First in a multi-part series
Legendary coaches can tell such great stories, and Nolan Richardson ranks right up there at the top of such storytellers.
It would have been preferable to sit and listen at his feet, but a phone call to his Texas home would have to do. Richardson, the 2014 Basketball Hall of Famer, turned 80 years old on Dec. 27 and took time out to talk to this reporter. He was just as engaging as the two previous times we had spoken, then in person.
He grew up in El Paso during the Jim Crow times. “I was one of the biggest kids on the block, the only African American family in the whole neighborhood,” recalled Richardson, who loved playing baseball and was on the local Little League team. “They didn’t let me play all the games because I was bigger than everybody,” so his coach made Richardson third base coach. “I liked that… I looked forward to being on the sidelines.”
It was the beginning of his illustrious decades-long coaching career: “I already realized what I wanted to do was to become a coach,” noted Richardson.
But when he got to high school, playing baseball wasn’t fun anymore and Richardson wanted to quit. But this didn’t sit well with his grandmother, who raised him after his mother died. “My grandmother was a big Jackie Robinson fan,” he recalled. “I decided not to play baseball when they wouldn’t let me stay in the [same] hotel as the team.
“My grandmother pulled me over to the side [and said], ‘Look, if Jackie Robinson would have done what you [are about to] do, nobody would be playing baseball. You need to understand this is not about you. It’s about your kids, and those kids after those kids.”
Then, as a teenager, Richardson didn’t fully understand his grandmother’s simple advice, but he took her words to heart and would apply them later during his successful coaching career. “She meant if I didn’t do my best job, we are never judged as an individual. If one Black can’t get it done, there’s not going to be another Black to follow him for a long time.”
Richardson later played college basketball at Eastern Arizona Junior College, then transferred and finished his college education and playing at Texas Western College (now Texas at El Paso) for his junior and senior years. He began coaching at Bowie High School in El Paso (1968-1977), then moved to Western Texas JC (1977-80), where he won the 1980 national championship in his third and final season.
“I thought we should have won it twice,” said Richardson, who moved to Tulsa (1980-1985). “I took four of my [junior college] players with me to Tulsa… We won the NIT in 1980-81,” he noted.
With his grandmother’s words, Richardson would become a door opener: He was the first Black coach at Tulsa and is largely credited for bringing the school to national prominence. He became the first coach in NCAA history to win 50 games in his first two seasons there.
Richardson in 1985 became the first Black coach at a major predominantly White university in the South when Arkansas hired him. Along with his flamboyant personality and game-day sport coats and polka dot ties, he also was an excellent tactician, a fact that too often Black coaches aren’t given credit for, then and now. At Arkansas he would become only the second Black coach to win the NCAA national championship with his hellish up-tempo playing style.
Next: Richardson’s “40 minutes of Hell”