Nolan Richardson finally has his critics on the run

For the longest, Nolan Richardson's critics conceded only that he could recruit and motivate. It took the 1992-93 season for all but the most virulent diehards to burn the final bridge and say, "Yeah, that's coaching, all right."

A small, inexperienced, overachieving University of Arkansas basketball team, not seriously considered national caliber when the season started, fought to the NCAA round of 16 before losing narrowly to eventual national champion North Carolina.

This was not Richardson's strongest team, but in many ways it was his most important. It sends the coach and the program into a new 18,000- seat arena at an all-time peak of popularity and interest.

"If the next few years get any better, I can't stand it," Richardson said. "But I do expect things to keep getting better all the time."

As one of the pioneer black head coaches in this region, and as a fast-pace exponent flopping initially in a state educated to a different approach, Richardson was second-guessed to an unprecedented extent — until last winter.

"Some things are unfair, and I've been through all that, but you expect fans to have high expectations," he said. "The worst thing would be if they didn't care."


Most of a recent interview concerned the circumstances that led him from Tulsa University into the blaze of Arkansas expectations eight years ago.

The NCAA tournament pairings are announced in annual Sunday afternoon TV rituals. On that Sunday in 1985, Richardson's Tulsa team was matched with the coach's alma mater, Texas-El Paso. The next day, the Richardsons heard a diagnosis of leukemia for their teen-aged daughter Yvonne. "She'd been tired all the time — no energy — for several weeks," Richardson said. "We thought it was probably 'mono.' I wasn't really with the team, getting ready for the tournament. [UTEP shot 55 free throws and won.] And that was our situation at the time we heard that Eddie Sutton was leaving Arkansas for Kentucky. I assumed [Arkansas] would go after another coach who played the Sutton style, the Iba style. It never crossed my mind they'd be interested in me."

Sure enough, UA athletic director Frank Broyles first checked out Bob Donewald, then of Illinois State, who coached the patient, disciplined system.

"Bob and Nolan had pretty much dominated the Missouri Valley Conference between them for a few years," said Tulsa World sports editor Bill Conners. "Like, one would win the round robin and the other the conference tournament and so forth. They had some classic -games with each other. Good basketball, contrasting styles."

Conners, in 1974, had helped steer Broyles to Sutton, then a rising young coach at Creighton University. The day after Sutton resigned in '85, Broyles called Conners in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Conners, was covering spring training baseball.

"Frank seemed very interested in Donewald, and he also talked about Nolan," Conners said Monday. "Tulsa basketball was better under Nolan than it had been before or has been since, but I had the impression Arkansas was looking for a coach to continue Eddie's system at that point."

In the next week so, Donewald and a few other real or rumored candidates faded and Broyles was talking in earnest to Richardson. And Nolan's first inclination was to tum it down.

"We were very happy at Tulsa," he said. "I felt like we had built something up and had it going good. When I got there, the TV program was $3,000, for example. Yvonne and Rose talked me into going to Arkansas. They said, 'you've got to,' and they were right. It was that kind of a career opportunity."


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