The origins of ’40 Minutes of Hell’

Nolan Richardson celebrates winning the national championship, only the second Black coach to do this at a PWI.
Courtesy of Twitter

Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas teams’ trademark playing style was christened “40 Minutes of Hell.” This curious reporter, during our phone interview, wanted to know where the name came from.

Richardson explained, “It was not an offense or a defense. Forty Minutes of Hell was the name of my practices.” He preferred a frantic, up-tempo style. “I ran it at Tulsa and in high school, but it didn’t have a name [then].

“One of the news guys [after a game] asked [an Arkansas player] what made them play so well. ‘We put 40 Minutes of Hell on them,” the player said proudly. But the HOF coach corrected me and said the player, unfortunately, got it all wrong. He wanted his players in top shape, and conditioning at practices was all but a daily staple. 

Once a player asked him during a session why they were working so hard. “Teams might out-play us, but they won’t out-work us,” responded the coach. “Work is an attitude, so 40 Minutes of Hell is what it will be, what you will get, until I feel you are ready to play.”

As a result, “40 Minutes of Hell” stuck like glue, which Richardson didn’t really mind after all. “It wasn’t based on what we are going to do. You have to live up to the expectation of the name,” he pointed out. “40 Minutes of Hell—you didn’t have to live up to the expectation. We were going to do that anyway.”

Richardson is among the surviving members of legendary Black coaches who roamed the college sidelines and fought like heck against the NCAA-imposed Proposition 48 (1986) and Proposition 42 (1990), originally intended to improve academic standards. Instead, they became disproportionately another barrier for Black student-athletes.  

Over the past two years, he has seen two compatriots, as well as close friends, pass away: John Thompson and John Chaney. The three legends stood tall and spoke loudly against the two now-defunct NCAA rules.   

“They were two of the most brilliant men I’ve ever been around in life,” said Richardson. “They were from the East Coast, and I was the only one [from] ‘East South’—El Paso.”

Like the two Johns, Richardson understood and embraced the only-one status. “There will be a lot of times when you will be the only one,” he said. “I was the only Black junior college coach. I was the only [Black] high school coach in El Paso. I was the only one in Tulsa. I was the only one to get to Arkansas. I was always the only one.”

“The only reason was that there wasn’t enough of us to participate and to get the opportunity to do that,” said the retired coach on being a trailblazer. “I did my best so, if they are going to judge us, and they did, on our winning and losses, then they would have a hard time beating me.

“It was all about opportunity,” surmised Richardson. “Give us the opportunity to prove ourselves… But if you got to judge us on what one did, I’ve got to be as good as I possibly can. I’m going to create something that other guys will have the opportunity to get.”

Richardson won over 500 games as a college coach. He won conference championships, including three in a row (1989 to 1991) when Arkansas won both the league regular season and tournament titles. 

But his success at the school came at a price.

Next: Richardson’s often overlooked legacy