Attorneys claim return to job not feasible

Updated: June 9, 2004, 8:08 PM ET
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Lawyers for Nolan Richardson asked a federal judge Wednesday to award the fired basketball coach $8.86 million in his discrimination lawsuit against the University of Arkansas.

Both sides filed papers detailing how they would like U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr. to rule. Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday.

In asking the judge to rule in his favor, Richardson asked for back pay, other lost compensation and $2 million in damages. Richardson had previously said he wants his job back, but abandoned that notion in Wednesday's filing.

"Given the seriously strained relationship between plaintiff and the university defendants and the presence of Coach Stan Heath in the position formerly held by plaintiff, reinstatement of the plaintiff is not a practicable remedy," his lawyers wrote.

Arkansas fired Richardson on March 1, 2002, saying the coach had expressed a lack of faith in the Razorbacks' basketball program by saying publicly he would leave if the school bought out his contract. Richardson sued, claiming racial discrimination and a violation of free-speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The nonjury trial started May 5 and testimony ended last week. Wilson heard 18 days of testimony.

Since they were directed to give guidance on how the judge should rule, each sides' filings are written in the manner of a final court order. Predictably, they arrive at opposite conclusions on nearly all aspects of the case.

A key issue in both filings is exactly when athletic director Frank Broyles and chancellor John White decided to fire Richardson. The university argues the decision was made Feb. 24, 2002, in response to Richardson publicly saying after a loss at Kentucky, "If they pay me my money, I'll be gone tomorrow."

Richardson's lawyers asked the judge to rule the decision was not made until Feb. 25, 2002, when the coach held a news conference at which he alleged racism and evoked images of slavery. Testimony showed that Richardson was not informed of his firing until Feb. 28, 2002, and was not given a letter of termination until March 1, 2002.

Richardson attorney John Walker wrote that White's memos about the firing linked the dismissal to the Feb. 24 buyout remarks and the Feb. 25 remarks referencing slavery and how Richardson perceived the Arkansas playing field to be tilted against him.

University attorneys wrote that the judge should find that the firing decision was made Feb. 24. Several members of the school's board of trustees -- but not all -- testified they were notified that day that Richardson would be released. One member, Dr. Joe Hargrove, said system President B. Alan Sugg told him Feb. 28, 2002, that the school was only considering termination.

Walker wrote that Arkansas fired Richardson for exercising his free-speech rights by talking about racial matters, including being told by Broyles in 1999 that his being named an assistant athletic director was a "token" appointment.

The university asked the judge to find the firing was based on the buyout remark: "Richardson's dare to buy out his contract cannot be characterized as relevant to anything but his own personal frustrations with the nature of his job. None of his comments addressed, or were intended to address, racial or social issues, some breach of the public trust or misconduct by university officials."

During testimony, athletic director Frank Broyles acknowledged that in recounting a question that had been posed to him in 2000, he used a racial slur. Broyles said after Richardson used the term "redneck S.O.B.s" in regard to some fans, a school supporter asked him whether that was any different than calling someone a "n-----" S.O.B.

Broyles said he, "regrettably," repeated the comment word-for-word to another group of supporters.

Richardson's lawyers sought to use that incident to show racism and link it to the coach's firing. The university asked the judge to rule otherwise, writing that "Broyles' single comment made two years prior is so remote from Richardson's termination that no causal link between the two events can be shown."

But Walker urged the judge to find that neither Broyles nor White used any objective criteria to support their claim that his buyout remarks had damaged the program.

"They did not attempt to gauge the reaction of fans or ask the basketball players how they felt about Richardson's statement," Walker wrote in a footnote referring to Broyles' claim that his "experience" let him know when a coach had lost faith in a program.

And while Broyles says he relied on his experience, Broyles also testified that he had never heard any other coach make a similar statement, Walker noted. "This discrepancy places Broyles' credibility in question."

Walker asked Wilson to find all of Broyles' testimony unworthy because he admitted on the stand that he had lied to reporters about whether he would recommend Richardson for an athletic director's post and had lied on Richardson's job evaluation by saying in 2001 that he believed the coach was doing a good job.

He also says White's testimony should be disregarded because White in 2002 wrote in a memo that he fired Richardson on Broyles' advice, but said at trial that he made the decision on his own. Also, Walker said, White said he told a university spokesman Feb. 25, 2002, that Richardson would be fired, but told reporters two days later that he and Sugg had no knowledge of a buyout.

The university asked the judge to find that Richardson proved none of his allegations, writing that "upon consideration of all the evidence in the record that Richardson offered in his attempt to show that the defendants' stated reason for firing him was not true, and all other evidence he contends show racial animus on the part of Broyles, White or Sugg, this court is left with only one clear impression: Richardson failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his race was a motivating factor in the university's decision to terminate him."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press