Remembering Nolan Richardson On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Feb 20, 2016; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks mascot Big Red waves the Razorback flag before the start of a game with the Missouri Tigers at Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks won 84-72. Mandatory Credit: Gunnar Rathbun-USA TODAY Sports

Love him or hate him, Nolan Richardson broke racial barriers as much as he broke opposing team’s fan’s hearts.

For some, Basketball Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson is a polarizing figure. Initially, many fans here in Arkansas resented Nolan for how he handled what he saw as a situation fueled by racial discrimination. Times have changed and with its passing, old wounds in the state have healed.

Now, Nolan Richardson is more loved than probably any coach in the history of Razorback athletics. Things weren’t always this way though and I am not talking about the wake of upset fans. No, I am talking about his early years as a coach here in the Natural State.

During his first season as the head Razorback, Nolan’s daughter, Yvonne, was suffering from leukemia. Instead of Arkansas fans rallying together to lift their new coach up, they instead made bomb threats on his home. I guess that’s the life of a Razorback player or coach.

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Instead of saying “the hell with this”, Nolan Richardson did the only thing he knew how to do. He fought through it to become the greatest basketball coach to date at the University of Arkansas. To understand this aspect of Richardson, one has to understand the path Nolan took to get to Arkansas.

A Fight For Firsts

Nolan Richardson was busting through racial barriers his entire life, not just when he came to Arkansas. While Richardson was a collegiate player at Texas Western College, he was not allowed to travel to a game because the other team didn’t allow black players on their court. Later on, he would be the first black head coach at a high school in the state of Texas.

Next, he headed to the University of Tulsa. He was the head coach from 1981-1985, during which time, in his first season, he would win an NIT championship. Nolan was the first African-American coach to win an NIT championship.

That was just year one. In following years, 1984 and 1985, he would lead his team to season conference championships. During his time at Tulsa, he became the first coach in the history of the NCAA to win 50 games in his first two seasons.

WARNING! Video contains mild language. If you have never watched his Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech, take the time and do it. Very few things make me tear up but this speech by Nolan does it every time. 

Rollin With Nolan

Richardson went on from Tulsa to the University of Arkansas. This hire was a first ever, as he was the first African-American coach at a major university in the south. Not only was the hire a first at a major university in the south but he was also the first African-American head coach of a men’s basketball team in the South West Conference.

Two Sweet 16 finishes. One Elite Eight finish. One Final Four finish. One Runner-up finish. One National Championship. All from Nolan Richardson during his time at Arkansas. Needless to say, the era where fans were “Rollin with Nolan” was the greatest era in Arkansas athletics.

My generation grew up on Nolan Richardson and the “Forty Minutes of Hell”. He came into a state and brought together an entire fan base. Arkansas fans were proud of their team and became accustomed to having consistent success.

On a day that we remember Martin Luther King Jr., a pioneer of civil rights and equality for African-Americans, I think as Arkansans, we should take a bit of time to remember a pioneer in our state as well. Nolan Richardson is credited with so many firsts as an African-American head coach and breaking down many racial barriers in the coaching world. I am proud to say he did it here as a Razorback.

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