I’d never seen anything like it before. And I’ve never seen anything like it since.
Rewind to February 1994, and you’re sitting with me in Arkansas’ spanking-new Bud Walton Arena. We’re watching a Razorbacks’ basketball practice.
Hey, it’s okay that you’re here. Unlike the secretive, somewhat paranoid coaches in today’s game, back here in ’94 anyone on the Arkansas campus can stop in and watch one of Hogs’ head coach Nolan Richardson practices.
He has no secrets, because there on the court, is why the Razorbacks have become the scourge of the Southeastern Conference since joining the league in 1991-92.
This is a Friday practice, the day before a game. Usually, teams are saving their legs, getting in some shooting, and walking through the offensive and defensive sets of an opponent.
But not Nolan and his Razorbacks. This is a full-tilt scrimmage. Bodies are flying. Defenders are bumping and trapping all over the place.
And look at Nolan! Have you ever seen a head coach run up and down the floor with his team? He’s sweating, he’s screaming, “Push it, push it, PUSH IT!” When a guard picks up a dribble, he’s practically two defensive slides away yelling, “Trap, trap, TRAAAAPPPP!”
The ball gets raked loose from starting point guard Corey Beck, which turns into a fast break layup for the second team. Beck claims responsibility and says, “My bad. My bad.”
Action stops and Nolan roars, “Your BAD? Your BAD? Son, I don’t want to hear it’s your BAD. Everybody in here KNOWS it’s YOUR bad! Take care of the ball.”
This wasn’t a practice for show or for punishment after losing a game. This is the way it was almost every day when Richardson coached the Razorbacks for 17 seasons from 1985-2002. He established an offensive and defensive style that forced the rest of the SEC to adjust their on-the-court strategy and alter recruiting philosophies, much as Florida coach Steve Spurrier did in SEC football in the 1990s.
The results were devastating, with three Final Four appearances by Nolan’s Razorbacks, including a national title in ’94 and a loss in the finals in ’95. He had four 30-win seasons and 12 20-win seasons.
Nolan coached the same style winning a national junior college title for Western Texas in 1980, a National Invitation Tournament championship for Tulsa in 1981 and that NCAA championship for the Hogs. It makes him the only coach to ever accomplish that feat, which is a good reason he should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Even today, when you look at the SEC record book, Nolan’s Arkansas teams have stood the test of time. Three of his squads rank among the top nine best scoring crews in league history. Six of the SEC’s top 11 best three-point shooting games belong to Nolan’s Hogs. Three of the top seven highest assists seasons and five of the top 10 best steals seasons ever in the SEC came from Nolan’s teams.
“Look at today’s basketball, and teams are doing things we did 15, 20 years ago that people thought were taboo,” says Nolan, 69, who splits time between his ranch in Fayetteville and Tulsa where last season he became coach of the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA, the women’s professional league. “People were like, `No, you can’t fast break all the time like that, no you can’t pass over there, you can’t trap right there.’ Well, everybody is doing it now.”
When Arkansas joined the league 20 years ago, only LSU, with a couple of Final Four teams in 1981 and ’86, and Alabama, with three SEC tourney championships in the ’80, had remotely challenged Kentucky’s lifelong dominance of SEC basketball. At that point, UK was the only SEC team that had won a national championship with five NCAA titles in its trophy case.
But when the Razorbacks were accepted into the SEC along with South Carolina, Nolan felt confident his team and his style would open eyes. His last three Hogs’ teams prior to joining the SEC won the Southwest Conference regular season and tournament titles each year. He had back-to-back 30-win seasons with his ’90 team losing to Duke in the Final Four semifinals and his ’91 squad losing in the NCAA Southeast Regional finals to Kansas.
“When we joined the SEC, we didn’t care about how any of the SEC teams played,” Nolan recalls. “We thought they had to measure up to us. I preached, `They can’t play with us, they don’t have a clue of how to play with us. After some years, they might get a clue. But right now, they don’t have a clue how to play with us. They don’t know what this style of basketball is all about.’ ”
And what was Nolan’s style? It was gleaned from a combination of coaches, including Don Haskins, Nolan’s college coach at Texas-El Paso, as well UCLA’s John Wooden and Hobbs (N.M.) High coach Ralph Tasker.
