Richardson, Nolan 1941–
Nolan Richardson 1941–
Nolan Richardson has become a basketball icon as the second black coach in history to win college basketball’s most precious prize— the National Collegiate Association of America’s (NCAA) Division I basketball championship. Under Richardson’s leadership the Arkansas Razorbacks took the NCAA crown in the spring of 1994 in a victory that was cheered by the entire population of Arkansas, including U.S. president Bill Clinton and his family. For Richardson, the NCAA championship served as another triumph in a career marred by racist oversights and stereotyping. “They say I play street ball,” Richardson told the Washington Post. “I hear a lot of labels, everything but ‘Great Coach.’ I guess it’s just a matter of who’s doing what. When you’re stereotyped, you just have to live with it.”
Regardless of stereotypes, Richardson has the record of a great coach. In ten years at Bowie High School in San Antonio, Texas, his teams went 190–80. In three years at West Texas Junior College, his teams went 98–14 and won a national championship. Then he moved to Tulsa University in Oklahoma, where his Golden Hurricanes compiled a 129–37 record, with three NCAA visits and one National Invitational Tournament (NIT) championship. Finally in Arkansas, his Razorbacks earned a 220–75 record through 1994. The Razorbacks had two trips to the NCAA Final Four, winning the NCAA championship in 1994, a first for the University of Arkansas. “It is safe to say that where Nolan Richardson is, wins are sure to follow,” wrote Bob Ryan in the Boston Globe.
Richardson had a difficult childhood in the segregated border town of El Paso, Texas. His mother died when he was three and his father died when he was 12. Nolan and his sisters were raised by their grandmother, who they nicknamed “Old Momma.” She preached common sense, education, and discipline to the children as they grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. The hardships Richardson faced forced him to find creative solutions when he wanted something. “When I couldn’t go to the movies on my side of town, I’d just go across the border and go to the movies,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “When I couldn’t ride the bus on my side of town, I’d go across the border and ride the bus. I’m very proud of where I was; I’m very proud that I know where I’ve been.”
Richardson was the first black student to attend El Paso’s Bowie High School when it integrated in 1955. He was an excellent athlete who played football, basketball, and baseball. Many observers thought he might have a chance to become a
Born December 27, 1941, in El Paso, TX; married second wife, Rose Davila; children: (first marriage) Madalyn, Bradley, Nolan III; (second marriage) Yvonne (deceased), Sylvia. Education: University of Texas-El Paso, B.A., 1964.
Bowie High School, El Paso, TX, teacher and basketball coach, 1965–78; West Texas Junior College, Snyder, TX, basketball coach, 1978–80; Tulsa University, Tulsa, OK, basketball coach, 1980–85; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, basketball coach, 1985—.
Member: American Red Cross (board of directors), Easter Seal Society.
Selected awards: Three-time Texas High School basketball Coach of the Year, c. 1960s; Naismith Coach of the Year, 1994.
Addresses: Office —University of Arkansas, Broyles Athletic Center, Fayetteville, AR 72701.
professional ball player. Yet Richardson faced difficulties despite his talents. When his high school teams travelled, he was unable to stay in the same hotels as the white players. He often faced racist remarks from fans and fellow students. “I had to be twice as good in order to survive,” he recalled in the Orlando Sentinel.
After high school Richardson attended junior college in Arizona on an athletic scholarship. After making Junior College All-America as a first baseman, the major league Houston Astros offered him a contract for the Class-C minor leagues. Though he would have been a professional ball player, Richardson couldn’t afford to accept the meager offer because he had a wife and children to support. Instead, he enrolled at Texas Western University— now the University of Texas-El Paso—to complete his bachelor’s degree. Texas Western did not have a baseball team at the time, so Richardson played basketball. There he learned the intricacies of sound defense from coach Don Haskins, and he completed his training to become a school teacher.
To Richardson’s surprise, the San Diego Chargers football team paid him $500 to attend a tryout camp. On the verge of making the team, he pulled a hamstring. His hamstring also kept him out of the fledgling American Basketball Association a few years later, when he hurt himself trying out for the Dallas Chaparrals. Knowing that he would never have a career as a professional athlete, Richardson became all the more determined to succeed as a coach.
Richardson returned to his alma mater, Bowie High, as a physical education teacher, where during his first three years, he coached seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. His coaching opportunities were limited by his race, however. Richardson told the Boston Globe that “the principal said, ‘Nolan, you’re going to have to specialize. I know you like baseball, basketball, and football, so what’s it going to be?’ and I said, ‘Football.’ He said, ‘You will never be a head football coach at this school, or anywhere in Texas.’”
Richardson was not particularly surprised by his principal’s pronouncement—after all, he had grown up in El Paso and knew the limitations imposed upon him by his race. Told he would never become a head football coach, he switched to basketball. With players who averaged five-foot-ten, Richardson won games in the early 1960s. He was named Texas High School Basketball Coach of the Year three times in the decade he spent at Bowie High.
From Bowie High, Richardson moved to West Texas Junior College in 1979, where he quickly became a hero as his team reached the junior college championship tournament in his first year and won it the next. After three years at West Texas Junior College, Richardson became a coach for Tulsa University. During his first year, his team won the NIT championship, and over the next five years, the Golden Hurricanes of Tulsa went 129–37, making either the NIT or the NCAA tournament every season.
