Richardson cheered, 1994 team feted
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Nolan Richardson walked slowly onto the court as if savoring every moment. His greatest team was finally being honored, and the former Arkansas coach was soaking it all in.
Moments later, he was helping lead a 'Pig Sooie' cheer, and for a short while it felt like old times again at Bud Walton Arena.
Richardson and the rest of the Razorbacks' 1994 national champions were honored at halftime of Arkansas' 89-67 win over Georgia on Sunday. It was Richardson's first visit to an Arkansas home game since his coaching days, and it came exactly seven years to the day after the school announced it was buying out the remainder of his contract in an acrimonious ending to his tenure.
After a short video tribute, players from the '94 team were introduced one by one. Richardson followed as the crowd roared. The former coach kept his remarks brief, but he was in his element, urging the fans to make some noise for the current Razorbacks, who already had a 17-point lead.
"This team that's coming back on the floor, you've got to help them win basketball games!" Richardson shouted.
The halftime ceremony capped a weekend that included a banquet Saturday night. Players from the '94 team were also on hand well before Sunday's game to sign autographs while a replay of their championship game against Duke played on the big screen.
"I saw a guy I grew up with -- he lived around the corner from me," said Corliss Williamson, the Final Four's most outstanding player in '94. "He actually brought a piece of the glass backboard I broke in junior high. That was the coolest thing that I signed."
Richardson was Arkansas' coach for 17 seasons. He was fired in 2002 after he said toward the end of a frustrating season, "If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow."
He later lost a discrimination lawsuit against the school, but relations eventually thawed. Frank Broyles -- who was athletic director when Richardson was fired -- retired at the beginning of last year and was replaced by Jeff Long.
"I think some people use that 'healing' term too often, but I think in this case, I think it's an apropos word," Long said. "I think that 'healing' is a key term for what's happening here, and it's not just with the student-athletes and the coaches. It's the fan base as well."
Richardson's head is now full of white hair. He joked at Saturday night's banquet that he was trying to copy the white-haired Broyles' look. It's not clear to what degree those two have reconciled. Broyles was not part of Sunday's ceremony.
"We don't do no talking," Richardson said before Sunday's game. "We shake hands, and our pleasantries is good enough."
Richardson sat courtside for Sunday's game, his former players a row behind him. When he came out before the opening tip, the crowd greeted him with cheers that grew increasingly loud as fans realized he was there.
This season, Arkansas has made the wrong kind of history. Auburn came in late in January and handed the Hogs their most lopsided loss at Bud Walton Arena since the venue opened in 1993. Last month, Kentucky's Jodie Meeks scored 45 points in Fayetteville, breaking the arena record that Arkansas' Alex Dillard set during the championship season.
The Razorbacks were determined not to let anything bad happen this weekend, on or off the court.
"I started three days ago telling the guys, 'Make sure we are where we need to be, act the right way, dress appropriately. If something goes wrong this weekend, it's not going to be because of the basketball team,'" said John Pelphrey, the current coach.
Richardson wasn't worried after offering his support for the event.
"I had no reason to have an ill feeling whatsoever," he said. "Whatever they wanted of me, I was willing to give, and the reason I'm so willing to give is because they're honoring my guys. These are my guys."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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