Time passes, old wounds heal and Richardson returns to Arkansas
For 17 years, Nolan Richardson made the same drive each day, turning his car onto the Arkansas campus to go to work.His first office, the one equipped with the same furniture Eddie Sutton used, was in Barnhill Arena, known as The Barn. The second, just down Razorback Road, was in a building he helped to fill, the swanky 22,000-seat Bud Walton Arena.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Ed ZurgaNolan Richardson left Arkansas in March of 2002 after a dispute with the athletic department.
On March 1, 2002, Richardson backed his car out of his reserved parking space, turned away from the arena and left campus.
For six years, he never went back.
"Never even drove on the street, to tell you the truth," said Richardson, 67, who still lives in Fayetteville.
Anger and distrust is a volatile cocktail in a man who grew up feeling the biting sting of discrimination. For Richardson, those emotions served as the backdrop to a lawsuit he brought against the university he loved. Even after it was dismissed, the legal action drew a sharp line down between a coach and a university community that once idolized Richardson. So rather than cross it, Richardson chose to stay away, the line growing into an awkward and painful chasm with each passing year, turning the coach who led the Razorbacks to a national championship into a pariah.
Time heals, but more, change heals.
A year ago, long-time athletic director Frank Broyles retired, followed six months later by university chancellor John White. With the two key players from Richardson's lawsuit now in the Razorback shadows, Arkansas' new administrators extended the olive branch.
Richardson reached back.
On March 1, seven years to the day since the school announced his buyout, Richardson will take the Bud Walton Arena court. He and his 1994 team will be feted and honored in this, the 15th anniversary of their championship.
"This had nothing to do with the people or the university; it had to do with some people at the university," Richardson said. "People say change isn't good. Well, sometimes change is good."
Aside from Bob Knight at Indiana, championship-winning coaches are rarely allowed to disappear into the hardwood crevices. Players and coaches are trotted out for halftime honors and banquets, brought in to meet new players and charm old alumni, used as the perfect bridge between past and present for programs that recognize old champions never die; their stories just get better.
At fiercely loyal Arkansas, where rabid fans calling the Hogs gathered at a midnight press conference to welcome Bobby Petrino, Richardson was a missing puzzle piece.
On the outskirts he made his inroads, privately talking with his successors, Stan Heath and John Pelphrey. But publicly he stayed away. The 10th anniversary of that championship season came and went without fanfare. As the years passed, Richardson slipped further and further away.
"He's our greatest coach. He coached the greatest team in Arkansas history," Pelphrey said. "He put his hard work, his life, into this place and it's very important to me that he feels the connection. He never needs to feel far away. We want him very close."
Divorce is rarely easy and never uncomplicated, and Richardson's separation from Arkansas was no different. Much like other coaches of his generation -- John Chaney and John Thompson leap to mind -- Richardson spoke his mind, even if saying his piece made others uncomfortable. He once used a pair of memorably derogatory terms to describe fans and battled Broyles on everything from shoe contracts to coaches' salaries.The coach and the athletic director are cut of the same cloth, two children of the Old South, albeit raised on opposite sides. Proud, loyal and equally stubborn, they co-existed rather than co-worked, their less-than-collegial relationship overshadowing the fact Broyles made a bold move when he hired Richardson in 1985. Richardson was the first black head coach hired at Arkansas, a pioneer in a state forever pockmarked by the struggles of the Little Rock Nine to desegregate the schools.Mark Zerof/US PresswireJohn Pelphrey has Arkansas back in contention in the SEC this season.
"To me, you have to look at the background of each man," said Dr. Gordon Morgan, a longtime sociology professor at Arkansas, who more than once tried to mediate a reconciliation between his two friends, Richardson and Broyles. "They were coming from the same place, but Nolan was going uphill and Frank was coming downhill. Would they ever reach a level playing field? During the years that Nolan was prominent, I don't think they had much to do with each other and that made reaching that level playing field hard."
Together yet separately, both grew to bigger-than-life proportions in Arkansas. They still call Broyles 'Coach' there, though he hasn't picked up a whistle in 32 years. He is considered the Razorbacks' architect, the 84-year-old, iconic face of a university.
And though his abrasive comments occasionally made people uncomfortable, Richardson and his 40 Minutes of Hell were equally adored as they racked up trophies. Along with the national title, the Razorbacks made two other Final Four appearances under Richardson, won three Southwest Conference titles, two SEC titles and made 13 trips to the NCAA tournament.
John Pelphrey was a Kentucky senior the first year Arkansas played in the SEC tournament and recalled standing on the fringe of the court at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex when he heard a roar.
"We were being interviewed," Pelphry said, "and there was this disturbance, like a chant, and I thought, 'What in the world?' The whole place stopped and turned. The Razorbacks were in the building and the fans were calling the Hogs. They were like rock stars.
He's our greatest coach. He coached the greatest team in Arkansas history. He put his hard work, his life, into this place and it's very important to me that he feels the connection. He never needs to feel far away. We want him very close.
Considering each man's personality, it probably shouldn't be surprising that when it ended, it ended in a fireball instead of a flicker. But the abruptness and acrimony was nonetheless stunning.
