State of the Hogs: Nolan Richardson

It didn't take long to recognize the coaching greatness of Nolan Richardson. The legendary Arkansas basketball coach had the ability to pour his greatness into his players.

Do you ever remember the time when you identified greatness? I do when it comes to Nolan Richardson, but I needed confirmation from someone else.

It was in early November of 1979 when I watched my first Richardson practice. The University of Tulsa did not have an on-campus basketball arena in those days, just a double court gym. The Golden Hurricane played its games downtown in a civic arena.

Bill Connors, the sports editor of the Tulsa World and my boss, invited me to join him at a TU practice about three weeks into the Richardson era at TU.

The idea was to get an early glimpse of the best of what was believed to be a great collection of junior college talent Richardson had assembled for his first season as a Division I head coach. We were going to see Paul Pressey, thought to be an NBA prospect.

And, Pressey was as advertised. There he was with a fine cast of teammates from Richardson's Western Texas Community College team. He was joined from the tiny Snyder school by Greg Stewart, David Brown and Phil Spradling. And, there was also Mike Anderson, from an Alabama junior college, and one standout holdover, Bob Stevenson. All could really play.

Connors was a big basketball fan, a student of the game. He taught me how to watch a basketball game. With TU, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Oral Roberts all nearby, he attended a game almost every night and I was often by his side. A college classmate of Eddie Sutton during the Henry Iba days at OSU, Connors knew Richardson's college coach, Don Haskins at Texas El-Paso.

That was enough to get a welcome to practice, although Richardson's workouts were never closed as far as I recall. And, I saw hundreds of them, all an absolute treat, as was that first day.

It was about 30 minutes into that practice that Connors turned to me with his wry smile. He said, “This guy is great. I mean great.”

I thought, yes, Pressey is beyond great.

“No, I'm talking about Nolan,” Connors said. “Yes, there are some very good players out there, but I see why he won all those games in junior college. Nolan knows exactly what he's doing and every second of his workouts are with a purpose. This is great fun to watch. This team is going to be really good.”

At that point, I started studying Richardson's every move. You could hear each word, bellowed across the tiny gym. Of course, you could hear Nolan from any seat in Bud Walton Arena, too.

What Nolan did – as he did in every practice — was coach and teach on every play. There was something lethal about the 1-3-1 trap that he coached with those early Tulsa teams. There was long-armed Pressey at the head of the trap to touch almost every basketball. But it was the way he coached decisions on offense and in every facet that stood out.

Richardson instructed on each play and that caught the eye of Connors and eventually me, too.

“He's teaching decisions,” Connors said. “I love it. It's not the exact way that Mr. Iba would coach. But I see Mr. Iba's background that he most certainly got from Haskins. He's putting pressure on the players in practice. The games won't be difficult after this. But there is much more risk involved and he's teaching his thoughts on every play, putting himself into his players.”

Richardson coached toughness into his players. He preached intensity, drive and relentless pressure. He coached his players to take care of the basketball, but play at break-neck speed. Turnovers were not tolerated, but at the same time he did not want good shooters to turn down a single shot. The practice didn't last long. But he got so much done, all to prepare his team for what would be easy games.

If you could make it through a Richardson practice, the games would be a piece of cake, perhaps as wonderful as those his players raved about that would await them in the evenings in Richardson's home. They loved to talk about Rose Richardson's cooking.

You see, after practice, the players would re-assemble at Richardson's home to watch TV and eat glorious meals with great treats. Some players devoured whole cakes at one sitting.

I remember the weight issue that center Bruce Vanley battled for several years. How could you gain weight going through Richardson's practices? Nolan eventually found out that Vanley was eating second dinners and Rose's cakes.

“I came in from a recruiting trip one night and there was Vanley at my kitchen table, eating the last piece of one of Rose's cakes,” Richardson said. “So there was the problem. But Rose told me to leave him alone. He was mine at practice, but belonged to her in our home.”

It was Vanley that bested Sam Perkins and James Worthy in a Tulsa victory over North Carolina. By then, Nolan was the toast of the town, delighting members at several area country clubs with his prowess on the golf course as well as the bench.

Golf was Richardson's passion as head coach at Bowie High School in El Paso. He played in hustle games with Lee Trevino, learning the hard way that “Merry Mex” could take your money with only a coke bottle as his club. Nolan could over power most golf courses with an easy swing that produced a big hook to go along with soft touch around the green.

It's almost the way he coached, with power and also a soft, loving touch. His players feared him, but loved him, too. They played hard for him, sometimes after he had asked them before a game with a Duke or a North Carolina, did they recruit you?

I visited briefly with Richardson after the victory over South Carolina. I assumed it was an improved defense that would please him the most, but it was the pace of play that produced a thumbs up. He said, “That's Hawg Ball! The pace, the offensive efficiency and the pressure from the offensive end were great.”

I did think Nolan had a gift of coaching pace. It wasn't just pace as initiated by steals out of the defense or traps, but the mindset of players. He wanted shooters to shoot, taking them out if they passed up their shots on multiple possessions.

I talked by phone earlier today with Rus Bradburd, who wrote a solid book on Nolan, about style of play. A former UTEP assistant under Haskins, Bradburd said that was Nolan's standout trait.

“Coach Haskins watched one of Richardson's practices,” Bradburd said, “and remarked that when a three-point shooter fired a long range shot, Richardson would shout, 'LAYUP. Someone wondered aloud if he meant the player should have worked longer for a layup. No, Haskins said, Nolan meant it was as good as a layup. And that was Nolan's gift, to coach that into his players.”

At halftime Tuesday night they will hoist a banner at Bud Walton Arena to honor Nolan Richardson's greatness. I guess some will wonder why it took so long. That's to be discussed another time or by someone else. I am just thankful I had someone like Bill Connors to point to greatness after just 30 minutes.

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