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State of the Hogs:
There was a large media contingent on hand Wednesday night for the Arkansas-Kentucky basketball game at Rupp Arena. Kentucky's beat writers number around 20 with various papers from Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati well represented. There were several clumps visiting about several topics concerning the state of SEC hoops.
Invariably, in each clump, one topic always came up. The Kentucky writers would ask about the whereabouts of Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas basketball coach. Afterall, it was the last time the Hogs visited Rupp Arena, two years ago, when the beginning of the end for Richardson took place after a Saturday game between the Hogs and Wildcats.
"It was like nothing I've ever seen before on that podium," said one Kentucky scribes Wednesday. "Right there in this media room he just unloaded. I'll never forget it. One of the local guys had noticed that Nolan and Tubby had talked a little after the game when they shook hands and he asked Nolan what they had said. Pretty harmless question, looking back. And then Nolan pretty much said, ‘Take this job and shove it.'"
I wasn't there. Since Hawgs Illustrated is roughly on a monthly print schedule during the winter months, I didn't cover all of the road games in those down years of Arkansas basketball and that game didn't look significant. Man, was I wrong. The face of Arkansas basketball began to change that night in Lexington.
I don't exactly recall what Nolan said. I do recall he DID NOT say, "Take this job and shove it." It was to the effect that if the school would pay him the money owed, he'd go away. Whatever it was, that started the wheels in motion with the Arkansas administration to oust Richardson.
When Richardson exploded as only he could on the following Monday in front of a stunned group of media at Bud Walton Arena, his fate may have been sealed. He was terminated on Friday, one day before the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt. He hasn't coached again.
I will never forget calling my gravely ill father on the phone immediately after that press conference, reading the highly explosive commentary from Richardson and hearing my father's words.
"Oh, my God, oh my God," said Orville Henry. "He wants them to fire him and then he'll sue them."
Turns out, my father, as he usually was, knew what he was talking about. He knew that Richardson had long sought advice from Little Rock attorney John Walker.
Interestingly, those Kentucky writers enjoyed their press conferences with Richardson. They were always full of copy. And, because the Hogs were viewed as a fresh challenge, at least during their early SEC days, they wrote plenty about both Richardson and his teams. Afterall, the Hogs, with Todd Day, Oliver Miller and Lee Mayberry, blew out the Wildcats the first time they met in Rupp Arena , launching what would become a mild rivalry.
Those that visited with me Wednesday night also remembered listening to Richardson in a telephone media hookup of SEC coaches earlier in the week. They recalled that Richardson promised, "Help is on the way." That was in reference to a recruiting class that included Andre Iguodala, Brandon Tobias, Rashard Sullivan, Jonathon Modica and Wen Mukubu. Iguodala and Tobias both got releases from the UA. Iguodala ended up at Arizoan, Tobias at Alabama-Birmingham.
"How good would they have been had that class stayed together and J. J. Sullinger stayed," a Kentucky writer asked last night. "Was help really on the way?"
Who knows? Perhaps the Hogs would be somewhat better than the team that now sits 3-9 for last in the SEC.
But what I will offer is that there is more help on the way now than there was two years ago. Al Jefferson, Darian Townes, Steven Hill and Charles Thomas signed in the spring and all are 6-8 or better. They are exactly what ails the Hogs now, and the best group of big men ever to sign with the school. Point guard Dontell Jefferson is committed and expected to join that group in the spring.
The good news is that we don't have to listen to Richardson. If ever there was the anit-Nolan, it is Stan Heath as far as public relations. He always says the right thing and acts the right way in the public eye.
We do not have to fear that a Kentucky writer will remember one of Heath's media sessions as nothing he's ever seen before. That's a comfortable thought. Maybe some look forward to those kinds of media sessions. I do not. I do look forward to a better Arkansas team next season. I'll settle for that.