If Derek Fisher Had Been a Razorback: Insight from Nolan, Corliss & Derek Himself

Courtesy: Ferris Williams, Sync magazine

Courtesy: Ferris Williams, Sync magazine

There aren’t many blank spots on former NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President, now New York Knicks head basketball coach. On every big stage the Little Rock native played, he left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher was a part of in his 18-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.

The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.

Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.

It could have been much, much different.

What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.

As a Hog, Fisher likely would have helped stabilize the state’s flagship program during one of its most tumultuous periods and provided guard depth in a season in which it was sorely needed. In the 1995-96 season, for instance, the Hogs at times started four freshmen, including guards Pat Bradley and Kareem Reid. That team ended up making Arkansas’ fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen, but how much further could it have gone with a seasoned leader like Fisher?

All aboard the speculator, folks. Alternate history isn’t just for Civil War and JFK buffs any more…

FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE

Before delving into conjecture, let’s look at the facts: Fisher grew up in Arkansas basketball’s 40 Minutes of Hell heyday of the early 1990s and, like so many other young ballers in Little Rock, would have loved to join in on the fun. As a Parkview High School student, he looked up to the Hogs’ All-American point guard Lee Mayberry.

Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson knew about Fisher. He and his assistants had seen him play plenty of times in the summer circuit while scouting Arkansas Wings teammates like Corliss Williamson and Reggie Merritt. Fisher, never the most talented or most athletic player on his AAU or Parkview teams, didn’t yet shine like he would a few years down the line.

Instead, he was grinder. “He has one of the best work ethics I’d ever seen, at that age or even now,” Williamson said. “You know how a lot of us are as teenagers,” he added. “We want to hang out and do different things, whereas Derek was more focused. He was always trying to go out and lift weights or get up extra shots.”

Still, Richardson didn’t offer him a scholarship. He said the six-foot, 173-pound Fisher was then more of a shooter than pure point guard and wasn’t yet a player who could compete for playing time in a deep backcourt. In hindsight, though, Richardson said he considers his decision not to pursue Fisher as one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

STEPPING UP

Fisher, who grew up west of Boyle Park, landed near home at UALR. It wasn’t easy. The Trojans’ head coach Jim Platt doubted he was worth a scholarship, according to Fisher’s autobiography Character Driven. But a couple of assistant coaches (he had played for one on the Wings) convinced Platt otherwise.

Fisher earned the starting job a few games in, and as his stock rose over the next couple of seasons, so did that of the team he’d so wanted to join in Fayetteville. From 1992 to 1994, the Hogs made the leap from national contender to national champion. Fisher often visited Fayetteville to see his Razorback friends, hang out and go to dinner, recalls one such friend Reggie Merritt. In the summers, they played pickup together in Little Rock.

Fisher was familiar with Arkansas’ program and its players. That’s a main reason he briefly considered transferring there, said Merritt, recalling a conversation he had with Fisher in the spring of 1994.

Over the preceding seasons, Fisher and his teammates had gotten progressively more fed up with the attitude of Coach Platt. By January, they were ready to go public with their grievances, according to Character Driven. They chose the even-keeled Fisher as unofficial team spokesman: “It was really something that came from my teammates,” Fisher said in a telephone interview in early October. “It wasn’t something I assumed would be my responsibility.”

It became his charge when he and other Trojans boycotted a practice by taking a trip to the mall instead. An ad hoc summit was called. Assistant coach Dennis White visited him at his apartment along with UALR’s former athletic director, Mike Hamrick.

Teammates wanted Fisher to request a meeting with the entire staff, minus Platt, to air concerns — that in preceding months he’d become too negative, too sarcastic, crossing the line between barbed motivation and verbal abuse. They had Fisher voice an ultimatum: Either fire Platt, or we won’t play in an upcoming rivalry game against Arkansas State. “Once I was asked by my teammates to fill that role, at that point I embraced it 100 percent and really immediately took on that leadership and protector mentality of looking out for what’s best for my teammates, even more than for myself,” Fisher said.

LEADING THE TROJANS

At the meeting, Fisher explained the team’s decision to boycott the ASU game unless Platt was immediately replaced. Hamrick explained contractual terms made this impossible, but did promise to investigate the complaints and evaluate the situation at season’s end, Fisher wrote in Character Driven.

