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Making a case for respect

Time was, Nolan Richardson did not suffer fools so gladly. Who could blame him?

Blame him for nearly skipping a high school baseball game because he was told to sleep across town with a black family while his white teammates were in a hotel? Blame him for seething while his mentor and boss, the principal at El Paso's Bowie High, said the town wasn't ready for a black football coach?

Even through the early days in Tulsa, when he finally made it as a Division I basketball coach, he would push to prove he belonged. And he would snarl while his team badly beat everyone in the conference.

Nolan Richardson is 52 and coaching at Arkansas now. The fire still burns in his soul, but it is not so apt to heat up an entire room. Think his teams play ghetto ball? That's your opinion. Think his success is based solely on recruiting? Fine. Tell Richardson he's not a great basketball coach today and he may smile _ while his team badly beats everyone in the nation.

The Razorbacks are No. 1 right now, a position they have held longer than any team this season. That shouldn't be a surprise though, since Richardson has one of the top five career winning percentages among active coaches. Ahead of Bob Knight, Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski, among others.

He never has won a national championship, though, and he never has won widespread acclaim. Maybe one has to do with the other, but Richardson is not so naive to ignore the possibility of other factors at play.

"You don't have guys on TV blowing smoke up black coaches' butts about how good they are. All you hear is they recruit and they motivate," Richardson said. "It doesn't bother me now, but I used to be concerned about it.

"I'd read an article that'd say, "He's got good athletes.' Ding! So I guess I didn't do s---. It's how you can tell the difference between the black kid and the white kid. "He's real heady. He's intelligent.' You know who they're talking about. It's the same thing with coaching. When they say, "He's a real smart coach,' I know they ain't talking about me."

The anger has dissipated. Richardson has a good life, and he knows it. He enjoys a large salary and all of the perks that go along with being a major college coach. He has been courted by other universities and NBA teams.

When he speaks out _ and it happens often _ it is more with purpose than outrage. He has been a loud voice for the Black Coaches Association in its battle with the NCAA for increased scholarship opportunities for black athletes. He caused a stir in Fayetteville when he said former Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton had been treated better because he is white.

Some may call him bitter, or claim he has a chip on his shoulder. Richardson says he merely is honest.

"If you had lived in my skin and went through what I went through, it's easy to be a little paranoid when you look around and see what's happening," Richardson said. "I make a very good salary. You would think "Hey, this guy has got it made, why should he say anything?' But that's not what I'm about. So when I speak out, I become a rebel."

Richardson came to all of this late in life. While Knight was winning a national championship at Indiana in 1976, Richardson was coaching high school basketball in Texas. He was 39 before he got his first job as a university head coach _ he never was an assistant _ at Tulsa in 1981.

The Hurricanes won the NIT that year.

Mike Anderson was one of Richardson's first recruits at Tulsa and has been with him as a player or assistant in 12 of the 13 years since. The Richardson he knew at Tulsa was more driven. More eager to prove himself. The years and the victories have left the coach more comfortable with his position.

The loss of his 15-year-old daughter, Yvonne, to leukemia in 1987 also made a difference. Yvonne's diagnosis was made around the time Richardson was interviewing at Arkansas. His first two seasons in Fayetteville, Richardson commuted from Arkansas to his family's home in Tulsa and to a hospital in Minneapolis where his daughter was sent for a short time.

The Razorbacks went 31-30 in those two seasons _ easily the worst span of his career _ and Richardson was grilled by some in the media. Criticism rarely has affected him since.

"When I played for him, he was a very demanding coach. Talk about hard work, he was just busting guys," Anderson said. "But we had a lot to prove. We were a bunch of junior college guys, renegades, and he was a junior college coach getting the chance at Division I.

"Today, I see a sense of mellowness. He's still intense on the court, but I think, for the most part, he's enjoying life more."

Richardson has a lot of enjoyment to catch up on. His mother died when he was 3, his father when he was 12. He grew up in El Paso with sports and his grandmother as his constant companions.

To say that Richardson had it rough is to miss the point. He might have been a professional football player (he had a tryout with the Chargers) but says his attempt was hampered by a pulled hamstring. He might have been a rookie in the ABA (he had a tryout with the Dallas Chaparrals) but that hamstring ... The point? He learned from setbacks. He learned about hard work working as an exterminator and in a manure factory during college. Those are the kind of lessons he has been passing on since.

To join his basketball team is to join his family. Richardson's house always has been a haven for his players. Team meetings are more often ruminations on world events than on jump shots.

"Just before the season began, he came and spoke to our (booster) group. He spoke for 20-25 minutes, and in that time never once talked about a player, never talked about the team or the upcoming season," said Russell Riggs, a prominent Arkansas booster. "He talked about relationships and how special a bond is with a child. He loves children.

"That's just Nolan. People who are not even basketball fans around here love Nolan."

An editorial in the Tulsa World called Richardson "a community treasure" when he left town. It always has been Richardson's belief that scribbling Xs and Os on a blackboard is only a small part of a coach's job. At Tulsa, he wore bright polka-dot shirts and snakeskin boots to draw attention to his program.

His pressure defense and fastbreak offense have been derided by critics as nothing but street ball, but they have put fans in the stands wherever he has gone. Arkansas' new Bud Walton Arena sold out every one of its 18,000-plus seats for every game before the season began.

Think Richardson cares if he's not the glamor boy Pitino is? Perhaps more than he cares to admit, but he doesn't have to look far for reinforcement of who Nolan Richardson is.

"Many years ago, ol' Granny who raised me said, "Whatever you do, you have to be twice as good, and you're going to have to work your butt off because the rules aren't the same.' So I've remembered that," Richardson said.

"There have been some changes for the better, but that's just the way it is. There are some people who have recognized that I've done well. And there are some who maybe never will ..."

Head of the class

Here are the career winning percentage leaders among active Division I men's basketball coaches:

Name School Yrs W L Pct.

Roy Williams Kansas 6 153 43 .781

Dean Smith North Carolina 33 797 228 .778

Jim Boeheim Syracuse 18 431 138 .757

John Chaney Temple 22 498 162 .754

Nolan Richardson Arkansas 13 329 111 .748

Bob Knight Indiana 29 637 220 .743

+ Minimum five years, through Tuesday's games.