Much of the joy is gone from basketball in Arkansas this winter.
In a place where season-ticket holders have long driven three
hours and more to Fayetteville for the giddy privilege of howling
like farm animals--Whooooo, pig, soooey!--in support of the
beloved and powerful Razorbacks, there has been precious little
to cheer on the floor, and much to dread off it. Even as the
Hogs, 7--14 through Sunday, are having their worst season in
three decades, their former coach has filed an incendiary lawsuit
that throws back the curtain on 17 years of perceived racial
inequities, pitting a proud man against a proud university in a
fight that could turn horribly embarrassing for either party.
If only Nolan Richardson had just gone away quietly. If only he
had taken the retirement offered to him last February and gone to
his ranch, a Basketball Hall of Fame coach in waiting, tending to
his 160 acres in a lush hollow north of Fayetteville. If only he
had let the university send him off and then raise a banner to
the rafters of Bud Walton Arena in tribute to his 509 career wins
(389 in 17 seasons at Arkansas), to hang right next to the one
commemorating the national championship he won in 1994 (the only
NCAA basketball title in school history).
Instead, on Dec. 19 Richardson, 61, filed suit under provisions
of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, citing "lingering racial
discrimination in Arkansas" and asking not only unspecified
monetary damages but also reinstatement as coach. Named as
defendants in the suit are university president B. Alan Sugg,
chancellor John White and the principal object of Richardson's
enmity, 78-year-old athletic director Frank Broyles. The
complaint, drafted by Little Rock civil rights attorney John W.
Walker, pointedly describes Sugg, White and Broyles as "white
citizens," an uncommon usage that harkens back to White Citizens
Councils of the segregationist South--and to 1957, when federal
troops had to be called in to enforce antisegregation laws in the
Arkansas capital of Little Rock.
Late last week an upbeat Richardson greeted visitors at his
ranch, ambling down the rough tiled sidewalk while a small army
of fighting cocks milled about, crowing incessantly. At one side
of the rambling, single-story main residence, a small crew of
workers was constructing an octagonal addition that will house
the former coach's memorabilia, a sort of personal museum. "You'd
think I'm being run out of town," Richardson said, referring to
his unceremonious dismissal. "But here I am, still adding on. I'm
not going anywhere."
On Feb. 23, 2002, Richardson's unranked Razorbacks lost at
Kentucky 71--58 and fell to 13--13. (They would finish 14--15,
the school's first losing season since 1985--86, when Richardson
arrived and went 12--16.) After the game Richardson, who was
feeling the pressure of the Razorbacks' subpar performance,
stunned observers by telling a TV reporter, "If they go ahead and
pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow." Five tumultuous
days later, and following a 90-minute meeting with White and
Broyles at which he told them he did not want to leave his
coaching job, Richardson declined an offer to resign. The next
day he was terminated under a clause in his contract that allowed
Arkansas to fire him "at the convenience of the University." On
March 28 Stan Heath, coach of Kent State and a 37-year-old
African-American, was hired to replace Richardson.
Under the terms of his firing, Richardson receives annual
payments of $500,000 for six years. (His seven-year contract was
to run through 2008, with a total annual compensation of $1.03
million.) University attorneys told SI that Richardson was
offered the same deal--$500,000 annually for six years--to
The school should have realized that Richardson would not go
gently. "Anybody who knows Nolan knows he's not going to budge an
inch," says former Arkansas and NBA guard Ron Brewer, who now
works at the university as assistant director of development.
"You knew there was going to be a fight."
"I was raised by my grandmother Rose," says Richardson. "She
taught me, You never quit any battle. That's stuck with me my
whole life. I could have taken the easy way out last year. But
how could I sleep at night, thinking about guys like Martin
Luther King and Jackie Robinson and all the things they took? How
could I just give up?"
Richardson's case, and his anger, hang on several points. All of
them, in his and his lawyers' opinion, are related to race. (Phil
Kaplan, the Little Rock--based outside counsel for the
university, says, "None of the areas addressed on the complaint
are related to race.") Richardson's central claims:
--In 1986, after Richardson's first year in Fayetteville, Broyles
instructed him to go to Indiana and work with Bob Knight, "to
teach you some damn defense." Richardson didn't go. In
Richardson's opinion that demand was emblematic of Broyles's view
that black coaches don't coach defense--an aspect of the game
Richardson employed brilliantly with his teams' renowned "Forty
Minutes of Hell."
--After making Richardson an assistant athletic director in 1990,
following his first Final Four appearance, Broyles gave him few
important duties related to the position and none related to his
job description of facility manager when $30 million Bud Walton
Arena opened in '94. Richardson alleges that when he asked
Broyles about the assistant AD position in '99, Broyles told him,
"Oh, that's just a token position." (Broyles, who would not
answer specific questions from SI about the lawsuit, has told
university attorneys that he called the position "honorary," not
--In 1999 Broyles undercut Richardson's existing shoe contract
with Converse by striking a university-wide deal with Reebok.
