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Much of the joy is gone from basketball in Arkansas this winter. In a place where season-ticket holders have long driven three hours and more to Fayetteville for the giddy privilege of howling like farm animals—Whooooo, pig, soooey!—in support of the beloved and powerful Razorbacks, there has been precious little to cheer on the floor, and much to dread off it. Even as the Hogs, 7-14 through Sunday, are having their worst season in three decades, their former coach has filed an incendiary lawsuit that throws back the curtain on 17 years of perceived racial inequities, pitting a proud man against a proud university in a fight that could turn horribly embarrassing for either party.
If only Nolan Richardson had just gone away quietly. If only he had taken the retirement offered to him last February and gone to his ranch, a Basketball Hall of Fame coach in waiting, tending to his 160 acres in a lush hollow north of Fayetteville. If only he had let the university send him off and then raise a banner to the rafters of Bud Walton Arena in tribute to his 509 career wins (389 in 17 seasons at Arkansas), to hang right next to the one commemorating the national championship he won in 1994 (the only NCAA basketball title in school history).
Instead, on Dec. 19 Richardson, 61, filed suit under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, citing "lingering racial discrimination in Arkansas" and asking not only unspecified monetary damages but also reinstatement as coach. Named as defendants in the suit are university president B. Alan Sugg, chancellor John White and the principal object of Richardson's enmity, 78-year-old athletic director Frank Broyles. The complaint, drafted by Little Rock civil rights attorney John W. Walker, pointedly describes Sugg, White and Broyles as "white citizens," an uncommon usage that harkens back to White Citizens Councils of the segregationist South—and to 1957, when federal troops had to be called in to enforce antisegregation laws in the Arkansas capital of Little Rock.
Late last week an upbeat Richardson greeted visitors at his ranch, ambling down the rough tiled sidewalk while a small army of fighting cocks milled about, crowing incessantly. At one side of the rambling, single-story main residence, a small crew of workers was constructing an octagonal addition that will house the former coach's memorabilia, a sort of personal museum. "You'd think I'm being run out of town," Richardson said, referring to his unceremonious dismissal. "But here I am, still adding on. I'm not going anywhere."
On Feb. 23, 2002, Richardson's unranked Razorbacks lost at Kentucky 71-58 and fell to 13-13. (They would finish 14-15, the school's first losing season since 1985-86, when Richardson arrived and went 12-16.) After the game Richardson, who was feeling the pressure of the Razorbacks' subpar performance, stunned observers by telling a TV reporter, "If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take the job tomorrow." Five tumultuous days later, and following a 90-minute meeting with White and Broyles at which he told them he did not want to leave his coaching job, Richardson declined an offer to resign. The next day he was terminated under a clause in his contract that allowed Arkansas to fire him "at the convenience of the University." On March 28 Stan Heath, coach of Kent State and a 37-year-old African-American, was hired to replace Richardson.
Under the terms of his firing, Richardson receives annual payments of $500,000 for six years. (His seven-year contract was to run through 2008, with a total annual compensation of $1.03 million.) University attorneys told SI that Richardson was offered the same deal—$500,000 annually for six years—to resign.
The school should have realized that Richardson would not go gently. "Anybody who knows Nolan knows he's not going to budge an inch," says former Arkansas and NBA guard Ron Brewer, who now works at the university as assistant director of development. "You knew there was going to be a fight."
"I was raised by my grandmother Rose," says Richardson. "She taught me, You never quit any battle. That's stuck with me my whole life. I could have taken the easy way out last year. But how could I sleep at night, thinking about guys like Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson and all the things they took? How could I just give up?"
Richardson's case, and his anger, hang on several points. All of them, in his and his lawyers' opinion, are related to race. (Phil Kaplan, the Little Rock-based outside counsel for the university, says, "None of the areas addressed on the complaint are related to race.") Richardson's central claims:
?In 1986, after Richardson's first year in Fayetteville, Broyles instructed him to go to Indiana and work with Bob Knight, "to teach you some damn defense." Richardson didn't go. In Richardson's opinion that demand was emblematic of Broyles's view that black coaches don't coach defense—an aspect of the game Richardson employed brilliantly with his teams' renowned "Forty Minutes of Hell."