The players decided to keep playing but, predictably, UALR sputtered, dropping nine of its last 14 games. At season’s end, Platt was let go. New coach Wimp Sanderson had work to do. “When I got there, it was chaos, kind of,” Sanderson recalled. “It was just a bad situation.” All of his players were quitting the program and looking into transfer possibilities. Indeed, shortly before Sanderson was hired, standout freshmen Malik Dixon and Muntrelle Dobbins had entered Hamrick’s office and requested transfers.

They eventually stayed, as did Fisher. I asked Fisher if he considered transferring to Arkansas, as Merritt had recalled: “Once I was at UALR I don’t think I had any questions about wanting to be there but I do recall the uncertainty of the situation requiring me to look at what else may be possible,” Fisher said. “But I don’t think those thoughts ever went to a place where I formally thought I would transfer from the university.” Fisher is careful not to slam the door on the possibility of a consideration, though: “Reggie’s memory may be better than mine.”

Trojan fans have no problem recalling the accomplishments of Fisher’s final two seasons on campus: Sun Belt Player of the Year honors as a senior and a career that left him second on UALR’s all-time lists for scoring, assists and steals. Yet the question remains: What if he’d packed his bags for the Ozarks after that sophomore year?

IF HE’D BEEN A HOG

Almost certainly, Razorback Fisher wouldn’t have put up as big of numbers playing in the SEC as he did in the Sun Belt. He likely would have sat that first year — 1994-95 — per NCAA transfer rules. Still, he would have scrimmaged with Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Al Dillard, keeping his game plenty sharp.

And he would have absorbed lessons from those veterans that would have proved immensely valuable in the following two seasons.

The 1995-96 team started off with so much promise, yet ended up with so many question marks. Yes, the ‘96 Hogs lost nine scholarship players from the year before, but were also prepared to welcome in the nation’s top recruiting class — including junior college players such as forward Sunday Adebayo, center Kareem Poole, point guard Marcus Saxon and shooting guard Jesse Pate. Saxon and Pate had formed the nation’s best JUCO backcourt at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.

Academic issues prevented Saxon and Poole, however, from ever making it to campus. The team’s depth was further depleted when freshman guard Marlon Towns had to sit out the first couple months as an ACT score eligibility issue was cleared up. This meant almost the entire bulk of the point guard duties fell on the shoulders of 5-10, 165-pound Kareem Reid. “He’s got to be the man right off the bat,” Richardson told theArkansas Democrat-Gazette in October 1995.

Fisher, who’d put on significant muscle since Parkview, would have alleviated Reid’s burden while providing more size against opposing guards. Fisher’s role would have increased even more when the team’s leading scorer, Jesse Pate, was ruled ineligible to play in February 1996 because the NCAA said his transfer grades had not been certified properly.

Despite all the flux (Adebayo was also ruled ineligible), the team managed to finish 20-13 while leading the SEC in rebounds, three-pointers and assists. But Fisher would have helped do more than anchor the backcourt; he also would have provided much needed maturity, especially for the young guards. In the summer of 1996, Reid was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana in a dormitory room along with Marlon Towns. “I think [Fisher’s] leadership would have benefited our team,” said shooting guard Pat Bradley, “We were immature, but talented.”

The actual ‘95-‘96 team lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Massachusetts 79-63. Center Marcus Camby was UMass’ star, but the team’s engine belonged to its Puerto Rican backcourt of Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla. Against UMass, Reid and Bradley had to log 37 minutes each. Fisher would have allowed them to stay much more fresh while likely chipping in 13-17 points of his own. It would have been a nailbiter, but it’s possible that these alternate history Hogs would have beaten UMass, then taken down an Allen Iverson-led Georgetown in the next round. They likely still would have lost to eventual national champions Kentucky in the Final Four, but making it that far would have been plenty impressive. Granted, Arkansas fans at the time wanted more, but in the last 16 years they have learned how rare Final Four berths are.

