Richardson had never shied away from provocative accusations of racial inequality, but at these conferences he unleashed more vitriol than ever. After a loss in Lexington, Ky. he said he’d leave the university if the remainder of his $7.21 million contract was bought out. The worst of it came in Fayetteville:
”When I look at all of you people in this room, I see no one who looks like me, talks like me or acts like me,” he said the white reporters at the Ark. press conference. ”Now, why don’t you recruit? Why don’t the editors recruit like I’m recruiting?”
Richardson, the only black among the Fayetteville campus’s 17 head coaches according to a New York Times article, also said he was treated differently because of his race.
”See, my great-great-grandfather came over on the ship, I didn’t,” he said. ”And I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship. Not Nolan Richardson.
”I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on.”
In the ESPNU video, former Arkansas chancellor John White says the anger had boiled to a point that it could burn the university:
It was important for me that he send the message that he was happy at the University of Arkansas. Because people all over the state – particularly African Americans in this state – were watching Coach Richardson and they were making decisions about whether their sons and daughters should come to the University of Arkansas to go to school.
In the end, Richardson’s greatest strength became his ultimate undoing, Bradburd says. “We can never escape ourselves and what made him a great coach was this us-against-the-world mentality.”
Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas Razorbacks faced no more daunting obstacle on their path to the 1994 national championship than the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Ky. Since losing to the Hogs in 1992, the #4 Wildcats had reeled off 33 consecutive victories at home. When the #3 Hogs entered Rupp Arena on Feb. 9, 1994, the Wildcats roared to a 39-24 lead with 4:44 left in the first half. Arkansas, though, kept up the full-court pressure.“The style that we play, there’s a lot of times you’re gonna get down in the ballgame,” former Arkansas coach Richardon tells ESPNU in its upcoming documentary “40 Minutes of Hell.” “But if you stay after it and stay after it, it’s like wear and tear constantly. Something’s gonna break. And if that breaks then we’re gonna be in position to do something about it.”
By the end of that Feb. 9 game, Kentucky’s endurance was shattered and Arkansas’ confidence had never been stronger. The documentary uncovers footage of Razorback Corliss Williamson walking off the court carrying teammate Al Dillard on his back, and of Scotty Thurman busting out some kind of celebratory shimmy shake amidst the ensuing locker room hoopla.
In his postgame talk, Richardson roars: “We were supposed to do that. That’s how you look at it. That’s why I say it’s a day at the office.”
Such heady times might have become the norm in the mid-1990s, but the Razorbacks program has not seen similar success then. “40 Minutes of Hell” doesn’t explore why success dwindled in the last seven years of Richardson’s 1985-2002 tenure. Instead, it focuses on how the very same forces driving Richardson to that 1994 title led to his fall following two 2002 press conferences.
The video presents original footage and commentary from some of the most pivotal Razorback games of the era, including the 1991 showdown between #1 UNLV and #2 Arkansas at Barnhill Arena and 1993’s 120-68 victory over eventual Big Eight champ Missouri. It also packs in interviews with former President Bill Clinton, current Hog coach Mike Anderson, former Arkansas Chancellor John White and a few key members of Arkansas’ championship team.
Here are some of the most interesting excerpts:
In 1985, Richardson initially declined the Arkansas job. But his daughter Yvonne convinced him to change his mind, pointing out Fayetteville was only 90 miles away and he already had fans there. With only 12 wins in his first season, it was a rocky start:
It wasn’t the easiest place to start a career. I had a lot of racial slurs, I had a lot of hate mail. We weren’t very good. There was one night I could not even go in my condo because of a bomb threat. I wasn’t winning so ‘Get him out of here.’ – Nolan Richardson
Yvonne was diagnosed with leukemia in 1985. Mike Anderson, then an Arkansas assistant coach, helped the Richardsons by regularly driving her 100 miles to Tulsa for treatments. Two years later, however, Yvonne died at age 15.
