The Healing Process

Univerity of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, current Razorback head basketball coach John Pelphrey and UA coaching legend Nolan Richardson come together on Friday morning to announce the honoring of Richardson's 1994 National Championship team on Feb. 28-March 1.

The last time that Nolan Richardson was in the Bud Walton Arena media room, things didn't end very nicely.

But on this Friday morning, there was nothing but love in air.

That's because University of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, current head basketball coach John Pelphrey and Richardson – the Razorbacks' head coach with the most wins in history – were all there for a common cause.

It was – as reported earlier this year by Hawgs Illustrated - to announce that Richardson and the 1994 National Championship would be honored on the weekend of Feb. 28-March 1.

"We are thrilled at the opportunity to honor Coach Richardson and our 1994 national championship team," Long said. "This year marks the 15th anniversary of that championship also the 15th anniversary of the opening of Bud Walton Arena.

"This tribute and recognition at our March 1st basketball game will actually begin on Saturday, February 28th with a tribute dinner for our team at the Holiday Inn in Springdale," added Long, who took over for Frank Broyles whose relationship with Richardson was strained.

Indeed there will be a dinner for around 700 people held that night with tickets going first to Razorback Foundation and to then to the general public if any are left over.

The players and coaches will then sign autographs from noon-2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon ahead of the 3:05 p.m. game against Georgia, for which tickets are still available.

The first 10,000 fans to arrive will receive a commemorative poster.

The national championship team will be honored at halftime and – rumor has it – that the court might be named after Richardson at that time.

"I am very proud and very honored that the athletic director Jeff Long and the basketball coach John Pelphrey are welcoming me back along with the team coming back in the last part of February and the first part of March," Richardson said. "It is truly an honor. I have always said to our players that you will love things more when it is over than when it first happens."

The ceremony is happening in no small part because of former UA assistant coach Wayne Stehlik arranging for the players to be honored earlier this year at the Northwest Arkansas Basketball Club Tip-off Luncheon.

"You could see the excitement in their eyes, the feeling in their heart," Richardson said. "There is something about winning a national championship that makes these guys connected whether they talked to each other or don't talk to each other or whether they give me a call or don't give me a call. You are connected forever between the players, the coaching staff, the managers, the secretary – everybody that was involved was connected."

Both Richardson and Long attended the event and that led to a meeting about two months ago between the two that hatched out this event.

"I had a chance to meet, sit down and have lunch with him a couple of months ago," Richardson said of Long. "I was very impressed. Rose (his wife) is not impressed with a lot of folks, but I went back and told her how impressed I was with him.

"She said ‘you didn't try to do anything crazy, did you?' I said not this time. I was just very honored that we were able to sit down and have a nice visit about the state of the University, state of football, state of basketball, whatever was going on. It was straight up, straight shooters, eye-to-eye. I said I think they have got a man that can lead them to bigger and better things."

Long said he found Richardson to be a beloved figure among the UA administrators and coaches.

"I didn't know what to expect," Long said. " I knew a little about Coach Richardson and his departure. I found somebody totally different from watching on television. I found he was beloved by all in the department and in talking to many, many fans. The first thing that struck me is that it's time to reach out and recognize their accomplishments. When we had lunch that day, the first thing Coach said to me was ‘I'll be there.' I'm really excited to bring Coach back and have his team here."

It was a far cry from Richardson's last appearance in the room, one in which he was riled up while knowing that former UA chancellor John White and Broyles were about to remove him as head coach after a 17-year tenure - something that brought about a lawsuit.

It was also the last time that he had been inside Bud Walton Arena.

"It was amazing as I drove up this street that I haven't drove in seven yards," Richardson. "…To come in one way and and hide and leave out another way that was the thing that bothered me most. It's like it happened yesterday."

"…Thank you for letting me drive the street again, thank you for letting me come back in the building, " Richardson said.

Richardson expressed how he felt walking back into the the arena.