For Fisher’s part, he doesn’t dwell on all these what-ifs. He insists he’s a Trojan, through and through. I asked him during that pivotal spring of 1994 if he’d ever imagined how he would do playing with the likes of Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel and Kareem Reid. “Not really,” he said.

Instead, he was out to prove himself from Little Rock. “Had I had the opportunity to play at the SEC level or ‘big college’ level, I could have been as or more impactful as those guys were. And I had a lot of respect for what those guys accomplished in their years at Fayetteville — no question about it.”

But he was also driven to carve out a career that would also be worthy of much respect, “to work as hard as [he] possibly could to put UALR on the map.”

 

The above is an update of an article that originally ran in 2012 in Sync magazine

 

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Nolan Richardson Isn’t the Only Arkansan Entering the Basketball Hall of Fame: Part 1

Chicago.

Is it in the least surprising that a city known for its wind should have so many interesting people floating in and out of it, seemingly carried aloft by the currents of fate?

When I heard Nolan Richardson was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this August, one of my first thoughts drifted northward to that great city on a lake. Ten years ago, Richardson’s reputation in Arkansas was marred after an ugly firing from, and lawsuit of, the university with whom he’ll always be linked. The idea of enshrining Richardson seemed far-fetched in that period.

In the last five years, though, we’ve seen a whole-scale rehabilitation of Richardson’s image in the state and nationwide. Much of this, of course, has to do with the passage of time. It also helps Richardson that none of his successors have achieved anything near the same level of success he did in Fayetteville.  An ESPN documentary, released in 2012, also helped Richardson by essentially canonizing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style among the great strategies in basketball history.

But I think one of the most important reasons for Richardson’s resurgence into the public’s goodwill has been his biography, written by Chicagoan Rus Bradburd. Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” published in 2010, is a must-read for all fans of college basketball and students of the race relations in the South. It goes back to Richardson’s west Texas background to explain the complicated roots of his anger, and it lays bare the knarled relationship between he and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. It shows, in a way no mere article or documentary could, the extent to which the passion that led to the 1994 championship and the frustration that led to the 2002 meltdown were two sides of the coin.

I’ve talked to Bradburd in person and over the phone a few times about Richardson, Arkansas sports, the craft of writing and more. He’s a fascinating person in his own right, a creative writing professor who’s also spent a year coaching professional basketball in Ireland while learning how to play the fiddle. Oh, and this: He was also a Division I assistant coach who “discovered” a largely unknown point guard named Tim Hardaway in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.

In the early 1980s, while a teenage Hardaway walked to courts to hone his craft, there would have been at some point a large, 6-7 heavyset older man driving a cab by those same courts. Perhaps, they knew of each other. Likely they didn’t.  The man’s name was Nat Clifton. He is one of the most significant figures in NBA history, a man who will posthumously be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Richardson.

And he grew up in Arkansas…

 

Click here for Part 2 of this series.

 


Is Mike Anderson On Track To Fulfill Potential as Nolan’s Heir Apparent? Part 2

Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.

Will Anderson become a giant in his own right? Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.

Modern society promotes instant results, and the impression they are always possible no matter the field. This mirage causes much stress in the world of college coaches, where in order for most new hires to build winning programs, a number of foundational changes must first be made – from making sure the players attend class and do their own tests, to recruiting guys who fit a particular style of play, to convincing a  super-talented player it’s worth staying for a sophomore or junior season before bolting to the NBA.

Waiting for all these changes can especially be tough on fans of a program that has already been to the promised land. Especially when the coach who led the program there has an heir apparent who takes over for him. Everybody hopes – against reason – the successor will equal or surpass the mentor.

For the sake of perspective in these situations, it’s good to compare actual season-by-season results. In Part 1, we looked at how Mike Anderson’s first two seasons at Arkansas stacked up against his mentor Nolan Richardson’s first two seasons there. So far, Anderson comes out ahead.

How does this combo compare to other “legend-successor” duos around the nation? I’m especially interested in programs which, like Arkansas, have only won one or two titles. I’ve thrown the UCLAs, Kentuckys and Dukes out because those programs are quite frankly at another level in terms of branding and ability to recruit.