On Feb. 23, 2002, mired in a sub-.500 season and feeling the heat from a dissatisfied fan base, a frustrated and angry Richardson ranted following a loss to Kentucky, "If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take this job tomorrow."
Two days later, he backed up his position, asserting that, "My great-great grandfather came over on the ship, not Nolan Richardson. I didn't come over on that ship so I expect to be treated a little bit differently. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on."
Though Richardson eventually backed off, insisting he was happy with his job, he met with Broyles and White. Broyles later said he interpreted Richardson's initial comments as a lack of confidence in the program.
By March 1, before the season was over, Richardson was gone. He agreed to a buyout that would be negated if he took another job.
"[Former football coach] Houston Nutt got the golden chains taken off of him," Richardson recalled this week. "That was paid and he received a job. They didn't want to pay, didn't take the ball and chain off me so I could get a smaller job. If I did, I had to pay them. What does that tell you? I'm different."
That alone would have been an ugly end, but nine months later it turned even uglier when Richardson sued the university. He claimed Chancellor White and Broyles had denied him his right to free speech and treated him differently because he was black. A parade of witnesses took the stand -- including Broyles, who testified for an entire day -- laying out Arkansas' dirty laundry for all to see.
In the end the judge dismissed the case, but the damage was done. Richardson disappeared from the school and the program he helped define -- and fans found themselves choosing sides between two of their most revered men.
Morgan tried twice to mend the faces between Broyles and Richardson, asking if the three men could meet up somewhere out of town to hash it out. Considering Richardson and Broyles remain steadfast in their opinions, even five years after the lawsuit was dismissed, it's no surprise Morgan couldn't organize the ceasefire.
"It wasn't difficult for me at all," Broyles said of the lawsuit. "Why? Because I knew I wasn't guilty."
Said Richardson, "My grandmother raised me to believe if you can't stand up for what's right, then don't stand up at all."
But Broyles retired in December 2007 and White resigned six months later.
When new athletic director Jeff Long arrived on campus from Pittsburgh, he was aware of the lawsuit and tension and figured he'd find a campus community not interested in reconnecting with Richardson.
He found just the opposite."I frankly expected people not to like him, but instead I found a university that by and large, loved and adored him," Long said. "Not everyone, but by and large that was the sentiment."[+] EnlargeGetty ImagesRichardson, who guided the Razorbacks to a national championship in 1994, was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
With the 15th anniversary of the championship team fast approaching and Long believing strongly that Richardson's place in Arkansas history was too important to erase, he took action to welcome the old coach back into the fold.
He knew Pelphrey and Richardson had spoken and got along, knowing also that Richardson would be at a non-university-sponsored tipoff luncheon.
What he didn't know was how it would sit with his predecessor. Broyles remains on campus, working with the Razorback Foundation, Arkansas' athletics fundraising arm.
"I have no grudge or animosity toward Nolan at all," Broyles said. "Nolan did what he thought he had to do. I don't go through life holding grudges."
Finally, Richardson is of the same mind.
In November the two took their first formal baby steps. Broyles, at Morgan's urging, attended Richardson's induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. The two men shook hands and spoke briefly.
"I see no reason for Frank not to be with the university until he dies," Richardson said. "To me, he deserves that. I don't have any ill feelings toward him."
Richardson said the impetus to come back is not for himself, but rather for his players. The university had tried to honor the '94 team previously, as well as some of Richardson's other squads, but players balked. They didn't want to go if their coach wouldn't go.
"You could hear in their voices that some of them didn't care much for the institution they graduated from," Richardson said. "I would tell them to go on, it's not about me. But they'd always say, 'But you brought us here, coach.' So to me, this is a healing process."
There will be a "Celebration of a Championship" reception and dinner on Feb. 28 and an on-court ceremony the next night.
The details are still being finalized, but Morgan has a vision he'd like to offer. He would love, he said, to see Richardson and Broyles side-by-side in matching red blazers accepting the honor together.
"Nolan couldn't have gotten where he is without Frank and Frank couldn't have gotten where he is without Nolan," Morgan said. "On this campus and with our teams, we teach citizenship. So I say let's practice some of that ourselves.
"We know all of this is psychologically destabilizing. If they came out, shook hands and kissed and made up, so to speak, the entire campus would be much improved for it. It's time."
Last month, Richardson returned to The Barn, attending a press conference with Pelphrey and Long to lay out the plans for the celebration. Things had changed -- the offices were stocked with much nicer furniture than he had, for one thing.
He took his time walking around, greeted old and familiar faces, enjoying a moment he wasn't sure would ever come. It was like revisiting a childhood home, where the good memories finally outweighed the bad.
When he turned off Razorback Road this time, he did so with a smile.
This time he'll be back.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Delaware clinches 1st NCAA bid since 1999
- Manhattan wins MAAC, punches NCAA ticket
- Florida, Wichita St. remain 1-2; UK falls out
- Self 'confident' Embiid will play despite back
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
- Nike Men's Arkansas Razorbacks Cardinal Basketball Practice Performance T-Shirt