40 Minutes of Hell… in the WNBA
Coach Nolan Richardson brings organized chaos to the women’s game.
by Pardeep Toor
After a 24-year hiatus from the city, coach Nolan Richardson is coming back to Tulsa – this time as the head coach of the WNBA team that announced its arrival from Detroit, in October.
Richardson coached at the University of Tulsa from 1981-85, leading the Golden Hurricane to two NIT appearances (including winning a championship in 1990) and three NCAA Tournament appearances. From there, he went on to coach at the University of Arkansas from 1985 to 2002, a place where the phrase “40 minutes of hell” – “organized chaos” as Richardson describes it — was given birth and made famous by three Final Four appearances (’90, ’94, ’95) including a national title in 1994.
But, ask Richardson about one of his proudest accomplishments, and he still cites his stammering 101-13 junior college record at Western Texas, which included a perfect 37-0 season in ’79-80 that culminated in a junior college national championship.
He remains the only coach to win three national championships at three different levels – JuCo, NIT and NCAA – a fact that showcases his journey from the bottom of the collegiate ranks, all the way to the top.
“If I can win a WNBA championship, that’s four championships in four different categories. Who has ever heard stuff like that?” Richardson said. “That’s what my grandkids, great grandkids and kids after that will remember about their grandfather.”
On his rise in the coaching ranks and success, Richardson offers a simple formula: “If you work at it, it can be done.”
The following is my conversation with Richardson.
SLAM: How did the opportunity to coach the WNBA team in Tulsa come about?
Nolan Richardson: Originally when they contacted me, I was down in El Paso. Texas is my home. It was the month of August; usually I’m there. My daughter passed away 22 years ago and we do a memorial service every year in her honor. I got a call down there to see if I had any interest in coaching a WNBA team in Tulsa.
At the time, I didn’t now Tulsa had talks about a WNBA team. I said I would certainly visit the people about the opportunities.
SLAM: What is it about the WNBA and/or Tulsa that encouraged you to take the position?
NR: I’ve always had a great admiration for Tulsa and this community. My son and my grandkids, most of them live in Tulsa. So Tulsa was always a place I was in and out of. I think the thing that convinced me to really look at it — I have coached everywhere, done everything. Seventh grade, high school – you name it, I’ve coached everywhere.
I’ve done just about everything there is and I still have a lot of energy and a lot of love for the game and I asked myself, Why can’t I take that love to women’s basketball?
And we’re talking about the elite females in the country. My gut feeling was to do it.
SLAM: You coached Tulsa from 1981-85. What does it mean to you to have an opportunity to come back to this area?
NR: We played in two NIT and three NCAA tournaments when I coached Tulsa. We were always at a tournament. We won the NIT my first year. Again, I’m sure that the people that are putting the [WNBA] team together did some research on whether I could put fans in the stands and play the exciting basketball that I did for 24 years.
Everywhere I’ve been, with the game that we play, we certainly have attracted people. I think that has a lot to do with why they contacted me. I’m sure they did their research, asking the people from Tulsa and asking the community leaders. I think my name probably came up several times.
SLAM: Describe 40 minutes of hell.
NR: It was originally from a practice standpoint. We work out so hard in practice for the first 40 minutes, that it was hell. We concentrated on getting our body prepared for physical basketball, running basketball. A style that looks like it is out of control but is something I can control from the sideline by slowing down or speeding up the game. It’s a game for practice where we push ourselves for the first 40 minutes and then run drills other teams run for the rest of the time.
On the basketball floor, the game is 40 minutes. If you take your practice to the game, you are taking the best 40 minutes with you. That’s running on both ends of the floor — running and trapping. It makes [opposing] teams do things that normally they wouldn’t do.
Basketball is advantage-disadvantage, and that style I think we have the advantage because nobody else plays like that.
When I’m preparing for you, you play like everybody else, so I only have to prepare one time but other teams always have to prepare for us separately. A lot of folks don’t understand the philosophy behind it.
The first high school job I had the tallest kid on my team was 5-10 — we weren’t going to run down the floor and shoot perfect jump shots against taller players but if we ran and made you run when you didn’t want to run, we could be competitive.
I quote Vince Lombardi, “Fatigue will make cowards of us all.” And if you are working hard, fatigue, for the other team, will set in.
SLAM: How are you going planning on getting your roster ready to play your style of basketball?
NR: Most of the young women that are coming to us are coming from overseas. Their bodies should be in pretty good shape. Our practices are basically 30-40 minutes. A lot of pushing the ball up and down the floor at a rapid speed. We have a medicine ball that weighs 8-10 pounds that we use — all it does is build your confidence and show strong you can get.
A lot of sliding drills, defense drills. I’m a stickler for defense. Defense is work. Offense really isn’t that much work — a lot of shooting drills.
A lot of time scrimmaging from one end of the court to the other, we play a lot of 94-feet basketball, not a lot of half court basketball.
SLAM: Can 40 minutes of Hell work in the WNBA, with your current team?
NR: I don’t see why it shouldn’t work. I’d ask the ladies – are you saying because you are ladies that you can’t play this way? The youngest team that I coached said it wouldn’t work either but we won a national championship pressing and trapping.
You have to convince me that it won’t work. It’s what people buy into.
I have to get the young women to buy in that it’s team basketball as opposed to individual basketball.
SLAM: What differences do you anticipate coaching women, as opposed to men?
NR: I don’t anticipate any differences. At basketball camps, I could tell the ladies practiced everything I said and men didn’t.
The ladies, they didn’t forget. They went home and came back after two or three days and you could see that they were working on what I taught. We are talking about women who are professionals and this is a professional league – this is our job, this is how we work.
My job is that if I have a boss and we are working on something, I have to do what my boss says or he will replace me. We are professional people and that’s how I approach the job. The way we get it done, if it’s successful this is how we’re going to have to get it done.
SLAM: Why do you think the WNBA can work in Tulsa when it didn’t last in Detroit?
NR: I remember when there were 2,000,000 people living in Detroit and when I went there for the Final Four (this past year) there were less than a million people living there. I saw things boarded up. The economy is one reason why the team moved from a city of that magnitude.
Will it work in Tulsa? I’m hoping it will. Tulsa doesn’t have a professional team. It’s the summer atmosphere — it’s hot outside, it’s cool inside. Tulsa has something to offer at this point. Before we know it, Tulsa can be a community that can lead the WNBA in attendance.
Tulsa is one of the most beautiful cities in America for its size. It’s a clean city. When I got there it was one of the wealthiest cities in America because of its oil and heritage. It’s in the middle of the heart of the United States. It’s easy to get to and east to get out of. Oklahoma is pretty good for women’s basketball so there are a lot of good points. Now, it’s just about teaching fans about the WNBA.
SLAM: Commissioner David Stern recently said that he thought it is possible for a woman to play in the NBA? Any thoughts or opinions on that claim?
NR: I never thought about that to be honest with you. I think the women have a great game, I think the men have a great game. I would not say it’s impossible because I think anything is possible. It’s going to take some more years to refine and for players to continue to grow. This is a new horizon for women, the league is only 13 years old, and as they develop who knows what can happen down the road.