A Beautiful System of Anger
A sneak peak into ESPNU’s documentary about Nolan Richardson and the Arkansas Razorbacks.
by Evin Demirel / @evindemirel
“A lot of people didn’t get him. They had too many expectations about how they should talk and how he should talk and how they should all behave, which in the end is what I think led to the end of his tenure. which I always regretted. I always thought the guy had real power.” — Bill Clinton
Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas Razorbacks faced no more daunting obstacle on their path to the 1994 National Championship than the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, KY. Since losing to the Hogs in 1992, the No. 4 Wildcats reeled off 33 consecutive victories at home. When the No. 3 Hogs entered Rupp Arena on February 9, 1994, the Wildcats roared to a 39-24 lead with 4:44 left in the first half. Arkansas, though, kept up the full-court pressure.
“The style that we play, there’s a lot of times you’re gonna get down in the ballgame,” former Arkansas coach Richardon tells ESPNU in its upcoming documentary 40 Minutes of Hell. “But if you stay after it and stay after it, it’s like wear and tear constantly. Something’s gonna break. And if that breaks then we’re gonna be in position to do something about it.”
By the end of that February 9 game, Kentucky’s endurance was shattered and Arkansas’ confidence had never been stronger. The documentary uncovers footage of Razorback Corliss Williamson walking off the court carrying teammate Al Dillard on his back, and of Scotty Thurman busting out some kind of celebratory shimmy shake amidst the ensuing locker room hoopla.
In his postgame talk, Richardson roared: “We were supposed to do that. That’s how you look at it. That’s why I say it’s a day at the office.”
Such heady times might have become the norm in the mid-1990s, but the Razorbacks’ program has not seen similar success then. The documentary doesn’t explore why success dwindled in the last seven years of Richardson’s 1985-2002 tenure. Instead, 40 Minutes of Hell focuses on how the very same forces driving Richardson to that 1994 title led to his fall following two 2002 press conferences.
The video presents original footage and commentary from some of the most pivotal Razorback games of the era, including the 1991 showdown between No. 1 UNLV and No. 2 Arkansas at Barnhill Arena and 1993’s 120-68 victory over eventual Big Eight champ Missouri. It also packs in interviews with former President Bill Clinton, current Hog coach Mike Anderson, former Arkansas Chancellor John White and a few key members of Arkansas’ championship team.
Here are some of the most interesting excerpts:
In 1985, Richardson initially declined the Arkansas job. But his daughter Yvonne convinced him to change his mind, pointing out Fayetteville was only 90 miles away and he already had fans there. With only 12 wins in his first season, it was a rocky start.
“It wasn’t the easiest place to start a career. I had a lot of racial slurs, I had a lot of hate mail. We weren’t very good. There was one night I could not even go in my condo because of a bomb threat. I wasn’t winning so ‘Get him out of here.’”—Nolan Richardson
Yvonne was diagnosed with leukemia in 1985. Mike Anderson, then an Arkansas assistant coach, helped the Richardsons by regularly driving her 100 miles to Tulsa for treatments. Two years later, however, Yvonne died at age 15.
“I think from her I gathered some more strength. It was like ‘I got to show these people something. I got to show them something before I get out of here.’ And you’re gonna help me do this, because you brought me here. Let’s show them. Let’s show them it can be done.”—Richardson
Many national pundits favored Duke over Arkansas heading into the 1994 title game. The Blue Devils were deemed more intelligent. This perception, unsurprisingly, irritated Richardson, who used it as fuel to further motivate his team.
“Well, it was the smart kids versus the dumb kids. The smart coach against the dumb coach. How smart do you have to be to block a shot? How smart do you have to be to trap? How smart do you have to be? You have to be smart to do that? What is smart? You don’t have to be as smart as everybody says you need to be. All you have to do is understand the game… [Duke coach Mike] Krzyzewski is no doubt one of the masters of the game, but my team played a little bit better than his.”
“He used to tell us all the time if you see me and and a bear fighting, you better help that damn bear. I ain’t gonna need you to help me.”—Corey Beck
Arkansas hasn’t returned to the Sweet 16 since 1996. By the early 2000s, the mounting demands seemed to be getting to Richardson.
“I think as the team started to take a dip, the pressure is building. The years of anger and feeling like he had to prove himself, he’s not able to forget that stuff or leave that stuff behind. I think that all came to a head”–Rus Bradburd, author of 40 Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson.
“I had the impression for several weeks leading up to it, that Nolan was growing tired of pushing the big, big ball up the mountain”—former Arkansas Chancellor John White
Then it all unraveled within a week. At two press conferences—first in Kentucky, then in Arkansas.