Up Next

Commentary

Covering Nolan Richardson: What an assignment for a young reporter

If you can cover the strong-minded, beyond confident Nolan Richardson, with his grand presence, you can cover any coach in sports as a journalist

Nolan Richardson had a stunned yet pleased look on his face when he saw this young African-American man walk in the door.

I was a rookie reporter covering the University of Arkansas’ football and basketball teams for the Tulsa World newspaper fresh out of college in 1995. I also was the only black sports reporter in a room filled with white men and no women. The Hall of Famer heard that I was coming, but to finally see a black reporter covering his Razorbacks meant the world to Richardson after he had campaigned for more black coaches and media.

“I’d only been here, it looked like a century, and hadn’t seen nobody look like me,” Richardson said with a laugh to The Undefeated. “It makes you feel good because you’re walking in and, who knows, some kid outside said, ‘Man, they got a black guy covering sports.’ ”

I was much more in awe of being around the black sports pioneer and coaching legend than he was of me, although I had to keep it cool because of my new job. To this day, he still doesn’t know how my writing about his stance to get more black coaches affected my college basketball career.

Richardson often told reporters that they wouldn’t understand his words, his past and his struggle as a black man. He arrived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1985 as the first black men’s basketball coach in the then-Southwest Conference. Many coaches of color have referred to Richardson as the first black basketball coach at a major school in the South. He led Arkansas to back-to-back NCAA title games, winning the national championship in 1994.

Richardson was a teddy bear to family, friends and players off the court because of his 6-foot-3-inch, Barry White-like frame. He was also perhaps more of a grizzly bear to reporters he challenged about basketball and the lack of opportunities to blacks in sports with his deep voice and unapologetic words.

“Perception, remember, is the key to anything,” Richardson said. “The perception of a black coach … you have great talent. You are a great motivator. But we’re never great coaches.”

During the 1992-93 season, I was a redshirt with one year of eligibility left at San Jose State University after transferring from the University of the District of Columbia’s basketball program. I returned to my hometown to play for the Spartans as a non-scholarship player, turning down two other full scholarships in large part because of the school’s great print journalism program and to write on the Spartan Daily newspaper. While there was no scholarship offer, I was promised a spot on the team without a tryout by then-SJSU men’s basketball coach Stan Morrison.

I will never forget reading that year about Richardson, Temple coach John Chaney and Georgetown coach John Thompson each sitting out a game to bring light to the lack of black coaching hires in college basketball. Richardson, Thompson, Chaney and then-Southern Cal coach George Raveling were key figures in the Black Coaches Association, a powerful group in the 1980s and ’90s. I wrote in the Spartan Daily that I was proud that Richardson, Chaney and Thompson had the guts to do what they did, but wished they also did it against a more notable opponent, i.e. Kentucky, Massachusetts or St. John’s. I also wrote that every black college basketball player should sit out a game to protest the lack of black college coaches.

My written words upset Morrison, who is white. He had associate head coach Stan Stewart meet with me to tell me he wasn’t happy that I challenged the black players to boycott in my column and such was not a good representation of the SJSU men’s basketball program. My response to Stewart, who was black, was, “Doesn’t an article like this help you? You want to be a head coach, right?” He responded by echoing Morrison’s disappointment. I told Stewart that with all due respect, I would do everything the program asked me to do, but I wouldn’t compromise when it came to my writing.

From that point on, Morrison treated me differently but never spoke to me directly about his issue with my column. He often referred to me to my face as “Marcus Aurelius,” the Roman emperor known for his philosophical interests. Morrison ended up deciding for me that it was better for me to not play my last season because of my surgically repaired knee. My college basketball career was instantly over because of his decision. I was crushed.

Months later, I’m a college graduate suddenly covering Richardson. The 1994 NABC National Coach of the Year was to-the-death competitive, a chess artist as a coach, and had a sharp tongue during my two years covering the beat. If you can cover the strong-minded, beyond confident Nolan Richardson, with his grand presence, you can cover any coach in sports as a journalist.

I also learned a lot about the white journalists I worked alongside covering the Razorbacks. During the 1995 Arkansas football season, I was denied a rental car at the airport in Starkville, Mississippi. I had a reservation but was told I needed an S code. I didn’t have an S code because there was no such thing. I still believe they wouldn’t rent to me because I was black. There was a mom-and-pop rental car service next door that would rent to me. My rental car was an old 1988 Buick Skylark with manual windows and more than 75,000 miles on it that, coincidentally, had its radio tuned to a rhythm and blues station, presumably by the last brotha who drove it.

The other Arkansas writers, including longtime Razorbacks beat writers Bob Holt, could tell something was wrong at the football game at Mississippi State the next day and asked me about it. I told them the story and they were extremely sympathetic. That night, they made sure I came along with them for dinner in Mississippi. That will never be forgotten.

I often recall Richardson saying that he was challenged to “feed the monster” that he created at Arkansas. It wasn’t just from winning basketball games. It was from pushing the race card as well.

Richardson privately talked to me about not seeing eye to eye with then-Arkansas athletic director and former football coach Frank Broyles. There was a disconnect because of race, mutual ego and basketball being bigger than Broyles’ beloved football. Richardson also constantly clashed with Arkansas’ athletic department over football coach Houston Nutt’s grander compensation and bonuses.

Richardson ultimately drew a gutsy line in the sand in 2002 when he dared Broyles to fire him during a postgame news conference because “if they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take this job tomorrow.” Broyles’ did just that, as he paid Richardson a $3 million buyout and fired him.

Coach Richardson and I have kept in touch over the years, and he often told me he was proud of my journalism career. I thanked him for his help, advice and mentoring every time we spoke as well. Coach also gave me the scoop when he was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

In January 2017, I returned to Fayetteville for the first time in about 20 years to visit Richardson at his renowned ranch for a video story for The Undefeated. And from the moment I stepped on his grounds with horses, llamas, birds and dogs, I was still in awe of “Coach” the same way I was in 1995. Thank you, Coach, for standing up for me and all people of color in sports so we can have an opportunity too.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.