Below are the programs I consider most similar to Arkansas in terms of prestige. We’ll start with a legend-successor duo involving Eddie Sutton, the coach who preceded Nolan Richardson at Arkansas. If Sutton hadn’t left Arkansas for Kentucky in 1985, Richardson and Anderson likely never coach the Razorbacks. We’ll also see that Anderson’s first two seasons stack up well against Tom Izzo’s head coaching start at Michigan State.

Izzo is the only coaching disciple in the list who has actually outperformed his mentor.

Oklahoma State

LEGEND

Hank Iba (1934-1970)

1934-35: 9-9

1935-36: 16-8

SUCCESSOR

Eddie Sutton (player 1955-57; assistant 1957-58; head coach 1990-2006)

1990-91: 24-8, 10-4; Lost in NCAA tourney 3rd round

SRS*: 21.18

1992-93: 28-8 (overall season record), 8-6 (conference record)

SRS: 21.52; Lost in NCAA tourney 3rd round

* Simple Rating System – a rating from sports-reference.com that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The higher the number, the better the team.

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Is Mike Anderson On Track To Fulfill His Potential As Nolan Richardson’s Heir Apparent? Part 1

 

In the end, only the head coach will be blamed.

Yes, this season, guard  B.J. Young at times resembled an over-caffeinated rickshaw driver careening into dense traffic without the slightest intention of bringing anyone aboard. Sure, last offseason the accuracy of Mardracus Wade’s three-point shot apparently learned how to ski downhill. And yes, Marshawn Powell at times mightily struggled with free throw shooting. Especially in the 7-15 clunker he threw up two weeks ago in a 72-75 loss to Vanderbilt.

It was the Hogs’ fifth consecutive opening game game loss in the SEC Tournament, marking the fifth consecutive year Arkansas missed out on the NCAA Tournament and the 16th straight season without an NIT Tournament berth.

It no longer matters how Arkansas entered this pit of gloom. All fans want to know is how quickly the program will get out of it. And, more importantly, how quickly the program will get back to the top.

Three years from now, fans won’t get hung up on any one player’s lack of court vision or another player’s season of erratic shooting. The fans won’t even care if the Hogs win a few more games in the SEC Tournament and annually start playing in a round or two of an NCAA Tournament.

They will be looking at the big picture.

In 17 years as an assistant under Nolan Richardson, Mike Anderson learned how to build programs that could consistently beat the nation’s best teams – on any court. He learned what kind of talent and basketball IQ is necessary to build a program that can make three Final Fours, what kind of cold-blooded killer instinct it takes to win a title.

How well Anderson applies these lessons and how close he gets to achieving the benchmarks of success that Richardson set will ultimately determine Anderson’s legacy. Will he always be seen as Richardson’s chief lieutenant/heir apparent, or will he be seen as a giant in his own right?

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College Basketball Programs With More Coaching Turnover Than Arkansas

This morning, I had an enjoyable interview with Grant Hall and Vernon Tarver, co-hosts of Press Row on KREB 1190 FM in Northwest Arkansas.

One of our topics was how the coaching turnover at Arkansas since Nolan Richardson’s firing in 2002 had contributed to the Hogs being the worst team on the road in the last decade despite being good enough to be the fourth-best home team. [I wrote about this subject in detail after talking to Pat Bradley for this New York Times article].

From 2002 through 2011, Arkansas had four full-time head coaches, as well as an interim head coach when Mike Anderson took over for Richardson at the end of 2002. The Hogs have had seven winning seasons since then.

Grant Hall wondered if other Division I programs had more coaching turnover than the Hogs, which led me to research the issue.

Thanks to sports-reference.com, I found out that there at least 10 programs with coaching carousel that have recently spun faster than Arkansas':

Pepperdine – Five coaches 2005-2011 [One of these coaches, Eric Bridgeland, stepped into the the role midway through the 2007-08 season on an interim basis; no winning seasons since 2004-05].

Utah – Five coaches 2004-11 [One of these coaches, Kerry Rupp, stepped into the the role during the 2003-04 season on an interim basis; three winning seasons since 2003-04].

