Commentary

Richardson gets a second chance with Mexico

Originally Published: August 21, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

EL PASO, Texas -- Nolan Richardson is dressed appropriately in Mexican flag colors, with a red shirt that has a touch of green, and bright white pants. He has the command of his new team, the Mexican national team, in UTEP's locker room at the Don Haskins Center.

They are listening to every word, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes English and at times, in spanglish.

"The way we play, there's no room for no one loafing offensively or defensively," Richardson shouts in the locker room during halftime of a recent exhibition game against a collection of New Mexico and New Mexico State former players. "No room. Nobody plays like us. Nadie. You gotta believe that. Nadie. We don't have to scout nobody. Porque we're gonna play the way we wanna play. … And if they wanna play like we wanna play, we're in control."

Richardson is 65 years old now, his dark black hair gone gray, his tight mustache now speckled white and his waistline some 30 pounds slimmer. He is five years removed from his contract being bought out at the University of Arkansas, where he won a national championship in 1994 and coached the Razorbacks to three Final Four appearances in 17 seasons. Richardson's appearance isn't the only thing that has changed.

"Rápido …rápido … rápido," Richardson extols.

Richardson grew up in El Paso playing basketball with Mexicans across the border in Juarez. So, it was natural for him to accept the Mexico national team coaching job, to teach his "40 Minutes of Hell" style to the team as it prepares for the Tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas from Wednesday through Sept. 2. The Mexicans have to finish in the top five for a chance to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. The top two teams earn automatic berths. The teams that finish three through five get a chance to play in an Olympic qualifying event against teams from Europe and Asia in June 2008 prior to Beijing. Mexico has made only seven Olympic appearances, its last coming in 1976. It has won just one medal, a bronze in 1936.

Mexico avoided the United States in the pool play. The Mexicans are in a pool with Argentina, Panama, Puerto Rico and Uruguay and open up against Puerto Rico Wednesday in Las Vegas.

Como se dice "40 minutes of hell" in español?

"Cuarenta minutos de infierno. Cuarenta minutos de infierno," Richardson said. "We might, we may end up, uh, giving 'em two minutes of hell and … 38 what the hell are we doing, you see. But, but I, right now, we're thinking that we might be able to put 40 [minutes] in. Or try."

"I think this is the best way for Mexico to be successful, because it's a [style] no one else plays," said Richardson's assistant Wayne Stehlik, who was with Richardson at Arkansas.

Richardson envisioned coaching that style to another national title in Fayetteville. He said had he stayed at Arkansas, with a recruiting class that included Andre Iguodala (who ended up at Arizona and plays with the Sixers in the NBA), he would have definitely been a contender to win another title. But in 2002, with the Hogs 13-14 and looking like they wouldn't make the postseason, he challenged critics of his program. He challenged fans and the media and complained he was treated differently because he's black. He challenged the administration to take his job in a postgame outburst.

"If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow," Richardson said in 2002 after a game in Kentucky.

Nolan Richardson
Adriane Jaeckle/El Paso TimesNolan Richardson has not interviewed for a single college coaching position since he was fired from the University of Arkansas in 2002.

Less than one week later, the school bought out the final six years of his seven-year deal for $3 million before that 2001-02 season ended. Richardson calls his firing an execution and that his right to express himself was violated since he was simply, in his mind, expressing his opinion.

"I just made the statement that if I'm not doing my job [or] if you're not doing your job, wouldn't you expect to be fired? Well, if I'm not doing my job I expect to be fired," Richardson said. "And that's what I was relating to. And I had said it, not once, twice, many times before."

Richardson sued the university for violating his free speech rights in 2002 for $8.7 million in back pay. A judge dismissed the case in 2004.

"Well, you gotta remember this, it wasn't about money," Richardson said. "It's about principles that I live by because I had to do that. I never would've ever rested with myself."

Bob Knight and Bob Huggins each got a second chance after being fired at Indiana and Cincinnati, respectively. Since 2002, Richardson hasn't had one interview at a college. During the past five years, even his alma mater, UTEP, had job openings three times.

"No one's ever given me that opportunity," Richardson said. "No. I wrote this one time, I think I'm the only head coach in America, with my credentials, that when jobs are open, has never [been] interviewed."

"He sued his boss," said Stehlik, who like Richardson still lives in Fayetteville and runs a consulting service for high school players looking at colleges in all sports. "Athletic directors and chancellors or presidents are probably a little bit nervous because of how it turned out there at Arkansas.

"When you get coach Richardson, you get the package of the passion. He's going to work his tail off to win, but if he has a conviction towards something, he's going to let you know. And sometimes, that makes people uncomfortable. But if you know the person, like I've had a chance for 20 years, that's coach."

"For me, it [getting fired] was a mystery because he's such a great talent at what he does," said Madalyn Richardson, Nolan's eldest daughter who still lives in El Paso. Richardson has two boys, Bradley and former Tennessee State coach Nolan Richardson III. His youngest daughter, Yvonne, died of leukemia 20 years ago at the age of 15. "I couldn't believe there weren't any takers, and it seemed like jobs were opening up left and right and just no phone calls."

Why couldn't Richardson, whose career record is 509-207, get another shot?

"Well, I challenged the system and that brought baggage," Richardson said. "When they say, 'Well you don't wanna deal with Nolan 'cause he's too outspoken. How do you survive at Arkansas for 17 years?' I've been asked that many times by other coaches and friends that happen to be … African-American. 'How did you last that long?' I said win. You don't have a color when you win. That's the bottom line. No, when you start slipping, you can start looking around. But you better win."

