It was a bewildering self-immolation. Reeling from a 13-13 record and the prospect of missing the postseason for the first time since 1985, Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson lashed out last week at the local media, unhappy fans and the school. Most unsettling were his charges of racism—he claimed Fayetteville's social life was bad for black athletes and that his bosses treated him differently from the 18 other Arkansas coaches (none of whom are black) because of his race. Richardson also blithely suggested that if the school's administrators wanted to buy out the remaining six years of his seven-year, $7 million-plus contract, "they can take the job tomorrow"—although until then nobody had broached the idea of Richardson's leaving.
By the time Richardson apologized last Wednesday, the damage had been done. On Friday, Arkansas AD Frank Broyles announced the school had bought out Richardson's contract for $3 million over six years. Assistant coach Mike Anderson was named interim coach. Richardson referred matters to civil rights lawyer John Walker, whom he'd hired earlier in the week.
While there's no denying that Richardson has experienced racism in its ugliest forms—growing up, he would cross the border to dine at restaurants in Mexico rather than eat in El Paso's segregated establishments—his frequent and somewhat haphazard charges of racism through the years have detracted from a Hall of Fame career. (He's the only coach to have won a national junior college title, an NIT championship and an NCAA crown.) "If I was white, and I did what I've done here, they'd build statues to me," he said in 1994, the year Arkansas won the national title. At a press conference on Feb. 25 Richardson said, "I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on." The problem with that is that Richardson was the highest-paid coach at Arkansas, making $260,000 a year more than football coach Houston Nutt.
Richardson also blamed "the press and whoever else rips me every chance they get" for trying to get him fired. An editorial in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette pointed out that "nobody asked for coach Richardson's resignation. But he thought he'd offer it up anyway, and then let everybody know how outraged he was at the suggestion." Moreover, criticism of Richardson's program wasn't unwarranted. The Hogs haven't reached the Sweet 16 at the NCAAs since 1996, in part because of a self-imposed two-season sanction against recruiting juco players, formerly the lifeblood of Richardson's program. Also, Arkansas had an unsightly 0% graduation rate among players who entered the school between 1990 and '94. "[The firing] was not a result of his record this year," says university chancellor John White, "except to the extent that it was affecting Nolan."
Those close to Richardson say his outburst was a long time in coming. "He just didn't want to coach anymore," says Nolan's 37-year-old son, Nolan III, the coach at Tennessee State. "He was tiring." The elder Richardson may have been using charges of racism as a smoke screen, but it shouldn't obscure issues of discrimination in college hoops. One of the problems with playing the so-called race card is the fallout it leaves: Whoever succeeds Richardson will enter a charged environment and will have to deal with a deeply defensive administration. Says White, who's white, "I hope the African-American community in Arkansas does not see this situation as a step backward."
Ultimately, Richardson's departure may be best explained by something he said in 1994: "I don't want to ever be fired, but I don't want to be chasing these guys around at 60." Two months after his 60th birthday, Richardson made sure the second half of his wish came true, if not the first.