It was all predicated on pressure, trapping defense, but not the kind you see in basketball textbooks, where you trap in certain spots on the floor, especially against sidelines and in corners.
No, in Nolan’s defense, traps could happen anywhere at anytime. It was nothing premeditated, nothing drawn up in the huddle. It was strictly instinctual.
“My saying to my players was, `The unexpected is much worse than the expected’,” Nolan says. “The key is just doing it on instinct. When you see it, you just do it. If you don’t see it, you can’t do it. Always trap with opportunity. Don’t think, don’t question yourself, just trap. So when you work on that day after day, it becomes more of an instinct.
“It’s hard to scout that. I used to hear coaches say, `Oh, they’re in a 2-2-1 or they’re in a man-to-man, or they are in this or that.’ We weren’t in any of that. I didn’t know half the time when we were going to trap, so there’s no way the teams we played knew when would trap.
“Yeah, we got burned and gave up some buckets, you are going to lose some battles. The key is winning more battles than you lose. If I can give you two points, then you give me six straight, then I give two points and you give me eight more, you are never going to catch me.”
Nolan honed his team’s relentless style during practices so physically demanding that playing games was like a vacation. At the start of every practice, he’d put 40 minutes on the clock, and it was 40 minutes of non-stop running, jumping, drills, medicine ball work. . .an absolute grind.
In fact, it’s how Nolan’s style got tagged as “Forty Minutes of Hell,” a drastic change from previous Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton’s deliberate walk-it-up-the-court attack.
“When I took Eddie’s team over, I began working them my way, putting 40 minutes on the clock at the start of every practice,” Nolan remembers. “I had a kid on our team named Scott Rose, who later became an attorney in Memphis.
“He comes up to me and says, `This 40 minutes you put on the clock, everything by the clock. The constant running, jumping rope, the medicine balls. Do we do this everyday?’ I said, `Yeah, that’s how we get ready.’ He said, `Coach, that’s hell, that’s 40 minutes of it.’ I said, `Yes.’
“We get into the season, we weren’t very good, but I could see us coming a bit. We won a game and some writer asked Scott Rose about it, and he said, `Yeah, we put Forty Minutes of Hell on them.’ The writer comes to me and asks, `What’s the Forty Minutes of Hell?’ I said, `What are you talking about?’ He said, `Scott Rose just told me y’all put Forty Minutes of Hell on them.’ I said, `That’s what I call my practices. I don’t know if I call the games that.’
“But we wanted to take those practices to our games.”
Which is what Arkansas did, especially by time it joined the SEC. In its first SEC season, it went 26-8 and won the league regular season championship with a 13-3 record before being eliminated in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Just in the first half of the league schedule, it opened eyes, with an 11-point road win (101-90) at Shaquille O’Neal led-LSU and a 17-point (105-88) at Kentucky in the Hogs’ first trip to Rupp Arena.
At Kentucky, Arkansas was met by a Rupp Arena record crowd of 24,324, with many of the fans wearing “Pig Roast at Rupp” T-shirts. But in the game’s last 10:55 against the Rick Pitino-coached Wildcats, the Hogs outscored UK 33-15 and sent the home crowd silently toward the door.
And in the process, probably the SEC’s best basketball rivalry over the last 30 years was born, at least for the next six seasons before Pitino left Kentucky for the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
Nolan was 4-6 against Pitino, but 3-2 against him when both teams were ranked in the top 10 at tipoff.
“Baskeball was at its best when Kentucky and Arkansas were involved,” Nolan says. “You had Rick’s pressure defense, his fastbreaks and he had some pretty good shooters out there. On the other hand with us, you had a team that would take some threes, we’re going to press you every possession and we’re going to trap you every possession.
“Because both teams had superior athletes, it always made for a helluva game. And I always enjoyed playing at Rupp Arena, because I always felt Kentucky fans have always understood and appreciated basketball more than most places.”
The Hogs and ‘Cats played some doozies. The first and last time UK visited Arkansas’ old Barnhill Arena in February ’93, No. 14 Arkansas beat No. 2 UK, 101-94. Pitino, always proud of his Italian heritage, entered the floor just seconds before tipoff and was greeted by the Arkansas pep band playing the theme from the movie “The Godfather.”