Southeast Missouri State – Four full-time coaches 2006-2009 [Former Arkansas assistant Scott Edgar and Little Rock native Dickey Nutt have been part of this dizzying carousel; one winning season since 2005-06]

Wyoming – Four coaches 2007-11 [One head coach, Fred Langley, served on an interim basis in 2010-11]

Texas Tech – Four coaches 2008-12 [Pat Knight took over for his father, Bobby, during the 2007-08 season; one winning season since 2007-08]

Georgia State – Four coaches 2002-2011 [Michael Perry took over for Lefty Driesell mid-season 2002-03; two winning seasons since 2002-2003]

Texas A&M – Four coaches 2004-2011, including current Arkansas assistant Melvin Watkins [had seven winning seasons since 2003-04]

Eastern Washington – Four coaches 2004-2011 [no winning seasons since 2003-04]

Princeton – Four coaches 2003-2011 [all four winning seasons since 2003-04 have come in the last four years, under two coaches]

Alcorn State – Four coaches 2003-2011 [Just a whole lot of losing seasons here, folks. That happens in the SWAC]

Of these programs, only three – Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Utah – belong to major conferences like Arkansas.

It would be interesting to compare how much player turnover there was at these programs and see if that correlates with home/road winning percentages.


Comparing Nolan Richardson/Mike Anderson with Other Legendary Mentor-Protege Successions in College Basketball

The Nolan Richardson/Mike Anderson dynamic is a fascinating one to watch.

No matter how much Anderson and his former mentor insist that it’s not all about how Mike’s best Hog teams stack up to Nolan’s best Hog teams, we all know it’s very much about that. There are massive expectations at play here, as there would be at any program that has been to the mountaintop in the last 20 years.

You got to give Nolan credit, though. He’s able to diffuse the fan base’s  aggravation over the Hogs’ continuing road woes with his sense of humor, as he did Monday at The Downtown Tip Off Club in North Little Rock:

A lot of people think that [Anderson] ought to be me. Hell, please don’t be me.  Hell, I may be the ugliest guy in the United States of America … I wanted my [players] to be ugly. I wanted us to play ugly. The only thing I wanted pretty was my wife. My kids were ugly. It didn’t matter.”

Still, this got me to thinking what other former proteges (players or coaches) have had the task of fulfilling their mentors’ shoes at the same program where that mentor was a legend.

The qualifier for “legend”  status here is to have won a national championship at the NCAA Tournament:

Oklahoma State

Legend

Hank Iba (1934-1970)

National Titles: 1945, 46

Overall winning 67.4%; Conference 62.8%

Successor

Eddie Sutton (OSU player 1956-58; OSU assistant 1958-59)

Head Coach (1990-2006)

Deepest Tourney Postseason Run as HC: 1995 & 2004 NCAA Final Fours

Overall winning 70.9%; Conference 63%

Marquette

Legend

Al McGuire (1964-77)

National Title: 1977

Overall winning 78.7%; Conference N\A as Marquette was an independent)

Successors

Hank Raymonds – MU assistant (1961-77)

Head Coach (1977-83)

Deepest Tourney Postseason Run as HC: 1979 NCAA Sweet Sixteen

Overall winning 71.6%; Conference N\A as Marquette was an independent

Rick Majerus – MU player (1967-68); MU assistant (1971-83)

Head Coach (1983-86)

Deepest Tourney Postseason Run as HC: 1985 NIT Third Round

Overall winning 61.5%; Conference N\A as Marquette was an independent

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If Derek Fisher had played for the Razorbacks

This was closer to happening than you think. Illustration by Ferris Williams

There aren’t many blank spots on longtime NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President. On every big stage the Little Rock native has played, he has left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher has been a part of in his 16-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.

The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.

Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.

It could have been much, much different.

What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.

See the rest of the story at Sync magazine.

PS – This concludes what has apparently become my blog’s  Of(Fish)al Derek Fisher Week.


Sneak Peek at ESPN’s “40 Minutes of Hell” documentary: Part 2

“He used to tell us all the time if you see me and and a bear fighting, you better help that damn bear. I ain’t gonna need you to help me” - former Razorback Corey Beck on coach Nolan Richardson
This is Part 2 of a two-part preview of ESPN’s upcoming “40 Minutes of Hell”

Richardson had never shied away from provocative accusations of racial inequality, but at these conferences he unleashed more vitriol than ever. After a loss in Lexington, Ky. he said he’d leave the university if the remainder of his $7.21 million contract was bought out. The worst of it came in Fayetteville:

When I look at all of you people in this room, I see no one who looks like me, talks like me or acts like me,” he said the white reporters at the Ark. press conference. ”Now, why don’t you recruit? Why don’t the editors recruit like I’m recruiting?”

