The NCAA tournament is right around the corner and Nolan Richardson is coaching the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA.
"I've been asked by friends if I've been banned from college basketball all these years for being outspoken," the former Arkansas coach said. "I'd have to say yes. Anyone can see that."
Richardson coaching the Shock would be like Tony Stewart driving a passenger bus. With all due respect to the Shock, it's an exquisite waste of talent. It's also a reminder of the iron fist of college basketball and its ability to reach across time and eternally punish someone it perceives as trouble.
|Unable to get a second chance in college, Nolan Richardson is coaching in the WNBA now. (Getty Images)|
"I loved the game and what happened at Arkansas -- for a little while -- drained my love of the game," said Richardson, who has released a new book about his life called Forty Minutes of Hell.
"My love of basketball is back now," he says, "but it's been a very long ride."
Richardson's life has been operatic, and perhaps its most fascinating twist is that while DUI-ists, crooks and NCAA rules violators have received second chances in college basketball over the past decade, Richardson never did.
"I'm sure that after what happened to me at the University of Arkansas, I became, in the eyes of the guys who do the hiring and firing in college basketball, an uppity guy," said Richardson. "I don't apologize for how I conducted myself at Arkansas. I was not a 'Yes sir, no sir' type of man. All these years, athletic directors, I think, see me as someone with baggage.
"But look around. Look at some of the coaches who have gotten hired since I was let go. If I have baggage, what do they have?"
Florida International hired Isiah Thomas, who wrecked the Continental Basketball Association, the Knicks and was successfully sued for sexual harassment. West Virginia hired Bob Huggins despite the former Cincinnati coach pleading no contest to driving under the influence and being caught by police video allegedly so drunk he was unable to recite portions of the alphabet.
John Calipari is a master, but NCAA trouble has followed him at his coaching stops like the smell of rotten poultry from a garbage scow.
The Sutton family has been a public nightmare soaked in alleged alcohol and prescription pain-killer abuse. Yet the jobs came. Bob Knight's behavior at Indiana was consistently atrocious and he still got a second chance at Texas Tech.
Many in the sport -- and in life -- get second, third and fourth opportunities. Some deservedly so. Richardson never did.
And please don't tell me it's because Richardson was a jerk. If being a jerk were a prerequisite for not being employed then 75 percent of coaches in the sport would be out of work. Knight would've never gotten a job in the first place.
Being an ass is part of the business.
"The difference is perception," Richardson explained, "black coaches, we're judged as a group, and judged more harshly. White coaches are judged individually and usually more leniently."
The coaching performance Richardson did at Arkansas remains one of the best of the past two decades. He took the Razorbacks to the Final Four three times, advancing to two national title games and capturing the title in 1994. He became the only coach to win a national championship on the junior college, NIT and NCAA levels. The Razorbacks haven't been back to the Sweet 16 since he was fired, and in all Richardson won over 500 games.
In 2002, in what some would call a moment of hubris and others would say was truthful, Richardson spoke out against what he claimed was mistreatment from fans and the administration due to his ethnicity. He challenged Frank Broyles, the athletic director, to fire him. Broyles obliged. Richardson sued (the lawsuit was dismissed in 2004).
Richardson's mistake was daring the administration to fire him. It wasn't speaking out or suing. After all, Knight got the Red Raiders job with media reports after his firing from Indiana saying a lawsuit was inevitable. Knight later did take legal action against the university.
Richardson was deemed radioactive following his firing and never got an opportunity to coach again on a big-time level. One athletic director explained that when he considered hiring Richardson for an opening some years ago he was told by one prominent booster: "We'll never be able to control that guy."
To many African-American journalists who covered Richardson during his apex with the Razorbacks (I was one of them), he was a transcendent figure who justifiably railed against an unjust college basketball system. That's the way many of us saw it; some of you will view it quite differently.
Witnessing Richardson finish his career with the WNBA is shocking to those of us who have followed his life. I'm not certain what the comparison is. I'm not even certain there is one. It's just stunning because Richardson was that good.
Richardson didn't build his empire with pluck and good will. It was constructed with grit and glue, making him no different from any other great coach of his era (or any era).
Toward the end of our conversation, Richardson spoke about perception. His words, as usual, are blunt and honest. Don't read on if you're easily bruised.
Richardson has always had great respect for coaches at historically black universities like John McLendon, Clarence Gaines and Don Corbett, among others.
"No matter how well they did the white power structure in college basketball mostly ignored them," said Richardson. "If McLendon had been white, he'd have been a star in the coaching world. If all the great coaches in basketball history like Knight or [John] Wooden had been black, they'd be nobodies."
To some, Richardson will sound bitter. To others, he'll seem truthful.
To me, most of all, he should've gotten a second chance.