SPRINGFIELD — He decided he was going to make his trip to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame memorable, so Nolan Richardson took us to church last Friday night during his induction, capping what was a groundbreaking coaching career that lasted more than 20 years.
In his 30-minute speech, which included a couple of well-placed expletives, a story about how he thought Larry Bird was black while listening to an Indiana State-New Mexico State game on radio, and reminiscing about stories told by his grandmother, Richardson captivated the audience, almost helping us forget the painful and demoralizing way his tenure ended at the University of Arkansas, where he won a national championship in 1994.
Fighting the system is a difficult endeavor, especially if it is in any way affiliated with the NCAA. Richardson spent his coaching career fighting stereotypes and perceptions, attempting to withstand the pressure of not only winning at Arkansas but competing with Kentucky and Florida in the Southeastern Conference after the championship.
Richardson appears strikingly different now than 20 years ago, when Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, and company streaked to the championship in Charlotte. At 72 Richardson is now all gray and considerably lighter. He was fired at Arkansas in 2002 and didn’t depart gracefully. He filed a lawsuit against the university for unlawful termination; it was dismissed.
His election to the Hall is a testament that basketball observers and those on the Naismith committee appreciate Richardson’s accomplishments but it was also a sign of respect for his struggle. On the day of the induction ceremony, former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon, the most outstanding player of the 1995 NCAA Tournament, was victorious in a lawsuit against the NCAA, which banned players from receiving benefits for the use of their likenesses and images, especially in video games.
The college coaches who strolled into Springfield Symphony Hall to celebrate the inductions of Richardson, former Boston College and Maryland coach Gary Williams, and the team from Immaculata University, are entering an ever-changing climate, in which players are gaining more control of their fate and the NCAA’s stranglehold on the student-athlete is being forcibly loosened by lawsuits and protests.
Richardson had something to do with that, sacrificing his job and never coaching Division 1 basketball again because he had an issue with his treatment at Arkansas. He took issue with how coaches were being managed by their universities, facing undue pressure to win by athletic directors who emphasized the athlete in student-athlete and ignored the student.
The entire system is being rightfully scrutinized. Coaches are being fired for abuse of players, the primitive manner in which athletes are compensated is being reviewed, and schools are being held more accountable for their academic standards.
Perhaps Richardson daring Arkansas to fire him in ’02 wasn’t the best approach, but it was a fearless plea against a system that had gobbled up previous coaches afraid for their jobs.
“I have paid the price many times for a lot of things,” Richardson said. “So when it came to me standing up for what I thought was right, I knew that sometimes it’s not the most popular thing to do. At the time, I guess I was just fed up to the point of, if that’s what you guys want to do [fire me], go ahead and get it done, but I am going to speak out.
“If I hadn’t to this day, I would not have been able to sleep with myself knowing that I had a platform, knowing that this is wrong. I just couldn’t turn the other way. That’s who I was.”
When asked about being the first black coach to win a national championship at an SEC school, Richardson said, “Hey, I could tell you some wild stories. But we did it, that’s all I can say.”
But it wasn’t his race that mattered as much as his voice. Richardson took pride in fighting the system, he took pride in taking on a university and NCAA hierarchy that to this day pressures coaches into being hustlers for recruits, using texting and Facebook to reach out to impressionable 15- and 16-year-olds.
Nowadays, coaching and guiding isn’t enough. Every team has to reach the NCAA Tournament and advance far. Deep-pocketed alumni have to have something to brag about while puffing cigars during getaway weekends with their buddies. The pressure to win in basketball and football is nearly insurmountable.
The College Football Playoff system that begins this season will generate $500 million per season and about $50 million per conference, with extra money going to the conference with the most schools in the playoffs. The players, who are risking their bodies and long-term health for the sake of good ol’ State University, should receive more than a commemorative bowl pin and accompanying ring.
So while Richardson was preaching last Friday, using his time to eloquently detail his career, admit some of his faults, and also exemplify why he had such loyal players and support, it served as a reminder of his journey and his sacrifice.
Big-time college sports remains a wicked business, but that won’t stop this writer from relentlessly rooting for his alma mater, Cal. Yet O’Bannon’s win in his lawsuit and the long-awaited appreciation shown Richardson are examples that fighting the system does have its dividends — although the price of the fight is costly.