Richardson, the only black among the Fayetteville campus’s 17 head coaches according to a New York Times article, also said he was treated differently because of his race.

”See, my great-great-grandfather came over on the ship, I didn’t,” he said. ”And I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. My great-great-grandfather came over on the ship. Not Nolan Richardson.
”I did not come over on that ship, so I expect to be treated a little bit different. Because I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on.”

In the ESPNU video, former Arkansas chancellor John White says the anger had boiled to a point that it could burn the university:

It was important for me that he send the message that he was happy at the University of Arkansas. Because people all over the state – particularly African Americans in this state – were watching Coach Richardson and they were making decisions about whether their sons and daughters should come to the University of Arkansas to go to school.

In the end, Richardson’s greatest strength became his ultimate undoing, Bradburd says. “We can never escape ourselves and what made him a great coach was this us-against-the-world mentality.”

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Sneak peek at “40 Minutes of Hell,” ESPN documentary on Arkansas’ 1994 team and Nolan Richardson: Part 1


“A lot of people didn’t get him. They had too many expectations about how they should talk and how he should talk and how they should all behave, which in the end is what I think led to the end of his tenure. Which I always regretted. I always thought the guy had real power.” - Bill Clinton

Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas Razorbacks faced no more daunting obstacle on their path to the 1994 national championship than the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Ky. Since losing to the Hogs in 1992, the #4 Wildcats had reeled off 33 consecutive victories at home. When the #3 Hogs entered Rupp Arena on Feb. 9, 1994, the Wildcats roared to a 39-24 lead with 4:44 left in the first half. Arkansas, though, kept up the full-court pressure.“The style that we play, there’s a lot of times you’re gonna get down in the ballgame,” former Arkansas coach Richardon tells ESPNU in its upcoming documentary “40 Minutes of Hell.” “But if you stay after it and stay after it, it’s like wear and tear constantly. Something’s gonna break. And if that breaks then we’re gonna be in position to do something about it.”

By the end of that Feb. 9 game, Kentucky’s endurance was shattered and Arkansas’ confidence had never been stronger. The documentary uncovers footage of Razorback Corliss Williamson walking off the court carrying teammate Al Dillard on his back, and of Scotty Thurman busting out some kind of celebratory shimmy shake amidst the ensuing locker room hoopla.

In his postgame talk, Richardson roars: “We were supposed to do that. That’s how you look at it. That’s why I say it’s a day at the office.”

Such heady times might have become the norm in the mid-1990s, but the Razorbacks program has not seen similar success then. “40 Minutes of Hell” doesn’t explore why success dwindled in the last seven years of Richardson’s 1985-2002 tenure. Instead, it focuses on how the very same forces driving Richardson to that 1994 title led to his fall following two 2002 press conferences.

The video presents original footage and commentary from some of the most pivotal Razorback games of the era, including the 1991 showdown between #1 UNLV and #2 Arkansas at Barnhill Arena and 1993’s 120-68 victory over eventual Big Eight champ Missouri. It also packs in interviews with former President Bill Clinton, current Hog coach Mike Anderson, former Arkansas Chancellor John White and a few key members of Arkansas’ championship team.

Here are some of the most interesting excerpts:

In 1985, Richardson initially declined the Arkansas job. But his daughter Yvonne convinced him to change his mind, pointing out Fayetteville was only 90 miles away and he already had fans there. With only 12 wins in his first season, it was a rocky start:

It wasn’t the easiest place to start a career. I had a lot of racial slurs, I had a lot of hate mail. We weren’t very good. There was one night I could not even go in my condo because of a bomb threat. I wasn’t winning so ‘Get him out of here.’ – Nolan Richardson

Yvonne was diagnosed with leukemia in 1985. Mike Anderson, then an Arkansas assistant coach, helped the Richardsons by regularly driving her 100 miles to Tulsa for treatments. Two years later, however, Yvonne died at age 15.