Richardson built a national reputation for himself at Tulsa on the strength of his record and by wearing loud, polka-dotted shirts to his games. Commenting on his unusual attire, Richardson told Sports Illustrated: “I’ve always believed that a person in my position should be more than just a basketball coach. With my visibility, I can help bring the community together. And especially as a black man, I can show people how to respect one another better.”
Richardson faced one of the happiest and one of the saddest moments in his life in 1985. The University of Arkansas offered him the head coaching position for its Razorbacks basketball team. The proposition was a golden opportunity for Richardson and a milestone for African Americans. No black man had ever been head basketball coach at the university; no university in the entire Southeast Conference—of which Arkansas was a part—had ever had a black head basketball coach. But his daughter, Yvonne, had been diagnosed with leukemia and was being treated by specialists in Tulsa. Sick as she was, his daughter convinced Richardson to accept the job in Arkansas. Reluctantly he bid his family farewell and moved to Fayetteville.
Richardson’s first two years with the Razorbacks were a personal and professional disaster. Taking over from popular coach Eddie Sutton, his teams compiled 12–16 and 19–14 records. Disgruntled fans sent Richardson hate mail and booed him at games. Richardson did not particularly care about the basketball games, though; he had his daughter on his mind. During his second year with Arkansas, after a long and extremely painful battle with cancer, Yvonne died. But even during the most acute phase of her illness, Yvonne had encouraged her father to produce a winning basketball team. After her death, he devoted himself fully to this objective. “I’m a stronger person today—strictly because of her,” Richardson told Sports Illustrated. “But I’m human. Sometimes I ask God, ‘Why?’ On the other hand, whenever I catch [my wife] Rose saying that, I say, ‘Come on, we have to accept it. God just chose to pick from our garden.’”
Though some Arkansas fans had brutalized Richardson during his daughter’s sickness, the university administrators did not. After his daughter’s death, the president of the university rewrote the coach’s five-year contract, beginning it all over again, as if his first two years did not count. Bolstered by this display of confidence, Richardson delivered the product that the fans wanted most—a consistently winning basketball team. The Razorbacks made the NCAA Final Four in 1990 and again in 1994, a year they spent ranked among the top three teams in the nation.
Richardson’s fast-moving, run-and-gun brand of basketball was criticized as dangerous and undisciplined by a cadre of mostly white journalists. “It wasn’t merely that in 1985 Richardson, a black man, succeeded Eddie Sutton, a white man, who introduced the game to the state…. It was also that Richardson had his own ideas about how basketball should be played, notions that didn’t square with the walk-it-up style on which Razorback fans had been reared,” according to Sports Illustrated correspondent Alexander Wolff.
For his part, Richardson accused these same journalists of using a double standard to judge black and white coaches. White coaches win because they are intelligent; black coaches win because they can recruit good players—or so the perception seemed to Richardson. “I’ve known all my life that there’s always been a stigma placed on black coaches,” he told USA Today. “You listen; it comes out clear and loud. ‘What a great recruiter. What a great motivator.’ And then, it kind of stops right there. Then, you listen to another guy talk about another coach who happens not to be an African American. ‘What an intelligent, great coach.’ I have a problem with that.”
Richardson elaborated on his perception of college coaching in the Boston Globe. “I keep looking at my record,” he said. “Top five in winning percentage. But they talk about top coaches and they never talk about Nolan Richardson. Look at my team [in 1993].” Richardson lost three key players to the National Basketball Association (NBA) that year and another missed half the season with an injury. Richardson appraised the unexpected situation and its outcome, stating in the Globe, “[Four players] gone, just like that. But we make the [NCAA] Sweet 16 anyway, and nobody even suggests I should be ‘Coach of the Year’ in the conference. It seemed like a helluva job to me. That’s sad.”
With the 1994 NCAA Championship—not to mention numerous hugs and kisses from a grateful president Clinton—Richardson has finally earned the recognition he deserves. He was named 1994 Naismith Coach of the Year, and his Razorbacks spent nine weeks as the consensus number one team in the nation even before beating Duke University in the championship finals. Richardson hopes that his new visibility will help to enhance the opportunities for black coaches on all levels. “I’ve always been a fighter for opportunity,” he told the Washington Post. “That’s never changed. The only difference now is that people listen.”
Asked about his future plans, in Arkansas or elsewhere, Richardson told the Washington Post: “If people didn’t treat me right here [at the University of Arkansas], I’d be gone. I don’t look at myself as just a basketball coach. I’m also a person who I think they understand and like. I love it here. I love being here, working for the people I work for, coaching these kids. I’ve had that opportunity. I want more people to have the same opportunity.” In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he concluded of his singular career: “My grandmother told me one thing: ‘Know where you came from, and if you don’t like the road you’re traveling, make your own road.’ I like that saying. I made my own road.”
Boston Globe, April 4,1994, p. 37; April 6,1994, p. 57.
Orlando Sentinel, February 9, 1994, p. B1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1994, p. C4.
San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1994, p. B1.
Sports Illustrated, March 7, 1988, p. 94; April 2, 1990, p. 28.
USA Today, April 4, 1994, p. C1.
Washington Post, March 27, 1994, p. D9; May 30, 1994, p. D1.
"Richardson, Nolan 1941–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/richardson-nolan-1941
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