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Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson had a line about how his team hog-tied Texas in the Midwest Regional final, and it applied to Richardson's five tumultuous seasons in Fayetteville, too. "A raggedy ride is better than a smooth one," said Richardson after the Razor-backs defeated the Longhorns 88-85 in Dallas's Reunion Arena last Saturday to gain a berth in the Final Four.
The game was indeed raggedy at times. There were 37 turnovers, 22 of them committed by Texas; Arkansas bricked 12 free throws in the second half alone; and the Razorbacks saw a 16-point lead with 12:10 remaining dwindle to a perilous three at the end. However, the other, more difficult, ride that Richardson may have had in mind is something else altogether. It wasn't merely that in 1985 Richardson, a black man, succeeded Eddie Sutton, a white man, who introduced the game to the state Orval Faubus once ruled. It was also that Richardson had his own ideas about how basketball should be played, notions that didn't square with the walk-it-up style on which Razorback fans had been reared.
Richardson insists that he doesn't coach run-and-gun, but run-and-exe-cute. Still, racial overtones could be perceived in his treatment in certain ink-stained quarters. Sample passage from Wally Hall of the Arkansas Democrat in 1987: "The defense, discipline and dedication that we Arkies were educated on have been replaced with gambling, rambling, running and gunning." Yet, despite winning only 12 games in his first season, and then enduring the death of his 15-year-old daughter, Yvonne, of leukemia in 1987, Richardson persisted.
"Every one of us, being human, wants people to like us and what we stand for," he says. "I did the best I could during that period not to read the newspaper. For every one negative letter, I got 100 that were on my side."
Last spring Richardson resisted the blandishments of Ohio State, which was seeking to replace Gary Williams. Richardson chose instead to bring to maturity a group now so well-balanced that, in defeat, Texas coach Tom Penders described the Razorbacks as "the kind of team where, if you think you've got one hole plugged, the water comes shooting out somewhere else." The Arkansas faithful—they, not the Longhorn fans, bought most of the seats in Reunion Arena—are talking about a 10-year, $1 million annuity to keep their coach. They even serenaded Richardson with a chant of "No-LAN, No-LAN" when the trip to Denver was finally secure.
The team Richardson will take with him is remarkably resourceful. Center Mario Credit has been something of a debit throughout the tournament, but the emergence of his understudy, the corpulent and loose-lipped Oliver Miller, has largely obscured Credits subpar performances. When the region-al's Most Outstanding Player, Dallas's own Lenzie Howell, was poked in the eye and had to sit down just as Texas pulled within four points in the second half, Lee Mayberry stepped up and, notwithstanding a sore throat, scored 11 of the Hogs' next 17 points. That no fewer than eight Razorbacks played at least 12 minutes apiece against Texas was by design. Says Richardson, "It's your turn, my turn, his turn—just never their turn."
To find two of its members in a regional final was a glorious moment for the Southwest Conference, which only last season struggled to place two teams in the 64-team field. But Richardson and Penders have stoked the embers left by Sutton and Abe Lemons, who coached Texas from 1977 to '82. Penders calls Fayetteville "Fayettenam." Richardson calls Penders, who coached Columbia and Fordham in New York City, "Sweet Tom, the city slicker."
Penders went nuts on Feb. 4, when Richardson wasn't whistled for a technical foul for walking off the floor in anger over a call with 14 seconds left and Texas ahead by three points in a regular-season game between the two teams. Strollin' Nolan, who came back for the overtime period, in which the Hogs prevailed, says he had promised his players that he would never see them lose to Texas, and was only making good on that promise. An Arkansas fan wrote Penders, upbraiding him for "whining" over the noncall. Penders's letter of reply made reference to Richardson's having called SWC officials "racist" several years ago. The fan showed Penders's missive to Richardson, who engaged Penders in heated dialogue during the conference tournament.
But the Penders-Richardson spat is what in these parts is known as a semi-feud, more good business than bad blood. They both know that by showcasing offenses that regularly score in the mid-90s, they're attracting the interest of TV and of major programs that are looking for coaches ( Texas is expected to open its considerable vaults to keep Penders from going to Virginia, Florida or, if Jim Valvano leaves, North Carolina State) and they're dragging the SWC's referees into the modern era.
There was no more compelling advertisement for the conference than the swiftness with which the 'Horns and Hogs dispatched their more heavy-footed opponents in the regional semis. North Carolina hung close to Arkansas well into the second half, before Richardson called time to ask rather pointedly of Mayberry whether he was passing up open shots because he was scared. Several minutes later, with the score tied at 54, Mayberry knocked down a three-pointer, then another, then a third after teammate Todd Day had sunk a trey of his own. Suddenly the Razorbacks were ahead by 11 points. Howell, who had 46 points and 17 rebounds over the two games, and Miller spent the last seven minutes making strong moves to the basket. "We're kind of a time bomb," said Richardson after the 96-73 victory. "Things go right, and we explode."