I think from her I gathered some more strength. It was like ‘I got to show these people something. I got to show them something before I get out of here.’ And you’re gonna help me do this, because you brought me here. Let’s show them. Let’s show them it can be done. – Richardson
Many national pundits favored Duke over Arkansas heading into the 1994 title game. The Blue Devils were deemed more intelligent. This perception, unsurprisingly, irritated Richardson, who used it as fuel to further motivate his team.
Well, it was the smart kids versus the dumb kids. The smart coach against the dumb coach.
How smart do you have to be to block a shot? How smart do you have to be to trap? How smart do you have to be? You have to be smart to do that? What is smart? You don’t have to be as smart as everybody says you need to be. All you have to do is understand the game… [Duke coach Mike] Krzyzewski is no doubt one of the masters of the game, but my team played a little bit better than his.” – Richardson
Arkansas hasn’t returned to the Sweet 16 since 1996. By the early 2000s, the mounting demands seemed to be getting to Richardson.
“I think as the team started to take a dip, the pressure is building. The years of anger and feeling like he had to prove himself, he’s not able to forget that stuff or leave that stuff behind. I think that all came to a head” – Rus Bradburd, author of “40 Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson.”
“I had the impression for several weeks leading up to it, that Nolan was growing tired of pushing the big, big ball up the mountain” – former Arkansas Chancellor John White
Then it all unraveled for Richardson within about a week in February, 2002. At two press conferences – first at Kentucky, then in Fayetteville…
“40 Minutes of Hell premieres Saturday, Feb.11 at 8 p.m. CT on ESPNU. Its preview continues here.
Below is a video of ESPN’s first analysis of the upcoming Cotton Bowl featuring Arkansas and Kansas. I found it to get really interesting around 1:40, when the game is discussed as a possible litmus test of the worthiness of No. 1 LSU’s opponent in the BCS National Championship game.
That is, which team was more worthy of being selected as that foe – Alabama or Oklahoma State? Alabama, of course, won out, and ESPN pointed to strength of schedule as one of the reasons. Although Oklahoma State had more win over Top 25 teams, Alabama was perceived on the whole to have beaten better teams.
ESPN deemed Arkansas as Alabama’s most impressive win of the season, while calling Kansas State as Oklahoma State’s most impressive win of the season.
So, it goes to reason, that if Arkansas beats Kansas State, the SEC’s strength is further justified and Alabama fans should feel even more justified. But an Arkansas loss would give Oklahoma State fans even more milk to spill in regards to their spurned national title hopes.
This is a typical setting for Arkansas’ starting quarterback. In a recent behind-the-scenes show, ESPN fumbled a chance to show more.
The premise of ESPN’s “Depth Chart'” as an hour-long glimpse inside the lives of Arkansas football players struck me as far-fetched from the get-go. When it comes to media availability, Razorback football likely has the tightest restrictions of any program in the state and the walls have only shot up higher this season. Look, for instance, at information flow in the immediate aftermath of Knile Davis’ devastating ankle injury during an August practice. By far the most important news that afternoon was Davis’ injury – which left him screaming and requiring a cart to drive him off the field – yet the UA prohibited teammates from talking about Davis afterward. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee began post-practice comments by informing media only Arkansas’ head coach could discuss injuries, and Bobby Petrino was not scheduled to speak that day.
I absolutely understand elite college footballl programs’ desire to control the when and how news about them is released. What I was less clear about was how that desire would jive with a team of ESPN cameramen and producers trying to document the on and off-field lives of Arkansas’ quarterbacks in the week leading up to the Auburn game. “This position is so closely scrutinized that we created this series to draw back the curtain and reallly show fans what it takes to play quarterback in one of America’s top college programs,” said Vinnie Malhotra, excutive producer of ESPN Content Development, in a press release before the four-part “Depth Chart” series started airing in early October.
So it was with great interest that I watched Arkansas’ episode, which aired last week. By the time I was through, I felt like I had watched the most beautiful sports infomercial ever.