MIKE’S BLOG: 40 Minutes of Hell

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It was fitting that on a day when the ESPN documentary 40 Minutes of Hell premiered on the big screen at Bud Walton Arena Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks extended their home court winning streak to 17 straight.

Those who remained in the arena to watch ESPN’s tribute to Nolan were able to absorb its full impact without dwelling on what would have been Hogs first home loss of the season.

Rumors were floating that there was a dark side to the documentary. I had heard that the university would be portrayed as place where racism was allowed to flourish at the expense of the best basketball coach in the history of the school. If so the whole drama that took place during Richardson’s 17 years on the hill would have been oversimplified.

As it turned out the ESPN people got it mostly right. The program is not one sided. If anything it erred on the side of the school and the people in charge at the time, John White and Frank Broyles.

The painful end of Nolan’s coaching career at Arkansas has been misunderstood by some fans for far too long. To them the man lost his job because he attacked his bosses. Dick Vitale saw it that way and said so to the producers of 40 Minutes of Hell. Vitale proved once again that he’s good at hyping games but unable to comprehend many of the real world issues involving college basketball.

Fortunately the people who produced 40 Minutes of Hell were not as clueless as Vitale. For the first time the real story of how and more importantly why Nolan Richardson was fired was laid out clearly for all to see.

Shortly after Arkansas had returned from the 1990 Final 4 in Denver Nolan was on ESPN live from KFSM’s Northwest Arkansas studios via our satellite services. After he was finished and the studio lights had been dimmed Nolan and I sat and talked at length about how far he and his program had come from that first difficult season in 1986 and what the future might now hold for him.

I was surprised to see that he still had an edge to him. He was still angry and defiant about the obstacles he’d encountered since becoming the first black head coach in a major sport in the Southwest Conference.

“You won, Nolan,” I told him. “They can’t say you’re in over your head, that you coach nothing more than streetball. You’ve taken this team to the Final 4. You play everybody. Your teams win games.”

He sat there for a few moments and then quietly predicted his own demise. “They’ll fire me someday,” he said. “They want me gone right now and when the day comes when I’m not winning enough games I’ll be gone.”

There is a moment in 40 Minutes of Hell where Nolan looks into the camera and says of his team’s win over Duke in the 1994 national championship game, “I told you so.” It was Nolan’s answer to all of those who had questioned his coaching tactics, those who said Arkansas did not play smart enough to beat a team like Duke when a national championship was on the line.

But when I heard those words I had a different reaction. It was like Nolan was looking at me and recalling that long ago conversation where he predicted his own firing.

“I told you so.”

So why did it happen? Why did one of the most innovative coaches in the history of college basketball get the boot by his own school after taking that school to three Final 4’s, a national championship and a national runner up spot? Better still, how did Nolan know it was going to happen a decade before?

Watch 40 Minutes of Hell and you will learn.

I finally put the pieces of the puzzle together few years ago while visiting him in his home northwest of Fayetteville. Nolan has an office/den that contains most of the mementos he has collected over his long career. On a bookshelf in the back of the room sits a photo of his cherished “Granny,” the woman who raised him.

Late in her life, when it was starting to looking like Nolan was going to have good success as a coach, she charged him with one responsibility above all others.

“Don’t turn your back on your people,” she told Nolan. “If you have a platform use it.”

Explaining this to me as I looked at his granny’s photo Nolan looked me square in the eye and said, “I know my life would have been a lot easier if I had just coached basketball and kept my mouth shut but I couldn’t. No way would I ever let than woman down. No way.”

At that moment I was thunderstruck. If I could find this out why couldn’t Frank? All of those people at the university who were confused and angered when Nolan repeatedly used his press conference as a platform for racial issues, could they not have ever sat down and visited with the man and asked him why he did it?

What we had in those days was a gigantic failure to communicate.

Fortunately life has a way of cleaning up the biggest of mistakes. In spite of what happened Nolan continued to live in Northwest Arkansas saying many times over the years that he didn’t have any issues with the state, the community, the school or the fans. He simply wanted those in charge at the university to become more aware of the need for racial diversity. Saturday he acknowledged that the changes he pushed so hard for have, for the most part, taken place.

These days, when I’m sitting on press row at Bud Walton Arena, once or twice a game I’ll look over to the spot where Nolan now sits. Having him back there where he belongs is a reminder than in the end what is right wins out over what is wrong.

Sometimes it just takes a while.