The late Nolan Richardson I was a light heavyweight who marked time on undercards in Cuba and Mexico and, according to the old pugs at ringside, "punched in a lot of faces." Nolan Richardson III is a high school sophomore who got tired of his nickname, No No, and changed it on his basketball uniform to Notes because, as he explained, "By the time the game's over and I've done my gig, y'all be taking notes." And then there's Nolan Richardson II. All Nolan Richardson II is is 43-1 over the last 13 months.
This Nolan Richardson, 38, is the son and father of the other Nolan Richardsons and the coach of the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane, which just happens to be the phenomenon of the early season in college basketball. With a gold whistle hanging down the dècolletage of his Qiana shirt, a color-coordinated boutonniere arranged just so on his lapel and a gang of four trailing in his wake, Richardson came out of Western Texas Junior College in Snyder (pop.: forget it) and made some moves. He redecorated the Tulsa locker room, changed the uniforms, added a theme song, got rid of the mascot—fans kept throwing trash down the hole in the top of the costume—and, over a recent five-day period, masterfully guided his team as it 1) upset cross-city rival Oral Roberts, which Tulsa hadn't beaten in eight tries, 2) upset cross-state rival Oklahoma, which Tulsa hadn't beaten in five years, and 3) upset Louisville, the defending NCAA champion and the likes of which Tulsa hadn't beaten ever.
The victory over Louisville actually began this sequence and was such heady stuff that Richardson was widely reported to have announced, "I did a heck of a job and I'm taking credit for it." Now he insists that quip was misinterpreted. A few weeks in the big time and he already has learned how to be misquoted.
After Western Texas—not to be confused with West Texas State or Texas Western or Country and Western—had won the 1980 national junior college championship with a 37-0 record and after virtually the same cast of characters had led Tulsa to a 5-0 mark to start off the 1980-81 campaign, it began to look as if Richardson and his sidekicks might never lose. The coach had ignored that ancient cowboy caution, "Don't take your guns to town," and brought to Tulsa four of his own J.C. players, plus a fifth who had led Jefferson (Ala.) State to the runner-up spot in the junior college tournament. Living on defense, the Golden Hurricane had 59 steals, forced 119 turnovers and limited the opposition to 39.6% field-goal shooting before it all came crashing down in the final minutes last Friday night against Georgia, 66-64.
December 22, 1980
Afterward, Richardson said he was relieved to finally lose—not since March 1979 had one of his teams been defeated—but there was nary a dry eye in the locker room. Phil Spradling, the skinny 6'4" guard who barely missed a 12-foot jump shot that would've tied it at the buzzer, said, "It hurts like nothing in my life before." And David Brown, the forward with the gold front tooth, the talker, the jiver, was nearly speechless. "Now I know how Louisville and all those other teams we dumped on feel," he said. "This is terrible."
The following evening, however, Tulsa continued its once-interrupted march toward the Top 20, where the Hurricane just might belong, by routing Tulane 102-85.
Aside from Spencer Haywood, has anyone ever come out of the junior college basketball ranks and created such an immediate stir as this? But then, Richardson has been an overachiever all his life. Known as Sweet Sam back in the South Side barrio of El Paso—"as ghetto as a ghetto can be," Richardson says. "I'm from a place I never want to go back to"—he was your basic amazing athlete, escaping life through sports. Many sports. After starring for Don Haskins at Texas Western (now UTEP), Richardson briefly played pro basketball for the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA and pro football for the San Diego Chargers of the AFL. In college he was offered a contract to play baseball for the Houston Astros. As a frequent partner of Lee Trevino, Richardson also listened to the entreaties of high rollers who wanted to sponsor him on the pro golf tour. This was an athlete, this one.
After coaching 12 years at Bowie High in El Paso and three years at Western Texas (J.C. record: 101-13), Richardson figured he'd paid his dues and applied for a Division I job at three schools: SMU, Cal State-Fullerton and Tulsa. He knew the percentages weren't with him. "Thirteen black coaches in major situations," Richardson snaps back when asked. "But I knew there was a job out there looking for me." After Tulsa President J. Paschal Twyman interviewed him, Richardson was No. 14.
"Nolan bowled us over with charisma," says Twyman. "There was a race factor, to be sure. Tulsa's population is about 11% black but we did our homework. We asked around the community and felt out our booster club. We'd been losing for five years, attendance was down, the program was at the bottom, and it was having an impact on our budget. We knew we were breaking some ice here, but we decided to fly with it. We needed to win badly."
In search of the quickest solution, Tulsa officials went after the junior college-champion coach and ended up with practically an entire team. "I saved them a ton in the recruiting budget," says Richardson.
Richardson had become so close to his four best players at Western that in the recruiting scuffle only Brown visited any school besides Tulsa. "But I knew I'd follow my heart," he says. The new Hurricane quartet may need no introduction to aficionados of the junior college game, but for those who were reading the Burma Shave signs on the bus tour through Snyder, here they are:
•Brown. A 5'10" high school junior when one of Richardson's assistant coaches, Andy Stoglin, discovered him on the El Paso playgrounds. Grew 10 inches in three years and is now the Hurricane's leading scorer and rebounder. "He'll fight the devil," Stoglin told Richardson. Sure enough. Achieved instant fame when Louisville's massive Wiley Brown sucker-forearmed him from behind. Afflicted with instant insanity, he wanted to fight back. Was restrained. "I was the enforcer and here I was getting enforced," says Brown. "I wanted Wiley bad. I used to chill dudes in JUCO."
•Spradling. Another El Paso native who once scored 40 points against Richardson's high school team. Spent freshman year at New Mexico as injured red-shirt, then transferred to Western Texas. Charlie Chaplin mustache. The Hurricane's only true outside scoring threat.
•Greg Stewart, 6'9" center from the Bronx. Sent out west by Richardson's friend, Tiny Archibald of the Celtics, who told Stewart that Richardson would make "a someone" out of him. "You hear about all the trouble on the streets of New York?" says Stewart. "Well, I was some of the trouble."
•Paul Pressey, 6'5" guard-forward from Richmond, Va. MVP in JUCO national tournament. Tulsa's floor leader and best player. "Don Chaney type," says Richardson, meaning Pressey has defensive instincts of burglar and wingspan of eagle. Almost too cool, nonchalant. Maybe the finest passer in college.
Richardson is painfully aware of the stigma attached to a junior college-based program. "For three years I heard nothing but the word outlaw," he says, "but it's a bad rap. We didn't just run up and down the floor. We got our 101s [Western averaged 101 points a game] off our defense."
When Louisville came to Tulsa, it must have felt as if a swarm of locusts had descended during its 68-60 loss (a more decisive beating than DePaul administered the Cards). "They came in here half-step-pin' it," says Pressey, "but we treated it like it was the NCAA champs against the JUCO champs, which it was. The difference at this level? The crowds are bigger, that's all. We can get it on with anybody." Or, as the team theme song says, Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now.