endured by the former Razorbacks coach. Richardson's sideline bona fides are well-established in the book, but the real focus is on the hard road the combative coach traveled in his life and career, especially during his years in Fayetteville. That path dead-ended in a press conference, held eight years ago this week, in which he declared, "If they ... pay me my money, they can take [my] job tomorrow." That they did, after 17 seasons.
As Bradburd documents, Richardson's personality was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. It helped propel him from hardscrabble beginnings in El Paso, where he was a multisport star in high school and at Texas Western (now UTEP). "When I coach, it's me versus everybody," he tells Bradburd. "Same with when I played. I kept a chip on my shoulder."
The first black coach in a major conference in the Old Confederacy, Richardson needed every bit of belligerence to deal with the state's ingrained racism. He also faced the machinations—in the coach's mind, at least—of his boss, Frank Broyles. The Razorbacks' legendary athletic director is portrayed here as a slick office politician who had to be dragged into integration and who was ever looking to ditch Richardson at the first losing streak. (Broyles refused to be interviewed for the book.)
Bradburd, a former assistant coach at UTEP under Don Haskins (for whom Richardson played), rounds out his story with humanizing detail, including a hilarious anecdote about a pizza delivery that Richardson intercepted on its way to weighty Razorbacks star Oliver Miller. Better yet, Bradburd, who teaches writing at New Mexico State, dispenses dandy phrases the way Steve Nash dishes passes. One coach's press "unfolded like a diamondback rattlesnake"; a team ran the fast break "as if the balls of hell were at their heels." That is also the way that Nolan Richardson has lived his life, for better and for worse.
Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson By Rus Bradburd (Amistad)