by Chris Bahn
Posted 2/14/2012 09:00 am
Updated 7 months ago
Nearly 30 minutes following the premiere of ESPN’s “40 Minutes of Hell” documentary, the film’s star continued to sign autographs and pose for pictures in Bud Walton Arena. Fans wanted to pay their respects to Nolan Richardson and interacting with the Hall of Fame coach was one of the many ways they’d found to show their appreciation.
Earlier in the day the 6,000 or so who stayed for the film premiere showered Richardson with applause as he strolled onto the court, a red carpet underneath his feet.
No doubt Richardson’s work in coaching is worth celebrating.
But recognition of Richardson shouldn’t stop with mentioning the 389 games won in 17 seasons at Arkansas. His mark at Arkansas and on college basketball goes beyond 13 NCAA tournament appearances, three Final Fours, a 1995 runner-up finish and the 1994 national championship.
Richardson, as we’re all beginning to understand, was truly a pioneer. It didn’t start when Frank Broyles hired him in 1985, making Richardson the first black coach of a major sport at a major university in the south.
Trailblazing was the norm for Richardson, who grew up in pre-integration El Paso, Texas. Though he had a late start on his career — he was 35 when hired at a junior college in a tiny, mostly white Texas town — Richardson put together one of the best careers in college basketball. He won a national title in junior college and continued his success at Tulsa where he won the NIT and then to Arkansas where he eventually won a national title.
No other coach has a junior college championship, an NIT title and NCAA championship on his resume. Each stop came with the added pressure of being the “first black coach at [insert school].”
That is a burden few folks can fully understand. And that is why Richardson deserves a tribute that goes beyond anything that we have seen so far.
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson gets it. He was a player with Richardson at Tulsa and then served as an assistant at Arkansas when his mentor was hearing racial slurs and venom from fans not quite ready for a black coach.
“He’s touched so many lives in a lot of ways,” Anderson said. “He’s been a first wherever he’s been. He’s a great man, a great treasure.”
There were few black coaches nationally when the Richardson era began at Arkansas. He was the first black basketball coach in both the Southwest and Southeastern conferences.
Contrast that with today’s SEC.
Commissioner Mike Slive was on hand for the movie premiere and is appreciative of the former Arkansas coach’s position in history. Slive sees the doors that Richardson helped open.
“[Richardson] talked about diversity,” Slive said. “I think one of the things I’m proudest of, I’ve been in the league 10 years, and I was listing them: right now in football we have three minority head football coaches and six of our head basketball coaches are minorities. He takes a great deal of satisfaction from that as do I.”
Things have progressed since that 1994 championship season when Richardson challenged national media to “stop stereotyping coaches” as motivators and recruiters only. Many misunderstood Richardson’s anger at the time, but details from the biography “40 Minutes of Hell” and the documentary of the same name have helped us understand more about the man’s life and the challenges he faced.
Throughout his career Richardson felt he carried the burden of all minority coaches. He feared — and it was a very real fear at the time — that his failures would be their failures.
So their fight was his fight, he recently explained to me. And, damn it, if that made people uncomfortable, it made people uncomfortable.
Richardson’s success helped pave the way for other success stories. So it’s no wonder that locally and nationally Richardson is being hailed for what he accomplished.
But Richardson deserves more.
These past four or five years have brought multiple celebrations of all Richardson accomplished. He was elected into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Arkansas held the “Celebration of a Championship” on the 15-year anniversary of the national championship to recognize — and rekindle the relationship — with Richardson. ESPN’s “40 Minutes of Hell” is another tribute to the coach and his fight.
Richardson, who is now heavily involved with his charitable foundation in El Paso, told me recently that he is no longer fighting. He still sees opportunities to fight, but with no team to coach, no microphone directly in front of him on a regular basis, Richardson feels his platform isn’t what it used to be.
Perhaps Richardson’s window to actively petition for change has closed, but his work shouldn’t end because his career is over. Certainly, recognition of his contributions must continue.
There is a next logical step in showing respect to Richardson. Former players have already begun work behind the scenes to ensure appreciation for Richardson isn’t limited to a museum, the pages of a book, the occasional pep rally celebrating the 1994 National Championship or a documentary.
Those Razorbacks are hoping, like I’m hoping, that the court will soon bear the name of Nolan Richardson. Putting Richardson’s name on the floor — an honor bestowed to other championship winning coaches in other sports at Arkansas — would be a fitting tribute to a man that made a lasting impact on the state, the university and college basketball.
Painting the Richardson name on the surface at Bud Walton Arena would serve as a permanent reminder of all he accomplished as a coach, what a great ambassador he was for the state and how hard he fought for others. There is no better way to celebrate than to have Nolan rollin’ across a red carpet on the newly named Nolan Richardson Court.