"I felt proud," Richardson said. "I tell everybody this is the most beautiful facility in America. There is no wasted space. As far as I am concerned, there are no greater fans than Razorback fans. To drive in and come into the building, and you know in your heart how it got here, is a great feeling."

Richardson admires what Long is doing.

"When we met and Jeff explained to me what he wanted to happen, I thought at that point, everything was okay," Richardson said. " I never say never, but I thought everything was okay. Jeff was willing to step out there. That's what I thought about. Knowing the feeling some people have about my departure from the university, he could have just gone on and everything would have been okay. I admire people who have guts. I admire them. Jeff, doing what he did, showed me something different. It's time."

Long said it was simply his pleasure.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for us to honor the past and what this team had done with the national championship game in 1994 and what Coach Richardson did here during his career is even more tremendous. We are focused on recognizing the past and also the great future that is ahead for Razorback basketball."

Pelphrey, who followed in Stan Heath, the coach that replaced Richardson, was happy to be part of the festivities.

"To be here today with Coach, our greatest coach in the history of our school, the greatest team in the history of our school, is great," Pelphrey said.

"We are very, very thankful for all his hard work and the things that he has done in taking this program to a completely another level," Pelphrey added. "Arkansas basketball was tremendous before Coach Richardson, but Coach Richardson took it to places it had never been and where we certainly aspire to have some of those things happen to us again in the future."

Pelphrey remembers going against Richardson's teams first as a player at Kentucky and then an assistant coach at Florida.

"When you were playing against Coach Richardson's basketball team, there was nothing like it," Pelphrey said. "It was completely unique. You can not understand how hard his teams played, how ferocious, the constant energy, the chasing, the passion and there was a discipline to that to continue to be able to keep doing it over and over and over and over again."

There are a lot of us that want to press and run and be hard-nosed – and we will work on a daily basis to get there – but I don't know if anybody can create the style and system that he had," Pelphrey added. "He's an innovator."

Richardson has always said it was about the players not about him and that he had been sad they had not been honored.

"I've talked to Al Dillard," Richardson said. "I've talked to Scotty (Thurman) and Corliss (Williamson). I see Clint (McDaniel) from time to time. I've seen (Ken) Biley. It's not just about those guys. The Lee Mayberrys, Todd Days and Oliver Millers - they were with me in the summer and they were disturbed that this had not happened.

"The healing process is the important thing," Richardson said. "I hurt because I didn't want them to hurt because of me. I have been blessed by the good Lord. That (College Basketball) Hall of Fame was my eighth one, so it's not about me, but honor the players. The gap was pretty big. Let's bridge that thing."

Richardson is the only coach in history to have won a junior college national tournament, post-season NIT and the NCAA Tournament.

As Long pointed out, Richardson has a school-record 389 wins, took his team to 13 NCAA Tournaments, 6 Sweet 16s, 4 Elite Eights, 3 Final Fours, 2 championship game appearances and the one national title.

"My name is Nolan Richardson and I approved those messages," Richardson said.

Richardson talked about how he feels Pelphrey is the right guy for the job.

"I feel that the program is in good hands," Richardson said. "It is a matter of time."

Richardson plans to attend some games now at Arkansas.

"It's a healing process," Richardson said. "John Pelphrey is a great young man. I had no problem with Stan Heath. I have no problem with coaches. I know what they have to go through. There is no question that I will be at some games. I thank Jeff for getting me out of my area to bring me back."

Photos by Marc F. Henning

UA athletic director Jeff Long, former Razorback basketball coach Nolan Richardson and current UA head coach John Pelphrey share a laugh at Friday morning's press conference.

Long and Richardson hugged as the former coach came to the podium.

Richardson looks down at a photo of the celebration that was held at Bud Walton Arena a few days after the 1994 championship game.

He also got a chance to look over the new improvements that have been inside the arena.

Pelphrey and Richardson talk after the press conference.

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