After a brief stint coaching Panama last summer prior to the World Championships (he coached the team in the tournament warmup in the Dominican Republic but didn't take it to Japan for the event), Richardson has been a hit with the Mexicans, changing their attitude from just showing up to playing every possession with the purpose to win.

No one's ever given me that opportunity. No. I wrote this one time, I think I'm the only head coach in America, with my credentials, that when jobs are open, has never [been] interviewed.

Nolan Richardson

"We haven't played like this in the past years with the national team," said 34-year-old Horacio Llamas, who was the first Mexican-born player to suit up in the NBA when he joined the Phoenix Suns in 1997. Llamas, who has had eight surgeries on his knees, doesn't look like he could play in Richardson's style as he lumbers up court with his massive 6-foot-11 frame. Still, he is able to take up space and play in Richardson's system. "It was more of a half-court offense, more of a like go and pick for the best shooter."

The team is a collection of mostly role players in college and from Mexico, players like Romel Beck of UNLV and Adam Parada of UC Irvine. Eduardo Najera, the only Mexican-born player who is currently in the NBA, declined to play. The reason cited by the Mexican national team officials were "político," based on what Najera wanted versus the organization's needs. Once Najera was out, that domino took out fellow NBA player Earl Watson and current UCLA forward Lorenzo Mata. Because of politics, if Najera wasn't playing, Watson and Mata weren't going to join either, out of solidarity. Richardson understood this with Najera and Watson but did phone Mata and told him he essentially was making a mistake by not playing since he wasn't in the NBA.

Still, this team bought into Richardson's demands of playing a quicker, more physically exhausting game after a few weeks and has been able to turn on the full-court press rather quickly throughout its exhibition play in Mexico and in an El Salvador tournament the Mexicans won (even though one game was actually stopped in this event because the rain came through the ceiling and splashed on the floor for a spell).

"When he gets mad and he's trying to make us understand he can go off in English and Spanish and that, that's pretty cool for me," Llamas said. "I mean, I like when people push me."

Richardson prepped for Las Vegas with an exhibition game in El Paso. Richardson grew up in the post-World War II El Paso in the only African-American family on a narrow street, a football field away from the border. He went to Bowie High (where he eventually coached, too) and played on fields that were actually on Mexican land but ultimately swapped in 1964 with the United States in the Chamizal land dispute.

Richardson took me to his old neighborhood, El Pujido, Mexican slang meaning "tough and rugged." Zoning laws have made the street commercial. But there are still homes that have been grandfathered in until the residents move out. The dwellings are small, with laundry on clothes lines on the other side of a rod iron fence. At one point, an elderly woman peeks her head out of her house, still in her nightgown at midday, and asks us in Spanish if we are there to fix the smell coming from the sewer.

Richardson showed me where, on the other side of a highway overpass, is Mexico.

"I was a pitcher, player back in my day and I could take a baseball and throw it over to Mexico and go and retrieve it," he said.

Nolan Richardson
AP Photo/April L. BrownNolan Richardson has undergone quite a physical transformation since leaving Arkansas in 2002.

Richardson's mother died when he was 3, and he said his father was an alcoholic. And so his grandmother, Rose, raised Nolan and 10 other children from extended family in a three-room house on a driveway-length stretch of land that Richardson has owned since her death in 1976. Richardson called the home a "shotgun" home because with one bullet, everyone could be killed due to the layout of the house. The family moved to this neighborhood after his grandmother's house was taken by the city to put in a road near the all-black school called Douglass. Rose struggled to pay the $35-a-month mortgage.

"This is where it all started for me, and I've never forgotten where I came from," Richardson said. "A lot of us do. I've never forgotten where I came from, and it started right here and that's why I'll keep it."

The plot of land is covered in weeds and a few pieces of trash. There is a rod iron fence on one side. Richardson said he had that fence put in but the person wrapped it around the wrong plot of land. The fence now encases a bunch of old appliances and other debris. Madalyn said she understands the value of the land and per her father's wishes, won't sell it either, whenever it is bequeathed to her.

"When I come back here, it brings back some of the things that were taught to me," Richardson said. "It's not so much that this was a bad neighborhood but it was difficult. A lot of kids didn't survive. Grandma was teaching the right things and every time I come through here I hear old mama. She was my hero."

Richardson said he has come full cycle since he started his career at a young age "with Mexican kids. I started as a player with them, I was the only black kid on their team. And so being able to understand the language and being part of it, made [coaching the Mexican national team] almost a natural thing to do."

The Mexican national team isn't paying Richardson for his services. But if he can finish in the top five in Las Vegas, then Modesto Robledo Robledo, who is el presidente of the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional in Mexico, said he wants to offer Richardson a three-year contract. If Mexico doesn't qualify for the Olympics this summer, there wouldn't be an Olympic event for Richardson to coach in 2008. As for now, Richardson said he is committed only to this tournament.

"I took this job because -- and the Panama job -- because it's something that is not expected to be done," Richardson said. "That motivates me more than anything I know. When it's something that comes up and says, you can't do it, or you can't graduate from college, or you'll never do this, or you'll never be that. … That motivates me so much. I gotta prove that I can. And in proving it, it would give me the greatest satisfaction that I could ever have."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com