FAYETTEVILLE — This isn’t Nolan Richardson’s first trip to Springfield, Mass.
The former Arkansas coach remembers that one all too well. The Razorbacks, fresh off the 1994 national championship, opened the 1994-95 season against Massachusetts in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. It wasn’t a good day as his team’s title defense got off to a frustrating start with a 104-80 loss to the Minutemen.
“Now I get a chance to go back on a different note,” said Richardson, who eventually led Arkansas back to the national title game. “I don’t care about winning or losing.”
He’s right. There will be no competition tonight. Instead, Richardson is in Springfield to take his place alongside the greatest to ever play or coach the game.
The 72-year-old, with family and supporters in attendance, will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame during an enshrinement ceremony televised by NBA TV.
Richardson, who was elected last spring in his first year as a finalist, goes into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a member of a 2014 class that includes Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond, Gary Williams, Bob Leonard, Nat Clifton, Sarunas Marciulionis, Guy Rodgers and David Stern and Immaculata University’s championship teams.
It’s the crowning achievement for the El Paso, Texas, native, who made a mark on the sport as both a player and a coach. Richardson has been recognized numerous times in a career that includes junior college, National Invitation Tournament and NCAA Tournament titles. He’s a member of several halls of fame, including the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.
But none means as much to Richardson as the honor he’ll receive tonight.
“The Naismith Hall of Fame is like the grandfather of them all,” Richardson said. “I just can’t think of an honor as fascinating or as big as going into this hall of fame.”
Those who know Richardson best said no one deserves the honor more in a life and career that has been well documented, from the childhood lessons taught by his grandmother in El Paso to his volatile departure at Arkansas.
Richardson was a multi-sport star who eventually played college basketball for fellow Naismith Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins at Texas Western. He began a coaching career in junior high and slowly climbed the ranks to Western Texas junior college, Tulsa and Arkansas, winning at every stop with his unique style.
“I know I’m a very unusual person, an unusual coach,” Richardson said. “I don’t see things in the eyes that others see. That’s why I said my teams were very good when they could see out of my eyes what I wanted. Not what anyone else wanted. Not even what they wanted. I think that’s what’s happens.”
It helped Richardson reach the pinnacle at Arkansas, where “40 Minutes of Hell” became part of college basketball vernacular. He went 389-169 in 17 seasons as head Hog, led the Razorbacks to three Final Fours and the 1994 national title.
Scotty Thurman, who played for Richardson’s national title team, said his coach was a gifted teacher who made the basketball court his classroom.
“You’d be hard pressed to find other coaches that had to do it the way he had to do it from junior high, high school, junior college, Tulsa, then to Arkansas,” said Thurman, who is now Arkansas’ director of student-athlete development for the basketball program. “He won on all those levels. I think that’s a pretty amazing feat.”
Richardson also had to fight for everything he earned throughout his career. He was never shy about using his position with the Razorbacks as a pulpit, standing up for what he believed was right even if it created ripples.
Time has healed the wounds of his ugly Arkansas departure, which included Richardson suing the school for racial discrimination. He was at center court for Arkansas’ championship celebration in 2009 and honored with the rest of the Arkansas’ Final Four teams last winter. Arkansas also has announced it plans to hang a banner in Bud Walton Arena in Richardson’s honor this season.
“I’m honored just to know him and to have worked with him, to have played for him,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I just think as a former player, when I look up and see him being enshrined into the Hall of Fame, words cannot even describe it. Your heart just goes out to Coach Richardson because he’s meant so much to not only me as an individual, but to all the players that have played for him.
“To see him honored in such a way … no one’s more deserving.”
Anderson will be part of an Arkansas contingent attending tonight’s ceremony as Richardson becomes the first person to either coach or play for the Razorbacks to enter the Naismith Hall of Fame. It isn’t a tag Richardson was seeking when he began his career with the Razorbacks, but is appreciative of the honor.
“I guess I never think of things by being the first to do something. It’s something that just happen,” Richardson said. “Sometimes there’s things that aren’t planned that come along and you just happen to be the one. I’m blessed.”
Richardson arrived Wednesday to participate in a press conference and dinner with other Naismith Hall of Fame members Thursday. He’ll be presented by Hall of Famers John Thompson and Nate Archibald during tonight’s induction ceremony.
Then Richardson will address the crowd.
The hall of fame coach said he didn’t really plan to prepare a speech. It’s not really his style. Richardson spoke from the heart throughout his career and said that wouldn’t change as he stands on basketball’s grand stage tonight.
“A team helped me get this honor and that’s all the people that are involved,” Richardson said. “High school teammates college teammates, my college coaches and people who gave me an opportunity to become a college coach. All those people will be recognized. And of course, the head honcho is ol’ granny Richardson.
“It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s just a tremendous honor.”