by Pardeep Toor
Beginning in El Paso and heading west through Texas, up into Tulsa and culminating in Fayetteville, AR — the life of coach Nolan Richardson is a pre- and post-civil rights struggle that illuminates the endless possibilities in America while simultaneously showcasing its limitations.
In the upcoming book Forty Minutes of Hell by Rus Bradburd, the clash of a white America and a black America occurs in the life of Richardson who defies the times — overcoming deep-rooted prejudices and segregation in the south by moving up the coaching ranks from high school to a college Division-I basketball program.
Bradburd’s narrative centers on Richardson’s life and career but it entails a rich history of racial tension in high school and college towns where he played and coached. From being denied entry into hotels and tournaments in Texas, overcoming the designation of “n*gger coach” in Tulsa, Oklahoma (location of the most brutal race riot in the history of the United States) and Arkansas’ resistance to Brown v. Education – Richardson’s personal struggle echoes the larger issues of injustice and inequality challenging the African-American community since the 1960s.
In the first half of the book, Bradburd does an incredible job chronicling Richardson’s rise from a high school coach to getting a junior college job as part of a package deal with his high school star, Ralph Brewster. Brewster committed to Texas Tech, which guaranteed Richardson a job at West Texas junior college in 1978. Other anecdotes like Richardson’s life-long relationship with Ed Beshara who lobbied him to take the Tulsa job, interesting relationship with one of the founders of Wal-Mart, Bud Walton, and Oliver Miller’s late-night pizza orders at Arkansas, provide insight on the fortunes and responsibilities of a college basketball coach that go beyond the court.
Bradburd’s copy shines in the well-researched chapters on the black coaches and athletes who came before Richardson but never got the opportunity to elevate themselves because of school policies and discrimination. The story of coach John McLendon; who won three national championships at Tennessee State and is considered the “godfather of black coaches,” Will Robinson; first black coach in Division I at Illinois State, Bob Walters; who held the record for most touchdowns in a high school season but never got an offer from the segregated schools of the south and Darrell Brown; first black player to attempt to play for Arkansas’ simultaneously inspires hope for the future but anger at the injustices of the past.
Each of these stories has the potential to be tangential books but serve to illustrate how individual lives never reached their potential because of policy and discrimination.
The second half of book focuses on the bitter feud between Richardson and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles that ultimately culminated in 2002 with Richardson’s infamous racially charged press conference, firing and lawsuit.
Richardson’s frantic, forty minutes of hell, style of play brought legitimacy, finals fours and a national championship in 1994 to the Arkansas basketball program but the book unveils constant tension, often racially charged, between the coach and athletic director, which time and time again threatened to end Richardson’s tenure at Arkansas. The intricacies and accusations in their relationship are outlined in great detail but the constant theme is the tension between an accomplished black coach being mistrusting, with reason, of a white-led institution.
For those only familiar with Richardson’s final press conference at Arkansas, the evolution of the feud provides context for the final outburst that Richardson is most often remembered for.
At its core, the book is a story about Richardson, a complex character, who defied great personal and professional odds to achieve the highest honor in college basketball – a national championship. Basketball success for Richardson wasn’t enough as he strived to create more opportunity for African-Americans in the coaching and administration ranks at Arkansas and all over the country – he wanted to use his accomplishments to pave the way for future generations.
One thing Bradburd emphasizes in his book Richardson’s knack for doing things his own way regardless of the results that followed. Richardson spoke from the heart and his journey from a rural town to a national champion is one that can inspire us all.
My interview with author Rus Bradburd:
SLAM: What compelled you to want to tell Nolan Richardson’s story?
Rus Bradburd: Like a lot of people I didn’t understand him. When I first heard his comments that kept getting recycled in the media at the press conference there was sort of a mystery to it. It’s like walking in at the tail end of the fight and it’s hard to make a judgment to what happened and whose fault it is. The book, in a lot of ways, was my way of figuring out Nolan Richardson.
The more research I did, the more I worked on it, I realized that he (Richardson) was right about this stuff.
Few months ago on ESPN.com, fans could vote on the 25 greatest coaches of all time. Twenty-four of the coaches were white and one was black and there’s no explanation for that to your average kid. I’m 50-years-old, so I have some perspective but your average player and kid will look at that and say all the good coaches are white.
When John Wooden began coaching, there were no black coaches, same with Bob Knight. If John Wooden was black, he never would have gotten a chance to coach.
None of them would have gotten a chance to coach if they were black. I think the book in some way is a memory and Nolan wants us to remember things that we are not comfortable with remembering.
SLAM: Combining research and writing, how long did it take you to complete this project? What obstacles, if any, did you face during the process?
RB: It took three years and sometimes it seemed overwhelming. It was a little intimidating. The story kept getting bigger and bigger and I had to corral it in. At times I was discouraged but when I heard (Bob) Walters’ and Darell’s (Brown) story — those things re-energized me. They are really powerful and emotional stories. Bob Walters and Darell Brown wouldn’t let me quit.
SLAM: There are not any quotes from former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles in the book …
RB:It started as a gentle stonewall. He never did speak to me. I’d get emails saying he was out of town. He just kept avoiding me.