(Arkansas eventually bought out Richardson's Converse contract,
and university lawyers will argue in court that they allowed
Richardson to seek his own deal but that Richardson could not
find a better one.)
--Arkansas attempted to muzzle Richardson, prohibiting him from
speaking out on matters of racial discrimination. Specifically,
Richardson was incensed at a late January 2002 demand, pertaining
to Richardson's weekly in-season TV and radio shows, that
"[Richardson] will not, directly or indirectly, disparage the
Producer, the University of Arkansas, the [Razorbacks] Foundation
or any sponsor of the show for any reason." It is this issue that
seems to have pushed Richardson over the top. (The school will
claim that the demand was routine and was necessitated by a
switch in TV-radio management, that football coach Houston Nutt
also agreed to it and that its language was simply culled from a
book of legal forms and was standard for TV personalities, "like
weathermen or anchors.")
At its roots Richardson's lawsuit (for which no trial date has
been set) is a fight between him and Broyles, an expression of
the anger that has simmered for many years. "I think Nolan will
lose," says Brewer. "But he'll try to destroy Broyles in the
process. This is personal for Nolan. There's some truth to the
things he's saying, but he's doing this the wrong way." Broyles
is a formidable foe, a silver-haired Arkansas legend who could
pass for two decades younger than his chronological age and who
has been athletic director for a staggering 30 years. He casually
asserts that he knows "just about everybody in the building" when
he attends a home basketball game. Everyone calls Broyles
"Coach," a nod to his 19 years as football coach from 1958
through '76, when his Razorbacks teams went 144-58-5 and won six
Southwest Conference titles.
"If this is about taking sides, we're all on Coach Broyles's
side," says longtime Arkansas booster Dick Stockland, a retired
Tyson Foods executive who owns skyboxes for football and
basketball games. "He's done more for this university than any
other single individual."
Meanwhile, many Razorbacks fans seem weary of Richardson. "At one
time these fans did love Nolan," says Arkansas booster Trevor
Lavy, owner of a Fayetteville bank and mortgage company. "But
then it was clearly time for him to go."
Yet Richardson insists that his phone rings after Arkansas
losses, and voices--of fans, friends, former players--implore
him, Coach, come get your old job back. "It's a sad situation,"
says Todd Day, who played for Richardson from 1988--89 through
'91--92 and is the school's leading career scorer. "He should
still be coaching the Razorbacks. Now he's bitter, and after
everything he did for the program, he feels like he didn't get
Richardson's program, however, had fallen off in recent years.
From 1988--89 through '94--95 the Hogs (who switched from the
Southwest Conference to the SEC after the 1990--91 season) won
six conference or division titles, averaged more than 28 wins and
went to three Final Fours. In the seven seasons after, they
didn't win a conference regular-season title, averaged fewer than
20 wins and advanced as far as the Sweet 16 only once. Richardson
also was widely criticized for his team's low graduation rate:
The NCAA's most recent four-class average for Arkansas men's
basketball is 10%, compared with 44% for all the university's
Heath, who took Kent State to within one game of the Final Four
last year in his first season as a head coach, says of this
year's players (two of whom he recruited), "Everybody knows that
this team is the least-talented team at Arkansas in a long time;
the truth is, there's not one guy here who would have started on
my Kent State team."
Richardson argues emphatically that the freshman class he
recruited for this season was strong. Three of those players are
in Fayetteville, including the team's leading scorer,
guard-forward Jonathan Modica (12.5-point average through
Sunday); two signees went elsewhere after Richardson was fired.
"I recruited my ass off last year," says Richardson, smacking the
heel of his meaty hand on his kitchen counter. "I was loaded for
bear again. I had runners and jumpers and trappers! Forty Minutes
of Hell was back! And then they crucified me."
Now it is Heath's program, and he has been pulled into the
state's embrace. Last spring he attended graduation for students
and players he had barely met and shook their hands. Despite the
lingering memories of Richardson's contentious departure and an
ongoing NCAA investigation into booster activities, Heath signed
a highly ranked recruiting class, including Brewer's son, Ronnie,
a 6'6" swingman from Fayetteville High. Following last Saturday's
72--65 loss at South Carolina, Heath's team was in last place in
the SEC West with a 2--8 conference record. Nevertheless Heath
gets standing ovations at every game at Bud Walton Arena. "Stan
has exceptional people skills," says Broyles.
It is an odd bit of symmetry for Heath. During his 15-year climb
from high school assistant to the Elite Eight, he idolized
successful black coaches, John Thompson and Richardson in
particular. Richardson has called, and they have talked. "I don't
think anybody is comfortable with the way things ended for Coach
Richardson," says Heath. "But it has nothing to do with me. It's
in the past."
Of course, it's in the future, too, a gathering storm, closer by
Read Tim Layden's Viewpoint column each Friday at
Minutes of Hell was back! And then they crucified me."