The next season was even better when No. 3 Arkansas came back from a 15-point first-half deficit in Lexington for a 90-82 victory over the No. 4 Wildcats that snapped UK’s 33-game home winning streak. During UK’s second-half implosion after yet another ’Cats turnover, Arkansas’ forward Scotty Thurman clapped his hands, looked at UK guard Tony Delk and said, “You gotta gave heart.” Afterward, Delk agreed, saying, “We didn’t play with heart and I don’t know why.”
In ’95, the teams split two games by a combined four points and almost by identical scores. No. 9 Arkansas won the regular season battle over No. 5 UK in Fayetteville, 94-92, but No. 3 UK edged No. 5 Arkansas in overtime, 95-93, in the SEC tournament finals before a crowd of 30,057 in the Georgia Dome.
“I don’t know whether to laugh, smile or cry, because I’ve never been involved in something like that,” Pitino said afterward. “We were dead three or four times.”
The difference between Kentucky and Arkansas was the Wildcats’ roster was always stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans, the best of the best. Most of Richardson’s recruits were good high school players, not great, but they fit exactly what he wanted, with most of them measuring between 6-2 and 6-10, and possessing versatility.
It’s why Arkansas may have been the last team to win a national title with a starting post player (Corliss Williamson) who was just 6-6 while 6-9 teammate Dwight Stewart played outside because of his uncanny three-point shooting touch.
“My players were all versatile,” Nolan explains. “I didn’t have to sub a point guard for a point guard or a small forward for a small forward. I had players that played multiple positions, which created matchup problems for opponents. Dwight could shoot the ball outside better than all the guards, and teams weren’t used to having their centers come out and guard Dwight 25 feet away from the basket.”
And Nolan had a knack for signing the most intriguing players, such as 25-year-old junior college sharpshooter Al Dillard. He had dropped out of Birmingham (Ala.) Lanier High to support him and his mother by working in fast-food restaurants.
Through Hogs’ assistant Mike Anderson who was a Birmingham native, Arkansas found Dillard at Southern Union Jr. College launching and hitting 30-foot threes like they were layups.
“I told Mike to go scout Al,” Nolan says. “Mike does and he calls me and says, `Coach, I’ve never seen anything like this. He can flat shoot it deep and he’s accurate. Just say the word and we got him.’ I said, `Bring him.’ We got Al and his shooting range was as soon as he walked in the gym. In his fifth game with us (in 1993-’94), he hit a SEC record 12 threes (against Delaware State).”
Though Nolan has been out of college coaching for nine seasons after resigning from Arkansas, he has never lost the coaching bug. In recent years, he helped prepare the national teams of Panama and Mexico for international competition.
Then just more than a year ago, he got an unexpected offer. Would he like to coach a new women’s professional team in Tulsa?
It was supposed to be a WNBA expansion team, but the Detroit Shock ended up moving the franchise to Tulsa. It didn’t go smoothly, with most of Detroit’s best players refusing to make the move to Tulsa, and those that did, according to Nolan, “thought they owned the team.”
The Shock finished 6-28, and Nolan admittedly said he couldn’t physically push them as hard as he pushed coaching men. But he didn’t back off much.
“If somebody asked me five years ago if I’d be coaching women in the WNBA, I’d say, `Hell no’,” Richardson says. “But as time went on, I got to thinking, `I’ve been to Panama, I’ve coached in Mexico, why not?’ Then, I started thinking about winning a WNBA championship? I may do something that’s never been done before. Maybe that’s what I’m here for, to win another championship.
“So once practice started, there I am, running up and down the floor, then at almost age 69. One of our players, Kara Braxton, makes a turn, hits me, knocks me off-balance. I go floating across the floor, and fall on my butt. Everybody in the gym was laughing and they all asked if I was okay. I said I was, but I wasn’t.
“The funny part is all the players said, `You have to run with us and yell all the time?’ I said, `That’s me. I want you to play the game the way you practice.’
“I don’t think I’m going to change too much the way I coach. I know this. Every time I get up in the morning, I thank the Good Lord and say, `Hey, you got me up, now it’s my time. All you got to do is get me up. I’ll do the rest.’
“That’s the way I will always approach my job.”