Richardson takes long, often bitter road to top NCAA TOURNAMENT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He was not one of those coaching wunderkinds, like Rick Pitino. Nor was he deemed a can't-miss protege by one of the game's masters, as Mike Krzyzewski was.

The road Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson traveled to last night's 76-72 win over Duke for the NCAA championship has had more twists and turns than any in the Ozark Mountains.


"My grandmother told me, 'Know where you come from,' " Richardson said Sunday, "and if you don't like the road you're traveling, make a new road."

Richardson's road included 13 years as a junior high and high school coach in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, three years at Western Texas Junior College, five years at Tulsa University and the past nine with the Razorbacks.


Even before last night, Richardson had a national championship; he won the national junior college title at Western Texas in 1980, then took four of his five starters from a 37-0 team to Tulsa, where he won the 1981 National Invitation Tournament.

"It would be the Triple Crown," Richardson said before the Razorbacks finished off Duke. "Each step we take becomes the greatest game I've ever coached."

Yet the bigger the spotlight becomes for Richardson, 52, the angrier he seems to get. What started out as a chip on his shoulder is now more like a boulder, a byproduct of the overt racism he encountered growing up and the more subtle slaps Richardson says he still receives.

Richardson talks of a childhood spent having to go across the border to Mexico to see a movie or ride a bus on which he didn't have to sit in the back. He talks of being given his first job as a basketball coach because the principal told him he'd never get hired to coach football.

"I'm a door opener," said Richardson, who became the first black student at predominantly Mexican-American Bowie High School in El Paso, became the city's top athlete before going to Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso), then returned to Bowie to coach. "Give me a crack, and I'll knock the damn door down."

Richardson succeeded in crashing what has been nearly an all-white club -- he joins Georgetown's John Thompson as the only black coaches to win an NCAA championship -- by knocking down the stereotypes he says still afflict college basketball.

He sees other, less-successful coaches getting more recognition and bristles. He hears other black coaches being given labels that he says are as racist as when his players are called "great athletes."

When he heard Detroit columnist Mitch Albom say Sunday on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" that Duke would win because the Blue Devils were the more intelligent team, Richardson went back on his soapbox. He pointed out that All-Southeastern Conference forward Scotty Thurman happens to be an Academic All-American who carried 18 credits last semester.


"There's a stigma placed on black coaches," said Richardson, who has become the most visible and one of the more vocal members of the Black Coaches Association. " 'What a great recruiter. What a great motivator.' I have a problem with that.

"It wasn't long ago that I couldn't have coached at a place like Arkansas. If we [black coaches] don't do well, we're fired. If we get fired, we don't resurface. Not that I have a chip on my shoulder. I keep looking at my record. If I wasn't African-American, it would be a different story. I understand that.

"The reason I feel I'm already one of the better coaches is because I've learned to play any kind of way. Yes, I can motivate, and yes, I can recruit, and yes," said Richardson vanquishing Duke, "I can find a way to beat you."

His record is nearly spotless: In 14 years as a Division I head coach, he has had one losing season. That was his first year in Fayetteville, when Richardson had inherited what he once called "an empty cupboard" from Eddie Sutton.

In the past six years, the Razorbacks have won 25 games or more three times and reached the 30-win mark for the second time this season. His winning percentage of .750 (339-113) ranks fifth among active coaches.

"I don't know how he thinks he is perceived, but I perceive him as a very intelligent coach," Krzyzewski said Sunday. "I think he's a hell of a coach, and I've always thought that. When your teams play hard and you know how to use your players, you must be doing something right."


Said Arkansas guard Clint McDaniel: "You can write about Bobby Knight and Coach Krzyzewski, but I think if he can win the national championship, it'll show that Coach Richardson is the best."

Some already believed that, even before last night. Though he didn't win Coach of the Year in the SEC for the third straight season -- Florida's Lon Kruger, whose Gators lost to Duke in Saturday's semifinal, got it this year -- Richardson was named this season's Naismith Award winner as the national coach of the year by the Atlanta Tip-Off Club.

His nine years at Arkansas have not been without problems or, for that matter, personal tragedy. He had to fight his way out of Sutton's shadow by taking the Razorbacks to the Final Four in 1990 (losing to Duke in the semis).

He's had his battles with a critical local media, some of whom he says think "I'm at the end of a long, mediocre career."

But the event that had the most lasting effect on Richardson was the death of his daughter, Yvonne, from leukemia during his second year at Arkansas. He has second-guessed his decision to leave Tulsa, where Yvonne had remained with his wife, Rose, after being diagnosed. His daughter's death came when Richardson was being ripped in Tulsa for leaving and in Fayetteville for losing.

"I constantly wondered then and still do now if I did the right thing," said Richardson, who often made the trip from Fayetteville to Tulsa to be with his family. "All the success has been great, but we came over here and had such a miserable start. I know people have a right to write anything they want, but I'm bitter that she left this world hearing the kind of things she did."


That bitterness is evident, nearly to the point of overshadowing the job Richardson has done. Even Thurman says that "you get a little tired of it, but you can understand where he's coming from."

But an Arkansas title means that the spotlight on Richardson will grow brighter.

And perhaps he will grow angrier.