I think from her I gathered some more strength. It was like ‘I got to show these people something. I got to show them something before I get out of here.’ And you’re gonna help me do this, because you brought me here. Let’s show them. Let’s show them it can be done. – Richardson

Many national pundits favored Duke over Arkansas heading into the 1994 title game. The Blue Devils were deemed more intelligent. This perception, unsurprisingly, irritated Richardson, who used it as fuel to further motivate his team.

Well, it was the smart kids versus the dumb kids. The smart coach against the dumb coach.
How smart do you have to be to block a shot? How smart do you have to be to trap? How smart do you have to be? You have to be smart to do that? What is smart? You don’t have to be as smart as everybody says you need to be. All you have to do is understand the game… [Duke coach Mike] Krzyzewski is no doubt one of the masters of the game, but my team played a little bit better than his.” – Richardson

Arkansas hasn’t returned to the Sweet 16 since 1996. By the early 2000s, the mounting demands seemed to be getting to Richardson.

“I think as the team started to take a dip, the pressure is building. The years of anger and feeling like he had to prove himself, he’s not able to forget that stuff or leave that stuff behind. I think that all came to a head” – Rus Bradburd, author of “40 Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson.”

“I had the impression for several weeks leading up to it, that Nolan was growing tired of pushing the big, big ball up the mountain” – former Arkansas Chancellor John White

Then it all unraveled for Richardson within about a week in February, 2002. At two press conferences – first at Kentucky, then in Fayetteville…

“40 Minutes of Hell premieres Saturday, Feb.11 at 8 p.m. CT on ESPNU. Its preview continues here.

How the story of Arkansas’ first black football player inspired Nolan Richardson’s biography

Part of Darrell Brown’s Legacy

The feel-good story of October’s second weekend of college football belonged to Darrell Brown, the first black football player at the University of Arkansas. Forty-five years after he left the program under depressing conditions – bruised, battered, injured and ignored – Brown was celebrated at a  halftime ceremony of the Auburn-Arkansas game. In front of 70,000 cheering people, he accepted the authentic varsity jersey he’d always craved and an honorary plaque. After such a ceremony, and an attendant Yahoo Sports article, Brown’s story of pain, suffering, bitterness and, ultimately, reconciliation (his three children attended UA) is known to the world.

Throughout it all, a range of emotions swept through Brown.

On Sunday, I spoke to Brown about his reaction to the ceremony. He added that the UA press is talking to him about writing his biography. If it goes through, it appears he’ll co-author the book with athlete-turned-writer Celia Anderson, who led Little Rock Hall High School to a basketball state championship in 1997 before signing with the Lady Razorbacks. In college, she played on a Final Four team and a WNIT championship team. Later, she played pro ball in Greece before embarking on a career geared toward literacy advocacy. Anderson currently teaches at NorthWest Arkansas Community College while pursuing a PhD in Urban Higher Education from Jackson State University.

I was originally introduced to Darrell Brown in 2010 at Arkansas’ Multi-Ethnic Hall of Fame induction in Little Rock by Rus Bradburd.

Bradburd attended that ceremony primarily to speak about his experiences with Nolan Richardson, the subject of his recently published biography. Over the course of interviewing Richardson for that book, however, Bradburd was told about Brown’s extraordinary perseverance.

The story roused Bradburd from one of his worst episodes of writer’s block.

“I was sitting there working on that Nolan Richardson book for about a year,” with about a year and a half until deadline, Bradburd said. “I was surrounded by this big pile of stuff -notes, research, recordings, newspaper articles and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ It just seemed too hard … So I was overwhelmed by the research and then [former Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge] Wendell Griffin said ‘You need to learn what happened to Darrell Brown. Here’s his phone number. Call Darrell Brown and call Davis Hargis, his teammate.'”

“When I heard Darrell Brown’s story, I thought ‘I can do this. If Darrell Brown went through what he did for a year and half, then surely I can write a book for a year and a half.’ It was really the inspiration for finishing this book. I thought there’s no way I can give up now.”


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