By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

A black coach tells us something about credibility.

Like credibility isn't always a good thing. When wielded with emotional force, a credible body of work can land a person into a heap of trouble.

Take Nolan Richardson, for example.

Nolan Richardson
Doug Pensinger/ALLSPORT/Getty Images
So what if he's outspoken? He's got cred.

In the college hoops world, Nolan Richardson is saturated with credibility. Richardson played his college ball at Texas Western University. In his senior year, Richardson got a new coach, a guy named Don Haskins. He might have been the best coach Richardson ever had. A coach gains honor when he sees the big picture. Haskins made history when he later sent five black dudes onto the floor to handle Kentucky for the 1966 national championship.

Nearly 30 years later, Richardson put his own skins on the wall. While coach at Arkansas, he guided the Razorbacks to three Final Fours and won the whole thing in 1994. In 2002, an embattled Richardson, on his way to a 14-15 season, felt something was amiss within the Arkansas athletic department. For reasons known only to him at the time, Richardson felt he was being held to a higher standard than Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt.

Fueled by angst, and backed by a wealth of solid credentials, Richardson had a very public meltdown at a postgame press conference. Maybe you recall the infamous reference to the Middle Passage. "My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship," Richardson said. "I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on."

Richardson also said that the school could buy out his contract if it wanted.

Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles did just that and fired Richardson. (Under terms of the buyout, Richardson is paid $500,000 per year through 2008.)

But the following year, Richardson's charges proved to be true. Nutt got an extension. During his eight-year tenure at Arkansas, Nutt has never done what it takes to accrue college football prestige. He's never won 10 games in a season. He has failed to take his team to a BCS bowl game, has never come close to winning a championship and has a career record of 57-40. But in 2003, Nutt was given a contract extension through 2010 for $1.05 million per year, loaded with incentives (and since extended another year through 2011).

Oh, did I mention that back in 1976, Nutt was the last player recruited by Broyles before Broyles retired as Arkansas football coach?

On Friday, Richardson lost his appeal on his claim that he was fired because he's black and outspoken. The court finding said the school decided to dismiss Richardson before he went all "Amistad" at the press conference.

I suppose I could gain confidence, at least in some media circles, by casting aspersions on Nolan Richardson. I could say that he deserved to be terminated for speaking his mind in such a racially charged way. I could say that he was just fortunate to get the opportunity to coach at a Division I university. I could say that he's forever indebted to Broyles and Arkansas for what they did for him. But I can't bring myself to say any of that because it's not the way I feel.

I think Richardson deserved better. I think Arkansas was lucky to have him. I think the all-time winningest coach in Arkansas history was fired because he is black and outspoken. I think Broyles has taken great strides to show that the Arkansas athletic department has all the trappings of an old boys network. Since going 9-4 in 2003, Nutt's teams have finished 5-6 and 4-7. Yet it's apparently all good in Fayetteville. I thought college football was all about winning. And if you don't win, you get fired.

Like I was saying, a black coach tells us something about credibility.

In my senior year in college, I got a new coach, a guy named Willie Shaw. He was the best coach I ever had. A coach gains honor when he sees the big picture. Coach Shaw taught me the inherent value of silence. "If everyone's talking, then no one's listening," he would say.

He was hard on me that year. He rode me, challenged me. Without him, I seriously doubt I would have ever been drafted by an NFL team. During a game against Oregon, after I allowed a ball to sail over my head for an easy touchdown, coach Shaw yelled at me in the locker room. Told me I was playing like crap.

He was right.

He approached me after the game, looked me squarely in the eye and smiled.

"You think I'm tough on you, don't you?"

"Absolutely," I said.

"I just want the best from you," he said. "In fact, I wouldn't mind if my two sons grew up to be like you."

After leaving Stanford, Shaw had stints as defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings. He got fired from that last job because he had too much credibility.

The head coach, Mike Tice, told Shaw after the 2002 season that he was replacing him with George O'Leary. Tice told Shaw that he "could get a job anywhere," but O'Leary might have a more difficult time. Seems like a strange reason to fire someone, doesn't it? Oh yeah, did I mention that O'Leary was Tice's coach at Central Islip High School on Long Island?

Shaw found work as assistant head coach/linebackers coach with Kansas City. He's retired now.

And Nolan Richardson did get another job. Not just anywhere, though. In 2005, he took over the Panama national team. It finished fifth at the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) American Championship, in the process earning a spot in the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan. So this summer, Nolan Richardson gets to take on the world.

I'd say he's earned that right.

Alan Grant is a regular contributor to and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.