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Inside Nolan 

Nolan Richardson reflects on the view from the top.

click to enlarge Nolan Richardson image
  • Spencer Trey
  • COMPLEX EMOTIONS: For Richardson, a national championship does not erase decades of racial injustice.

The National Championship, coach of the year, critical praise — yes, 1994 has been a tough year for Nolan Richardson.

The head coach of the Razorback basketball team has tossed and turned through the long, dark night of the soul, moving to a state that resented him when his first team came up a loser, losing his daughter to leukemia, glowering as players, not he, got credit for the success of his teams. Well it's morning now, and the bad dreams are gone, but a fog still hangs over Richardson's mood.

Conventional thinking has it that NCAA champions go to Disney World, not mumble about respect. What more could a man want?

The answer, suggested in interviews with Nolan and his closest friends, is that he doesn't want anything for himself. He wants to rock the system. And so the occasional friction with fans who are merely satisfied with a winning basketball team.

Bear with Richardson, because now that he has a national platform, his lectures about racism, respect and opportunity are likely just beginning, not coming to an end. More than ever, it seems, fans are likely to learn that Richardson comes in more than one flavor.

"I think there are those who say he's our coach, and that ought to be the end of it," said Richardson, nestled in a leather couch before a November practice. "But I hope that I came here to be more than a basketball coach. I honestly feel that when I leave this world the Good Man up there isn't going to ask how many games I won. But he might ask I've loved my fellow man." And Richardson's way of proving that he cares is to see that fellow black coaches and players won't have to battle watered-down versions of the Jim Crow laws that kept him sleeping in the same hotel with the white players on his high school baseball team.

"People wonder because we won the national championship, does that mean everything is OK now?" says Richardson. "I think people think winning to me is the ultimate. You ought to be so happy, they say. It ain't that way with me. I've always believed I was going to win — doesn't my record say that about me? — so when I do prove that it can happen, am I going to jump all over the world? No. I'm as good as my last game, I know that. Within myself, I can enjoy winning a championship. But I'm not going to go crazy. There's other things that need to be accomplished."

Andy Stoglin, head basketball coach at Jackson (Mississippi) State University, friend and former Richardson assistant, sees this emotional restraint as a defense against getting too close to Arkansas and its people, in case his fortunes tum for the worse.

"Nolan loves Arkansas," Stoglin said. "He's bought land there, and is planning to retire there. But professionally, he feels that he has to have that hard shell, because it hurts more when you trust people and you get crossed.

"I remember once during his third year at Tulsa, after he won the NIT, people turned on him because he only won 17 games. Richardson is a very sensitive person that cares about people. He's just been beaten in the ground so long that he doesn't trust anybody.

"People need to know that he's been bruised," Stoglin says. "He's had to tum another cheek so many times that he is due some respect.They still disrespected him, in my opinion, the year before the championship, when he had one of his best coaching years but he could not get the coach of the year award, even in the conference...I was down for a month, and I know he was too."

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