SLAM: Your book is as much a narrative on race at all levels of college basketball as it is about Richardson. Is that the story you originally wanted to tell or did it evolve during the research and writing process?
RB: Most of these coaches only talk about themselves but when you talk to Nolan, surprisingly, he wants to talk about John McLendon, and Clarence “big house” Gains.
He recognizes how fortunate he was. He kept mentioning these guys. I had never understood with Clarence Gains, there was a 30-year period where Wake Forest didn’t go to the NCAA tournament and Clarence is just down the street from them (at Winston Salem-State but never got an opportunity to coach).
I was trying to paint a picture of actual people’s lives. When you find a story about someone’s life like Bob Walters, the incredible tragedy and sense of forgiveness, I wanted to humanize the story. Telling the story is better than the statistics.
SLAM: In the second half of the book, there is a polar clash of hero versus villain with Nolan Richardson and Frank Broyles where Broyles leans closer to the villain than the hero. Do you worry about a backlash from either Richardson or Broyles about their portrayal in the book?
RB: Coaches at big universities, they become kings of this city-state and they become totally unchallenged and wield tremendous power and what Nolan did was challenge Broyles’ power. It was two men with enormous strength and power and charisma going at each other.
There’s no good way for me to say Frank Broyles stood up at a faculty meeting and said: “I’ll go home to Georgia before I have n*ggers on my team.” There’s no way for me to tell that story other than the way it is.
To me meanness is meanness and kindness is kindness. I think that Frank Broyles has a meanness and pettiness and I think it’s what happens when people have unchecked power. Here’s a guy who has never had to answer to anybody and is controlling who the president of the university is.
I think more than a backlash from Frank Broyles, I fear backlash from the Arkansas media who have bowed down to this guy for years and years.
SLAM: Richardson was fighting for his own situation but as well as for minority hires in coaching and administrative positions. You mention his inability to tolerate injustice of any kind, whether implicated by him or against him. Do you think Richardson could have been more effective had he done things differently? How?
RB: In my view, if he had done anything differently, he wouldn’t have been who he was. One of the interesting things about Nolan is that he can’t turn it on and off. He carries over tremendous guilt over the things he’s done wrong.
If he (Richardson) acted differently he wouldn’t have been known. It’s clear that he had an athletic director who wanted him to fail so he could fire him.
I think in some ways, Nolan does well when he’s on some kind of mission, where he has to prove himself. That’s what his whole life has been about it — demanding respect, that’s how his teams felt. If he had had support from an athletic director maybe he would have won four national championships or maybe he would have gone soft.
SLAM: You constantly mention Richardson’s “me against the world attitude,” his desire to fight his way out of situations and then his ability to always say what’s on his mind and in his heart. What do you think are the origins of his behavior?
RB: I think it starts with El Paso – it’s the poorest neighborhood in America. The neighborhood is one of the most isolated cities in America. I think the original appeal of the book is the incredible odds it would have been against Nolan Richardson becoming a national championship coach.
It’s incredibly scruffy and downtrodden town. It’s not the most dangerous neighborhood but I think it starts from that.
SLAM: After the Nolan Richardson era at Arkansas, Stan Heath was fired after five seasons in 2007, with this last season being his most successful one. How did the university justify its hiring and subsequently only offering the job to white coaches?
RB: I think the public face said he wasn’t doing well. I think it was a totally cynical hiring. I think they deliberately hired a black guy and when he served his purpose (coaching till the end Nolan Richardson’s lawsuit against the university according to the book) they interviewed six white guys. It was documented in national newspapers that the job was offered to every available white guy. When they hired (John) Pelphrey, he didn’t have the record that Heath had.
The average white coach can get recycled much quicker than your average black coach.
What happened to Eddie Sutton at Arkansas is indicative of the city –state power, benevolent dictators have at universities. He comes in to his office with three times the level of alcohol than is normal and campus police puts him back in the car and he gets in an accident. I don’t think black coaches get the winks and nods that white coaches do.
SLAM: A running theme of the book is how integration was not idealistic for the University of Arkansas but exploitive. Integration of athletes is not an issue in today’s environment. In your opinion what is the next step for minority coaches and administrators in college athletics?
RB: The number of black football coaches in college football. More than half the players are black but in the history of college football, there have been only 30 black football coaches. The real answer is that the coaches have to organize.
That’s the lesson learned from Richardson, John Chaney and John Thompson — you have to organize. It’s the story of labor in America. The football coach at the University of Texas makes five million a year and that’s considered market value. You want to talk about free markets but it’s not a free market for the workers. The workers are the football players.
It’s a labor scam. The only way for people out of the power structure to get what’s their fair share is to get organized and that’s the history of the American labor movement.
That’s what Nolan did with black coaches and that’s never happened in football.
The labor scam is astounding. Coaches have gotten huge raises but the players are still getting the same thing. The labor force of college players changes al the time and it’s not until they are out of school do they realize they got ripped off.
If we are talking about making it a free market, let’s make it a free market for the players.
Athletes need to get organized. Can you imagine what would happen if before the final four, athletes said they aren’t going to play?